“Whatever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, be of benefit and be for the welfare of all beings; believe that doctrine, and take it as your guide. Believe nothing, no matter where you read or hear it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense” – The Buddha
Don’t get me wrong. I am not making an attempt to get readers of this column to accept negativity or paint a doom and gloom scenario. I am myself an optimist and believe strongly in the creativity and innovative brilliance of the human spirit and its ability to overcome the worst of crises, we as individuals and as social collectives face at different times.
My attempt here is to focus on an aspect of the state of the health of our current existence on planet earth as defined by the action we take on our social, economic, political and cultural fronts. It is also an appeal for us to take a rational re-look to determine if the dominant cultural belief systems we have been slaves to would be sufficient to ensure a desirable future for humankind.
Should we not be innovative and creative in seeking alternative systems and ways for us to avert crises we may face? Should not our political and social leaders be engaged in seeking such alternatives, rather than attempting to seek patchwork solutions in seeking that future?
State of our world
Growing hunger, poverty, gross violations of basic human rights, limited access to education, health care and other essential social services to large sections of marginalised societies and communities are realities that still unfold before us almost on a daily basis.
We humans, who witnessed rapid ‘growth’ in acquiring material wealth within the last century, had nothing but scant disregard for its equitable distribution. We live in times where almost on a daily basis we see, hear and learn of the design and breaking of new conflicts.
We observe battles being fought for supremacy in resource ownership and access to them and to retain the ‘power’ that comes with it, with not much regard for its consequences or impact on others.
In spite of the claims made that the last half century had been the best in human history in getting ourselves better standards of living and with China and India bringing billions of their citizens out of poverty, we still see stark realities of famine, food crisis and conflict in Somalia and much of East Africa.
The worst human catastrophe in our midst today, hundreds of babies die each day of malnutrition with more than four million Somalis, almost half the country’s population, reportedly requiring humanitarian assistance, including food, water, vaccinations and healthcare, and three million of those are in conflict zones and difficult-to-reach areas. The estimated number of Somalis needing immediate attention to prevent death due to starvation or access to drinking water is 250,000.
Following are extracts taken from the World Bank and One World’s fact files as presented in the website www.onedayswages.org with reference to the incidence of poverty around us:
“The numbers are staggering but are absolutely real. Behind each number is a human being: a mother, father, sister or brother…. Three billion people (still) live on less than US$ 2/day and 1.4 billion on less than US$ 1.25/day – the definition of those who live under the condition of ‘extreme global poverty’. The richest 20 per cent of the world’s population receives 75 per cent of the world’s income, while the poorest 40 per cent receive only five per cent of it.”
- Approximately 9.2 million children under the age of five die each year, mostly from preventable diseases. That’s approximately 25,000 children each day.
- 2.5 billion people around the world do not have access to adequate sanitation and about 885 million people do not have access to clean water.
- Every day, 4,100 children die from severe diarrhoea – as a result of poor sanitation and hygiene.
- Approximately 600 million children live in extreme poverty.
- 75 million children are out of school around the world, a figure equivalent to the entire primary school-aged population in Europe and North America.
- Women in developing countries travel an average of almost four miles each day to collect water.
- People living in the poorest slums can pay as much as ten times more for water than those in high-income areas of their own cities.
- Food prices have risen 83 per cent since 2005, disproportionately affecting those in poverty, who spend a higher percentage of their income on food.
We also see the birth of new hugely carbon consuming economies emerge in China, Brazil, India and South Africa, while we stay hurt beyond redemption by the impact of actions of those that thrived earlier. The hypocritical action against acquisition of nuclear capability by some nations while others are allowed to retain theirs is causing conflict and disharmony among neighbouring nations. War mongering has been overriding the much hoped for need and capability for peaceful coexistence and cooperation.
We moved from the agricultural and industrial ages within the space of a couple of centuries and then on to the information, creativity and info-communications eras within decades. We see new breakthrough technologies, making even those invented a decade or so ago, look archaic.
