The Teenage Decade: 2010 - 2019
The fabled year 2020 is now well upon us. January is almost over and it is time to take stock of the second decade of the 21st century; the years 2010 to 2019. Yet, before we look at this period which is a contemporary topic, let us look at some perspective. For those of us who have spent some time in the 20th century, this century had often been hailed as a landmark. A fabled utopia of technological advances, democracy, equality and most of all peace! After the devastation of the two World Wars and the continuing warfare across all continents in the 20th century, people could have only looked with hope for the twenty-first century. Despite the extensive devastation wrought in the last century, it was a century which saw immense technological growth in all sectors. As also, the arrival of a fledgling democracy in the most underprivileged countries of the world that were hitherto colonized by the European powers. Thus, the masses across the world looked to the next century as some sort of panacea. This was exemplified by many movies, books, fiction and non-fiction which attempted to determine the course in the 21st century. Vision statements were framed. Millennium goals were set for a variety of parameters. These ranged from human developmental factors to health to economic indices. These were soon to be revised from 2000 to 2020 as most of these targets proved to be fanciful.
Now, as we are well into 2020, it is time to look back and see how we have fared with the expectations. Of our generation as well as that of our forebears. The decade of 2010 to 2019 was a most momentous one. It was the “teenage” of the 21st century. And like a typical teenager, it has behaved unexpectedly and sometimes ruinously. Much to the chagrin of world leaders and humankind. Globalization, aided by technology, has made its inevitable march. Now the world is connected like never before. While there were massive technological leaps in this decade, perhaps the defining technology of the teenage of this century has been the, seemingly puny, smartphone. There are near as many smartphones as there are humans on earth. In some western countries, China and others, smartphones easily outnumber people. Like any other technological device, it is a mixed blessing. It has made numerous mundane tasks automated. Yet, its extravagant usage threatens to shake the very basis of society by drastically decreasing human interaction. But the march of the smartphone continues. It is the defining paradigm in technology, society, freedom of expression, economy, culture, arts and many other areas. There is no going back on the smartphone. It is to the 21st century what was the Gutenberg press was to the middle age Renaissance period.
Much has been made of the technological advances and the relative ease which it has brought to our lives. These were inconceivable even 20 years ago. Yet, this decade has also brought hitherto unforeseen challenges. I shall be touching upon just four of these. These, I feel, will determine whether the 21st century becomes a fairy tale or a horrendous catastrophe. These are Climate Change, Antibiotic Resistance, Economic turmoil and the Retreat of the Democracy.
Climate Change. If there is one jargon which has been used, abused and bandied about in this decade, it is Climate Change. As school students in the previous century, we were taught about pollution and greenhouse effect. It was something alien and distant. In this decade we have seen the undeniable effects of climate change first hand. My science teacher in 1989 would have scarcely believed that her pupils would live to see the melting of polar ice. At that time, it seemed centuries away. We also believed as school students and as young men and women that we have time. And we can while it away. This decade has taught us that we have indeed whiled too much of it away and now we have run out of time. Each year of this decade has seen great natural disasters and calamity. All have been a direct consequence of climate change. From Tsunamis, melting ice, freak weather to Australian bush fires. The list is long and tied by the common thread of Climate Change. The time is now. We have to take action now. Otherwise, we might well be the last generation of humans on this earth. This is the greatest challenge thrown up by this teenager decade. We humans have to come together to tackle it.
Antibiotic resistance. The 20th century has seen tremendous achievements in life expectancy across the world. Also, seemingly insurmountable epidemics that killed half the population of entire continents in the previous centuries were controlled miraculously. Leading to saving of millions of lives. So much so that, dying off an infectious disease became something of an aberration. This feat was achieved through antibiotics. From the humble Penicillin, antibiotics have helped humans achieve longevity, prosperity and happiness. Unfortunately, this is now severely threatened by the rising spectra of Antibiotic resistance. The gross misuse of antibiotics has now led to rising infections which are practically untreatable. Diseases which were considered vanquished and termed as innocuous just 20 years ago have now returned with vengeance. While technology has made rapid strides in other areas the search for newer and more effective antibiotics has not yielded much. Our workhorses have been flogged so much that they are now no longer effective. Unless the economy of use, moderation and scientific basis are adhered to, in the coming decade we might fall back to the levels of 19th century in infection control. Again, like climate change, this challenge needs cooperation on a global scale.
Economic turmoil. The last decade has thrown up unique economic challenges. The decade itself started with a recession of developed economies. The years that followed did lead to recovery. But it was a jobless recovery. It did not benefit the vast majority of humanity. Like a Marxian horror come true. The ivory towers of capitalists blossomed. Yet the prosperity has not percolated down to the hoi polloi. This has increased the disparity among the rich and the poor. This decade has seen the increase in numbers of billionaires in countries such as India and China. But the humungous number of people living on less than a dollar a day continues to rise faster. This is concerning the economy being driven now by technology giants. These employ fewer and fewer people. Of the five richest people on earth, three are owners of technology giants. Simultaneously, the agricultural sector globally has been in a severe recession for almost a decade now. This is leading to runaway high food prices, inflation and disaster for several small countries. The solution to this problem requires the best brains on this planet. But more importantly, it requires a humane approach from world leaders. They need to look beyond parochial state interests. Linked with this is the issue of immigration, protectionism and brain drain. Again, we need global cooperation and empathy rather than battle cries.
The retreat of Democracy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it seemed that the world was now firmly on the path of democracy and peace. In one go, dozens of countries across the globe made their first steps towards democracy. The hopes of the masses rose. And we as teenagers also dreamed of living in a peaceful world as adults. That dream has been shattered. This is a contentious and multifactorial issue. This decade has seen unprecedented levels of turmoil. From the Middle East to South America to Hong Kong. The clampdown on democratic movements has been ferocious. The levels of this clampdown have not been seen since the worst days of Stalin. In part, this is an institutional failure of democracies. Paradoxically, the large democracies have not been able to do justice for the vast majority of their people. On the other hand, the people living under oppressive regimes have turned to radicalization and disruption. The rise of ISIS, oppression of minorities across the globe and trampling of civil rights of large segments of people even in so-called western democracies have all contributed to global unrest. This is was reflected in the Arab Spring, Occupy movement and the current Hong Kong protests. Yet, the despots and authoritarian regimes have hit back with ever more viciousness. This again is an issue which requires empathy and soul searching from all the world leaders. Unless this trend of the retreat of democracy is reversed the forthcoming decade and the following years are doomed.
Like any teenager, the previous decade has been turbulent and has exasperated the world. We can only hope that with the coming the fabled 2020, which is apocryphal for various reasons, starts behaving not like a teenager but a mature person! But for that to happen requires a humanitarian approach from all of us and the leaders we choose.