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21st century's big question: Will world handle unprecedented, human-made survival crisis?

By Bharat Dogra 

As the year 2000 dawned, thoughtful people of planet earth were filled with concern that this may prove to be the most challenging, difficult and possibly the most high-risk century their planet has ever seen as enough evidence was available by then that the basic life-nurturing conditions can be disrupted by serious environmental problems (led by climate change) as well as by weapons of mass destruction. There was rising concern that world leadership is not prioritizing this most urgent issue of a survival crisis, and several smaller groups of thoughtful people tried to usher in the right priorities by issuing several appeals which however failed to have the desired impact on world leadership.
The situation deteriorated rapidly with a horrible terrorist attack using four hijacked airplanes in the USA in September 2001. While several aspects of these attacks were never explained properly despite very detailed official investigations being conducted, these attacks were used as a pretext for launching a series of attacks on several countries. Together called the War on Terror, these ill-conceived attacks led to immense destruction and rapid deterioration of the condition of people in several countries, set new records for unilateral arbitrary aggressions and led, directly and indirectly, to at least 4.5 million deaths, apart from displacing nearly 40 million people.
At the same time there were several outbreaks of widespread civil strife in many countries already experiencing extreme levels of huger and famines, caused partly by international and local injustices and partly by climate change. These were most concentrated in Africa but not confined to just there. Superpower rivalries and interventions also played a role in aggravating conflict. Humanitarian agencies faced increasing difficulties in raising adequate resources for relief and in taking this to the most needy.
As a result about 22 million human lives are likely to have been lost in war, civil strife, related hunger/famine and breakdown of essential services, or about one million lives per year in the 21st century so far. An overwhelming majority of these deaths were avoidable.
Most natural disasters became increasingly more destructive. While the worsening of floods, landslides, hurricanes/cyclones, heat waves, wild fires and droughts in times of climate change was expected, for some reason earthquakes have also been very destructive. The aggravation of natural disasters has also been related to several other man-made factors (other than climate change).
While some scientists warned that humanity has only a short time left to escape the worst of climate change, others cautioned that planetary boundaries were being transgressed relating to other aspects of environment too. While countless millions suffered worsening dangerous impacts of air and water pollution, water scarcity and soil degradation in more obvious ways, scientists warned about the less obvious threats arising in oceans, even space. Groups of scientists have also issued warnings about the serious hazards relating to AI, genetic modification and several other technologies being pushed in a hurry.
In such conditions it has been becoming all the more necessary to provide relief to ordinary people by increasing policies and programs based on equality and justice, but unfortunately in the greater part of the world workers, small farmers and overall the bottom 50% of the population have faced increased difficulties. Inequalities have increased greatly, and so has luxury consumption in the midst of the increasing economic difficulties of a majority of people.
Checking climate change and other serious environmental problems would also benefit from reduction of economic inequalities and the luxury consumption these encourage. However despite such increasing need for more equality, the world has so far seen further increase of inequalities at various levels. The number of billionaires as well as the share of wealth captured by them has increased in recent years like never before.
The increasing grip on policy by the richest section has led to protection and promotion of their interests. Some of the biggest multinational companies have continued to increase their baneful impact on policy leading to accentuation of environmental problems and serious hazards. The fossil fuel giants have manipulated to continue their high profits despite the established need to curtail their operations in a big way. Above all the arms industry has been increasing its influence on policy makers to not just increase its business but even to promote more aggressive policies likely to result in new wars or prolonging of ongoing ones. The military industrial complex in the most powerful countries has been emerging as not just a means of war but also as a cause of war, a very important factor responsible for making wars more likely, frequent and longer. Such pernicious impacts of powerful interests have been able to increase because of increasing corruption of political systems, with growing collusion between the most powerful corporate and political interests.
Democracy at world level has been steadily in decline with examples of genuine democracy being more of an exception and increasingly hard to find. This is equally true of western countries with high levels of education, countries which were supposed to be the leaders of democracy, but appear to be showing an exaggerated interest in being judgmental about others rather than looking inwards. What has been deeply disturbing is that when genuinely democratic governments have come up after fighting difficult electoral struggles, these often face too many hurdles and problems, including from beyond their borders.
Imperialism has continued to play a deeply disturbing role, and its largely self-inflicted wounds appear to have made it even more dangerous in the short-term.
This has been reflected in the consistent trend of eastward expansion of NATO, ignoring all previous promises made to Russia, ignoring the advice of even senior western diplomats, endangering security interests of Russia. This as well as a US-engineered coup in Ukraine and attacks on Russian language people living in this country culminated in a proxy war. In this context several strategic experts have said that very dangerous brinkmanship has been seen, bringing the world closer to nuclear war and a third world war than ever before. The risks of the USA initiating a war against China, a country seen as its biggest emerging rival, have also increased,
Thus while the 21st century started with the big question mark of how the world will handle an unprecedented, human-made survival crisis, the history of the first 22 years and four months reveals that the world leadership has been extremely incapable of following the path of peace, justice, democracy and environment protection which is needed for resolving the crisis before it is too late. A big path correction is needed as early as possible, which should have room for out-of-box solutions to cope with unprecedented problems.
The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children, Earth without Borders and A Day in 2071



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