Age of Insecurity

The list of the summer’s upheavals was already long enough – the Oslo shootings, the England riots, the car burnings in Berlin – when Hurricane Irene roared up the U.S. East Coast and slammed into New York City. It shut down airports, train stations and the subway system and left 400,000 people without power, while causing the evacuation of some 770,000 in low-lying areas of the city and Long Island.

Even while the storm was still raging, the debate on the role of climate change was all over the Internet. Most now see the connection as unavoidable, citing the 2009 U.S. “Global Climate Change Impacts Study” that identified warmer oceans as causing Atlantic hurricanes to become more intense and dangerous (  And while some, like Adam Frank of National Public Radio (NPR) see the science of causation in this case as ambiguous, just the measurably higher sea level alone makes coastal communities in any storm more vulnerable.

The insurance companies know what the numbers are telling them: Munich Re, one of the principle insurers of the most recent earthquake in Australia, said 2010 was one of the warmest years since 1850 and featured the second-highest number of loss-related weather catastrophes since it started keeping data in 1980.

So what does this have to do with shootings, riots and car burning? Or the teetering financial systems in both the United States and Europe?

“We are entering an age of insecurity – of economic insecurity, political insecurity and physical insecurity,” warned the late historian Tony Judt in his prescient 2010 book, Ill Fares the Land.

In the 18 months since, safe to say, we have fully arrived. There has been so much going on, in fact, that the Fukishima, Japan earthquake and nuclear power plant disaster in March already feel like a long time ago.

Diverse as these crises seem, they can all be traced in important ways to the 30-year experiment in deregulation, a love affair with free-market philosophies, in which government, particularly in the U.S. and the U.K, has been demonised and its controls dismantled. What is perhaps the most frightening is how routine it has all become – both the attitudes and the political paralysis that accompanies them.

“The fact that we are unaware of [the change] is small comfort,” commented Judt. “Few in 1914 predicted the utter collapse of their world and the economic and political catastrophes that followed.” In Vienna, this should be a meaningful analogy: Here, the cataclysm of the Great War still feels like a recent memory, as does the shattering dissolution of remarkable society and a political culture that for most of its citizens worked far better than anything that has followed.

“Insecurity breeds fear,” Judt wrote. “And fear – fear of change, fear of decline, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world – is corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest.”


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