Was 2018 an Epicurean year?

This will be my final post of the year. The Christmas period is a very busy one for me, so I’m afraid I cannot post until 2019, when my weekly contributions will resume as normal. Cheers! 

Amidst the relentless negativity that is the Western news cycle, 2018 was in many respects, a good year for Epicureans. War continues its long term decline, with even the violence in the Middle East, Yemen notwithstanding, beginning to subside. ISIS is a shadow of its former self. There weren’t as many terrorist attacks as we have been accustomed to. For those of us who live in NATO countries, we aren’t as involved in fighting wars abroad as were for most of our post-WW2 history. For all of Trump’s belligerent rhetoric, he hasn’t actually started any new conflicts or military interventions. Cyber warfare is an increasing concern. But fewer people dying in battle is something to be grateful for.

Alongside the decline of war has been the decline of mortality. Improving healthcare, lower murder rates and increasing affluence mean that in the vast majority of the world’s countries, we are dying less and living longer than ever before. This poses a challenge for our social security and social care systems, which are under increasing strain. But its a far better problem to have than premature death.

Technology continues to create new jobs and more opportunities at a breathtaking pace. Communication is cheaper and easier than ever before. Becoming and staying informed is a doddle, which not only makes for a more intelligent and vigilant population, it makes it harder for autocrats and corrupt politicians to get away with wrongdoing. Most importantly, technology can save lives, such as the new Apple Watch’s ability to detect abnormal heart rhythms that could be symptoms of circulatory problems.

The worldwide decline in absolute poverty and rise of the middle class continues. Fewer people than ever are living on less than a dollar a day. This is good for the developing world, but it also create new customers for the goods and services the developed world can provide. Of course there are challenges in having to compete with more countries for investment and talent, but the opportunities are considerably greater.

Even in the fight against climate change, there is reason for optimism. In a UN conference in Poland this month, delegates from almost 200 countries set out specific measures they would take to tackle climate change, to meet the targets set by the Paris accord. Moreover, the means by which we can reduce carbon emissions have never been greater, whether its cheaper batteries, more efficient solar panels, better housing insulation or the growing popularity of electric cars. In the UK, emissions from trains have dropped even as more people travel by train, because of the government’s railway electrification programme. Young people, who will have to live with the consequences of climate change, have never been more aware of it or more determined to prevent the worst of its effects.

However, even as these positive long term trends continue, there is immense discontent across the world. In the developing world, there is frustration that they are not catching up with the West fast enough. Countries like India or Pakistan are being held back by protectionism, backward technology, and systemic corruption. Many African nations feel exploited by foreigners- not just Western energy companies, but the Chinese government as well. The West’s attitude to the developing world has been one of patronising pity, fuelled by the soft bigotry of low expectations. Much of the developing world is growing and urbanising at an unsustainable rate, resulting in increasing air pollution, low-quality housing and the spread of disease. To make matters worse, climate change will impact the developing world the hardest; crop yields may decline and droughts increase in frequency and severity. Having said all that, the vast majority of the developing world is making enormous progress.

The same cannot be said for the developed world, which faces the prospect of stagnation and relative decline. The developed world has an ageing population, with fewer workers and more retirees. This will result in higher taxes and less generous social security systems. The economic performance of the developed world post-2008 has been very poor, whether its a sovereign debt crisis in Greece, a decade-long period of wage stagnation in Britain, a declining working-age population in Germany, or insane levels of inequality in the US.

Just as significantly, the West is increasingly politically divided. In the broadest possible terms, almost all developed nations have an older, less well-educated demographic who are increasingly supporting authoritarian political movements. These people feel frustrated with an establishment that they believes ignores them. They are sceptical of globalisation and feel very patriotic. They are also concerned about the increasing levels of immigration from the developed world, which has transformed much of the West, and undoubtedly will continue to do so. Juxtaposed to this are a cohort of younger, well-educated people who embrace globalisation and its opportunities, and do not express any nostalgia for the politics and culture of the past. Rather, they are concerned with the prejudices and illiberal sentiments of the new authoritarians, and are particularly sensitive to what they see as the plight of disadvantaged groups: gay people, ethnic and religious minorities, women and the transgendered. The divide between the supporters and opponents of globalisation is becoming more entrenched, with any prospect of compromise between the two groups becoming ever-unlikely.

That said, Epicureans should be thankful. 2018 could’ve been a lot worse. Despite the ineptitude of our governments, the human race continues to make great progress, achieving new and wonderful things all the time. We can only hope that moderation, common sense and decency will prevail. Merry Christmas, and have a Happy New Year!

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