Are global issues keeping you awake at night? We take a view on modern day anxieties and try to make sense of them
Is fear now just a fact of modern life?
Watch any regular news service or lock into social-media feeds and the likelihood is that you will be bombarded with reports, tweets and posts likely to raise your pulse.
As United States president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un exchange rhetoric about the possible use of nuclear missiles daily, and popular tourist sites fall victim to terrorist outrages, the world’s population sits on the edge of its seat watching developments, fearing the effects to life as we know it.
Add news of natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and concerns over the likely effects of rising temperatures, and it’s hardly surprising that we all begin to worry about the world our children will inherit.
According to psychologists, these reactions are normal and can be managed, but in a modern-day environment where hashtags drive discussion and fear is conjured from different corners of the internet, it is not easy to avoid feeling worried and a rising sense of helplessness. With sleepless nights becoming more common, we’ve asked our experts whether we should be afraid of modern life.
Globalisation and Alienation
Uncertainty is a term that renowned German sociologist Ulrich Beck employed to describe mankind’s plight as such in the late 20th century.
Though first formulated in the 1980s, an expanded version of it is still relevant today – perhaps even more on the mark.
It is the angst, disorientation, and anxiety that we experience in what Beck calls our “risk societies”. The heightened risks we experience and react to stem from the centrifugal forces of modernisation and globalisation that play havoc with the certainties people had in past generations.
Then, we were organised in church communities or labour unions, or simply more secure as a result of the social safety net that existed to catch those who fell through the cracks.
We knew what to expect. In late modernity’s dynamic and unpredictable conditions, we are on our own, and it is up to us to make sense of it all, which the ordinary person can’t.
Technology in the 1980s hadn’t come as far then as it dominates our life now, but Beck grasped its upending of our certainties and the way it speeds up our lives.
Writing in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, Beck emphasises the unpredictability of man-made disasters, which pertains to climate change today, as if made for it.
The media is critical as it reveals and publicises the soaring risks we face: from nuclear power and the threat of nuclear war, but also the kind of economic insecurity that globalisation has amplified for many people. Capitalism, today in its rawest, neoliberal form, has proved itself even less dependable than in Beck’s day: financial crashes, irregular and unpredictable soaring and plummeting of the stock markets, which hold just about everyone’s pension in one way or another. And in the age of the internet information comes at us so much faster, making it even harder to make sense of.
Moreover, Beck saw the alienation and anomie of risk society leading ordinary people to irrational conclusions, for example the extreme populists movement that offered explanations, even if irrational, to make sense of the chaos.
Today, we see exactly this happening on a mass scale: in the US with Donald Trump’s election, with the rise of far-right populists in Europe and the attractiveness of fundamentalism to some young Muslims. The first two explain the precarious condition of today’s white populations as the result of immigrants and minorities rather than the ever more unstable nature of neo-liberal economies. And it is far easier to scapegoat “the other” rather than rethink our economic systems. This high-risk reality has become so much a part of our normal that neo-liberalism seems to be able to bounce back, no matter how egregious its periodic financial crises. Its risk is more acceptable than that of trying something new. - Paul Hockenos
A changing climate
Climate change happens everywhere, but will it happen for everyone? Where you live on Earth, how wealthy you (and your country) are, your age and state of health and a large dose of fate will decide just how violently climate change becomes part of your life.
There are the most vulnerable. In the low-lying Pacific atolls of the Marshall Islands or Kiribati, climate change is in no way an abstraction. They, and thousands of islands like them, are already enduring the slow-motion disaster of sea-level rises.
The UN’s climate-science panel has predicted that the poor and those living around the equator are going to suffer the most from the effects of climate change.
Last week, we saw what that means. Coinciding storms hit South Asia and the US, yet the death tolls – thousands in developing India, scores in the wealthy US – were incomparable. It was the starkest possible example of how poverty leaves communities exposed to the type of extreme weather predicted to become more frequent as the climate changes.
Even so, Hurricane Harvey showed that even the rich world will not be safe. In my home in Tasmania, Australia, the forests are drying out and we live in fear of a mega-fire.
Roughly 50 years is the time frame in which climate change will really begin to show its teeth – unless we rapidly speed up carbon-emission cuts now. In the Gulf, by 2070, life-threatening heatwaves that send temperatures beyond 50°C will have become so common they will be considered the new average.
That is either after, or towards, the end of many of our lives. Many people living today, especially those in wealthy countries, might count themselves unlucky to have their lives ended or destroyed by a global warming-driven weather event.
But when we ask ourselves if we should be concerned about climate change, are we really comfortable using a definition so narrow? That just because we are ourselves and not poor, from an atoll, a farmer or our children, that we needn’t worry?
This is the issue more than any other that is most likely to define the cluster of generations currently alive. We have every technology we need to turn the wheel of carbon emissions. Renewable energy, battery storage and electric vehicles are no longer futuristic, but irrepressible. Our governments must now decide to run headlong toward them.
In the future, no one will care about today’s political craziness that gnaws at our attention. The only thing our children will be worried about is whether we acted when we could. - Karl Mathiesen
The cost of good health
First, the good news. Thanks to improvements in diet, raised awareness of healthier living and advances in medicine, almost everywhere in the world, people are living longer lives.
According to the World Health Organisation, between 2000 and 2015, global average life expectancy for newborn babies increased by five years, to 71.4 years. It varies depending on where you are born. Average life expectancy is worst in Sierra Leone (50.1 years) and best in Japan (83.7 years). But most Europeans born today will live to celebrate at least their 80th birthday, while with an average longevity of 77.1 years, citizens of the UAE are only two years behind their counterparts in the US (79.3 years).
But that good news isn’t all it seems. Living longer than our forebears might sound like a good thing, but it comes at a two costs: one physical, the other financial.
Lurking behind the life-expectancy figures is another statistic, known to public-health planners and insurance actuaries as Hale: Health Adjusted Life Expectancy. Remember that Japanese baby, who can expect to live to 83? Almost the last decade of that life will be spent in increasingly poor health. Likewise, the average Emirati living to 77 will be endure reduced quality of life from at least 68.
Reported increases in cancer rates have a simple explanation, says Cancer Research UK: “most of us are living longer” and we all die of something – and that something is frequently cancer.
The gap between length of life and bearable life is only likely to grow as medical advances continue to keep alive people who only a generation or so ago would have died of natural causes while still living comparatively active, independent and enjoyable lives.
The existential question this poses – is living longer all it is cracked up to be? – is troubling enough. But more pressing for everyone alive today is its companion dilemma: can you, or the society in which you live, afford for you to carry on living past your allotted three score years and 10?
Depending where you live in the world, that cost will fall upon you, your pension and health-care provider and/or the state. It is no secret that in many developed economies, such as in the US and the UK, the cost is fast becoming insupportable.
The flip side is the shortchanging reality of what medical professionals call “co-morbidities” – a list, ever-lengthening as we age, of health problems. Diabetes, obesity, heart and lung problems, failing joints, weakening eyesight and decaying mental capacities – each one adds to the burden, and the cost, of living.
Many of these problems can be delayed or avoided entirely by healthy living. But act now – it is never too early to turn your health around, but it can be too late. According to research carried out for Public Health England, being healthy in middle age can double your chance of being in good shape at 70. Leave it much longer than your early 50s, however, and your health is likely to be in an irrecoverable nosedive. - Jonathan Gornall
North Korean nukes
I have worked on Korea for decades, visiting the South often. Yet I have never lived there. Why? Family reasons, mainly. But also, I confess, a smidgen of cowardice.
The ironically named Demilitarised Zone has long been the planet’s most heavily armed frontier. So it remains, now with added nukes.
Since the 1953 Armistice ended three years of savage war – four million people died – the peninsula has been at peace for 64 years. Yet with North Korea almost unremittingly hostile, I never felt entirely able to rule out some new conflagration – perhaps by accident or miscalculation.
