The Lost Decade What the World Can Learn from 10 Years of Excesses
The first decade of the 21st century was marked by crises. Militant Islamists attacked New York, the financial system crashed, the climate is threatened by catastrophe and democracy lost some of its standing. All this put together has spelled a debacle for the West, although the Internet represents a ray of hope.
Philipp Blom is a man who knows something about the beginnings of centuries. He is sitting in Café Korb in Vienna, a place where time does not so much move as remain frozen in place. He is here to compare the beginning of the 21st century with the beginning of the 20th century.
Blom has written a wonderful book, "The Vertigo Years," about Europe in the years between 1900 and 1914, a period he describes as a nervous time. The pace had quickened, and new inventions, particularly the automobile and the telephone, condensed and accelerated life. It was overwhelming for many people, and "neurasthenia" or nervous exhaustion became the disorder of the age. Today we would talk about "burnout."
On the other hand, says Blom, it was a time of hope and utopian ideas. People looked forward to the future, and to a more affluent, equitable and pleasant world. Then the Great War began.
Blom sees both parallels and differences between that era and today. At the beginning of the 21st century, there has also been a surge of innovation that has condensed and accelerated life, he says, and this time new technology -- the Internet and, to an even greater degree, the combination of the Internet and the mobile phone -- is also the driving force behind change.
The difference, says Blom, is that the beginning of this century has not yielded any hope for the future. Blom utters a depressing sentence: "We don't want a future, we want a present that doesn't end." It isn't as if this present were so attractive, he says -- it's just that people are worried that things could get even worse.
In a few days, the first decade of the 21st century and of the third millennium will come to an end. It was a decade that began, not with a smooth transition into a new era but with a bang. It was a decade filled with crisis years: the 9/11 crisis, the climate crisis, the financial crisis and the crisis of democracy. Taken together, they represent a general crisis for the West. Things could hardly have gone any worse over the course of decade.
Ironically, the new decade began with great hopes. New Year's Eve 1999 was one of the biggest parties of all time. Money was available in abundance, because the Internet-driven "New Economy" promised new wealth. The Germans, who up until then had been known as über-cautious investors, were suddenly putting their money into stocks, which meant that they were optimistic.
At the end of 1999, the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research found that 55 percent of Germans were "hopeful" about the future, while only 14 percent were "fearful."
The West was dreaming, not only of wealth, but of eternal peace. People still believed the words of Francis Fukuyama, then-deputy director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, who famously wrote in 1992: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
But the new decade had hardly begun before the New Economy crashed and many stocks were suddenly worthless. Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, two airliners, hijacked by radical Islamists, crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. It was the end of the end of history.
The new decade was now on the road to becoming the lost decade: lost in terms of peace, wealth creation and democratization.
By the end of 2002, only 31 percent of Germans were hopeful about the future. By the end of 2008, that number had risen, but only to 34 percent.
Retreat into an Infantile World
The internationally most successful film of the decade was "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." Harry Potter was the most successful literary character. Both are children's stories that are also enjoyed by adults. We are withdrawing into an infantile world, in which attractive heroes conquer evil. The modern fairy tale is our response to a harsh world.
In the reality of the first decade, evil did not come from monsters but from our neighbors, who had no bad intentions. Our neighbors' stock market investments stoked the financial crisis, their SUVs contributed to the climate crisis, their abstention from voting to the crisis of democracy. And now their viruses are transmitting swine flu. With the exception of terrorists, the villains of the decade were innocents.
It also became clear that everyone is, in fact, everyone else's neighbor. It wasn't until the beginning of the 21st century that people realized what globalization really means. Chinese air pollution is a Dutch problem. The collapse of the American real estate market can cost a worker in the French chemical industry his or her job. In the climate and the financial system, everything is interconnected.
This interconnectedness is consistent with the way communication has brought humanity together. Mobile phones are everywhere, as is the Internet. Younger people, in particular, maintain dense networks of friends worldwide, using Twitter and Skype. Google enables anyone anywhere to gain access to virtually all of human knowledge. It is now possible to be kept informed about world events more or less in real time. And local knowledge is no longer the sole privilege of the residents of a given place. With the help of GPS, Google Earth and navigation systems, everyone can now be at home anywhere in the world.
The world has become a very small place in the first decade of the new millennium. Everyone is now a global citizen, whether they live in rural Germany or in New York City. Everyone can be reached everywhere by almost everything, by news or love letters, by the consequences of toxic financial products, by the consequences of climate change or by human bombs originating in some remote corner of Waziristan.
This is the world at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a world marked by four serious crises -- and a technological development that nourishes hope.