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Even the World’s Biggest Problems Aren’t Hopeless
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.
Wicked Problems We’ve More or Less Solved
Back in the 1980s, newspapers and magazines bulged with worry about acid rain. Coal-burning power stations in the UK built their chimneys so high that by the time the toxic gunk floated back down to earth to poison lakes, rivers, and forests, it was in Scandinavia. Same story in the United States. West Virginian coal smoke rained down sulfuric acid on the forests of Maine and Canada. Acid rain was a classic negative externality, cloaked politically in a Douglas Adams SEP field. It was what you might call a “wicked problem,” seemingly intractable because of its complexity and interdependencies and how much the people causing the problem benefited from it.
But 20 years on, in North America and Europe, we don’t really hear about “acid rain” any more. What happened?
A combination of laws and regulations, international coordination, technological advances, activism, and emissions trading schemes all changed the cost structure — both economic and political — of running power stations, forcing them to change. Different people chipped away at the problem from different angles until it had all but gone away.
The moral of the story? Fixing acid rain took huge effort, coordination, and a couple decades of hard bloody work that turned evidence and campaigns into a winning political coalition. (In the United States, it was not a Democrat but George H.W. Bush who passed the Clean Air Act.)
That’s the kind of timeline we must get our heads around to save what’s worth saving of capitalist democracy. As Corey Robin says, “The French took the Bastille in four hours; it took American workers 100 years to get a goddamn weekend. These things take time.”
HIV Was the End of the World for a Generation of Gay Men
Let’s look at another wicked problem that “we” more or less fixed. In the 1980s, gay men struck down by HIV/AIDS were vindictively blamed for their illness. Research funding was nonexistent, and public health capacity was purposely pointed elsewhere. Tens of thousands campaigned, funded research, badgered Big Pharma, disseminated prevention information, and lobbied not just indifferent, but belligerent politicians and policymakers — people who actively denied their right to live.
It took more than a decade to turn the hulking ship of public health around and make it do its job: treating and preventing disease.
For many, many people — including more than 650,000 Americans — HIV/AIDS was indeed the end of the world. But they and their communities strategized, communicated, worked, and delivered as if there would, somehow, be a tomorrow. They built coalitions with people who’d probably just be no-platformed today and figured out multiple ways to chip at the super-wicked problem of a then-terminal infectious disease. (“Super wicked” is a wicked problem with a ticking time bomb.) And today, for people in the West, treated HIV is a largely noncontagious disease that can be easier to manage than diabetes.
We often think past problems were not as complex or difficult as those we face. But HIV activists stared death in the face, reckoned they had months or maybe at most a couple of years, and turned their urgency into agency. We can, too.
Problems That Turned Out Not to Be Problems After All
And while we’re looking at seemingly intractable 1980s problems, remember how “crack babies” were going to grow into a generation of violent and unteachable black boys and men? Sometimes today’s “problems” turn out to be chimerae, mere ghosts and goblins of prejudice and base fear.
So, yes, our current, seemingly intractable problems may be solved if we work with appropriate urgency, build coalitions, and take a decades-long view.
“How did you go bankrupt?” … “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”―Ernest Hemingway, ‘The Sun Also Rises’
What Do We Need to Fix If This Moment Is Not to Be the Acceleration Point for the End of Democracy?
Oh, just the easy stuff: the bizarrely metastasizing form of hypercapitalism we think is as fixed as the laws of gravity; the roaring social and economic inequality it drives; the quite rational alienation from democracy so many feel; and the fact that cradle-to-grave surveillance and marketized disinformation are not bugs, but beloved, shiny features of the world our tech giants are building.
Saving democracy is bigger than the most wicked problems we’ve yet solved. Maybe some of the steps I propose will seem too small, too procedural. It might turn out that, in Audre Lorde’s words, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But we owe it to our future to use everything at hand to save capitalist democracy from eating itself and us.
Things are bad. For some, disaster is already here. But we in the West are not yet at the point where our senses quicken and time slows down, and we gaze, still slightly detached, at what’s coming, unable to run away, unable to plan, unable to stop asking ourselves, “How did it come to this? How did it come to this?”