One New Giant Casts Its Shadow
Updated: Jul 27, 2020
Once upon a time (in 1942) there were Five Giant Evils. So described in the eponymous Beveridge Report – the founding document of the modern welfare state in the UK – the author recommended a wide range of government proposals to eradicate five ‘giant evils’ that plagued the country: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, disease. All five were cut down in size over the decades that followed, although none has been eradicated. However, they have morphed over time and each has grown back into something bigger and more intractable: inequality, schism, overshoot, apathy, ageing.
Beveridge was horrified by housing conditions in prewar Britain, which he identified as a source of poverty and squalor. But the unfairness and discrimination that led to squalor has transcended into inequality. In a public poll undertaken by Populus for the RSA, when asked about the biggest challenges facing Britain today, the public agreed with ‘inequality’ as the biggest concern. Economic inequality in terms of the widening gaps in income and wealth. Social inequality in terms of gender and racial biases. Geographic inequality in terms of disparities between different parts of the country. In short, inequality as a giant breeding ground for polarisation and hopelessness. Such inequalities are clearly not bound by these shores, and are a root cause of the widespread loss in human potential and energy that is desperately needed for the changes ahead.
Ignorance is something that Beveridge believed no democracy could afford among its citizens. Whereas he spoke about literacy and numeracy, in today’s world it would also include digital deprivation. In an increasingly post-truth world of distorted perspectives and fake news, ignorance is being overtaken by bias. This is one factor among several that has aggravated ‘schism’: giant divisions internally between members of society who are strongly opposed to each other; giant divisions internationally between nations who no longer look to find common ground. The UK is united in name only, with Brexit and Scottish independence symptomatic of these widening divides. We see schism inside and between other European countries too, and in geopolitics more broadly, as citizens turn into recusants and as condemnations turn into clashes.
The ‘want’ that Beverage sought to alleviate was the desolate condition whereby a person’s resources were not sufficient to meet their minimum needs. Those things that meet our needs for survival and health, for food and basic comfort, have been widely available for a long time in places that are economically advantaged. The advent of mass production devoted to these same basic goods has simply brought us the luxury of choice, and have compounded that choice with new luxuries that quickly become the supposed necessities of life. In seeking to overcome want, consumerism has grotesquely twisted it out of shape and we have created ‘overshoot’ – the desolate condition whereby humanity's resource consumption exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources. Threatening our very wellbeing, overshoot is at the core of the current man-made ecological disasters of climate change and mass extinction. Overshoot is a giant trap of our own making, and one from which we must find a way to break free.
Beveridge had unemployment in mind when he looked at idleness, and looked in turn at job creation opportunities to get people back into work. This job is never done however, as the potential workforce is never fully employed: unemployment is a perennial challenge in many areas, and insecure, low-paid or temporary jobs mask deeper structural issues in the wider economy. Nonetheless, the new giant is idleness in the form of ‘apathy’ in response to calls for change. At a superficial level, this apathy stems from the distractions and hectic pace of daily life; more insidiously, it comes from paralysis and fatalism over the sheer scale of the changes needed. People are detaching instead of engaging, struggling to summon a response as they succumb to compassion fatigue. Flooded with images of local and global disasters that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react. If empathy is a necessary motivator for making the world a better place, what happens when we feel too fatigued to fight and apathy becomes our response mechanism to change?
In tackling disease, Beveridge outlined the plan for a free health service, accessible to all, paving the way for the National Health Service. No one was left behind, and maintaining health and curing disease was made available to all citizens. Over-stretched and under-resourced, the NHS today is still considered to be one of Britain’s greatest achievements. So successful in keeping people healthy and reducing premature death, average life expectancy in the UK has risen by 20 years since its inception. Having staved off disease, the impact of ‘ageing’ is fast becoming the new giant challenge. The unprecedented pace of ageing societies around the world is a demographic time bomb as working-age populations either decline or grow more slowly. In China for example, the population aged over 65 is expected to jump from 8 to 24 percent in just 30 years. This demographic shift represents a daunting challenge that impacts everything, from healthcare services to how cities should be structured, at a time when we need to focus our scarce resources and collective effort. Ageing should be celebrated for social reasons, and increased longevity turned from a potential giant burden into a dividend by mobilising older people.
One of the more terrifying blind spots in public discussion is the diminished stature of climate change relative to these five giants. In being wilfully blind, we turn an existential threat that touches every aspect of society into just another socio-economic issue, often seen as less urgent and less tangible than the others. It’s true that climate change is not equal to any of these giants. It encompasses them all. The climate crisis casts a long shadow and makes each giant bigger: it discriminates against those who are less able to defend themselves; it widens divides; it accelerates the destruction of our scarce resources; it stresses subjugation to environmental determinism; it sickens the elderly. The implication is clear enough to those who are willing to see – addressing the existential threat should be our highest priority, the lens through which we face other challenges in all their manifestations.