By. Dr. Chandra Muzaffar*
For the first time in history the human family as a single entity is faced with multiple global crises, each of which has far-reaching implications for the future of our species. These crises are not just the consequences of specific events or even systemic flaws in say the global economic architecture. They are related to fundamental values and deeply entrenched worldviews. The solutions to these crises may require an unprecedented paradigm shift— a radical shift in the way in which we look at ourselves, at others, and at the planet that we inhabit.
There is first the environmental crisis which has many dimensions to it. Global warming and climate change which is the current focus could lead to rise in sea levels and flooding and subsequent inundation of human habitats. There could also be changes in agricultural yields and droughts. The ranges of disease vectors could also increase as a result of global warming. Even certain species could go extinct.
Droughts, linked to climate change, have been cited as one of the reasons for the current food crisis. The conversion of food crops to bio-fuel on a massive scale in countries like Brazil and the United States is yet reason for the present food shortage. Neo-liberal capitalist policies which advocate the opening up of agricultural economies in the Global South to the importation of subsidised foods often from the Global North have also led to the decline of food production in various countries in Africa. The upshot of it all is the spread of hunger and malnutrition within the poorer segments of their population.
The ordeal of the global poor has become worse partly because of the energy crisis. As the price of fuel escalates, it is not just the abysmally poor that suffer but also sections of the middle-class who struggle to make ends meet. Speculation on fuel prices is undoubtedly one of the principal causes of the continuous increase in the price of the commodity, just as speculation on food prices, it is alleged, has played some role in their hike. The steep decline in the value of the US dollar is an equally valid explanation for the increase in the price of fuel. Increasing energy consumption among the expanding middle and upper classes in China and India would be yet another factor.
The decline of the US dollar is central to the global financial crisis, our fourth crisis. In fact, the dollar links our third and fourth crises. As we have hinted, the declining dollar with its adverse impact upon fuel and food prices has increased the cost of living in many parts of the world. More than the declining dollar, it is the dominance of speculative capital in global financial transactions which has brought misery and suffering to millions of people as economies are destroyed and livelihoods wrecked. This is borne out by the negative consequences of the rapid entry and exit of speculative capital into various markets in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Russia in the course of the last 15 or 20 years.
Apart from the four crises outlined here— environmental, food, energy and financial (EFEF)— there are other global crises that should also be highlighted. The possession and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and indeed of all weapons of mass destruction, is a blight upon the human race. Narrow, exclusive identity consciousness has become stronger and stronger in almost every nook and cranny of the planet. The family as an institution appears to have lost its inner cohesion and strength in many different cultures right across the globe.
The various crises that confront humankind at this stage of our history are, as we have observed, inter-linked and inter-connected. In some instances, wrong policies and distorted priorities explain the crises that challenge us. In other instances, the dominant ideology of the day is the primary cause. In this regard, neo-liberal capitalism, the unofficial credo of the planet, with its emphasis upon private gain as against the public good, has undoubtedly eroded the ethical foundation of contemporary civilization. It has legitimized greed and selfishness as no other ideology has in history. The earlier phases of capitalism were less centered on the self, compared to its present phase. It is largely because of the worldview, the structures of power and the notion of the self associated with neo-liberal capitalism that humankind today is faced with a whole spectrum of crises of global proportions.
Can the human family get out of this morass? We can of course tinker with the existing system, make some superficial changes here and there but the underlying causes of our myriad crises will persist. For instance, we can limit greenhouse emissions to check global warming in the present context but if we want to ensure a sustainable, livable environment for future generations, the upper stratum of society will have to alter dramatically its consumption pattern and opt for a modest lifestyle, devoid of extravagance and opulence. Similarly, we can check speculation through taxation and circuit-breakers but if we do not adopt concrete measures to curb the accumulation of wealth by a few, greed will continue to express itself as a destructive social force. We can eliminate nuclear weapons but if we do not build trust among nations and peoples and nurture a profound respect for the sacredness of life, our fears and our insecurities will compel us to invent new and more terrible weapons of mass annihilation.
To curb greed and selfishness, to cultivate trust and respect, society needs to develop a strong moral and spiritual foundation. The various crises that face us today reveal that contemporary civilization is in no position to achieve that spiritual and moral transformation that will lift us out of this morass. History has shown us that it is only when spiritual and moral values are firmly anchored in a transcendent force —— a force that goes beyond the human being —— that they will have the power and the potency to transform civilization. This is why in seeking solutions to the challenges of our time we should with all humility re-connect with the Transcendent, with the Divine. As the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, the late Dag Hammarskjold once put it, “On the bookshelf of life, God is a useful work of reference, always at hand but seldom consulted.”
*Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) and Professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia