In many ways the 21st Century is a fortunate time to be alive. We have money. We have food. We have shelter. We have medicine. We have little risk of dying in battle or being murdered. Yet this relative peace and prosperity obscures the astonishing risks that we have taken with our societal future.
Modernity has involved a lot of gambling, on privatisation, free trade, supranational institutions and the technologisation of the economy. Some of these bets have paid off, at least in the short term. But I fear that we have become addicts: gambling with higher and higher stakes in an attempt to keep our run of success going.
Here are just some of the bets that Western nations have been making:
- That our technological ingenuity will create solutions to resource shortages and environmental damage.
- That medical innovation will exceed the development of antibiotic resistant diseases.
- That historically separate and often hostile cultures will integrate peacefully and efficiently.
- That an ever ageing population will meet or transcend its social care requirements.
- That weapons of mass destruction will not be deployed – or, at least, will not be deployed by superpowers against each other.
- That artificial intelligences will be used or, indeed, will conduct themselves for the benefit of mankind.
Different people can of course have different opinions on the wisdom of these bets but I think some things are unarguable: that predictions of success transcend the available data and that the results of losing would be monumental. We are gambling all we have and the odds are high.
We cannot truly break our gambling addiction. So invested are we in complex international systems that attempting to change policies involves severe risks. The invasion of Iraq, for example, was a high-stakes bet made with startlingly reckless abandon. Leaving Iraq, however, was also a gamble, and one that arguably failed as Iraq’s government could not prevent the rise of ISIS. More recently Brexit was an ambitious bet, made, it appears, with little knowledge of the stakes involved.
The world is so complex as to resist analogical elegance. It is difficult to estimate the risks and rewards of different ambitions. But there are questions we can and should ask. Are they precedented? Are their predictions substantiated? Is it imperative that their aims be achieved? Will their effects be temporary or will they endure? In my view it is important that we try to curtail our gambling habits with more realism and humility. What I fear is that failure will encourage more desperate ambition.