South Koreans are far more blasé. Having the North next door hardly impinges on everyday life, so most ignore it. They’re also reacting against past military dictatorships, which fomented a sense of threat by enforcing curfews and air-raid drills. Last month, when the South held a now-rare drill, many folk on the street hadn’t a clue – or got stroppy and kept walking.
When Kim Jong-un tests yet another nuke or missile, does the average person in Seoul rush to the shops to stock up on dried noodles? They do not. Even the stock market rarely wobbles.
I pray that their insouciance is correct. It probably is, but this year, I am getting more anxious. Pyongyang has always provoked, but Kim is taking this to extremes. Nor is it clear what he wants. His father and grandfather, by contrast, knew when to throw their foes a sop.
And handling this threat, we have Donald Trump, who rants, snarls, tweets and contradicts himself, but where is the policy?
Threat begets threat, and sanctions alone aren’t working. My fear is that this reckless chicken game could spiral out of control. Amid all the heated rhetoric of massive force, if one side believes the other will actually attack, we risk a self-fulfilling prophecy – and a nuclear cataclysm.
The Economist recently modelled this, in a grim cover story headlined “It could happen”. On the basis of their scenario, just two Northern nuclear-armed missiles penetrating the South’s defensive shield would kill 300,000 people at once, with many more succumbing to radiation. North Korea would lose – but we would all lose, with horrific casualties and a deep global recession.
Diplomacy is urgently needed, but none is in sight. The protagonists each fear loss of face.
In previous Korean crises, as a pundit, I have felt able in good conscience to be reassuring: it is mostly shadowboxing, smoke and mirrors, don’t worry. This time feels potentially different, given the reckless leadership in both Pyongyang and Washington. Can it go on like this?
The coward in me is glad to be far from Korea – but sad, and anxious that this long-suffering people, who have built so much, might once again be plunged into conflict and catastrophe. - Aidan Foster-Carter
The Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, London, is a mall with a particular niche in modern British history.
Built near the site of the 2012 London Olympic Games, it is one part of the legacy of the sporting extravaganza. To an unusual degree, the London Olympics are seen as a success because the area around the venue remains vibrant. The investment is widely seen as a good use of public resources.
The mall itself is popular. So much so that when I visited on a Monday in early June, I had to drive seven floors up inside the multi-storey car park to find a vacant slot. Once inside, as I walked past a parade of all-too familiar British shops, I was gripped by the feeling that I did not want to be there.
This was not a yearning to be anywhere else but on a shopping expedition. Rather, I found myself imagining a complex terror attack: gunmen parking their car, entering from different levels, removing weapons from bags and marching around firing at the crowds of shoppers.
In my own career, I have often covered such incidents – my takeaway from the Mumbai siege was that if I was caught up in a similar event, I would double lock the hotel-room door and wait in the bath until a rescue occurred.
The roll-call of such outrages on civilian targets is now long and, in many instances, there is a point of personal connection.
The most recent assault was in Barcelona on an avenue that I had walked along in December, as unthinking as the victims had been last month.
Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA, warned in the aftermath of Barcelona that the risk of such attacks was growing as perpetrators learn from the past to put more organisation and planning into their plots.
“I hate being the one who says this, but it might teach us something about the limits of our ability to prevent things like this,” he said.
It should not be true, but the random misfortune of being caught up in terrorist attack intensifies the tragedy. As the pace of attacks in Europe has intensified, it is becoming more difficult for the authorities to pinpoint future attacks and conspiracies.
Less a week after that visit to the Westfield came the London Bridge attack outside the building where I then worked. I could look down from the office window by my desk and see the point at the end of the bridge where the van had stopped after running over pedestrians. A colleague was clipped on the hand as it swerved across the road.
Close encounters – real not imagined – like these are statistically rare. But experience shows the risk for all us is growing. - Damien McElroy