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The anthropocene

Updated October 19, 2018

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The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

OVER the past week, two events have taken place beyond our borders that ought really to have found more space in our political and intellectual mainstream, seeing that they confirm just how rapidly humanity is descending into a manmade abyss from which we may never recover.

First, there was the launch of a landmark United Nations report on climate change and the imminent threats it poses for the world and its people. And then there was the alleged shocking abduction and murder of Arab journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, apparently a premeditated action planned and executed at the highest levels of Saudi officialdom.

The UN report made clear that the world’s temperature has till now increased by one degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels, and that we as a species have only 12 years to cut emissions and change consumption patterns more generally so as to limit the increase to 1.5°C. Assuming that the political will to make necessary changes is not generated, the globe will continue to warm up to and possibly even beyond 2°C, with disastrous effects on our entire ecosystem. In this worst-case scenario, vulnerable human populations will be subject to all manner of ecological catastrophes, while the very survival of innumerable species of insects and plants will be at risk.

With the dust barely having settled on the UN report came the news that dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was effectively target-killed by his own government in another country. Quite aside from why the hit was ordered, the Khashoggi’s murder makes clear that the contemporary state with its enormous surveillance apparatus and control over the means of violence is now virtually unencumbered by the liberal norms and laws which for much of the modern period have been premised on the idea that individual human beings have inviolable rights for which the state is, in principle, the primary guarantor.

There is a crisis of survival and of human agency.

Of course it can be argued that the state in question here has no concern whatsoever for liberal let alone democratic norms, but then Saudi Arabia continues to enjoy the patronage of the United States, which still takes great pride in calling itself the world’s oldest democracy. Indeed, the truth of the world as it has evolved throughout the modern period is that liberal democratic norms and principles are just as often overridden as they are upheld, and as we approach the third decade of the 21st century, the absurd contradictions of the liberal world order are becoming unprecedented.

In short, the world and its people are now subject to two interrelated crises. First, there is a crisis of survival itself in the sense that the prevailing political-economic system with its emphasis on accumulation of resou­rces and hedonistic consumption is unsustainable and, indeed, incompatible with an extremely fragile ecosystem. Second, there is a crisis of human agency, and more specifically, of politics, in the sense that we are increasingly unwilling to think deeply about, let alone devise, a collective response to the first crisis. Instead, the dominant political idiom of our time, with the state as its embodiment, breeds fear-mongering and hate and celebrates the elimination of dissent.

Add to this the almost completely unregulated actions of big corporations whose control over our lives is immense, particularly in terms of our uncritical incorporation into the digital world, and it becomes clear that the two interrelated crises will sooner rather than later lead us towards a dark dystopia.

More and more people around the world are waking up to the reality of the epoch that has become known as the anthropocene. But clearly many have yet to wake up, in part because of the glaring silences of our political and intellectual mainstream. Yes the Khashoggi case has generated outrage, but one gets the distinct sense that ultimately the Saudi regime, its backers and indeed states all over the world will continue to employ strong-arm tactics of all kinds, and in all places, to keep sane voices from being heard.

In today’s Pakistan there are increasing murmurs about the rapidly decreasing space for dissident views, even while a formally democratic regime is in place. While the murmurs will likely grow louder in weeks and months to come, it is essential that we concern ourselves not only with the immediate challenges facing democratic forces in Pakistan, but with larger questions about a failing global development model that has brought the world to the brink.

This is particularly urgent given how the most unsustainable development practices of all are being outsourced to countries such as ours and there is almost uncritical exploitation of natural resources to feed the growing ecological footprint of urban middle classes. Certainly it has been the capitalist West that is most responsible for where humanity finds itself today, but it is in peripheries that the battle for its survival will play out.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2018