Clearly, we are at a watershed point in human civilisation.
I’d like to think that, standing on a fairer, more inclusive and generous planet 30 years from now, I’d be looking back with affection and gratitude on this time. That we had faced Covid-19, measured our powers in terms of social, scientific, medical and political possibilities and emerged to wrestle mightily to get our social justice in order and the planet’s health and natural wealth back into shape.
The marker for this introspection would be the curtain coming down on the waning Trump show, revealing a new truth about a USA profoundly divided between exploiter and exploited; a stalemate in which the incumbent president was not an aberration but a predictable outcome of intolerable forces. That when mainstream politics offer only humiliation and frustration, people are spurred to virulent, demagogic anti-politics.
Around the world, ordinary life at the beginning of 2020 was pretty full of fear and frantic activity.
Neoliberalism had disenchanted politics, sucking the power out of people’s votes and forcing governments to abandon any ambition to change social outcomes or deliver social justice. Politics became irrelevant to people’s lives, perceived as the chatter of a remote and uniquely privileged class. Disenchantment as a tool for disempowerment.
We would have had no unity as a civilisation if we continued on that path.
Then came the twin “great disruptions”. A chilling pandemic stalked the globe and centuries of boiling injustices rose to the surface in a vastly influential country poised for bitter civil war. That its capital’s streets full of rage, burning cars and razor wire turned, overnight, into dancing in the streets was a miracle.
It seemed we were freed up to resume a more wholesome political discourse and to take action on deep-seated inequality and the legitimate needs for social progress at many levels. The undeclared war of neoliberalism, in which “the market” was a euphemism for the power of money, was outed and we were ripe for doing something about it.
Specifically, we demanded that politicians stop appeasing the kleptocrats and oligarchs and nations build united fronts to challenge both big tech and the power of giant institutions to write their own rules over tax contributions, extractive practices and unregulated employment regimes.
The lessons of the global financial crisis 12 years earlier became a byword for rethinking money, which, like most things left to grow too far out of balance, had become a bad master.
A new model of universal basic income giving access to economic activity around housing, education, health, leisure and achievement could be tackled, debated and redrawn with intentionality. Meanwhile, Covid spotlighted the relentless ambitions of big tech, global capital and banking and over-tourism and consumerism – a compensation for a shadowy pandemic of loneliness in the emerging world.
At home, our own new government was well-crafted to challenge the predatory practices of giant offshore businesses including banks, building suppliers and supermarkets, which had not shown up well when the going was tough.
Money began to trickle out and downwards, circulating and staying local to generate incomes, opportunities and taxes. People were happier and kinder. Content with less, we travelled round the country and smiled more. We learned to be grateful.
Nature, washed clean and jewel-bright from even such a brief cessation of our restless and largely mindless churn between Covid outbreaks, had never seemed so bright or so precious and it retrained us to stand still and really see the small and beautiful stuff around us.
So, looking back at 2020 from 30 years on, what has been accomplished?
Money has gradually assumed far less importance. We rebuilt the world’s cities with clever domestic architecture to ensure that nature and our natural sociability could still exist.
The push to wholesale artificial intelligence withered into practical applications and the mantras of diminishing resources and scarcity trailed away. Consumer habits in the developed world dwindled and so did the predicted exponential population rise in population, settling at 10 billion and now dropping around the world.
With a re-balancing between state and commerce, the levers of domestic policy came within reach of communities and the rights and responsibilities to the social commons evolved quite quickly. Being responsible – for everything – is instinctive now.
And Waiheke looks remarkably similar. Power did devolve downwards from the second supercity and a greater emphasis on liveable architecture suited us well. Travellers still prize us for our easy friendliness and the floating islands of the inner Hauraki Gulf are the lungs of a vibrant and still-green city of sails. It was a game worth playing. • Liz Waters