Future is in our hands

We can make or break it, depending on whether we stand up and are counted or let markets drive democracies

IT WAS the time of change. It was the moment of innocence. It was the age of hope. It was 1992, the year Down To Earth started its journey. The Earth Charter had been signed, signalling the importance of environmental issues on the global stage. The World Trade Organization had been set up, signalling that the now inter-connected world would bring prosperity to all. The issues of poverty, injustice, African debt were all on the world’s agenda. It seemed after a few bumps and blips, it would be all right.

Twenty-five years later, it seems the agenda has unravelled. The world has come unstuck. So, as this magazine completes its 25th year, let’s discuss what the next 25 years would bring us.

In my view, three big trends will make or break our lives on the earth as we know it.

The most dominant determinant will be our ability to mitigate the effects of climate change and cope with it. Already the weather has become more variable, extreme and horrendously devastating for the poorest, who live on the margins of subsistence. It is they who today face the intense heat waves, floods and droughts. It is they who lose their crops and livelihoods to freak weather. This is now. There are no full stops. Humankind continues to pump vast quantities of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. What will happen tomorrow and the day after? Scientific models are most unprepared for the time temperatures will cross the 2°C increase over the preindustrial era.

Quite simply, we are moving towards an age of extreme uncertainty. The planetary limits are being breached. In this scenario, nobody knows what the future will bring. This is why coping with and combating climate change will be an overwhelming task. How we do this is literally in our hands. The second trend that will drive future’s developments is insecurity and fear. Today, we are seeing a virtual breakdown in the world. There is also no doubt that our world in the past 25 years has only increased inequity—the very rich have got richer and everybody else is waiting for deliverance. This economic insecurity is increasingly getting mixed up with cultural and religious identity politics. All in all, anger is growing, and getting dangerously out of hand.

Again, we do not know how this insecurity will play out. Today, it is leading to calls for protectionism on the one hand and war on the other hand. Who will bring us back from the brink we are standing on, and how? Will protectionism mean that countries will invest in local economies; build down to grow upwards? Will localisation bring inclusive growth or just more of the same? All this again is what the future will tell.

The third trend is about us, not just democracy as we know it. But democracy as it should have matured in this age of market-only growth. Today, it seems people—you and me—are all waiting in the wings, ever ready for activism on social media. This is the circle of our influence. But this is where we are going wrong.

Our question today, to secure future’s future, has to be about the use of technological advances so that they meet the needs of all. Right now, we are not getting this right. Like bystanders, we are just witnessing technology take over our lives and livelihoods. Automation and artificial intelligence are driving changes in the ways we do things, but not with any grand purpose. There is no discussion on what this technology change will mean for employment or how these advances can benefit all and not just some. We are the ultimate gadget generation—playing with our toys while the world burns. The Neros of our age.

Then, we are letting corporate agendas drive democracies without any push back to reclaim the space. As a result, while this powerful undercurrent is pulling the world in one direction, people are trying to halt it through anger, frustration and desperate cries of the ballot. The ultra-left and the ultra-right are winning in an increasingly polarised, insecure and thoughtless world.

So, in the next 25 years it is important to rethink the question of states, market and society. We have dismembered the state; grown the market and believed that we have empowered society. We believed that people would be modulating voices over market. They were the check.

But we forgot to ask: which society is being empowered for what purpose? And so, slowly, the circle closed—state-market and aspiring, consuming society merged. They became one. Anyone outside this circle stopped getting counted. They are being slowly erased. This cannot work. This is our future’s most important agenda.

All in all, the next 25 years are in our hands—to make or break. What is certain is that if we learn from our past mistakes and move with thoughtfulness and genuine conversations, then we can turn the tide. Together. This has to be our common agenda.