On 19 April 1906, an apocalyptic fire engulfed San Francisco. One day earlier an earthquake had toppled buildings, uprooted utility poles, and disrupted the water supply. Scores of smaller fires across the city had joined into a raging conflagration that consumed whole districts and looked set to leave the entire city as a single smoking ruin.
In a book called The Upside of Down Thomas Homer Dixon recounts the city’s dramatic rearguard action. Soldiers, policemen, fire engines and municipal employees gathered along a sixteen-block section of Van Ness Avenue desperately resolved to save what was left of the city. For hours they used dynamite and artillery to destroy some of the city’s most luxurious homes and public buildings – the New York Times correspondent recalled a scene of “stupendous and appalling havoc” – in order to make a firebreak. During the evening it was unclear whether the plan had succeeded since the fire seemed to rage on. But early the next day it was spent. Only a few small, easily extinguishable fires remained. Hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans were left without food or shelter and there was a risk of famine and epidemics, but the city was able to start its recovery.
For many people, 2017 has felt like a series of earthquakes and fires, and the dysfunction and occasional collapse of institutions on both sides of the Atlantic has produced more than a few scenes of “stupendous and appalling havoc.” While maverick populists have assumed control of countries as diverse as the Philippines, Hungary, India and the USA, progressive politics seems to have lost its momentum – a situation that has driven many liberals into a state of unremitting anxiety or outrage.
Brexit and Trump are the most vivid symbols of the new dispensation, but these political upsets are arguably part of a much wider pattern of discontent. With retrospect both clearly relied on fault lines that emerged during the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, crises that revealed a profound contempt for social and economic elites, and widespread exasperation at globalisation’s unequal outcomes. Similar anger has informed campaigns like the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements as they have exposed racism and sexism in “mature democracies” on an industrial scale.
The Biblical devastation of San Francisco, writes Thomas Homer Dixon, “would also produce some good.” Not only did it lead to “a rejuvenated city” it set off “a wave of events that would sweep around the world and [eventually] help create the Federal Reserve System of the United States… an essential defense against financial panic, and one of the most important new institutions of the twentieth century.” Reflecting on turbulence that ended less well – such as the crises that brought about the fall of the Roman Empire – Homer Dixon warns that: “If we try to keep things largely the way they are, our societies will become progressively more complex and rigid and, in turn, progressively less creative and able to cope with sudden crises and shocks.”
As with San Francisco, our recent crises have cleared space for new forms of social and political engagement, and they have laid the foundations for a newly vigilant and empowered citizenry, one that mobilizes against perceived injustices and shenanigans, regardless of whether these come in the form of parking meters, immigration bans, lies about the cost of a national health service, or undisclosed signing bonuses.
Even so, it has often been hard to register a sense of progress. One reason for this is the way that news, especially when it’s bad, rains down on us through the new technology. On Twitter and Facebook, Emperor Trump always seems poised to issue a new threat or gaffe, or to abscond for a round of golf while the Republic is burning. Elsewhere there seems to be an unending stream of terrorist attacks, financial crises and ecological disasters. Too often the news sounds like a fire drill, preparing us for scenarios that never arise.
In a BBC interview recorded three months ago, former US President Barack Obama spoke of the danger that the internet can separate people into “entirely different realities” and “[cocoon them] in information that reinforces their current biases.” He suggested that one challenge for millennials, like his interviewer, Prince Harry, was how to “harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanization of society…”
In the wake of this “unpresidented” year (a word that Trump, with perfect irony, created last December while criticising Obama), that challenge seems more important than ever. In the months ahead, we must learn how to winnow out the gifts of the new technology from its tendency to foster groupthink, hive minds and political cocoons. In a thoughtful essay about how he belatedly grasped the full extent of his own “white privilege” historian Max Boot makes this point memorably. Musing on the potentially fatal consequences for African American men of “infractions like jaywalking or speeding or selling cigarettes without tax stamps,” Boot writes, “I am ashamed to admit I did not realize what a serious and common problem this was until the videotaped evidence emerged. The iPhone may well have done more to expose racism in modern-day America than the NAACP.”
2017 has shown us all that is wrong with our cultural, economic, environmental, social and political arrangements. And it has also shown up the terrible consequences of ill-considered and hasty solutions to these problems. One of the most urgent challenges for the year ahead is how to contain and extinguish the current fires while clearing the way for a recovery.