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A world without precedents

Too many things are happening for the first time in the world. Change is faster, more global, and deeply surprising

Israel Hamas
Weapons distribution point for civilians at a kibbutz in Israel, near the border with Lebanon, on October 12.AYAL MARGOLIN (EFE)
Moisés Naím

This is new. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Many of us shared these thoughts after first — and correctly — recoiling in horror and indignation at the barbarity of Hamas.

Despite the countless tragedies that Israel has suffered in its 75-year history — ranging from full-scale wars to terrorist attacks — it has never experienced a military assault on this scale targeting its civilian population.

The scenes of murderous terrorists calmly roaming the streets and indiscriminately killing or kidnapping their victims are both cruel and unprecedented. Never before had terrorism struck so fiercely at the heart of Israeli society.

The horror that Hamas’s brutality produces in us should not, however, cloud our vision to the other unprecedented situations arising in Israeli politics. Even before the attack, the country was mired in an unparalleled political crisis. The polarization in Israel is so deep that in order to form a government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was willing to accept the radical conditions demanded by fringe political groups.

Before now, it had never included the most virulent far-right politicians nor the ultra-Orthodox religious groups in his government. These extremist minorities have now managed to impose radical policies that affect the entire population. Until now, Israel had never had to go to war with such a divided society.

But it is not only in the Middle East where this feeling of “never before” reigns. The same is happening in the United States. There, too, a tiny group of far-right Republicans managed to remove the head of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, midway through his term — something that had also never happened before. In Spain and other democracies, tyrannical minorities are causing a wave of unprecedented situations.

But we should remember that this wave of the unprecedented goes beyond politics, war and the economy. The most important of the unprecedented situations is, of course, climate change. Never before has the planet’s temperature risen at the rate it is climbing today. Scientists are reporting with alarm that things are moving quickly, which will certainly cause more and more unprecedented scenarios.

The list goes on: never have we seen a migration crisis of the magnitude that we are seeing on the southern border of the United States, nor in Mediterranean Europe. And we are only beginning to understand the ways in which environmental degradation fuels never-before-seen levels of migration.

Fortunately, in the realm of the unprecedented, not everything is bad. Never before have so many people — at least those privileged with access to technology — been able to work from home. The number of remote workers is simply enormous and their impact unparalleled. The number of empty offices in London and the United States has reached its highest point in 20 years. The same is happening with distance education and healthcare. Never before has physical distance been so inconsequential to the lives of so many people.

And in science and technology, never before have breakthroughs come at this pace. Never before has humanity had the ability to precisely edit the genetic code of organisms, as we are doing with cutting-edge technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9, which allows for the precise altering of the DNA of any organism.

And never before has our ability to alter the genetic code been subtle enough to allow the manipulation of messenger RNA for therapeutic purposes. This was achieved by Katalin Karikó, the winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in medicine, for research that allowed the development of modern vaccines against Covid-19. And it is already beginning to be understood that artificial intelligence is not just another piece of software, but rather constitutes in itself a historic “never before” that could end civilization as we know it.

In this unprecedented world, more and more of everything is happening, and faster. Fragmented geopolitics and a battered global ecosystem give rise to existential risks for humanity, while advances in science and technology empower us in unimaginable ways. We tend to celebrate the latter, but it has its dark side: Hamas committed its crimes by combining medieval tactics with cutting edge technologies.

And for those of us who live through these times, this makes it much more difficult to think about the future. That’s because as human beings, our tendency is to always try to foresee what is coming based on what has already happened. But when so many of the things that happen are new, our old tactics tend to fail.

As we stare in the rearview mirror, the future is overwhelming us.


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