The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, founded by the chocolate millionaire in 1904 to combat "the great scourges of humanity", has been looking into equivalent scourges today. Having consulted 3,500 people, it has nominated our top ten social evils. They are the decline of community, individualism and selfishness, consumerism and greed, a decline of values, the decline of the family, young people as both victims and perpetrators, drugs and alcohol, poverty and inequality, immigration and responses to it and – creeping in at the No 10 spot – crime and violence.
There are several responses to the Rowntree report, none of them polite. A swift consultation with a Roget's Thesaurus would have revealed that consumerism, selfishness and probably the decline of community are essentially the same thing. Listing young people as a social evil seems slightly harsh. Including "a decline of values" was like nominating sin. Above all, the whole thing is predictable: if a Pulitzer prize were awarded for the most resonant statement of the stonkingly obvious, this year's award would already be over.
But there is an argument for one further evil: miserabilism. Some might say that for a columnist, a professional binger on discontent, to complain of a charity being negative about our culture is like John Prescott blaming Big Macs, but surely it can be agreed that this generalised, guilt-ridden self-hatred is slipping out of control. Western culture may not be going through its most glorious phase at the moment but, out there in the jungle of consumerism, some green shoots of decency are to be found. It is time for a top ten of 2008's social goods.
Is individualism so terrible? It is unattractive in its more obvious manifestations – the eye-gouging nastiness celebrated by the BBC on The Apprentice, for example – but, in a broader context, it can be a positive, rather heart-warming thing. Today there is less personal defeatism in the air. People have come to believe (often wrongly, but never mind) that they can be a star and can win Britain's Got Talent, that they can write a successful novel with the help of a creative writing course, that they can be a professional musician by posting their performances on YouTube or MySpace.
In fact, creativity would be my second social good for the early 21st-century. Thanks to the internet, the division between established and would-be talent is no longer a forbidding, insurmountable barrier. In spite of the best efforts of the Government, live music, for example, is thriving and the songs that are being sung are no longer copies or covers, as they once were.
When it comes to social harm, the new technology could have a sub-category of its own, but it has also brought behavioural benefits. Grandees in politics, business and the media are no longer able to get away with the small and large acts of hypocrisy or graft which were part of public life when it was cosy, select club.
The family may have declined, but new, looser forms of relationship are developing. While modern communication through mobile, email and social networking sites may often be crass and monkey-like, the friendships they express are faster, more numerous, less excluding than old-fashioned companionship.
We are more international. In the 1980s, an Argentinean player running on to an English pitch would be booed; today an English team without a single Englishman playing will get cheered to the echo. Nationalism of the unthinking xenophobic kind is dying.
For all our anxiety, we are also less hung up about race. It has been a slow process but the fact is that many of the prejudices of everyday life even 10 years ago would now make most sensible people wince. Participants in the Rowntree survey blamed the Church for social evils and then, rather oddly, complained of a decline in values. Today, spiritual curiosity and religious belief, whether part of an established faith or merely personal, is at the centre of most public debate, almost always to its benefit.
As for that decline in values, the same argument – probably the same phrase – would have been deployed 50 years ago when the Woolfenden Report into homosexuality was published. In 2008, it is more possible than ever before for individuals to follow the path of their own desires.
The two remaining social goods are a by-product of planetary concern. There has been a growing appreciation of the natural world and its importance to us. With conservation has come a new localism. More and more people are beginning to see that the most effective escape from waste and over-production lies in their own neighbourhood and community – that small really is beautiful.Reuse content