Biotechnology, bionics and nanotechnology are considered to be such breakthroughs. Alternative energy innovations are being touted, but are yet to make any significant impact on reducing the use of fossil fuel, thermal and coal minimising the high CO2 emissions associated with them.
As nations, our political leaders are all in a mad rush to reach rapid growth heights. Power shifts are taking place with economic and monetary power determining status of supremacy.
All systems are driven through an ‘invisible’ hand of a dominant belief system. Its dictums are ‘greed and offering choice are central to driving human initiative’; ‘once growth is achieved social responsibility can determine its distribution’ and ‘individual effort need be rewarded over the collective, for that is what drives the human spirit of free enterprise’.
Production and consumption of luxury goods and services go on regardless and enhancing these spheres is discussed as the solution to reviving sickly economies. Austerity measures are talked about at global forums but taking firm action on these, remain on the back-burners of the national development agenda of most countries.
Waste, corrupt practices that benefit the powerful coupled with population pressures and inequitable distribution of access to vital resources is taking a toll on earth’s limited carrying capacity.
Conflict and crises
Global media is full of breaking news of conflicts, but stay thin on calls for justice and fair play. Financial and social crisis, frequently occurring natural and manmade disasters, breaking of pandemics, selling and distribution of dangerous drugs by mafia like cartels claiming lives of innocent addicts, are no longer rare occurrences.
According to conclusive scientific knowledge, climate change and global warming are all at critical threshold levels and are fast reaching points of no return. There is no longer the need to dismiss them as ‘doomsday soothsaying’ or to doubt that they indeed are happening, for they unfold around us as daily realities now.
Terrorists claim lives of innocents almost on a daily basis, in suicide and other attacks on roads, crowded market places, public squares and at places of worship. Within countries, people of different tribes and sects are set against each other, by those who are to benefit from such division and rising conflict.
We observe mistrust, conflict and chaos around us. We see financial crisis as never before seen. We had heard earlier of individuals living beyond their means and corporate entities failing due to mismanagement.
Today, what we hear is of nations with debt burdens being helped over and over again to meet their commitments. In essence, these bail outs are done to prop up a global financial system that is vulnerable and failing, with cracks appearing on its very foundations.
It was appalling to see a reference to an article in the Huffington Post cited on the Face Book Blog site ‘Exposing the Truth’ the other day, that the US government had spent US $1 billion more than it does for NASA, the nation’s once much touted space programme.
“The Department of Defence spends $20 billion a year, just to air-condition tents and temporary buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s more than NASA’s entire $19 billion annual budget,” it said.
One only needs to switch on to community radio, critically evaluate what’s unfolding on our TV screens, read a spread of newspapers and journals, refer social media, study the scientific literature and listen to our own selves in deep meditation, assimilating all of what we have heard, seen and learnt to use it all to form common sense judgment of the health of the current world order that drive our lives.
Politics of poverty
Sadly, it is only a few among the world’s leadership, who call for real change in the world economic and social order. Yet, hope generated by them, still remain as voices in the wilderness or as empty words with no real action taken to give life to them. A good look at the stark facts of evidence on the politics of food shortages, poverty and climate change should give the world at large, ample justification for such call for a new vision and a new global social and economic order.
If we take our minds back to what the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Achim Steiner said, speaking at the launch of the ‘2010 report of the Millennium Development Goals Gap Task Force’ held in New York: “There is rapidly-growing evidence that accelerating a transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient, employment generating Green Economy may not only be the key to meeting sustainability challenges of the 21st century, but also provide a considerable contribution to meeting the other MDGs.”
At the same event his boss the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said to leaders of nations: “We must not balance our budgets on the backs of the poor.”
It certainly is much more than mere balancing of budgets. It is about potent action to cause real change by having a clear vision of a future for human kind, where the backs of the poor are straightened, so there cannot be anymore load placed on them. That, as desirable as it may deem, calls for genuine and honest effort by global leaders to create a new economic and social order.
A new order, that draws from voices of wisdom, different to what we have heard and known this far.
(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and again from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association(PATA) based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)