Looking back over the changes we've experienced and those we've set in motion over the past decade or two, one thing becomes clear. We really don't have much idea of where we'll be in another decade or two.
It's not that we don't have some idea. We do. On questions of hard science - physics, geology, hydrology, oceanography, glaciology - we've got volumes of educated guesses even if they usually turn out to be optimistic predictions quickly overtaken by events.
Yet there are few problems/challenges/threats that stand alone. Most of the biggies are in some way, often many ways, connected. They all have knock-on effects that spread across the palette of human dysfunction. In fact the common thread that runs through them all is human dysfunction.
Whether it is global warming, overpopulation, the rapacious over-consumption of finite resources, or any of the other wholly or partly man-made threats that, by some accounts, see us poised on the brink of another mass extinction event, it all boils down to human dysfunction.
Dysfunction lies at the root of our every form of human organization - economic, industrial, geo-political, even social. In one way after another, mankind absolutely refuses to live in harmony with our environment, our one and only biosphere, Spaceship Earth. We've been reckless and wanton and defiant, angrily refusing to be restrained. Today our most precious right seems to be our right to rampage.
Dysfunction, left unchecked, tends not to end well. Look at America today, post-truth America. What is that but a manifestation of dysfunction of an advanced, perhaps terminal, stage? Denial isn't some coping mechanism. It stands as a societal operating system. Knowledge is displaced by belief, faith. Fact yields to whatever in hell we demand or are convinced to believe. Social cohesion succumbs to factionalism, Lord of the Flies tribalism driven by fear, confusion and the inevitable resort to base human instincts.
Ask yourself how democracy - liberal democracy - will fare in this era of upheaval. Again we're in uncharted waters but the eddies and shoals are beginning to emerge.
What do you imagine life will be like under a different system of political organization? What if liberal democracy yields to either illiberal democracy or outright oligarchy? Illiberal democracy where first the rule of law and judicial independence are suppressed, paving the way for gutting of constitutional freedoms and protections. The organs of the state serving neither the nation nor its people but its rulers instead.
We tend to conflate that which we have experienced during our own lifetimes as normal, reality, the way things are. That's foundational to our greater dysfunctions. Yet, while our lifetimes may not have been racked by wars and disasters so familiar to earlier times, we still have experienced massive and constant change. As I like to point out, when I was born humankind set an all-time record of 2.5 billion in numbers. Today, in just one lifetime, that has tripled to 7.5 billion and it is still increasing at an astonishing rate. It's thought that human civilization dates back around 12,000 years. It took all but two centuries of that, the last two centuries, for mankind to first reach the one billion mark. 12,000 years to reach a billion strong. One hundred years to hit 2.5 billion. Less than another 70 years to rocket to 7.5 billion. How's that for "massive and constant change"?
On Cooper's Hill sits this modest monument overlooking the meadow of Runnymede by the river Thames where Magna Carta was signed in 1215. The monument, constructed by the American Bar Association, honours the Great Charter as the "foundation of the rule of law for ages past and for the new millennium." The words suggest a lasting order, permanence, immutable truth bordering on immortality, notions that we may soon find wishfully ambitious and illusory.
Eight hundred years. Such a long time and yet such a brief interval. Full of retreats, setbacks and hesitations. Even then, true democracy, marked by universal suffrage, is something both recent and novel, about just a hundred years old. Women received the right to vote in Canada in 1917, in Britain a year later, and in the United States with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. My grandmother received the right to vote in the same year that she bore her second child, my father. That's not very long.
Now there are signs that this grand experiment, democracy, is on the wane, perhaps in peril. The past few years have caused us to watch anxiously at the spread of anti-democratic populism across Europe. Foreign Policy offers this graphic.
'FP calls 2017, "the Year of False Promise in the Fight Against Populism."
The clearest way of understanding the rapid advance of the populists is to chart their progress on a time-series map. A first glance reveals the basic story: a blue wave has slowly conquered the continent. But a closer look reveals three key — and hitherto underappreciated — features of the populist rise.
First, populism is now the predominant form of government in a huge, populous, and strategically crucial part of Central Europe. It is now possible to drive from the Baltic Sea all the way to the Aegean without once leaving a country ruled by a populist.
