Towards a Social and Ecological Revolution to Save the World

Towards a Social and Ecological Revolution to Save the World

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March 20, 2007

Towards a Social and Ecological Revolution to Save the World
by Zeki Ergas,
March 7, 2007

What we know with frightening certainty in this early spring of 2007 is that humanity and possibly the planet itself are in serious trouble. So much so in fact that a respected British scientist has not hesitated to predict that mankind had no more than a 50 per cent chance to make it to the 22nd century. That appears to be an excessively pessimistic prediction at this point in time but it did remind me of Albany’s prophecy in King Lear, Humanity must perforce prey on itself / Like monsters of the deep which, it is true, has a different connotation. The reality is that many things have dramatically improved since the great Bard’s time, but at a cost, and perhaps at a terrible cost. So let us not fool ourselves: it is very possible – especially if one agrees with Hobbes (as most people do), rather than with Rousseau (who believed in the inherent goodness of men) — that humanity will in the end prove itself to be too greedy, too selfish, and, far worse, too stupid to do what it takes to save the species it belongs to, and the planet it lives on, from destruction. However, throwing in the towel and retiring on a desert island to wait quietly for the end not being exactly a constructive option, one has to participate in the perhaps futile or quixotic struggle to save mankind and the planet from annihilation. And, to be entirely honest, there are some encouraging signs that in that respect the pendulum may have stopped swinging in the wrong direction (that of thanatos), and may even have started, very timidly, to move in the right direction (that of eros).

But, what does that mean, concretely and in practical terms, doing what it takes to save humanity and the planet from destruction? I believe, in the main, the following. Until now, in what I will call the Old Era, the economic and political dimensions of life — that is, the production or output of goods and services — had priority and were determinant; henceforward, in the New Era, the ecological and social dimensions — that is, reaching and maintaining social and ecological balance or equilibrium — will have precedence and be decisive. That does not mean, of course, that the economic and political dimensions of life will no longer be important, they will, of course, but not at the expense of the social and ecological dimensions. This revolutionary transformation of human society will obviously be difficult and gradual. But, ultimately, I will, as it has to, involve: one, a significant narrowing of the ‘great divide’ between the rich and the poor, including the eradication of extreme poverty; and two, the protection of the environment, or of Nature, or indeed, of the planet itself. So, in final analysis, the ultimate goal will be building a human civilisation based on peace, justice, solidarity and frugality. Will mankind succeed in its quest to meet this critical and crucial challenge? Will it, in other words, ‘win’ this essential and existential battle? There are, of course — human beings being fallible and flawed — no guarantees in human affairs; many things can go wrong, and they will, as they often have in the past. But, I believe, the odds are slightly in favour of mankind getting it right in the end, and saving itself and the planet, if only because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

The Old Era: the Terrible Truth

The Old Era goes all the way back to the discovery of agriculture between the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates, in the Mesopotamian Crescent, perhaps some thirteen thousand years ago. Until the Industrial Revolution that began in the middle of the 18th century change was gradual and incremental. The rapid modernisation that accompanied it resulted in great social, economic and political progress and represents what the physicists call a quantum jump. But (and that is a very big but) that great progress was achieved at the cost of enormous human suffering, and injustice for the majority of the world’s population, benefiting mostly a relatively small minority of perhaps 20 per cent of the world’s population. And, in a world presently in thrall of neo-liberal globalisation, that suffering and injustice still go on. That certainly explains, in large part, the fierce resistance to it in many parts of the world, especially in Latin America.1

I – What the Philosophers of the Genocide Think

I have argued elsewhere that extreme poverty can be compared to a genocide by omission. 3 Below, I present some very hard observations and comments made by a number of philosophers who specialize on genocide (by commission):

‘Human beings are capable of great evil … There is virtually no limit to human folly and lust for power.’

The main engine of modern industrial civilisation may be hell bent on self-destruction … Unchecked economism, rapacious exploitation, and the global industrialisation program … are unsustainable … The dominance of the idea of unlimited growth (cancerous economics), the immiseration of the many for the sake of the few, the shameless excessive consumption of the privileged, all conspire against the establishment of a rational society in balance with nature, human requirements, and the individual pursuit of personal fulfilment …

Humanity is engaged in a kind of systematic lunatic denial of what is actually happening. … Social and economic inequalities … continue to increase, not decrease or stop altogether, as the 21st century unfolds.

The shame which the just man experiences when confronted by a crime committed by another … is the shame of a bystander, who, instead of doing something to prevent a crime or to interrupt it, allows the crime to occur. We are diminished by having failed to act or by being the heirs or perhaps beneficiaries of such omissions … More realistic is self-accusation, or the accusation of having failed in terms of human solidarity. … There is another, vaster shame, the shame of the world. Citing John Donne, we live together and we are responsible one for another, “… every bell tolls for everyone”. Each of us is called to do what we can to care for the suffering and the hungry. There is an ocean of pain in the world.

One standard of failure is the standard of responsibility for the life and well-being of others, responsibility to care for the needy and aid the suffering. The problem remains that denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good. … We are the masters of the art of pretending not to know what we cannot help knowing. If we remain deaf to the endless cry, it means we are pretending not to hear.

But there are many people who are trying to stop the machine, or at least to slow it down so that the drivers can come to their senses … Are resisters a tiny and insignificant minority? Can we reverse the forces that now govern the world? We must believe that resistance is possible. Then we must make that belief the basis of our philosophy and our lives. … Not only are there many NGOs that do have deep commitments to humanitarian causes, but those organisations, along with many governmental ones, are staffed by individuals who often display immense courage, persistence and resilience in battling against war, injustice and greed.

