ILHAN Niaz’s seven essays Downfall: Lessons for Our Final Century, published by the Centre of Strategic and Contemporary Research, Islamabad, are a remarkable and exceptionally scholarly study from multiple perspectives, and on a global scale, of the existential threat arising from climate change. His conclusion is simple and grim. Human activity is inexorably turning the planet uninhabitable for human life and civilisation as we know it. One can be sceptical, but it is difficult to altogether refute Niaz’s argument.
The first and second essays draw upon the exegeses of Ibn Khaldun, Malthus, Darwin and John Stuart Mill to suggest how primary social and evolutionary impulses would thwart saner courses of action needed to reverse the approaching catastrophe. Niaz rightly targets the growth model and its excesses for ravaging the global environment and triggering the now seemingly irrepressible global warming. He argues that the much bruited strategies of sustainable development and ‘green growth’ are palliates or even no less than a ‘hoax’. Meeting the challenge demands rejecting contemporary habits of consumption and living, while the innate greed and individualism of Darwinian competition and Ibn Khaldun’s ‘asabiyyah’ set the stage for a Malthusian denouement.
J.S. Mill had warned that the economic growth model was untenable as it would exhaust the planet’s resources. Therefore, growth must reach a ‘stationary state’. Yet before this nirvana is achieved, Earth would become unliveable.
No doubt, the industrial and technological revolutions and the exponentially expanding human ability to manipulate nature have intoxicated human societies, with an unquenchable thirst for ‘higher’ living standards conflated with happiness. The United States leads the phenomenon which is turning out to be much too profligate. The US model has placed the world in the fast lane. Democratisation of the US style of living for eight billion-plus people can easily exhaust and kill the planet. Paradoxically, human intelligence, innovation and creativity that count for the uniqueness of the species are proving to be its nemesis.
For many, climate change is still a bridge too far.
The third and fourth essays expand on the dilemma that man is inherently incapable of wise decision-making, because as Herodotus opined, human nature is programmed to seek glory and success, but once attained, these acts inhibit rationality and magnify conceit about one’s innate superiority. The fourth essay dismisses optimism as delusional and rooted in self-centredness. The fifth essay discusses the impact of climate change on geopolitics and raises the question of whether the scramble for space among rising populations can result in fatal conflicts. The sixth essay posits that any apparent equilibrium between growth and consumption would remain ‘extractive’ and hence inherently unstable.
Can technology provide a remedy? Niaz’s answer is ‘no’ because the malaise relates to human behaviour which shows little inclination to go through the rigours of the adjustment needed, for instance, to reverse global warming.
Niaz’s arguments may sound familiar. Their quality lies in that he presents them with stark elegance.
In my narrow experience, I found that out-of-the-box rational approaches to serious political conflicts are often found to be less seductive and are eclipsed by raw passions and hubris.
I am witness to the fate of two important efforts. The first was a suggestion to transform Siachen into a jointly managed zone of disengagement, which hit obstacles leaving it a zone of conflict. The presence of armed forces continues to damage the glacier which is critical to a fragile regional environment. The second unsuccessful effort was based on the concept of self-governance in the sub-regions of Kashmir allowing the Kashmiris the comfort to manage their own affairs.
For many, climate change is still a bridge too far. One of my least noticed writings in Dawn related to an idea for promoting an eco-service sector to channel human energy for gainful employment without generating growth which spurs consumption through a mutually reinforcing binary of productive and services sectors. As the concluding essay suggests, there is need for “shifting emphasis on well-being and helping nature to recover”.
Nonetheless, pessimism is no option. Throughout history, humans have adjusted to escape the vagaries of climate and conflicts. Habits and behaviour can change. Today, the descendants of the Vikings are among the most peaceful communities in the world. Curiously, their governance has heavily shifted in favour of feminine ascendance. That may well be a hopeful pointer.
There are other positive signs.
Read: The climate story
Human population and current consumption patterns are key to the stress on the planet’s resources and eco-balance. Medical advances during the turn of the last century, especially the development of life-saving drugs, first caused a population explosion in Europe. The expanding European populations spread out to newly discovered territories of continental size. The next phase impacted China, South Asia and then Africa and the Middle East. The recent decades have, however, seen a gradual stabilisation and even declining populations in Europe, Russia and China. It is not beyond imagination that the world population may stabilise around 10bn and may even start declining. Such a prospect can be real; nevertheless, there must be no complacency.
The sinister aspect of human consumption is not food. Rich or poor, an individual’s intake is modest. The difference in energy per capita spent on egregious lifestyles is, however, enormous and a major cause for excessive greenhouse gases emissions. Take, for instance, mobility; a good deal of fossil fuel is burnt in an activity much of which is unnecessary. The capacity to communicate visually and audibly virtually reduces the need for physical travel.
As part of an awareness campaign, studies and regular monitoring are in order on energy consumption in broad sectors of utility. Along with GDP and per capita computations, indices linked to environmentally irresponsible behaviour and consumption patterns may serve to turn the spotlight on the culprits endangering our common home. Glitter must not be allowed to conceal the poison it carries.
Despite the wealth of great literature on climate change or the fact that Niaz’s writings carry a dire message which calls for serious introspection, these essays provide a surprisingly eloquent, inspirational and enriching treat for the mind.
The writer is an author and a former foreign secretary.
Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2022