The world in 500 words

The world in 500 words - image for article by Greg Alder

Imagine you are asked this question a generation from now.

What was the world like in 2016?

I have read no more succinct, accurate, potent or depressing description than one in Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Nutshell.

The narrator is an embryo whose world view is being shaped pre-birth by voices outside the womb, including podcasts his mother listens to.

Here is his recounting of one formal lecture he hears.

“An expert in international relations, a woman with a rich deep voice, advises me that the world was not well. She considered two common states of mind: self-pity and aggression. Each one a poor choice for individuals. In combination, for groups or nations, a noxious brew that lately intoxicated the Russians in Ukraine, as it once had their friends, the Serbs in their part of the world. We were belittled, now we will prove ourselves. Now that the Russian state was the political arm of organized crime, another war in Europe no longer inconceivable. Dust down the tank divisions for Lithuania’s southern border, for the north German plain. The same potion inflames the barbaric fringes of Islam. The cup is drained, the same cry goes up: we’ve been humiliated, we’ll be avenged.

“The lecturer took a dim view of our species, of which psychopaths are a constant fraction, a human constant. Armed struggle, justified or not, attracts them. They help to tip local struggles into bigger conflicts. Europe, according to her, in existential crisis, fractious and weak as varieties of self-loving nationalism sip that same tasty brew. Confusion about values, the bacillus of anti-Semitism incubating, immigrant populations languishing, angry and bored. Elsewhere, everywhere, novel inequalities of wealth, the super rich a master race apart. Ingenuity deployed by states for new forms of brilliant weaponry, by global corporations to dodge taxes, by righteous banks to stuff themselves with Christmas millions. China, too big to need friends or counsel, cynically probing its neighbours’ shores, building islands of tropical sand, planning for the war it knows must come. Muslim-majority countries plagued by religious puritanism, by sexual sickness, by smothered invention. The Middle East, fast-breeder for a possible world war. And foe-of-convenience, the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchangeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every new handgun. Africa yet to learn democracy’s party trick – the peaceful transfer of power. Its children dying, thousands by the week, for want of easy things – clean water, mosquito nets, cheap drugs. Uniting and levelling all humanity, the dull old facts of altered climate, vanishing forests, creatures and polar ice. Profitable and poisonous agriculture obliterating biological beauty. Oceans turning to weak acid. Well above the horizon, approaching fast, the ruinous tsunami of the burgeoning old, cancerous and demented, demanding care. And soon, with demographic transition, the reverse, populations in catastrophic decline. Free speech no longer free, liberal democracy no longer the obvious port of destiny, robots stealing jobs, liberty in close combat with security, socialism in disgrace, capitalism corrupt, destructive and in disgrace, no alternatives in sight.

“In conclusion, she said, these disasters are the work of our twin natures. Clever and infantile. We’ve built a world too complicated and dangerous for our quarrelsome natures to manage. In such hopelessness, the general vote will be for the supernatural. It’s dusk in the second Age of Reason. We were wonderful, but now we are doomed.”


Ian McEwan, as author, has given the lecturer her voice. Her observations and assessments are his. His writing is influenced by events of the time, as is every author’s. Carl Hiaasen’s writing is deeply influenced by rampant development and corrupt politics, for example.

Beyond writing, pretty much every one of us is similarly influenced by the time in which we live. Our actions, values and mood shift under the irresistible gravity of events we witness or hear/see second hand.

We talk about the innocence of children, but Nutsell has me wondering if every child’s world view isn’t being shaped even in the womb. Are some of us born angry? Some of us born victim? Some born believing in our own privilege? Some socialist? Some pacifist? Nurturer? Opportunist?

How hard must we work as adults to defy this preloaded bias? Or does our world view just naturally start to drift away from the view we shared with our parents the day we start being exposed to different sources of news and opinion? What do you think?

* Excerpt from Nutshell, published by Jonathan Cape. Copyright Ian McEwan 2016


  • You need less than 500 words to make the world a better place.
    “Stop, stop, stop media, newspapers and bloggers telling bad news stories. Tell the good news stories, the opportunities, how great our world is and give everybody, particularly the young, the belief that there is a wonderful future.

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