There’s a point at which disasters compound and multiply, when the worse it gets, the worse it gets.
Motivations thicken. Events accelerate. The gunman’s shadow looms in the doorway as children hide uselessly under desks. The din of drones whining around the windowless apartment block kicks up half an octave and you look for a weight-bearing wall to get behind. Or you see in your male friend’s eye the metallic glint of predation and only now register that you’re alone with him.
You wonder at what point it was too late to avoid this and puzzle at how it will now always have been too late, and instead of planning your escape, your brain whirs madly at the question “How did it come to this?”
Are we at that point now with democracy and peace? No, but we’re edging closer to the brink. In January, the secretary-general of the United Nations issued a red alert for the world, saying we’ve “gone into reverse.” The scientists who run the Doomsday Clock — a measure of the likelihood of a species-ending man-made disaster — just moved us closer to midnight. The further along the countdown we go, the more likely many leaders are to skip from 10 down to zero.
There’s an inflection point where deterrence turns to antagonism. To paraphrase Margaret MacMillan, once people start to think a war is likely, it becomes much more likely. Posturing shades into preemption. Retired generals start blustering about “preventive war,” and before you know it, the weaker side attacks first.
But the “duty of hope” — the unofficial slogan of Irish diplomats in the Northern Ireland peace process — requires that we take a clear-eyed look at our situation and then act as if there will be a future. (It’s basically Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” in sensible shoes.)
So if we can’t get our leaders to do what’s needed to get that Doomsday Clock moved back — yet — we can take courage from how impossible problems in the past actually turned out to have solutions. Some, in fact, turned out not to be the problems we thought they were after all.