The implications are enormous. Far from being a small, insurgent force, populism has proved capable of capturing power in a large number of countries. As a result, hopes of a democratic Europe that extends from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic — containing all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe celebrated by Winston Churchill in his Iron Curtain speech — has been dashed: Barely three decades after these parts of Europe were liberated from Soviet domination, democracy is now fighting for its very survival in Budapest and Prague, in Belgrade and Warsaw.
Second, right-wing populists have not yet led the government in a single Western European country. It would be easy to conclude that their influence remains limited in much of the continent. But that would be a mistake: As our map shows, right-wing populists are now part of the government in many countries, from Greece to Austria to Norway.
Finally, it is a mistake to focus exclusively on right-wing populism. Just as a populist belt, mostly composed of right-leaning parties, has already covered much of Central Europe, so too a second populist belt, mostly composed of left-leaning parties, may one day conquer much of Southern Europe. Many of these movements have grown strong in debtor countries as a result of the euro crisis and a decade of economic stagnation. But while much of their anger is directed at austerity policies that really have done a lot of damage, some of these parties are also proving to be increasingly open to xenophobic appeals, or have started to undermine the independence of the media.
Past trends, of course, are never a sure predictor of the future. Perhaps those structural drivers are about to exhaust themselves, making it easier for moderate parties to regain the initiative in the years to come. But to think that the populist wave has crested just because the record performances of Germany’s far-right AfD and France’s Marine Le Pen were not enough to catapult them into the very heart of government is deeply misguided; unless politicians manage to identify and counteract the structural drivers of populism, populism is very unlikely to disappear of its own accord.
The Guardian, meanwhile, laments, "the curious demise of the Europe's centre-left."
The spectre that haunts Europe’s centre left has a name: Pasokification. In 2009, Greece’s once-great social democratic party won 43.9% of the national vote. Barely six years later, it could manage just 6.3%.
Atomised in France, all but wiped out in the Netherlands, humiliated in Germany, Europe’s mainstream centre left is in full retreat. Even in its one-time stronghold of Scandinavia, social democracy is now struggling.
There are many reasons. The embrace-the-market “Third Way” policies of leaders such as Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder worked fine in the turn-of-the-century boom years but seem to offer little to today’s vulnerable centre-left voters.
The fallout from the 2008 financial crash – high unemployment, lower living standards, ongoing public spending cuts – has combined with long-term trends (globalisation, automation, immigration, changing class identities, declining union membership) to eat into the centre left’s core electorates.
Openly addressing those fears, populist far-right parties have attracted the votes of many who traditionally supported the centre left. The rise of a new anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation, anti-establishment far left has proved equally damaging.
The moderate European left that played such a fundamental part in rebuilding western Europe’s post-war democracy is not yet dead. But unless it can once more offer voters credible solutions to their present-day problems, it could be in terminal decline.
Is the European experience all that much different to what is well underway on our side of the Atlantic Ocean? Trump certainly rode to power by convincing the Gullibillies that he was anti-capitalist, anti-globalist, even anti-establishment, a ruse he maintains today even after screwing over his followers on health care and debt-funded tax breaks.
And what of our Canada? How fares the centre-left and liberal democracy north of the 49th? We have a "don't worry, be happy" prime minister who persistently reveals himself oblivious to the sources of popular discontent and the threats to our democratic freedoms.
Layton and Mulcair abandoned the centre-left for the power prospects, positioning the New Dems as Latter Day Libs. The Liberals migrated right to become Conservative Lites. The Tories? We would have to await their return to power to properly gauge their populist resurrection.
We are not only in uncharted waters, we are rudderless and drifting. There'll be no talk about the restoration of progressive democracy. The easiest and most powerful remedy, electoral reform, is not in the cards. We can't be bothered. We will not trifle ourselves either with the restoration of a robust free press so essential to the functioning of democracy. So much for "informed consent." We look the other way that Quality People may get away with tax fraud while we demand that lesser people capitulate to a miserable, eeking-out future of "job churn." We will not defend liberal democracy. And if we fail to defend liberal democracy, we leave it weakened, perhaps mortally. If we will not defend liberal democracy how can we demand that others respect it?