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A Low, Dishonest Decade

Eighty years ago, the poet W.H. Auden wrote that “Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth.” Like Auden in 1939, we must accept the possibility that things could become far worse than they already are.

MUMBAI – I write this not as a professional economist, nor as a policymaker, but as a citizen of a tiny planet that is spinning through a vast universe that we barely understand. I write this “As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade,” and as “Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth.” It was 80 years ago that W.H. Auden wrote those lines, in his poem “September 1, 1939.” We find ourselves in a similar position today.

As the current decade draws to a close, large parts of the world are mired in conflict, stable democracies have suddenly been knocked off kilter, and societies are increasingly divided by race, religion, and political ideology. And as the planet warms, millions of people are feeling compelled to move elsewhere in search of survival and opportunity. But new barriers, born of a renascent nationalism and narrow tribalism, are increasingly standing in their way.

I am not foolish enough to be certain that this will all pass. The world may not, in fact, turn back from the brink of political and environmental disaster, and continue to prosper and grow, just because it did so in the past. As Bertrand Russell cautioned about the dangers of such inductive reasoning, in The Problems of Philosophy, “The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.” Like Auden in 1939, we must accept the possibility that things could become far worse than they already are.

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