Crucial needs include political, economic and educational aid – somewhat along the lines of a post-Second World War Marshall Plan – to defuse potentially genocidal situations.’

II Two Case Studies: Dubai and the Nigerian Delta

Dubai is no exception, of course. That oil-rich Persian Gulf (United Arab) Emirate is fairly representative of other states of the Gulf as well: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, for example. Dubai has recently embarked on a number of development projects that a Swiss journalist has qualified as ‘pharaonique’ (‘worthy of a pharaoh’). Among projects already completed are: ‘The Palm Jumeirah’, a huge artificial island in the shape of a palm tree ‘whose fronds offer beach-front lots for 4,000 villas and apartments (which sell for $ 7 million to $ 30 million)’; the ‘Mall of the Emirates’, ‘a 2.4-million-square-foot behemoth (that) features an indoor ski slope’; and the Burj al Arab mega hotel where ‘diamond-encrusted cell phones do a brisk business at $10,000 apiece.’ At planning phase, or in construction, are: ‘The Palm Deira’ and ‘The Palm Jebel Ali’ (which are similar to ‘The Palm Jumeirah’, except that they are but much bigger); and ‘The World’, a ‘man-made archipelago’ which consists of 300 artificial islands which sell for an average of 30 million dollars each. Now the flip side, so to speak: ‘In squalid neighbourhoods tens of thousands of guest workers live. The labourers barracks stood among many battered, squat buildings along a dirt and gravel road littered with garbage … The average labourer makes about five dollars a day, working 12-hour shifts in scorching heat (Human Rights Watch reported nearly 900 construction deaths in 2004, including deaths from heat stroke.) … In the process … Dubai has killed coral, destroyed turtle nesting sites, and upset the marine ecology of the western Persian Gulf. And behind the glittering skyscrapers lies a late-night world of fleabag hotels and prostitutes, Indian and Russian mobsters, money launderers, and smugglers of everything from guns and diamonds to human beings. … (A)t the Cyclone Club, the prostitutes on hand hailed from Moldova, Russia, China, eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and various countries in East Africa. … Most of the city’s work is performed by foreigners, who now outnumber natives eight to one.’ 5

The story of the Nigerian Delta is even worse: ‘After 50 years of oil, Port Harcourt in southern Nigeria still looks and smells like a shantytown. Smoke from a slaughterhouse drifts over shops thrown up on a riverbank. … Oil fouls everything in southern Nigeria. It spills from the pipelines, poisoning soil and water … Dense, garbage-heaped slums stretch for miles … Streets are cratered with potholes and ruts. Vicious gangs roam the school grounds. Peddlers and beggars rush up to vehicles stalled in gas lines. This is Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil hub, capital of Rivers State, smack-dab in the middle of oil reserves bigger than the United States’ and Mexico’s combined. … Beyond the city, within a labyrinth of creeks, rivers and pipeline channels that vein the delta; … villages and towns cling to the banks, little more than heaps of mud-walled huts and rusty shacks. Groups of hungry, half-naked children and sullen, idle adults wander dirt paths. There is no electricity, no clean water, no medicine, no schools. Fishing nets hang dry; dugout canoes sit unused on muddy banks. Decades of oil spills, acid rain from gas flares … have killed the fish. … Corruption siphons off as much as 70 per cent of annual oil revenues … Blame for the lack of development lie with the international oil firms and the government, partners in onshore operations. … Fighters with MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) brandish weapons near their camp. Insurgents vow to shut off the oil if calls for local control of resources aren’t met. … It stains the hands of the politicians and generals, who siphon off its profits … When the oil curse began …Nigeria was still a British colony. Independence (came) in 1960 … In subsequent decades, the oil companies, led by five multinational firms – Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Italy’s Agip, and Exxon Mobil and Chevron from the U.S. – transformed a remote, nearly inaccessible wetland into industrial wilderness. The imprint: 4,500 miles of pipelines, 159 oil fields, and 275 flow stations, their gas flares visible day and night from miles away. Shell and the other multinationals (earned) record profits in 2006 … The deepwater fields are attracting aggressive new investors as well. China, India and South Korea, … (are) buying stakes in Nigeria’s offshore blocks. What has not changed is what an International Crisis Group calls a ‘cancer of corruption’… ‘the institutionalised looting of national wealth. … The cataclysm is upon the delta. … No solution seems in sight for the Niger Delta.

III – A Plutocracy to Run the World?

Last year’s list of the 400 richest Americans revealed that for the first time in 2006 a minimum of $ 1 billion was needed to make it into the most exclusive club in the United States. 6 The exact number European billionaires is not known because, unlike their American counterparts, they dislike to flaunt their wealth; however, their number can be conservatively estimated to more than 200 (there are 55 in Germany alone according to Forbes Magazine). There may be an additional 150 billionaires in the so-called BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia (53) China and India; which leaves some 200 for the rest of the world, including Japan, Canada, Australia and the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The total number of billionaires in 2006, according to Forbes is 946. My personal guess is that there are probably more than a thousand because: one, their number is growing very fast; and two, the extremely rich are very good at concealing some of their wealth (thanks to offshore banking and the banking secrecy laws). Moreover, that number is expected to double in the next ten years or so, perhaps earlier. That said, the more than a thousand billionaires in the world are only the tip of the iceberg, far more numerous are the multi-millionaires whose wealth is between, say, $ 50 million and $ 1 billion. The multi-millionaires are the billionaires of the future.

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