Twenty-first century challenges

I have spent the last six weeks in the U.S. visiting with my daughter and her husband, as well as my recently born six-month-old grandson Maksym. Spending a lot of what people would call “quality time” with this precious infant has led me to thinking a lot about what kind of future is in store for him in what is shaping up to be a troublesome twenty-first century.

He was born in the middle of a global pandemic that has wreaked havoc with the lives of people in every corner of this world. Millions have died, many more have suffered significant impairment to their health, international travel has all but ceased, and most countries’ economies are on life support. New variants of the Covid virus seem to be cropping up every few months, threatening to prolong this crisis indefinitely. What is worse is that many societies have become polarized, with significant minorities, infected with irrational denialism, refusing to believe the dire reality of the situation and engaging in destructive behaviours that are bound to prolong the pain and delay recovery. Many people are also asking how long it will be before a new and different pandemic emerges to threaten us once again. It seems that new and scary epidemics are turning up on a regular basis these past four or five decades.

All this has come about during a time when this planet is also facing an existential climate change crisis. The evidence is now overwhelming that if we don’t significantly curtail our dependence on fossil fuels, it is conceivable that that we will push the planet’s ecological equilibrium past a tipping point that may render most of the earth’s surface uninhabitable. For the past few decades, weather patterns have been changing rapidly and mostly in a destructive direction. Hurricanes and tornadoes have become more frequent and violent. Huge forest fires have devastated large swaths of land all over the globe. The polar ice caps are melting at an accelerating pace, threatening to flood and submerge coastal areas that are home to most of the world’s large population centres.

Concurrent with this, the human population is continuing to grow at an unsustainable pace. In 1800 the world’s population stood at 1 billion. Today it is around 8 billion, and estimates are that, though the rate of growth is starting to slow down, it will still reach 11 billion by the end of this century. Feeding this many people, never mind housing them, providing decent jobs and satisfying their economic and psychological needs for a decent standard of living, will pose monumental difficulties.

We also cannot underestimate the dangers posed by political and military instability throughout the globe. Although we managed to survive the Cold War and the Soviet threat of mutual nuclear self-destruction during the twentieth century, we are not out of the woods yet. Russia, now ruled by a psychopathic 21st century tyrant by the name of Putin, still has a huge nuclear arsenal and continues to pursue a recidivist imperialism that threatens world peace. China also has also not relinquished its imperialistic ambitions and continues to push aggressive territorial expansionist policies. Fundamentalist Islamic terrorism continues to plague the Middle East, Africa and Asia, creating a massive refugee exodus that threatens to overwhelm European and western nations’ abilities to absorb the millions of people that have been displaced. A little closer to home, masses of Central American and Mexican people, beset by crime, political repression and dire poverty continue to try to seek asylum in the “promised lands” of the U.S. and Canada by any means possible. Meanwhile, lest we get too complacent as citizens of the well to do G7 countries, we should recognize that here at home things are not exactly right either. Our economies are becoming distorted by an increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of an exceedingly wealthy elite and huge trans-national corporations. Our social cohesion and stability are starting to unravel as well.

There is one more very insidious and largely unrecognized threat, and that is effect that the Internet and technology is having on our psychological and social well-being. We are becoming increasingly addicted to social and digital media and largely unaware of their inherent dangers. Our privacy is being increasingly eroded as both corporate and government agencies now have the capability of tracking our every move, our opinions, our biases and behaviours. This kind of “big data” can be easily abused and become a powerful tool for intimidation and control.

Although all of this taken in total may seem scary and alarmist, we should at the same time realize that we are living in an age where we have all the tools, knowledge, scientific and technical ability to address all these issues and fix them. All it takes is the willpower and the desire to reset our priorities, values and behaviours to effect the changes necessary. We need to think beyond our own individual wants and needs and focus on effecting the changes that will fix our planet, our societies and civilization as a whole and create a better future for our grandchildren. We can do it. We just need to want to badly enough.