6 min read

Three Great Questions Facing Us in the 21st Century

Three Great Questions Facing Us in the 21st Century

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

New here? Get the Issue in your inbox daily.

The other night, Tucker Carlson sat down and interviewed Russia’s President for his new “show” on Twitter. If you wanted a current summary of where human civilization stands, you’d be hard pressed to find a better one. The world’s richest man acquired a platform to send the world’s most repellent media figures to give a voice to the world’s dictators.

As we peer into the uncertain future, moments like this should perhaps give us all pause. Is this really where we are, in the 21st century? Sadly, yes. So where are we headed? Three questions are at the top of my mind these days. Perhaps they’ll help you ponder the smoking trainwreck called “the future” or “the world,” too.

One: what drives societies to suicide? Around the world, we’re seeing a wave of what should bluntly and simply be called societal suicide. Nation after nation is self-destructing, with chilling clarity. In a perverse, bizarre, and almost incomprehensible way: self-destruction as choice, proclaimed almost giddily.

What made America turn to Trumpism? What impelled Britain to turn its back on its dearest neighbors and allies, and give up its once cherished NHS and BBC? How can Europe be a hotbed for the far right, less than a century after the horrors of what happened…last time around?

We have some glimmerings of answers. They go like this. A process of economic stagnation ignited long-dormant social hatreds. Or maybe not-so-long dormant, in some cases. America was a segregated society within living memory. Barely an eyeblink has passed in historical terms since marriages between “races” was “illegal”, for example. Politics becomes mired in spite, violence, and regress.

Another answer reverse the causality. Societies disintegrate. As social bonds come undone, all is lost. The hope of a modern politics slowly, and then quickly, ceases. The process of disintegration is literal—a pulling apart. As social groups fail to cohere, economic progress, which depends on joint investment and shared public goods, comes to a standstill. A vicious cycle ensues.

The answer is likely to include all of the above, the arrow of causality spinning like a tornado, from politics, to economics, to society, and on and on, in a widening gyre which undoes everything it touches. Yet while we have the hints of an answer, the question is very much a contemporary one.

Let me put that to you differently. In an earlier age, the Age of Stability that ended with the last global financial crisis, roughly, the great questions of then were about prosperity, stability, coherence, and progress. This age’s great questions are very much the opposite: about dissolution, self-destruction, incoherence to the point of collective delusion and shared madness, regress right back into history’s darkest chapters. All the stupidities and evils of history appear to be colliding and gathering momentum in this dawning dark age.

Our questions are different. To ask, today, “what causes the prosperity of nations?” Is almost a laughable question. As is: “what is it that gives some societies stability?” Those questions seem antiquated, almost, because they’re so out of kilter, suddenly, with our reality. Today, even formerly lauded nations like Sweden have turned to “former” Nazi politics. And if they’re not immune from what history will surely regard as humiliation, then who is? We can hardly blame far more impoverished, less “enlightened” nations for not developing, when today, it’s the West leading many aspects of the race into regress, from Trumpism onwards.

Today’s questions are implosive questions. That rubs power figures the wrong way, who don’t want to ask such questions—or want such questions asked. Of course, if you were in power, you’d hardly want to investigate if the house was crumbling down around you. And so we have the sad spectacle of what now passes for news, which ignores the pressing questions of the age almost entirely. And yet they could hardly be more obvious. To ask questions about collapse in an age of collapse is an especially dangerous pursuit. In such times, the stability of the system remains paramount to elites, and, in despair themselves, they’ll do anything to keep the system going, the more it runs on fumes—even to the point it becomes an illusion that it is going.

That brings me to my second great question: what kind of future does our civilization have? Are we headed for a state of collapse? By now, it hardly takes a genius to see why such a question is urgent. Every year, we play out a dreary, foolish cycle. Summer brings the mega-scale impacts of climate change, arriving far ahead of their predicted onset—and meanwhile, in the winter, we do everything we can to pretend to forget.

But the facts remain the facts. We are a civilization now running out of basics. Water, food, clean air. All of these are in increasingly short supply. Everything that’s made from them that’s the material basis of our civilization requires the additional input of fossil fuels—right down to agriculture, household goods, cement, glass, chemicals, and steel.

What precisely is the plan, and if there isn’t one, then what’s the plan for that? It’s hard to imagine that a decade from now, climate change won’t cost significantly more than it already does. And while there are still plenty of people who cling to the vain hope that climate change’s costs are in some sci-fi future, from grinding inflation, to insurers pulling contracts, to shrinking fiscal space for modern social contracts, they’re already very much evident. As are the social impacts, from mass migration, spiking poverty, growing conflict, and…

The flatlining of human progress. That’s my third question. Human progress has flatlined after centuries. It’s the Second Great Turning, the first one being, of course, its explosion in the wake of the industrial revolution and enlightenment. By now, we’re learning the hard way that both of those quantum leaps in human industry and thought came with hidden costs, which we’re paying the price for, steeply. The industrial revolution, as its critics even then, from Ruskin to Sinclair predicted, brought with it pollution, misery, and inequality. Meanwhile, the enlightenment, as much as it advanced the causes of science and reason, left behind a hierarchy of humanity, in which some were more “enlightened” than others, and, astonishingly, or maybe not so astonishingly, the majority of the world’s humans weren’t to be people at all, never mind the animals.

Our primary task today, when it comes to intellect, is to learn those lessons. We can and should do that without, perhaps, demonizing the progress these quantum leaps represented. There’s no need to say, for example, that the industrial revolution or enlightenment were “all bad” or “all good,” just that we should learn, and form a truer accounting of their follies, regrets, and shortcomings. Nothing and nobody is perfect, and no paradigm shift ever will be. But we aren’t learning this lesson fast enough.

We are bickering, as a world, and as societies, over not having to learn it. One political side is throwing modern history’s biggest tantrum, retreating into infantile narcissistic shells, like babies, wailing in rage. I don’t want to learn that there’s no such thing as a hierarchy of personhood, at the top of which lies a master race! I don’t want to learn that dirty industry brings with planet-wrecking scales of “externalities,” from carbon emissions to microplastics! I don’t want to learn, wah, wah, wah, and nobody can make me! All I need is an all-powerful Father, who’ll make everything safe again, and that’s how I’ll feel strong—not through wisdom, courage, grace, and knowledge.

Our politics has descended into tragedy by way of farce precisely because learning the shortcomings of even these quantum leaps in human history is something that many are not prepared to do. Not motivated to do. Instead, they’d prefer to bask in regress—and that ties together my three questions, in a kind of tangled Gordian knot. Instead of choosing knowledge, our societies are choosing ignorance, and that makes them easy targets for demagogues, preying upon this foolish self-deceit with the old sophistries of hate, spite, and violence. That turn is so sudden, so vicious, and so widespread, that our civilization is now at risk, democracy and its fundamental values under threat in every corner of the globe. And without some semblance of democratic values of consent, peace, cooperation, and progress, we have little to no chance of solving problems like climate change, stagnant economies, or inequality, because of course, they’re all problems which require species-level collective action.

Three great questions. If I ran a university, this would be my little research agenda. I imagine that we’re going to need tons of bright young people investigating these questions. So that we learn something as a civilization, from this troubled, dark age, in which so much is going wrong, so fast. It’s true that everything feels increasingly broken—politics, economics, society. But we have one crucial thing left: our intellect. If we lose that, my friends…I don’t have to finish that sentence, do I?

❤️ Don't forget...

📣 Share The Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

💵 If you like our newsletter, drop some love in our tip jar.

📫 Forward this to a friend and tell them all all about it.

👂 Anything else? Send us feedback or say hello!