In the 1990s I toured a facility storing six million cubic feet of nuclear waste in tunnels dug from a self-sealing salt bed half a mile beneath the barren New Mexico desert. The US Department of Energy was also developing elaborate plans to alert future generations that something immensely dangerous was buried below – a ring of huge granite pillars, a great earthen barrier and randomly buried discs, all inscribed with warnings in seven languages and skull-and-crossbones pictograms lest, centuries hence, those languages were dead.
At first sight, the measures seemed superfluous because they implied our civilisation might not survive. But then it struck me that New Mexico was littered with the abandoned pueblos of Indian cultures that doubtless thought they would last forever.
More recently I have reported from countries such as Zimbabwe, Syria and Libya, and seen first-hand how rapidly relatively prosperous and seemingly stable societies can be destroyed by human agency. There is, I learned, no immutable rule that says progress is inevitable and cannot be reversed.
We have been fortunate in the West. For most of our lives we have had serious and responsible leaders. We have lived in countries that have, in general, grown steadily richer, safer, healthier, better educated and more tolerant over the last 70 years. But I am beginning to wonder whether that era is over, and whether our extraordinarily blessed societies are entering long-term decline. We still think of today’s dark times as a temporary state of affairs from which we will eventually recover and return to the status quo ante, but why are we so sure?
What if – the latest revelations about his tax avoidance notwithstanding – Donald Trump is re-elected in November and continues to sneer at science, education and democratic norms; to undermine those multinational institutions such as Nato and the United Nations that have done so much to maintain peace since the Second World War; to withdraw from treaties, break alliances, coddle dictators, give Russia free rein and wage trade wars with China, whose unspoken partnership with the US has powered the global economic boom of the past two decades?
Worse, what if Trump loses but refuses to accept the result, opting instead to encourage violence and incite anarchy by pitting one half of the heavily armed and increasingly dis-United States against the other? On the right and the left, self-styled militias are already girding for battle.
Here in Britain we have no chance of removing our uniquely inept and reckless government for at least four years, and not even then, perhaps, given how hard it has become for Labour to win a parliamentary majority following its collapse in Scotland.
We still think the Covid-19 pandemic will pass, but what if the government fails to deliver even a halfway plausible test and trace system? What if it takes another year or two or three to discover a vaccine, and the government continues to flounder between the conflicting imperatives of saving lives and saving the economy while imperilling both?
By then the damage is likely to be profound and irreversible. Unemployment may rise above three million, bringing with it the very real possibility of social unrest. Our national debt, which has already reached a record £2trn, will be exorbitant. Our cities will be hollowed out, our high streets decimated. The provision of decent social services may no longer be affordable. What we still like to think of as normal life – holidays abroad, spectator sports, celebrations, parties, evenings out at theatres, cinemas or pubs – will be a distant memory.
Covid-19 poses the greatest threat to our physical, mental and material well-being since the war, but no matter. Johnson and his fellow ideologues still insist on simultaneously pursuing the greatest gamble with Britain’s future that any government has taken in living memory – Brexit. With or without a deal, ready or not, we will be leaving the European Union practically as well as legally in just over 90 days.
It is conceivable that Johnson will be proved right when he proclaims that we will “prosper mightily” outside the EU, and that we’re “once again going to believe in ourselves and what we can do, and like some slumbering giant we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity”.
But what if he’s not? What if the great majority of economic experts are correct and Brexit cuts several more percentage points from GDP? What if a new wave of protectionism sweeps the world just as we have wilfully excluded ourselves from its largest trading bloc? What if Britain’s ill-prepared and Covid-battered businesses simply collapse under the added burden of tariffs, disrupted supply lines and restricted access to markets? What if foreign investment dries up and huge employers such as Nissan, Honda and Airbus abandon the UK?
At the same time, the government seems to be hell-bent on undermining those institutions that have long been forces of stability. It is seeking to bypass parliament, rein in the judiciary and politicise both the civil service and the BBC. It may yet destroy the 300-year-old Union with Scotland.
There is, of course, another danger to life as we know it that makes Covid-19 and Brexit seem mere trifles. Climate change poses an existential threat to humanity. It is already causing extreme destruction and disruption across the planet. The tipping point beyond which it passes the point of no return grows ever closer, but for the most part our preoccupied governments look away.
Johnson would call me a “doomster and gloomster”. I look at my infant grandchildren and pray that he is right.