On November 15, Przewodów, a village on the outskirts of Poland neighbouring Ukraine, was reportedly struck by a missile. Early reports hinted at the possibility of the missile being of Russian make. For a heartstopping moment, it felt like the war in Ukraine was about to spill into Europe. If Russia went to war with Europe and Nato got dragged in, this could mean another world war. If the First World War was called the great war, this one could be dubbed the greatest or the last. A 2019 YouTube documentary by “Kurzgesagt — In a Nutshell”, reportedly made in consultation with scientists, claims there are about 15,000 nuclear weapons on the planet and around 4500 cities with a population of 100 thousand or more. It takes three nukes to destroy such a city, and at this rate, after destroying every one of them, you will still be left with 1,500 warheads to spare. If you think living outside cities will save you, don’t kid yourself. If radiation doesn’t kill you, hunger and disease most certainly will. That’s all, folks!
Mercifully the dogs of a wider war were thwarted by the revelation that the missile was of Ukrainian origin and had been mistakenly fired in the wrong direction. But this incident reminded us how close we are as a civilisation to the precipice. It took me back to 2016 when India claimed it had carried out a surgical strike in Azad Kashmir. Waking to the news, one could not be sure what would come next. Both countries are nuclear powers, and if Pakistan accepted this claim at face value, it could lead to a full-fledged conflict with the ensuing conflict’s potential to go nuclear. I think I have mentioned it in this space before, and to a father’s shame, that it was for the first time in their life, I looked at my children, whom I dote on, and asked myself if bringing them into this dystopian world was such a great idea. Another small mercy of life that Pakistan did not take this claim at face value and did what it could to expose the Indian propaganda. But the helplessness I felt on this occasion left its mark.
November 15, incidentally, was also the date when the eight-billionth baby was born on this planet; some say in Manila, Philippines, others say in the Dominican Republic. But we know the human population has crossed the 8 billion mark. And what a time to do that. Our world is getting more unstable with every passing day. Climate change is already rocking our boat. Humanity just emerged out of a pandemic that all but paralysed us. The inflationary supercycle has already made life difficult. And while we examine the prospects of another global economic depression, we are informed by the UK’s Chancellor of Exchequer that his country is already in recession. Remember the term I borrowed from the late Mark Fisher a few months ago? Slow cancellation of the future? When a generation is raised with the hope of a great future only to find it all disappear into wisps of smoke. Well, that slow cancellation is upon us.
Consider this. My generation (Gen X)’s childhood was consumed by the ravages of the cold war and adult life grappling with the consequences of the cold war (read the war on terror). Millennials (Gen Y) bore the brunt of the great recession of 2007. Now through the pandemic and all this mess, we are wrecking the future of another generation — Gen Z. Only time will tell what comes next. Remember, billionaires only got more prosperous during the great recession, the pandemic and even now. We, the common folk, are asked to pay for all this through our shattered dreams and adjustment to the gig economy.
We can all take solace in the fact that the world we live in is less violent than in the past. In his brilliant work, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Dr Steven Pinker does an incredible job of not only documenting the sheer volume of violence in the past to show dramatically it has declined but also explaining why it is so in terms of biochemical changes in the brain through the ages. Anybody interested in the subject must read this book. Especially the way Dr Pinker proposes to tackle our five inner demons that lead to violence, namely predation, dominance, desire for revenge, sadism and ideology, is worth your time. But let’s face it. Violence worldwide might have gone down, but it has not been abolished. What is more, if you are talking about a world at risk of nuclear annihilation, a large-scale onslaught of hunger and poverty and major man-made climatic catastrophes, you are merely counting small victories right now.
The worst news from all significant flashpoints like Ukraine, Taiwan, Kashmir, Middle East, North Korea, Iran and the Twitter headquarters is that there is no easy solution. These active and latent conflicts have grown without any off switch, a reset button, or guardrails. From G7 to G20, from the UN to other fora, all institutions meant to ensure collective security, close cooperation, and reconciliation are struggling to stay relevant. When the rich and the powerful choose not to behave, good-faith actors can only gawk in horror. If you want to see how the rich and powerful evade responsibility, look at the recent FTX crypto crash.
While ordinary folks might have been lured into investing in such shoddy schemes, the founding principle of the much-hyped crypto-rush seems to be the protection of billionaires’ wealth from state entities by parking it in the ether. Something taught to them by the Russian oligarchs? That would explain the callousness with which some billionaires are ready to bulldoze everything democratic. And common johnnies invest thinking if their idols are investing here, it must be the hot new thing. How would they know they are only keeping their idol’s side hustles afloat and might soon be conned out of their life’s savings? More and worst subprime assets for you, then. Back to square 2007.
Every time a big crisis is averted, we heave a sigh of relief. But every tradeoff ends up being as bad. Through interventions, you might save the economy from a meltdown, a business from going under or people from losing jobs, but their safety nets are gone, and their growth plans, including children’s college funds. The world needed to wake up by now. It shows no signs of doing so. Consequently, the future we could rely on is already gone. Consider the future cancelled.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 19th, 2022.