I don’t think I can remember a New Year’s Day when I’ve been more excited about the year to come.
Let’s start with the political landscape. You all know about the year we’ve had, the long-standing governments that have tumbled, the despots and terrorists who are no more, the growth in measured nonviolent protest. It’s been a year of change, and all the signs are that there’s a lot more to come.
Take a look at what’s currently happening in Russia, what people like Alexey Navalny are up to right now. [Esther, thanks for pointing this out to me]. Now there’s a little part of me that wonders whether Alexey Navalny could do in the US what he’s doing in Russia, given the signing of the latest NDAA into law, but right now it’s only a little part: I still have considerable faith in democratic process however flawed it may look at times.
Why do I have faith in democratic process? Let me tell you a story. When I was 18, India was placed under a State of Emergency that gave the Prime Minister the power to “rule by decree”; she herself was quoted as saying she’d brought democracy to a “grinding halt”. Which she proceeded to try and do, for 18 months, before calling for elections. At the point of calling the elections, this was the set-up:
- Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the country’s first prime minister, loved and revered in Indian memory.
- Her surname, Gandhi, resonated in the land of Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi, even though she was in no way related.
- Her party were the only ones to have won national elections….ever.
- Her family had won her constituency seat since time immemorial.
- Her opponents were either in jail or in hiding.
- She’d been in dictatorial control for the previous eighteen months, with her young son acting as the ebullient enforcer.
You get the picture. Putin would have pouted his pleasure; Mugabe would have murmured his admiration. There could only be one winner to the 1977 election.
And yes, there was only one winner.
Democracy. Amazingly, while the opposition bayed and bleated “Fix”, the results proved otherwise. Congress lost the election. Indira Gandhi lost her seat.
Bad law can be passed. Bad law will be passed. Sometimes good law gets passed with bad bits added on by those who know how to game the system. And it takes time.
Democracies can’t be gamed. Not then, not now. Delayed, yes; disrupted, yes. But only for a time.
You can’t look at the changing political landscape without being aware of the immense social changes going on, many of which influenced the political changes. Following the success of OWS, people are really beginning to think how things are distributed today, how things were distributed before, how things may be distributed in future. Arab Spring and OWS could represent the beginning in a long journey of enlightenment of how a global society will learn to operate. Take a look at this diagram:
The 99% and the 1% represent inequalities in wealth distribution, perhaps in income distribution as well.
The 86% have other things besides wealth and income on their minds; things like food, water, disease control, energy, education, to name a few. There is so much to be worked out: figuring out how to get the right balance between growing food for people to eat, and growing crops that will help solve the energy and climate crises; learning how to battle new diseases, diseases accentuated by the global nature of modern trade and migration, while coping with the return of old ones, as antibiotics lose their oomph; treating water as the precious resource it is, taking care not to make it a Missile Crisis level problem as countries argue about riparian rights; dealing with those who would Balkanize the ocean depths and lay claim to large swathes of ocean and all the natural resources represented (sadly, I can already imagine a world where fish have “passports” branded on them); negotiating how to overcome the imbalance of a world where apparently 40% of new patents come from the US, where Liechtenstein is ranked 9th in the world league table for innovation, and where China, India, Brazil and Russia are notably absent. I have nothing against Liechtenstein, but puh-leeze.
The problems cited are not easy problems; they represent a whole new class of problem for humanity to face, global in their construct, immense in their complexity, and they’re going to need new classes of tools to help solve them.
Some tools aren’t appropriate any more. So we need new tools, tools that allow people to collaborate with low cost of entry, low cost of operation, low cost of change, low cost of exit; tools that work globally, consistently, across culture and geography and language; tools that are device- and location- and scale- (and for that matter socio-economic grouping-) agnostic.
Tools that have emerged, tools that continue to emerge, tools that make me realise that humans are wonderful beings. Tools that gave computer gamers the ability to solve a ten-year old puzzle related to AIDS research; tools that helped volunteers restore tsunami-damaged photographs to do their little bit in alleviating the suffering of those affected by the tragedy in Japan last March.
It’s not just tools, human beings are making breakthroughs in waters hitherto uncharted; Ronald Ross (incidentally the first Indian-born man to be given the Nobel Prize) “discovered” the parasite behind malaria while Queen Victoria was still on the throne. Yet it was only last year that people started speaking of a proper vaccine for malaria, a disease I know something about, having had it more than once. Similarly, I’m very excited about what Irit Sagi and team have been doing in Rehovot, experimenting with vaccines for Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis, amongst others. I have two members in my close family with Crohn’s.
I’ve just listed a small number of reasons why I’m excited about the year to come. Of course there are major challenges. The West is going to have to spend less and save more, something the West may not know how to do. The East is going to have to spend more and save less, something the East may not know how to do. Perhaps the East and the West, between them, have the answers.
We’ve chastised banks, and bankers, for lending too much, for lending to the wrong people, for investing in the wrong things. We continue to chastise the banks. We’re also chastising banks for not lending enough, for the credit squeeze, for holding up growth. In fact we’re doing so much chastising of banks they’re finding it hard to hire and train people to do the things we’re asking them to do. Hmmm. Something’s gotta give.
We’re going to have to understand more about economic growth, what it means, whether it is desirable or not, when it is desirable, when it isn’t. We’re going to have to understand what relationship that has with jobs, and what that means for society. We’re going to have to understand the role played by what we call today a country, with its strangenesses of political and economic borders, how that changes.
As we enter 2012, there are many things that appear uncertain, starting with the economic, social and political landscape; this is true wherever we look.
Everything is up for change.
And you wonder why I’m excited about 2012?
And you know/the darkest hour/is always/always/just before the break of day/
And it appears to be a long/appears to be a long/appears to be a long/time/
Before the dawn.