The year 2022 has given us a glimpse of the new world we are entering. We are witnessing the end of a long period of relative stability, prosperity and security. From now on, we will have to learn to live with uncertainty and restraint. An analysis by Christophe Degryse, Head of the Foresight Unit at the European Trade Union (ETUI).
As if the pandemic wasn’t enough, the extreme weather conditions of the summer coupled with the war of aggression in Ukraine now pose a threat to food security. Many are left wondering how they will get through the winter. Prices are soaring everywhere, supplies are no longer guaranteed in many industries and some shop shelves are emptying. Are we simply going through a bad patch? Extreme weather events will inevitably recur and the war in Ukraine may rage on for years to come, aggravating geopolitical tensions elsewhere or even provoking new conflicts. More than just a bump in the road, we are likely witnessing the dawning of a new world. But what is the nature of this new world? There is no clear-cut answer to this question. It will be determined by sometimes uncontrollable external factors as well as on political, economic and social dynamics.
What is clear is that we are witnessing the end of a long period of (relative) stability, (relative) prosperity and (relative) security. From now on, we will have to learn to live with uncertainty and restraint. Are we capable of this? For a long time, Western societies based on market economies with 'free and unfettered' competition have accustomed – some would say anaesthetised – us to a form of economic infinitude. Consumers are comfortably ensconced in this illusion of infinite consumption both in terms of the quantity and variety of products on offer – one need only look at Amazon’s business model – as well as in terms of obtaining them: if not through purchasing power, then through credit, debt, staggered payments, etc. The internet has removed all boundaries to consumption: a product that can’t be found in a shop in France or Germany can be found on a website in China, the United States or elsewhere. The digitalisation of the economy has considerably increased the horizon – or illusion – of boundlessness: unlimited internet, videos on demand, streaming music, endless video games, social networks and dating applications on a global scale. The same applies to mobility in our “restless society”, to borrow the title of a book by Christophe Mincke. Whether by land air or sea, we must always be on the move, never stopping, never resting.
The Western consumer has comfortably settled into this promise of a world without limits or restrictions. When he famously said that “anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”, perhaps Kenneth Boulding was overlooking the role of technologists. For our Western societies have bestowed upon technology the task of constantly pushing back these geographical, natural, technical, environmental and social limits.
Of course, this continuous stretching of these limits is not without its problems, especially those that economists refer to as externalities: we can no doubt produce and consume ad infinitum but the sky will end up literally falling on our heads, as we are beginning to see. This is why some rely on tomorrow’s technologies to solve the technology problems of today. But the climatic, health and military events of recent months have laid bear the infinitude promised by the marriage of markets and technology.
What conditions will force our hitherto sheltered societies to cope with limits, restrictions and scarcity? The lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic have been instructive in more than one way. The populations of many countries showed a high level of resilience and were able to quickly adapt, though not without difficulty, to an exceptional situation. A majority of people willingly accepted new constraints and limitations on their freedom (with exceptions, of course). However, the pandemic also showed that one condition of this acceptance was sine qua non: the perception of some level of social justice. In typically cartoonish fashion, the former British Prime Minister provided the ideal illustration: people will accept confinement as best they can but not the fact that the elite are allowed to continue partying. In other words, restrictions are only (more or less) acceptable if they are experienced as fair and collectively applied. Otherwise, they will become intolerable.
Those who are prepared to reduce or even eliminate the use of aeroplanes for travel will see political, economic, sports and entertainment personalities continuing to use their private jets at the slightest whim as cause for injustice. If those in the city who are prepared to swap their car for a bicycle to reduce CO2 emissions see that they are simply freeing up space for large cars, they will perceive it as a problem of social justice: while 'we' agree to impose limits on ourselves, 'they' continue to party, providing a dramatic socio-climatic illustration of what Oxfam calls the secession of the rich and undermining any citizen efforts at transition.
Yet the link between wealth and greenhouse gas emissions is clearly established: the CO2 emissions of the top 10 populations in Europe and the world equal or exceed the emissions of the remaining 90%. The political lesson seems clear: in a world that is rediscovering finitude, societies where a small political, economic, financial and cultural elite continues to party while ‘the people’ work on the transition will be more fragile societies, slower to transition and adapt, and will ultimately be rife for social revolution. On the other hand, societies that move towards greater equality will be more resilient and better prepared to face the challenges of the ‘end of endlessness’. This societal resilience will therefore not rely primarily on the market or technology, but above all on policies that ensure social justice and cohesion. This is the great political challenge of our day.