Things may be grim, but there are reasons to be cheerful

By Jonathan Freedland (THE GUARDIAN, 03/01/07):

I don't want to be a grumpy old man. In the past few days they've been on the television with depressing regularity (slightly undermining one of their chief claims, that no one cares what they think any more). With their hangdog expressions and sad Santa hats, they've been given hours to moan and whine about the state of music and gadgets and sprouts and traffic and everything. On the radio, meanwhile, Clive Anderson closed the year by counting the ways in which the planet was doomed and the human race fated to destroy itself over the next few years, if not months.

I don't want to join this glum, slouching chorus - though I can feel its tug getting stronger. For one thing, I'm getting uncomfortably close to the demographic myself: next month I turn 40. That may explain why the news seems to serve up fresh evidence daily that the country and the world are on the wrong track, that we are, in the parlance of the grumpies, going to hell in a handcart.

I don't just mean that sweaters are scratchier than they used to be, or whatever troubles Rick Wakeman and Jeremy Clarkson. I'm thinking of the big stuff. The fact that the experts tell us we have a decade or less to stop belching out carbon or we'll wreck the planet, and yet we know that India and China are filling the skies with C02 as they industrialise at breakneck speed, the Chinese building, at a conservative estimate, a new coal-fired power station every five days. Or that our own Labour government wants to build two new airport runways in the south-east of England. Or that is advertising cheap flights, telling consumers that, "for vitality", we ought to take five such leisure trips per year.

I'm thinking of the mass killing and raping going on, at this very moment, in Darfur. Or the carnage that won't stop in Iraq. And the fact that George Bush's likeliest remedy seems to be a "surge" of up to 40,000 more US troops. I'm thinking too of the civil war that has Palestinians shooting at each other in the streets, the strong possibility that the Lebanese government will fall to Hizbullah and the ever-increasing threat of conflict involving Iran, whose president yesterday told the powers that had written a UN resolution against its nuclear programme: "You are nobody."

I haven't even mentioned North Korea, the fear that jihadists trained in Iraq will soon apply their higher education in terror to the rest of the world, or the outrage of a knighthood for John Scarlett - but I must bite my tongue. I do not, remember, want to become a grumpy old man.

So I will force myself to find the points of light in the gloom, for there are portents of good in 2007, if only we look for them. And we should look first - and it has been six long years since we could say this - to the United States.

Though Bush will cling on as one of the worst presidents in US history for another two years, the Congress has changed hands, and for the better. To take but one example, the last chair of the Senate environment committee, Republican James Inhofe, described global warming as the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people". His successor, Democrat Barbara Boxer, believes it is the greatest challenge facing humanity. She comes from California, which last year passed a bill obliging the state to cut back its emissions by a quarter by 2020. An old maxim of US politics holds, "As California goes, so goes the nation." If that's true, American public opinion could be at a tipping point, when awareness of the threat of climate change turns, suddenly and quite fast, into a demand for action.

This year will also see much of the crucial pre-campaigning for the 2008 presidential election. It's too early to predict an outcome now, but it is at least encouraging that the two current frontrunners for the Democratic nomination are a woman and a black man.

He is Barack Obama, the super-charismatic senator whose appeal seems to transcend America's racial and partisan divides. There's not much in the way of policy yet, but his instincts are sound. On fat-cat pay he says: "At a time when average workers are experiencing little or no income growth, many of America's CEOs have lost any sense of shame about grabbing whatever their pliant, handpicked corporate boards will allow."

The woman is Hillary Clinton. She can still come across as too cautious and Stepfordised, as if she's had a politectomy, but the change in the political weather is gradually making her bolder. In November, she called for a "sea change" in US foreign policy that would include direct dialogue with North Korea, Syria and Iran and a serious US attempt to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Middle East always makes optimism hard, but one good sign is coming from Damascus. Bashar al-Assad has made several openings for peace talks with Israel. So far Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has snubbed all of them - another sign that he is flailing in a job that might simply be beyond his abilities - but domestic pressure to grasp this Syrian olive branch is increasing. And, less than a fortnight ago, Olmert did, at long last, meet the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. That's something.

Elsewhere, optimists will be heartened by the leftward trend in Latin America, from Nicaragua and Ecuador to Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile and Brazil. Those governments are not perfect, but they are giving the supranational corporations a jolt. This year could see a peaceful transition of power in Nigeria and, in May, France might elect a Socialist woman as its president. And, according to yesterday's Guardian, a new Indian approach could see the cost of vital drugs slashed, bringing help to those unlucky enough to be both sick and poor.

As for Britain, a new prime minister should at least spare us some of the excesses of the old. Can't see Gordon Brown kissing up to Dubya, or holidaying with a Bee Gee. See, a grumpy thought very nearly surfaced there. But it's gone. There are reasons to be cheerful after all.