The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as described in the bizarre Book of Revelation, and charging forth on their white, red, black and pale steeds are commonly supposed to represent Conquest, War, Famine and Death. A pretty gruesome quartet! To a writer in the Mediterranean region two thousand years ago, and living under the whip of a gruesome Roman Empire, those four facts of life were pretty accurate for those times. However, “Conquest” and “War” are rather too similar, so let me describe “Conquest” more specifically as conquest by unfriendly viruses and bacteria. Actually, this revised version — Disease, War, Famine and Death — pretty accurately describes the daily fears of millions of people in the world today.
And, in truth, they’re not so very far removed from the fears of people in advanced countries either! But they’re rather too brutal to face them directly so let me (brutally!) repress them and replace them with what I think are Four Relevant Horsemen which thoughtful people, particularly politicians and economists, ought to be dwelling on.
1. The lack of a stable world-wide trading currency. The two existing predominant trading currencies, the US dollar and the Eurozone euro are hosted and printed by governments which are technically bankrupt as well as many, if not most, of their synergistic financial institutions. To quote Sir Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, two or three days ago: “The world faces a worst financial disaster than at any time in history.”
2. World overpopulation and consequent resource shortages, of which recyclable freshwater for agriculture has been the first to hit us. Inevitably this will mean steadily higher food prices for all in the advanced countries from now onwards (and proportionately more starvation for many others).
3. The steadily increasing automation of mass consumer goods and services is causing a growing skills gap between interesting, well-paid, value-adding jobs and the remainder. The notion of full employment started dying two or three decades ago has now gone forever, and real average wages (taking inflation into account) have been declining pari passu. Long-term unemployment by the middle-aged has been growing as is, more recently, the beginning of lifetime unemployment by an increasing number of illiterate and innumerate young from our dysfunctional state schools.
4. All countries are now proceeding towards a remarkably similar, highly-dense urban way of life which is characterized by a stabilized range of consumer goods and services subject only to marginal improvements. The great “assembly chain” of uniquely new consumer goods that energized the industrial-consumer revolution of the last 300 years has now become something more like an airport carousel.
A modern Apocalypse? Not necessarily. We’ll probably adapt to whatever the economic and ecological environments impose on us. Periods of enforced stabilization have happened before in many previous civilizations. Sooner or later — with any luck — we will have a break-out and a new pattern of daily life will emerge. My own view is that the break-outs will arise from the huge programme of research now going on in the genetic (and epigenetic) sciences. I think they will produce revolutionary developments, particularly in education and health. If the past history of innovation is any guide at all, they’re likely to come from the young and, usually, from outside the conventional mainstream of a discipline. We shouldn’t forget the millions of unemployed young people who are now accumulating in many countries. There are, and will be, many frustrated geniuses among them. With an increasingly versatile Internet as their tutor we can reasonably expect huge surprises in our present conventional political institutions.