A Period of (Unprecedented) Consequences
by Risalat Khan for AlalODulal.org
But the world is changing. The seemingly disconnected events and trends are mere manifestations of something deeper – a neocolonial corporatocracy that controls virtually all major world affairs. It profits from the arms supplied to war and the culture of war, claims all of Mother Nature’s resources as property for its own greed, and condemns billions to poverty and starvation as casualties of progress. This social order – a dark evolution of the colonial era evils – is inculcated and protected by a system of unfettered neoliberal capitalism. But despite its meteoric rise to dominion, it is now desperately hiding the tears at its seams.
An atheist westerner visits Bangladesh for a week. He goes back to his home, and declares that he has started believing in God. His family and friends are really confused by this dramatic conversion. They sit him down, make some small talk, and carefully ask, “How did you suddenly start believing in God?”
The man smiles and replies, “Well, if there is no God, then who is running that country?”
We Bangladeshis love self-deprecating humour. Perhaps that is born out of necessity. Precious daily hours wasted in deadlock traffic and waterlogged streets, hard-earned money spent on toxic food and harmful healthcare, pains taken averting political violence, harassment and corruption – we have perhaps learned to survive this madness by a most ingenious and powerful mechanism: make fun of it all!
My brother, 30, quipped casually at the dinner table the other day, “I probably have 10 good years left before I’m bedridden. Let’s make the most of it!”
But how is the rest of the world faring? Not very well either, as recent events would suggest. Civilian bombings in Palestine, South Sudan’s descent into famine, racist state violence in Ferguson, barbaric atrocities from ISIS – these are simply facts from the last few weeks. On a more global scale, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet recently collapsed, crossing one of the feared tipping points that climate scientists had warned about and making inevitable metres more of sea level rise. Food and water insecurity, more extreme weather events, ocean acidification, mass extinction – a daunting array of ecological and environmental crises imperil us.
We quickly get desensitized when confronted with such bleak prospects. If not humour – which is not palatable anymore in the face of such widespread death and destruction – we dispel our discomfort through distractions, ready to serve our will through the worldwide web. These allow us to function in our daily lives and maintain a sense of normalcy. But the other side of the coin reveals a poisonous sense of fatalism – a passive acceptance of a deeply unjust status quo.
“There are two types of fatalism. The belief the world can’t change, and the belief you can’t play a role in changing it,” says Ricken Patel, co-founder of the global advocacy group Avaaz.
But the world is changing. The seemingly disconnected events and trends alluded to earlier are mere manifestations of something deeper – a neocolonial corporatocracy that controls virtually all major world affairs. It profits from the arms supplied to war and the culture of war, claims all of Mother Nature’s resources as property for its own greed, and condemns billions to poverty and starvation as casualties of progress. This social order – a dark evolution of the colonial era evils – is inculcated and protected by a system of unfettered neoliberal capitalism. But despite its meteoric rise to dominion, it is now desperately hiding the tears at its seams.
One such tear was the US housing bubble that burst and caused the 2008 global financial crisis. There are similar overinflated bubbles biding their time. Perhaps the largest and most significant one is the carbon bubble. The fossil fuel industry – the wealthiest in the world – collectively holds more than 2,795 Gigatons of carbon in its existing reserves as reported by the Carbon Tracker Initiative. According to the most sophisticated climate models, we can only burn 565 Gigatons, or about one-fifth of those reserves and still keep global warming within the internationally agreed upon limit of 2˚C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. Therefore, this roughly 27 trillion USD worth of assets are enormously overvalued, and will collapse the most profitable stocks once global regulation on carbon pollution, or the speculation of it, takes root.
Note that I say once and not if. I am only reading signs of what I see to be deep shifts gaining momentum across the world. Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Report, unequivocally establishing the enormous scale and devastating impacts of climate change. Following that, President Obama passed a historic proposal in June to cut US coal emissions 30 percent by 2030. Analysts have noted similar renewed seriousness and increasing political will for several key countries, including China. It is widely expected that there will be a momentous global treaty signed in Paris in December 2015 at UNFCCC’s 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21), and the prospects of meaningfully addressing climate change seem brighter than ever before.
But the wheels have only barely started rolling at this eleventh hour and there is a long, long way to go. However, this is where the true game changer comes in. That game changer is you, and I, and a generation coming of age that feels more connected to shared interests instead of shared skin or passport colour. Modern telecommunications, despite birthing its own set of challenges such as mass surveillance and cybercrime, may be the most powerful tool for good that has ever been developed. Anti-oppression ideas and movements everywhere are now connected, and increasingly inspiring, cross-pollinating and bolstering one another. This is why 350.org issues a statement standing in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, and Stephen Hawking rejects an invitation to attend an Israeli conference. This is why we have seen tens of thousands rallying in all parts of the world to demand freedom and dignity for Palestinians. This is why millions of people will take to the streets for the Peoples Climate March on September 21 to demand bold climate action announcements from world leaders two days later at the New York UN Headquarters.
All over the world, people are finding a united voice, and realizing that it is up to us to create the peaceful and lush Earth we envision, rather than accept the inequitable and dying one we have been dealt. The powers that be have always sought to secure and increase their wealth at the expense of everything and everyone else, and our pseudo-democracies continue to perpetuate this polarization. But true democracy only comes through the political emancipation of the people – not from a ritualized trip to the voting center every five years. And stories of this emancipation abound, if only you know where to look.
We Bangladeshis can draw profound lessons and opportunities from this global power shift. We spend our days overwhelmed at the immediate challenges plaguing our daily lives, and massive slow-moving threats with complex invisible webs of causation become difficult to prioritize on a personal as well as policy level. Even as we feel the effects of that unusual heat spell, the increase in urban poverty from forced migration, and the cyclone that may or may not have been made stronger by higher temperatures in the Bay of Bengal – we care more about the traffic we will face on the way home from work, and the toxic food we are forced to feed our children.
But we do not need to lose sleep over the optimal allocation of our “worries” between addressing local challenges and preserving the planet for us all. The solution is one and the same! We can join the rising tide of global consciousness and stand against the daily oppression from power hungry politicians and business moguls. We can denounce the discrimination and violence happening within our own borders, against Rohingyas, Hindus, women, homosexuals, and all others we marginalize. Our awakening can be in making Dhaka a better city for us all to live in; our revolution in making Bangladesh a responsible country that develops her people’s HDI by embracing our gift of solar and wind potential rather than beefing up GDP through reckless coal expansion at the expense of public health and the Sundarbans. Through this, we will not only develop a more resilient, equitable, and economically successful nation for our people, but we will also inspire other Least Developed Countries to play active and responsible roles in meeting the existential threat to our species.
The price of inaction has never been greater. But neither have the rewards of our action. So, the next time, let us not jump into that joke about our incorrigible nature, acknowledge the discomfort, and find constructive ways to translate it into change.
Risalat Khan is a social activist and entrepreneur specializing in sustainable paradigms. He is a co-founder of NogorBagan – an initiative to cultivate Dhaka’s rooftops and provide safe food to urban communities. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org