The arc of history and the 2020s

July is an unusual time to be looking forward to a new year, or to be heralding the start of a new decade.

However, following a well-trodden path of attempting to use history to predict the future, what can recent events tell us about what is likely to follow? And how can the remaining months of this decade influence the next?

Understanding the trajectory of past events and recent trends can help extrapolate the arc of history and inform what may lie ahead. Rather than blindly ploughing forward it can help us to take corrective action.

The remaining months of 2019 will set the tone for a pivotal decade. The convergence of two key themes will likely play a leading role in this dynamic: climate change and the recent cascade of political shocks in the Western world.


The 2010s began with the Arab Spring – a series of democratic uprisings across Africa and the Middle East. The Western world meanwhile was reeling from the effects of the Great Recession; the economic and social fallout would provide a foothold for political extremes.

As the decade wore on a worrying regression to far-right nationalism swept across the West – the longstanding proponent of globalisation and exporter of the same democratic and human rights that were being fought for in developing nations.

Alliances, agreements and organisations that for decades have sewn together and supported an unprecedented period of peacetime and prosperity are under threat of being recklessly torn apart.

The concerning wave of nationalist and isolationist gains comes at a time where unity and cooperation is required on a global scale due to the nature of the challenges we collectively face.

The 2010s can be viewed as the decade where the world really began to sit up and take notice of the immediacy of climate change and the severity of the threat faced by humanity from the related environmental crises.


The 2020s will be judged by history as a make-or-break decade: it must be the one in which real change takes place to address climate change and environmental degradation.

It is becoming increasingly clear that there is now no room for error or delay in the magnitude and haste of corrective action.

However, solving global issues requires a unified response – nationalism is a distraction and isolationism is folly when our most significant challenges are not confined by geopolitical lines.

The fate of the planet is likely intertwined with the political sentiment that prevails in the coming decade.

The 2020s will determine whether the recent cascade of political events will be a mere blip or an inflexion point on the curve of contemporary history, which until the 2010s had been building towards a more united world through supranational and intergovernmental organisations.


These organisations, like any union, involve compromise. They may not perfectly align with any individual member’s optimum, but that is not the point – they foster long term stability of the whole, which becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Rather than seeking to manipulate or abandon these organisations and agreements in pursuit of self-serving, short-term policies, we should instead focus on how they can help us solve shared challenges and serve the collective interest.

The arc of history has been jolted onto a troublesome path. But it is not too late to change course. We must avoid the sunk cost fallacy of pressing ahead in a certain direction just because much time and effort has already been committed.

The correction must start now.

Let us treat the remaining months with urgency, as we should the years that follow: the remainder of 2019 must set the tone to ensure we arrive at this most crucial decade on a positive trajectory.

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