Rome — In a world shaken by so many problems, it is difficult to look at 2020 and not make some kind of holistic analysis. While enormous progress has been made on many fronts, it is clear that the tide has turned, and we are now entering – or have already entered – a new low point in the history of humankind..
Today, we face an unprecedented existential threat brought about by the climate crisis. According to scientists, we have until 2030 to stop climate change, after which human conditions will be under several threats. Yet, we have just had a world conference in Madrid on climate change, which ended in nothing. Not only that, but since the beginning of the last decade, there has been a singular change of the relations of politicians with climate. Climate has become not a scientific but a political issue, with a number of politicians of not minor weight, like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Matteo Salvini and Vladimir Putin arguing that there is no climate crisis. Some of them, like Australia prime minister Scott Morrison, take holidays in Hawaii even as fires have destroyed an area large as Belgium.
Since the end of the last decade, we have seen also another change in a vital environment: democracy. With the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989, everybody was told that the threat of communism had now gone. As Francis Fukuyama famously wrote, it was the end of history. Capitalism and market would unify the world, and lift all boats, it was said at the time.
Then came the big financial crisis of 2008-2009 which cost governments (and therefore people) 12 trillion dollars and it became clear that only some boats were being lifted. Budget trimmings affected especially welfare, education and health, while at the same time some people were becoming fabulously rich. World debt doubled, (it now stands at 325 trillion dollars), and suddenly nationalistic, xenophobic and right-wing parties sprouted everywhere. Before the crisis of 2009, there was only one, in France. Even Nordic countries, long-time symbol of civism and tolerance saw the arrival of extreme right-wing governments.
The thirty years between the fall of Berlin Wall and the financial crisis, left a culture of competition, individualism and loss of values – a culture of greed. And the ten years between that crisis of and our incoming decade saw the rise of a culture of fear. Immigration became the catalyst We were being invaded, Islam was not compatible with our society, our jobs were being stolen, crime and drugs were coming in and the same leaders who do not believe in climate change became the guardians of Christianity, enacting restrictive laws to the applause of citizens, regardless of human rights. In the last two decades, trade unions have become irrelevant, and laws have been introduced that support the making of jobs precarious and reductions in social protection. People started having fear, looking at the uncertain future of their children.
Historians affirm that the two main engines of change in history are greed and fear. We enter the decade of the 2020s with both. Worse, many analysts believe we do so with hate.
The fact is that two flags that we thought had been discarded by history are making a comeback.
One is the flag ‘in the name of God’. We think of ISIS and Al Qaeda, but this is the basis of the image of Putin, Orban, Trump, Bolsonaro and Salvini. The use of religion by the right wing has been able to rally the poor. Theologian Juan Josè Tamayo has called politicians with bible in hand the Christo-neo-fascist alliance. In the last elections in Costa Rica, evangelical pastor Fabricio Alvarado won with a campaign based on the defence of Christian values and neoliberalism, against abortion and the paganism coming from Europe. This is precisely the electoral theme of Orban in Hungary, Kacynsky in Poland and Putin in Russia.
In Brazil, the evangelical church was vital in getting Bolsonaro elected. In El Salvador, the new president Nayib Bukele asked an extreme right-wing evangelical pastor to offer a prayer during his inaugural ceremony, and there is a draft law that would make the Bible compulsory reading in all schools. You will all remember how, after the overthrow of Eva Morales by the army, the new president of Bolivia Jeanine Áñez and her supporters went around with a bible in their hands at all ceremonies.
And let us not forget that Trump was elected because of the support of the evangelical church, which has 40 million faithful. He moved the US embassy to Jerusalem to get their support. Evangelicals believe that when Israel will recover all the territory of the biblical time, Christ will come to earth for a second time, and they will be the only ones that will be rewarded. The other country which moved its embassy to Jerusalem, Guatemala, was also the result of the move of an evangelical president.
Theologian Tamayo speaks of an international of hate: hate against gender equality, against LGTBs, against abortion, against immigrants. Those who propagate hate defend reinforcement of the patriarchal family, the submission of women, they despise what is not traditional, they mistrust science and statistics, they deny climate change, and they hate Muslims, Jews and blacks. What is being totally ignored in all this is the problem of social inequalities, the growing economic gap for reasons of ethnicity, culture, gender, social class, sexual identity, and so on.
Tamayo observes that this is becoming a new international movement, which is now coming to Europe, as the recent Spanish elections show. Vox, the extreme right-wing party, created just four years ago, now has 52 seats in the Parliament, and is the third largest party, like AFD in Germany. The party of Italy’s Salvini, with his rosary beads, has become the number one party, and he could become prime minister at any moment. And we know well of the very large conservative front against the Pope in the Catholic Church which also wants to save traditions, is against LGBTs, is for a patriarchal family, etc., etc. All this is about using religion, fear and hate for political gains.
And what about the flag ‘in the name of the nation’? Well, the best example is Benjamin Netanyahu who has passed a law which makes being a Jew the requisite for Israeli citizenship. This is how Narendra Modi in India is trying to deprive Muslims (170 million) of Indian citizenship; it is how the government in Myanmar is treating over one million Rohingyas. Those cases join religion with the fight against minorities and different religions in the name of the nation. China has now launched a campaign for a Chinese dream (also persecuting Uighur Muslim minorities). This is exactly the same strategy as that of Trump, who calls for the American dream. The United States has no allies, and anybody who makes money in trade with the United States is an adversary, be it Canada or Germany. “America First”, which in fact means “America Alone”.
