Friday, September 24, 2021

Adulthood

António Figueira, Director European Economic and Social Committee

Glory to the wise madmen, who have the courage to preach in the desert and be right before their own time!

Eighteen years are many, enough for a person to become an adult. But they may also account for practically nothing: the ages of the earth run into the millions of years and, on this scale, eighteen springs are but a miniscule fraction. The current epoch of the earth is the Anthropocene, the period when man clearly impacts on the earth (for the worse as is known), but eighteen years ago it seems as though this was hardly known, exclusively to a few of the wise madmen. Glory be to the wise madmen with the courage to preach in the desert and be right before their own time!

Should you pick up a newspaper from eighteen years ago and compare it with a contemporary: today, the climate crisis is all over; there is finally a widespread notion of the need to urgently act to save the earth. There are universal promises of ‘green deals’ – and eighteen years ago, climate change was a mute issue; it would seem as though we literally live on another planet… After all, is eighteen years a long or a short period of time? Is what matters the time that effectively passes or the impressions that time makes as it passes by?

For younger readers, we might recall that “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore, which unquestionably awoke the world to the warning of the crisis that would come to define our epoch, undoubtedly one of the great manifestos in the history of humanity – is now only fifteen years of age: when the book was released in 2006, Greta Thunberg was but three years of age… And for the more forgetful, we should also recall how Al Gore came to Portugal in as early as February 2007 to present his “Truth” at the invitation of an agency that is now commemorating reaching adulthood…

As close as 2003 might seem – the year we are here commemorating not only for being that of the birth of Greta but also for the founding of CV&A – this year already belongs to another era, which took place according to a different paradigm. In 2003, there were conflicts just as there are today, both within and between societies; they have certainly changed, modified and taken on other forms, with other actors, other correlations of strengths and that have remained an essential part of the landscape. In 2003, there were also discs, faxes, Blackberries… – that are today on their way into museums because technological innovation has advanced and always at a constantly accelerating pace – but what we have today is more of the same, USB drives, emails and iPhones, and this is not what fundamentally makes the difference.

What is truly distinct, new and transformative is the generalisation – and simultaneously the internalisation, the individual awareness – of the understanding of the limits to our economic growth model, its non-sustainability, the essential nature of finitude rendered clear by the climate crisis and by the Covid-19 pandemic. Humanity as the rediscovery of its fragility – and it is clear that the dawning of this understanding did not only have consequences in the high spheres of philosophy but came to interfere very directly and concretely in the lives of people and societies: not only because climate changes bring colossal costs to societies, as also do pandemics, as we indeed all know, because now everything – literally everything – has to be henceforth approached in accordance with this new awareness and the framework of this new paradigm.

There is for example the circulation of people: whether due to the concomitant circulation of the virus or the environmental costs of air transport, it would seem clear that air travel is not going to boom again any time in the near future. The end of these simple habits, in reach of the European middle class, weekend tourism in a foreign capital or a holiday week in s sun-rich destination, are going to impact heavily on aviation and tourism and everything that is upstream and downstream of these sectors. However, furthermore, and far more profoundly: this shall shape future chains of production, raising the tendency for their renationalisation (or “re-Europeanisation” in the EU case) and bringing about a limited type of de-globalisation while interfering with the greatest question hanging over international economic relationships (and, therefore, tout court international relations): the scope and depth of the ongoing relationship between the West and China throughout this century.

All the digitalisation projects of an economy contain a purely competitive dimension, understandably seeking to prevent competitors getting ahead – but also maintaining the climate in the background of everything, the idea not just of shortening but rather of overcoming distances and hence eliminating travel, contamination, transport, CO2 emissions… E-commerce, remote-working… there were practically no references being made in 2003: today, in contrast, they’re everywhere and everybody has experienced them – and with the trend clearly towards their continued growth and not the inverse.

“Sustainability” became a cliché years ago and now accompanied by “resilience”; a word that was endowed with renewed meaning in Portuguese following its copying from the English (even if long existing in Portuguese dictionaries as any engineer knows so well) as this extended not only to the name getting copied but also to the substance of resilience. This requires an understanding of the constraints that nature (including human nature) place on economic development – as clearly, the economy should serve humanity and not the latter that should be paying tribute to the former. And holding the will to contemplate the great world of apparently useless and inconvenient ideas and not being afraid of having reason before time or to be swimming against the tide. There are just so many truths that we have acquired that are going to end up on the garbage heap of history!

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