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Decade in review: the nameless years

The decade that many people would sooner forget ended without finding a name. America's 'war on terror' shaped the political landscape but 'climate change' turned out to be the phrase and the fact of the decade. As it began with 9/11 and ended with a global financial crisis this turned to be a decade of harsh lessons but little learning.

In a sign that this was a decade that many people would sooner forget, the 2000s came to an end without finding a name. For Alan Philips, writing in The National: "The defining characteristic of the past 10 years is how much we have been deceived - by political leaders, economic gurus and indeed by ourselves. It has been a decade of deception." Time magazine declared under a headline reading Goodbye (at last) to the Decade from Hell: "Bookended by 9/11 at the start and a financial wipeout at the end, the first 10 years of this century will very likely go down as the most dispiriting and disillusioning decade Americans have lived through in the post-World War II era." Jonathan Freedland wrote that this was a decade defined by what then-US President George W Bush named "the war on terror". "That conflict, begun so spectacularly with the felling of the twin towers, came to dominate every aspect of world affairs in the first decade of the 21st century. It spawned two wars, separated the United States from some of its oldest allies, fatally hobbled the premiership of a British prime minister and reconfigured the liberal left, on both sides of the Atlantic. And it left an uncounted number of people - perhaps in the hundreds of thousands - dead. "Unusually for a historic turning point, this was one that could be seen without the benefit of distance or the passage of time. By the evening of 11 September, it had become a commonplace to say the world would never be the same again. The Guardian's front page showed an image of the World Trade Centre, holed and belching great billows of clouds, below four simple words: 'A declaration of war.' "And so it proved to be. Al Qa'eda's grandiosity, its desire to be granted the status of an equal adversary, was fulfilled when George W Bush treated the 11 September attacks as the opening salvo in a fully-fledged war. Within less than a month, the bombs were falling on Afghanistan, the place al Qa'eda had made its own. "By then, the new era had begun. Suddenly the long decade that had just ended - spanning from the fall of the wall in 1989 until 10 September 2001 - began to look like a rare respite, the only time since 1939 when the free world had not been locked in a titanic struggle against a vast and terrifying enemy." But even if the decade is now over, the times show no sign that they are about to change. Andrew Bacevich, noting the parallels between this era and the Cold War, wrote: "In the wake of 9/11, a with-us-or-against-us mentality once again swept Washington. 'Terrorism' assumed the place of communism as the great evil that the United States was called upon to extirpate. This effort triggered a revival of interventionism, pursued heedless of cost and regardless of consequences, whether practical or moral. "In the Pentagon, they call this the Long War. With his decision to escalate the US military commitment to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama - effectively abandoning his promise to 'change the way Washington works' - has signaled his administration's commitment to the Long War." While war and terrorism have shaped much of the decade's political discourse and policymaking, for Fareed Zacharia, "The real trend of the decade has been the rise of China from a Third World nation to the second-most-important country on the planet." For the Nobel-prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, this was a decade that Americans should call the Big Zero. "What was truly impressive about the decade past... was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes. "Even as the dot-com bubble deflated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with facades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors believed banks' claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn't understand. Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers' expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage." In the New Statesman, John Gray wrote: "Ten years ago, the best and the brightest were believers in the 'Washington consensus' - the idea that the debt-fuelled free market that had existed in the US for little more than a decade was the only economic system consistent with the imperatives of modernity, and destined to spread universally. "It was not only the neocon right that believed this. Centre-left parties, whose historical role had been to set limits on free markets, bought in to this idea with enthusiasm. When Bill Clinton and Tony Blair embraced neoliberal economics, they did more than triangulate policies for the sake of electoral advantage. They endorsed the belief that a bubble engineered by Alan Greenspan at the end of the 1990s, when he lowered interest rates to artificial levels after the blow-up of a hedge fund, represented a new era in economic history. Both the triangulating politicians and many left-of-centre commentators became convinced that, for all practical purposes, neoliberal capitalism was indestructible. "For anyone with a sense of history, the idea that a post-cold-war bubble embodied a new world order was obviously absurd. The built-in instability of capitalism had not gone away - it had been accentuated, as the US and other western economies became ever more dependent on unsustainable debt." If this decade can be reduced to a phrase, the one used more than any other turned out to be "climate change". For Michael McCarthy, August 10, 2003, was a signal moment, marking not only what is now known to have been the warmest decade ever recorded but what he sees as a change in geological epochs: the end of the Holocene, the period of general climate stability since the ending of the last glaciation, the last ice age, within which human civilisation was able to emerge, and the beginning of the Anthropocene. "Anthropocene is the only word for the era we have entered now, and for me, that is what the years since the Millennium, the Noughties, have represented: its first decade. These years have increasingly manifested Anthropocene signs, from the emergence of a whole new island out of the dissolving ice of Greenland, to the discovery that there were Indian tiger reserves with no tigers left in them, from the new phenomenon of serious flooding which has afflicted Britain, to the first of the climate refugees leaving Africa in rags in rickety boats, from the opening of the north-west passage through the Arctic, to the slide towards extinction of the orang-utan in Indonesia, from the terrifying impact of the exploding Chinese economy on the natural world, to the sudden, deep pessimism about the future felt by James Lovelock, the first scientist who worked out how the earth regulates itself to support life, and who, constitutionally the most cheerful of souls, feels that with our excesses, we are turning that mechanism against us. "I confess I felt everyone would feel like this, when the ton was up, when the 100° Fahrenheit boundary was breached in Britain, so powerful did the symbolism seem; but maybe it was powerful only for me, since I resignedly recognise that what happened on 10 August 2003 appears to have left the population wholly unmoved. People noticed, and nodded, and promptly forgot all about it, and I am left on my own with my feeling - which remains unshakeable - that on a summer Sunday in London six years ago, with the creeping of the mercury past a particular point on an old-fashioned temperature scale, one of the greatest and most menacing shifts in the history of the Earth, the fragile blue sphere hanging in the darkness, was unmistakably signalled."

pwoodward@thenational.ae

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