Later than we think?

Any aspiring author seeking a title for their book should take inspiration from the portrait of the 1930s by the broadcaster and journalist René Cutforth. His was a broad view of the decade, though one written from the perspective of someone who saw it end in disaster and war.

He called it Later Than We Thought.

I’m starting to wonder if it’s later than we think in the 2020s.

People used to talk of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Currently, we seem to face at least five:-

  • Climate
  • Biodiversity
  • Food
  • Water
  • Security

Cutforth set out to detail the 1930s’ follies, including bad governance and bad decision making by politicians, the rise of extremism, economic mismanagement, acute inequality and the public’s unwillingness to take threats seriously.

Now, in the 2020s, we see bad governance and bad decision making by politicians, the rise of extremism, economic mismanagement, acute inequality and the unwillingness of the public to take growing threats seriously. But in the 1930s, the emergencies surrounding climate, biodiversity, food and water were much less advanced. Now they present existential threats.

Writing in 1976, Cutforth said the chief difference between one historic period and another lies in its anxieties.

“Though in the thirties, the future often looked black enough, its shadows did not include the atomic bomb and the prospect of instant annihilation, nor the poisoning of the planet by chemical pollution, or the prospect of standing-room only threatened by the population explosion,” he wrote.

What the 1930s did face, of course, was a security situation which became dire thanks to western democracies’ complacency – and refusal to rearm because it would be too expensive.

For far too long they chose to ignore an existential threat to democracy from the rise of extremism and expansionist dictators planning dangerous military expansion. No prizes for spotting the parallel there. Some may like to imagine Ukraine is a “far-away country of which we know little” and that it will be “Putin’s final territorial demand”.

Meanwhile, today, the nuclear clock may not be the only clock edging closer to midnight.

2023 may be remembered as the day the breakdown of our climate began to accelerate. Whether this is due to some kind of tipping point having been reached, or a combination of stresses finally placing intolerable strains, the sort of data now being gathered across the world is staggering. Record high summer and winter temperatures. Ice disappearing or failing to reappear for the winter. Hot seas. Every kind of extreme weather and the resulting floods, wildfires and damage to nature and farming – that’s 2023 for a big swathe of the planet.

And that’s reflected in food and water shortages. Not only has much of Ukraine’s production been lost to conflict, but extreme weather in Asia has hit rice crops etc..

What’s so disheartening is that world politicians, including those in the UK, seem to think ploughing on with our current lip-service (at best) to these challenges is OK because, well, they don’t want to frighten the voters.

Right now, a substantial minority of those voters are indulging in a massive campaign of self-deception fed by cynical business interests, cunning PR and populist media extremists. No change from the thirties there; the difference is that social media provides massive feedback, so a small and crudely misinformed minority can seem like a mass movement.

Just as the thirties saw a small but loud minority coalesce around extreme nationalism, antisemitism and militarism, we now have a coming together of crude nationalism (which manages to decry, but live quite happily with, a globalised business elite enriching itself), extreme and dangerous climate change denial and strident opposition to any change that might require changes to their way of life.

In the 1930s, Britain and its allies left things until it was almost too late to do anything about them. “Doomerism” is seductive, but we mustn’t give into pessimism as it isn’t too late to act.

But it’s certainly later than we think.

Jon Reeds

René Cutforth: Later than we Thought – A Portrait of the Thirties [David & Charles, 1976]