So, the flags “in the name of God” and “in the name of the Nation” frequently overlap. Italian political scientist and economist Riccardo Petrella observes that in recent decades, a third flag has appeared with a large audience: ‘in the name of money”, and also that in the last two decades corruption has become another universal countervalue.
In its last report, Transparency International, the organisation which fights and denounces corruption, analyses how corruption is weakening democracy. Freedom House, a conservative US foundation, found that since 2006, 113 countries have seen a net decline in their freedom score, while only 62 have seen some improvement. The Economist says that democracy was stagnating in 2018, after three consecutive years of deterioration. Of the 62 countries which transitioned from authoritarian rule to some form of democracy, in the last quarter of the 20th century, half of them have seen their level of democracy stagnate or even falter. Transparency international highlights that while fight against corruption is high on the populists’ platform, when in power they tend to weaken democratic institutions, and engage into corruption like their predecessors. It cites the cases of various country, from Guatemala to Turkey, from the United States to Poland and Hungary. When corruption seeps into the democratic system it corrupts leaders. Economic corruption has increased in the last forty years, after the “greed is good” campaign, as the market has substituted man as the centre of society. It reaches the entire public sector, besides obviously the private sector.
Two-thirds of humankind now have no trust in police and other public services, because they are considered corrupt, and they believe that corruption is so diffuse that it cannot be eliminated.
We have become accustomed to hearing about corruption in the last two decades, because it is in the news every day. We have slowly become trained to look as natural things that are at all no natural: a good sign of the extent to which we have lost a moral compass.
If you ask children today if wars and poverty are natural, they will probably answer yes. And, as adolescents, they will also probably consider corruption as natural.
It is therefore evident that two fundamental environments for humankind are in danger. One in the short term is the natural environment. The conditions of life on the planet can worsen dramatically, and we have all the forecasts. We have only the coming decade to try to reverse the trend of climate change, be it natural (some say) or man-made (all scientists). But then the question is: how long do we have to protect our political environment, which runs our economic, social and cultural life, before that also goes into an irreversible decline?
Of course, a bloody dictatorship is less dramatic than seas rising seven metres, temperatures 3 degrees, or l0osing all our glaciers, and many rivers and water sources. Now that we have all the data, why do citizens not act for the survival of their environment?
On the other hand, 2019 will remain in history the year of mass demonstrations. In 21 countries, in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, millions of people went out on the street to protest against corruption, social injustice, the gap between political institutions and citizens, the fear and decline of social welfare as a political priority, Young people, who have deserted political parties and elections, have been frequently at the forefront. They are at the head of the campaign for a sustainable world, where an adolescent, Greta Thunberg, has brought together young people from all over the world. But the system does not appear to be really listening to them, unless they become violent as in Chile, Paris, Baghdad or Hong Kong.
These reflections bring us to three conclusions.
The first is that, not by accident, the enemies of the fight to defend our natural environment are also the enemies of our political environment. they do not care if the first is destroyed, because they are intertwined with corporations, gas and oil companies, farmers who want to take over land (like the case of Brazil and Amazonia), or coal companies, like in Poland and Australia. But they want to twist the political environment in their favour, for their power. Orban of Hungary has campaigned for am illiberal democracy. Bolsonaro has gone further, talking about the good old days of the military dictatorship. And all of them, from Trump to Salvini, look on international cooperation, multilateral agreements and any initiative that reduces the freedom of a country for peace and justice (like the United Nations or the European Union) as enemies. They are all in favour of building walls, forgetting that the Second World War taught us to abolish them.
The second is that democracy is in danger, for the same reasons that the environment is also in danger. There is no ability and will among populists to reach any internal agreement. Would it be possible today to create the United Nations, or sign the Declaration on Human Rights? Certainly not just as there is no will to fight climate change.
The third, therefore, is what is going to happen in the new decade we are now entering. It looks like it will be a decisive decade. In just a few years, we must take action on how we will deal with two existential issues: how to remain in our present environment, and how we will live together.
All this will be decided by voters. And this raises an issue: is it legitimate to believe that fascism, xenophobia and nationalism are the answer to our problems? Humans should learn from their mistakes (like all other animals do). And we should have learnt from the two world wars that those beliefs are not an answer but the roots of war and confrontation.
So, here a final reflection. According to Steven Pinker, the Canadian cognitive scientist, writing in The Economist, in the last seven years humans have become healthier, live longer, are more secure, richer, freer, more intelligent and educated. This trend should continue. But humans have evolved, because they have dedicated themselves mainly to the advantages of reproduction, survival and material growth not because of wisdom or happiness.
The first urgent step is to reconcile progress with human nature. We have cognitive abilities, and also the ability to cooperate and be emphatic, unlike other animals. Between the Age of Enlightenment and the Second World War, we made important progress on science, democracy, human rights, free information, market rules and the creation of institutions for international cooperation. This trend cannot be stopped, argues Pinker; it is now in our genes.
Well, in ten years we will know if all this is in the human genes or is just one of the many passages of history. Also, because in 2022, Bolsonaro and Orban should leave office: Erdogan in 2023; Netanyahu, Modi, Putin and Trump in 2024. So, in just four years (a microsecond in human history), we will know how the world is, and what damages are irreversible or not, and if we have made any progress in halting the climate crisis. But Trump, etc, have been elected…
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