We’re only sixteen years into the 21st century, but it seems like a “best of times, worst of times” kind of epoch. It’s the best of times for the aristocracy of the rich, and the worst of times for the poor and disadvantaged, especially when they live close to or in war zones.
Perhaps that’s a statement of the obvious, except the gap between the richest and poorest continues to grow. Their worlds, their realities, are so different as to be virtually disconnected. This is a theme of several recent science fiction films, including the “Hunger Games” series (the Capitol versus the Districts) and “Elysium,” in which the privileged rich literally live above the sordid earth with its teeming masses.
Some of the big fears of our present century include the emergence of a “super bug,” a contagion that is highly resistant to traditional drugs. We’ve overused antibiotics and are slowly breeding new strains of bacteria that modern medicine can no longer defeat. Meanwhile, many people in the U.S. still lack health care, or they’re reluctant to use it because it’s too expensive for them. And then there are the workers who lack sick leave. They force themselves to go to work, even when sick, because they need the money. How long before inadequate health care and sick workers facilitate the conditions for the spread of a plague?
And then there’s the contagion of violence and war. America’s wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa are basically open-ended. They are today’s version of the “Hundred Years’ War” between England and France, an on-again, off-again struggle for dominance that sprawled across two centuries. In fact, America’s “war on terror,” with its “surgical strikes” and reliance on technology as a quasi-panacea, seems to be breeding new types of “super-bug” terrorists who are highly resistant to traditional techniques of policing and war.
In this effort, one thing is certain: No U.S. president will be declaring “peace” or even “normal” times for the next decade or two (or three).
Finally, let’s not forget global warming. The Pentagon and the CIA haven’t. Republicans may have their share of climate change deniers, but when it comes to the U.S. national security state, contingency plans are already in place for the disasters awaiting us from global warming. Competition for scarce resources (potable water especially, but food and fuel as well) combined with more intense storms, widespread flooding, and much warmer temperatures, will generate or aggravate wars, famines, and plagues.
Are we living in a failed or failing world?
In “A Distant Mirror,” the historian Barbara Tuchman wrote about the calamitous 14th century of plagues and wars and a mini-ice age in the northern hemisphere. We seem to be facing a calamitous 21st century of plagues and wars and a mini-hothouse age. It’s a grim prospect.
The question is: Can we act collectively to avert or avoid the worst of these calamities? Or are we fated to dance our very own 21st-century danse macabre?