Conflict Trends 2020/Special Edition

We stand at a very uncertain future for humanity

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If the global coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it is that there is no them and us. The virus does not discriminate, and nature does not negotiate. That lethal combination does not bode well for our species. Currently, all indications point to the fact that millions of people across the world will be infected and that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more will die.

Families, villages, towns and cities will forever be changed. We are already faced with the stark and unsettling reality of rolling global lockdowns for almost half the world’s population. That schools, universities, shops, factories and offices could be closed down overnight has shaken us. Our very lives have been paused and, in some cases, entirely destroyed. Millions of people across the world are suddenly jobless and unable to make financial commitments to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table. In several countries, the army is out on the streets, enforcing soft and hard curfews. There is a palpable sense that the world has come undone. The ball of wool is unravelling right before our eyes as governments scramble to implement some form of universal basic income grant; previously reluctant employers are suddenly adopting work-from-home as the default option. 

In the late 1950s, environmentalist and author Rachel Carson published her research into the production and widespread use of synthetic pesticides in the United States of America (USA). Her book, titled Silent Spring, brought environmental concerns into the media and eventually the minds of the American public. It also brought a low-level media war with the public relations agencies of the chemical companies, but Carson fought on courageously and in the end, her work “spurred a reversal in the United States’ national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and helped to inspire an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency”.1

The Amazon rainforest – which plays a vital role in balancing the world’s climate and helping fight global warming – is also suffering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Deforestation increased by 55% in the first four months of 2020 compared with the same period last year, as people have taken advantage of the crisis to carry out illegal clearances.

Thus, the environment as an issue was firmly on the radar of the average middle-class American. Almost a decade later, as he left public office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the growing power of what he referred to as the “military–industrial complex” and its deepening influence on all of society. He highlighted that academic research was becoming less about knowledge and more about money and serving the capitalist and military class in society. He further warned us to “avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.”2 When we look around the world in 2020, it is patent that no one has listened to Eisenhower. 

We have consistently been using more than our fair share of natural resources, evidenced by Earth Overshoot Day3 drawing closer every year since measurements started in the 1970s. We have not only mortgaged the material assets of our grandchildren, we have shorted the futures on those mortgages and pre-sold them mountains of debt that they will never be able to repay. We have plundered centuries-old rainforests for wood and planted miles of monoculture palm oil plantations. We have drag-netted the seabeds and dumped islands of plastic in the Pacific. We have taken genetically modified organism (GMO)-based commercial farming to the level where we have drained every last nutrient from the soil. We have created so much industrial pollution that we can barely breathe in the major cities of the world. We have hunted and poached whole species to extinction and given our public water resources away to corporations to bottle in single-use plastic and sell back to us for a private profit. We have done a sterling job of not just ignoring Eisenhower’s warnings, but appear to have gone and done the opposite for each warning we were gifted. 

A Sapelli tree being cut into planks near Imbolo, Democratic Republic of the Congo (June 2018).
As more and more people get infected, medical staff have to endure long hours, intensifying conditions, and the fear of contracting the virus themselves.

The coronavirus has shown us very clearly that the biggest dangers we face are deeply related to the choices we make as human beings and how we choose to treat each other. Planting a tree instead of dropping a bomb is one such choice, and I applaud ACCORD and its partners for the Plant Trees Not Bombs campaign to plant more trees. Our collective human security depends on a cool planet, with clean air and minimal desertification. Planting more trees will address all those needs and add shade cover, ensure greater water security and less topsoil run-off, and add a positive aesthetic dimension to our lives that is not just sorely needed but is actually essential for our mental well-being.4 

Planting trees, however useful and powerful a gesture that it is, is only one among many other steps required to stem the downward environmental slide we are now on. We also need to challenge ourselves and our governments to move from focusing on the narrow military-based approach of national security to a deeper, wider and more long-term view of human security. We often miss the links between how we live and what this means for environmental destruction. It is difficult to see these connections when we are standing in the supermarket deciding on which brand of crisps to choose or shopping online for a new couch.
So, what is the connection between that new flat-pack table someone is about to buy on Amazon and disappearing forest cover in the Congo? A 2018 study published by the Royal Geographic Society makes that connection evident: “These findings suggest that US demand for furniture encourages Chinese economic actors to harvest timber from Congo Basin forests. Our results help to illuminate the complex environmental and economic drivers surrounding trade and deforestation and can help inform consumers about more sustainable ways to purchase wood products from one of the world’s preeminent biodiversity hotspots.”5

So, the seemingly innocent act of a person in San Francisco buying a new kitchen table is suddenly not so innocent. A table might have been just US$199 with delivery, but its real cost is much higher. And the flat-pack table has cost a generation of Congolese children the right to clean water, it has robbed them of the opportunity to wander along a forest path and sit in the cool shade of giant trees. It has robbed them of their very heritage and birthright. The coronavirus outbreak has sharpened the contradictions and fragilities of the capitalist system, exploiting the poor – who have no choice but to work in essential services jobs and sacrificing their lives for a 3% (or some other arbitrary number) growth rate of the economy. We now also see the essential people who are carrying the world’s economies – and it is not chief executive officers (CEOs) and vice presidents. It is the working class – the doctors, nurses, truck drivers and waste collectors. 

Humanity can view this opportunity that the coronavirus outbreak has given us to not fall back into old ways of being. We are regularly reminded that things cannot go back to normal – because normal was broken; normal was not working for everyone; normal was steadily denuding the planet of its ability to continue to sustain us. Normal was actually dysfunctional. The new normal is about both micro-consumerist changes as well as fundamental changes to all our economic systems, from the top all the way down.

