Among many of us in the generations that have done well out of the post-World War Two period, there’s now a feeling of guilt - as there should be.
We need to feel guilty because the poisoned bequest we are leaving behind us stems from our own neglect. We can blame politicians, who are usually in the crosshairs when things go wrong. And some – not all – should take some of the rap. But the charge of neglect can’t come to rest only on them. The relative ease of living for post-war generations in affluent democracies has been the outcome of an implicit collective agreement not to disturb conditions in which living standards increased, choice widened, societies became more permissive, security was guaranteed by U.S. hegemony and state benefits became, mostly, more generous.
The list of our negative bequests is a melancholy and frightening one, usually put aside with a sigh and a passing frisson of dread. That frisson has lingered recently because one element in the legacy, security guaranteed by nuclear weapons, feels less secure given reports that North Korea is now developing nuclear missiles that can strike the United States and much of Europe - as well, of course, as the U.S. allies of South Korea and Japan.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is the culprit here, but Donald Trump’s threat to wipe North Korea off the map has no obvious purpose except to apparently increase Kim’s determination to ramp up the threat.
Deterrence hasn’t worked and there seem to be few viable options. One plan, put forward by the legal scholar and former director of strategy in the National Security Council Philip Bobbitt, would persuade the Chinese to offer North Korea a “nuclear guarantee,” effectively extending Beijing’s nuclear defense to North Korea on condition the latter mothballed its own program. Encouraging a potentially hostile state to enlarge its nuclear capacity is a desperate measure, but one made thinkable by the futility or horror of the alternatives.
Nor is North Korea the only nuclear danger. In an alarming commentary, former U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry wrote that Russia is “well underway” in its nuclear rebuilding program and that the threat of nuclear catastrophe is greater than during the Cold War. “Our public is blissfully unaware of the new nuclear dangers they face,” he wrote.
Nuclear annihilation is the largest of the malignant possibilities we have failed to address. Government debt is less dramatic, but steadily narrows the future economic choices available. To give the citizens in countries covered by welfare states the ability to buy cars, engage in travel and indulge in other leisure pursuits along with the necessities of life, most Western states have taken on huge public debts. That of the United States topped $20 trillion for the first time earlier this year, about $170,000 for each taxpayer. So far, it can afford it: some countries with higher debt relative to GDP can’t. Italy has the highest level of debt in Europe after struggling Greece, and had its credit rating cut from BBB+ to BBB by the Fitch rating agency in April.
Wolfgang Schauble, the controversial outgoing German Finance Minister widely seen as the architect of austerity in the European Union, has warned that “the growth of public and private debt” constituted a very large risk – a fear echoed by the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde. The global economy is growing at present, but a collapse through debt could spark another recession, this time with even more serious social and political turbulence in its wake.
The world’s ecology gets no better, and may get worse – as President Trump announced a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change in June. The move, apparently unpopular with most Americans, including Republicans, is important not so much for the further ecological damage it will do (though it will do some) but as a sign to others that the nation which set itself as an example to follow of care for the environment is now one giving an entirely opposite message.
A study from MIT in August warned of “deadly heat waves” hitting India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, causing “devastation” within a few decades, if carbon emissions are not reduced. That would unleash a flight of refugees that would make the present one pale in comparison.
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We’ve become used to learning of breakthroughs in the treatment of disease and chronic conditions, and the eradication, or substantial diminution, of feared diseases like polio. But new infectious diseases are erupting more frequently, spreading more quickly, and evading treatment more efficiently, raising fears of global pandemics starting in sprawling, overcrowded developing world cities, carried worldwide by aircraft. And another modern “plague” – obesity – the result of relative plenty, is rocketing upwards. A study in the medical journal The Lancet showed that among children worldwide, obesity has increased tenfold in the past four decades. Obesity in children and adults is now a major drag on health systems in rich and poor countries alike, prompting heart conditions, diabetes and diseases of the bones and joints.
These and other fundamental threats demand strong government responses, but governments, especially in democracies, are weaker. The Global Economic Forum reports that “there has been an erosion of trust in political institutions and processes” and that “there is a fundamental disconnect between citizens around the world and the elected officials that supposedly represent them.” In other words, the crises are growing as the effectiveness of governments shrinks.
Post-war generations, especially the “boomers” (my own) have let the good times roll for too long. If that sounds unduly pessimistic in the face of continuing advances in many fields, neglectful of the fact that bad stuff always happens but the world continues, then reflect on the triggers – the list could be expanded - whose pulling could precipitate disaster. These concerns are no longer the subject of academic discussion or obscure papers from the World Bank or the United Nations. They are real, present and above all known to us. Why should our young forgive us if we do not take them seriously?
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and "Journalism in an Age of Terror". He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.