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The 50 people who matter today: 21-30

21-30 on our diverse list of individuals, couples and families changing the world, for good and ill.

21.Jimmy Wales

The Wiki man

Wales set up the biggest encyclopaedia ever compiled and revolutionised the way content is generated on the internet. His website Wikipedia established one of the first successful examples of "user-generated content" on the web, allowing visitors to the site to submit and edit articles. Wikipedia has more than ten million articles and reported 7.5 million unique users in August this year. Last year, Wales was called to meet with China's State Council Information Office to open dialogue on censorship. Unlike the internet heavies at Google, he has refused to submit a censored version of his site to China and continues to champion the model of collaborative, uncensored web publishing.

22. Amartya Sen

Nobel economist and thinker

If intellectuals "matter" insofar as they influence politicians and policymakers, then the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen certainly does. When Nicolas Sarkozy declared recently that quality of life matters as much as GDP, he was channelling Sen. And when Brit­ish politicians argue that inequalities of "capability" matter as much as inequalities of income and wealth, they are rehashing one of Sen's most influential academic papers. His workhas also been vindicated by recent events: long before the crash of 2008 made the case for proper regulation of the financial sector irresistible, Sen was arguing that market economies are not free-standing, self-correcting mechanisms.

23. Viktor Bout

Lord of war

A former military officer, 42-year-old Viktor Bout built up a fleet of aircraft after the collapse of the Soviet Union and went on to become the world's largest arms smuggler, supplying some of the most unsavoury groups and regimes on the planet, including Colombia's Farc rebels, the former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and Libya's Colonel Gaddafi. Or so say his opponents, notably the US, which has been trying to extradite him from Thailand for over a year. Some of his assets have been frozen, Interpol has issued a warrant for his arrest, and he has been the subject of UN sanctions. But according to his website he is just a "normal businessman striving for success".

24: Ashfaq Kayani

Pakistan's fighting chance

The government has repeatedly claimed that three in every four terror plots here in the UK have links back to al-Qaeda in Pakistan - where General Ashfaq Kayani, head of the Pakistan army, is the man responsible for the battle against the jihadists. He is also leading the fight against the Taliban along the country's border with Afghanistan, managing ongoing tensions with neighbouring India, and is in charge of securing his country's arsenal of roughly 90 nuclear warheads. To say his is a big job is an understatement of epic proportions.

In a country blighted by military dictatorships, where stability is threatened by Islamist militants, Kayani and his troops remain the dominant power. So far, however, he has stopped the army from meddling in politics. It was Kayani who ordered military officers to withdraw from their lucrative posts in civilian ministries and who kept his soldiers out of sight during the February 2008 elections. And it was Kayani who allowed the opposition to move against the then president, Pervez Musharraf, letting it be known there would be no military action to defend him.

A former chief of the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Kayani has been instrumental in brokering various deals that have dominated Pakistani politics. He is close to all major players - a confidant of Musharraf, the Bhutto family and the Pentagon. A quiet man, he tends to avoid the limelight. But given how many army chiefs have become president, he may not keep a low profile for long.
Mehdi Hasan

25. Warren Buffett

The philanthrope

With an estimated net worth of $62bn (£38bn), Warren Buffett - one of the most successful investors in history - regularly takes the top slot on the Forbes rich list. The "Oracle of Omaha" warned in 2003 that credit derivatives were "financial weapons of mass destruction"; his exceptional financial insight has led to his being touted as a possible future treasury secretary by Barack Obama, whose campaign he backed. He has invested hundreds of millions in eco-initiatives, and pledged to give away 85 per cent of his fortune to philanthropic causes.

26.Pope Benedict XVI

Papa Ratzi

The former Cardinal Ratzinger has always been a stern guard of Catholic doctrine: he ran what used to be the Holy Office of the Inquisition for more than 20 years and led the campaign against "liberation theology". But, as Pope Bene­dict XVI, he has gone even further. He reintroduced the Latin Tridentine Mass and lifted the excommunication on members of a renegade sect that includes a "bishop" who denies the Holocaust - suggesting to some that the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council were in danger of being reversed. He may lack his predecessor's charisma, but Benedict XVI still claims the allegiance of the world's more than a billion Catholics - one-sixth of the global population.

27. Jairam Ramesh

Green giant

Western diplomats credit Ramesh, India's new environment minister, with "getting" the scale of the climate change crisis, and - having been a long-time adviser to the Congress leader, Sonia Gandhi (no 31) - as key to India's crucial role in sealing a deal at December's COP15 summit. A former television anchor, he occasionally writes for the Times of India.

28. Ingvar Kamprad

Leader of the flat-pack

Why does Ingvar Kamprad matter? Well, the chances are that you're sitting on the evidence. Or lying on it, drinking from it, or storing your kitchen utensils in it. Kamprad is the 83-year-old founder of Ikea, the home furnishings giant that has come to dominate the way our homes and offices look. His "flat-pack" approach to furniture sales is integral to 21st-century capitalism: a system that promises choice and simplicity but where, in the end, the individual does all the work and the large multinational corporations pocket the cash.

29. Gordon Brown

Recession proof

He is insulted by Tories, battered by events and undermined in his own party. But on the international stage Gordon Brown has been credited with preventing recession turning to depression, and leading the economic fightback with his dramatic "fiscal stimulus" and bank bailout programmes. The Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman concluded that Brown, along with Alistair Darling, had "defined the character of the worldwide rescue effort". Although Britain's influence in the world is a fraction of what it once was, Brown's continued troop ­deployment in Afghanistan retains influence with Washington, and the UK still has the fifth-largest economy in the world.

30. Amr Khaled

Head preacher

Amr Khaled commands a larger television audience than Oprah Winfrey. His shows, broadcast on a Saudi-owned TV station throughout the Middle East, tell simple, often emotional stories about Islam. Their message is peaceful and uplifting - but also deeply conservative. Khaled is considered as responsible for large numbers of Egyptian women choosing to wear the hijab; and despite his fervent condemnation of Osama Bin Laden, not all are convinced that his influence is benign.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood