Blindly to oblivion

May 16, 2020

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EVER since I started reading the newspapers, the phrase ‘Pakistan at the crossroads’ has entered my consciousness and my vocabulary.

Except this time, it’s where the whole world finds itself. And it’s not just the Covid-19 pandemic I’m talking about. We are at the intersection of multiple crises that threaten our planet as we know it. And the fact that they are of our own making should make us reflect.

Consider: apart from the dreaded Covid-19 virus that is currently raging across the world, other dangers are threatening us in ways that are as deadly as they are widespread. Firstly, there is the earth’s environment that is being poisoned at an unprecedented rate. Our oceans are rising rapidly as icebergs melt, and thousands of miles of coastal land are at risk of submersion.

As agricultural soil is pumped full of chemicals, our bodies are forced to absorb lethal quantities of toxins. Many rivers, streams and lakes are no longer capable of sustaining life. Entire species of animals, birds, fish and insects have been wiped out. According to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, some 80 billion animals are killed every year to satisfy the hunger of an increasingly affluent mankind that craves meat.

Self-created flashpoints threaten to devastate society.

By forcing chickens and other unfortunate beasts to live in dark, confined spaces and feeding them hormones and antibiotics, we not only end up ingesting harmful chemicals, but also force the pathogens they are carrying to jump to other species, and ultimately create viruses like Covid-19.

Another self-created flashpoint that threa­tens to devastate society is a global economic system that is unjust and cruel. As the poor and the vulnerable suffer most from Covid-19 — as they do from other diseases — we can see why the deprived are becoming increasingly resentful of a system that keeps them poor while a tiny minority rakes it in.

An example of this obscenely unfair distribution lies in the fact that 0.1pc of the top earn 196 times as much as the bottom 90pc. The Guardian informed us recently that in the UK, 21.4 males in low-paid jobs out of 100,000 have died of Covid-19 as against 5.6 with white-collar jobs.

Meanwhile, water scarcity is increasing at an alarming rate. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 1.1bn people lack access to fresh water, and two million, mostly children, die every year from diarrhoeal diseases. Many go blind due to bacteria in polluted water.

I could go on, but the point here is that for the most part, the perils we face are self-created. We certainly can’t ascribe them to fate, foreign plots or divine punishment.

As Karl Marx had observed so presciently in the 19th century, there is an inbuilt contradiction at the heart of capitalism. As nations fight with growing intensity over resources and markets, and the rich get richer at the expense of the working class, conflict is inevitable.

We can see this happening now as China and America squabble over sea routes. Thus far, the US has dominated the East China Sea, but a rising China is now challenging this hegemony. In the Eastern Mediterra­nean, Turkey is at loggerheads with France, Egypt and the UAE over its attempts to drill for offshore oil in the Cypriot economic zone. Libya is another flashpoint. The collapse in oil prices will probably cause exporters to struggle to capture shrinking markets.

So what do we do to halt this reckless slide towards global suicide? Since all the problems I have mentioned are man-made, the solutions ought not to be beyond our grasp. But easier said than done. Thus far, mankind’s motto has been: ‘Everybody for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.’

History shows us that cooperation bet­ween nations has be­en a rare and passing thing. We have to be pushed to the brink before we even think of working with our neighbours. For instance, India and Pakistan should be cooperating to overcome the growing problems of water scarcity and polluted air both countries face. Instead, they keep picking at a 70-year old scab.

China and the US should be using their sophisticated research facilities to develop a vaccine against Covid-19. Instead, they are trading insults.

The European Union, the most successful example of post-war cooperation, is under threat after the UK’s decision to pull out of the grouping.

Aggressive marketing and overconsumption have driven much of the environmental degradation we are witnessing. Families want two cars after acquiring one; every few months our mobile phones are deemed obsolete and need to be replaced. The era of planned obsolescence has produced mountains of junk and rising aspirations.

So what’s to be done? If we are to solve a problem, we need to explain to people that it really exists, and its ramifications for the planet and the individual. We must control the population and our appetite for new products, and develop an economic system based on greater equality.

If Covid-19 won’t do it, nothing will.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2020