We need to be honest with ourselves about what is important to our well-being and what constitutes a good or rich life, well beyond mere dollars and cents.6 

We have an opportunity to inspire subversion by creating and supporting mutual aid societies and supporting worker strikes, housing and tenant movements and local food security initiatives. We are at the point where we can build a decentralised, citizen-owned future7 envisioned in the Kilimanjaro Declaration – not just in Africa, but the whole world over. We face an existential crisis brought on by climate change. The mind-boggling growth in CO2 emissions, the warming planet evidenced by melting polar caps, widespread natural habitat destruction, species extinction, deepening droughts and terrifying levels of micro-plastics in our water resources are all too much to process. 

Instead of the knowledge of what is happening spurring us into action to radically alter our ways of living and consumption; we have collectively become even more lethargic. Instead of organising protests and demanding that water rights are not signed away to transnational corporations, we have opted to “Netflix and chill”. While we may feel powerless, we must be wary of seeing climate change as yet another stand-alone “issue” or something for the environmentalists to deal with. The only issue right now is our burning planet. If we fail to act, we will face the extinction of our species. 

We need to rethink and redefine what security means in the world today. There are indeed glimmers of hope for the future in the responses to the global coronavirus outbreak. Such hope is found in the Hawai’i State Commission on the Status of Women and its executive director, Khara Jabola-Carolus, who has rapidly co-developed and released a feminist economic recovery for COVID-19.8 The recovery plan takes a sober, timely and refreshing view that rather than rush to rebuild the status quo of inequality, we should encourage a deep structural transition to an economy that better values the work we know is essential in sustaining us. We should also address the crises in healthcare, social, ecological and economic policies laid bare by the pandemic. Economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb has proposed that a “antifragile country would encourage the distribution of power among smaller, more local, experimental, and self-sufficient entities – in short, build a system that could survive random stresses, rather than break under any particular one”.9

Both Jabola-Carolus and Taleb are advocating for radical restructuring of the USA and global economy. Such hopeful flickers of light in a post-COVID-19 economic rebuilding are echoed by United Cities and Local Governments’ (UCLG) recently released Decalogue for the post-COVID-19 era, declaring: “It is essential to ensure that the measures that need to be taken to address climate change carry on in the post COVID-19 world.”10 The UCLG Decalogue notes that economic recovery or restarting cannot come at the cost of the environment and makes reference to a bold global green deal. Emilia Saiz, secretary general of UCLG, echoes the human-centred approach of the Hawai’i State Commission on the Status of Women, talking about cutting down on emissions by adopting more remote work options that crucially contribute to more sustainable mobility models and reconcile work and personal life.

We have a window of opportunity – crystallised by the coronavirus outbreak – in which to act to restore the balance of how we utilise and consume the natural resources of the planet. If we want to ensure not just the survival of the planet but the survival of our very species, we must be as creative, bold and courageous as we can be. Take heart, though, if all the courage you can muster right now is to plant a tree – then that’s one of the simplest ways to make the future better, for all
of us. 

Kumi Naidoo is a South African Human Rights and Environmental Activist. He is currently Professor of Practice at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, Arizona State University, and a visiting Fellow at Oxford University. 

Endnotes

  1. Wikipedia (n.d.) ‘Silent Spring’, Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Spring> [Accessed 14 May 2020]
  2. Eisenhower, D.D. (1961) ‘Military-Industrial Complex Speech, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961’, Available at: <https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/eisenhower001.asp> [Accessed 13 May 2020]
  3. Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. See: Earth Overshoot Day (n.d.) ‘About Earth Overshoot Day’, Available at: <https://www.overshootday.org/about-earth-overshoot-day/>. [Accessed 10 May 2020]
  4. Johnston, I. (2013) ‘Human Brain Hard-wired for Rural Tranquillity’, Independent, 10 December, Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/human-brain-hard-wired-for-rural-tranquillity-8996368.html> [Accessed 13 May 2020]
  5. Full, T.L., Narins, T.P., Nackoney, J., Bonebrake, T.C., Clee, P.S., Morgan, K., Tróchez, A., Meñe, D.B., Bongwele, E., Njabo, K.Y., Anthony, N.M., Gonder, M.K., Kahn, M., Allen, W.R. and Smith, T.B. (2018) ‘Assessing the Impact of China’s Timber Industry on Congo Basin Land Use Change’, AREA, 51(2) (June 2019), pp. 340–349, Available at: <https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/area.12469> [Accessed 15 May 2020]
  6. The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) (2014) ‘Book Review: How Numbers Rule the World: The Use and Abuse of Statistics in Global Politics by Lorenzo Fioramonti’, LSE RB, 21 February, Available at: <https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2014/02/21/book-review-how-numbers-rule-the-world-by-lorenzo-fioramonti/> [Accessed 14 May 2020]
  7. Africans Arising for Justice, Peace & Dignity (n.d.) ‘The Kilimanjaro Declaration’, Available at:<https://www.africans-rising.org/the-kilimanjaro-declaration/> [Accessed 13 May 2020]
  8. Hawai’i State Commission on the Status of Women (2020) ‘Building Bridges, Not Walking on Backs: A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID-19’, Available at: <https://humanservices.hawaii.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/4.13.20-Final-Cover-D2-Feminist-Economic-Recovery-D1.pdf> [Accessed 15 May 2020]
  9. Avishai, B. (2020) ‘The Pandemic isn’t a Black Swan but a Portent of a More Fragile Global System’, The New Yorker, 21 April, Available at: <https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-pandemic-isnt-a-black-swan-but-a-portent-of-a-more-fragile-global-system> [Accessed 15 May 2020]
  10. United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) (n.d.) ‘Decalogue for the Post COVID-19 Era’, Available at: <https://www.uclg.org/sites/default/files/decalogue_for_the_post_covid-19_era.pdf> [Accessed 14 May 2020]
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