11 April 2007

Bursting at the Seams

"Let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests, and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity, for in the final analysis our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's future, and we are all mortal."

Bursting at the SeamsSo concluded Professor Jeffrey Sachs in the first of this year's Reith lectures this morning, after asking some challenging questions about the geo-political problems facing our generation as a result of living in an unprecedentedly crowded world:

Can it be true that because we don't want to talk to Iran, H5N1 won't pass through Iran, we won't have to deal with avian 'flu in places we don't want to speak to, because we put on pre-conditions to negotiations, that we can't see the commonality of our problems? And can it really be, ladies and gentlemen, that the solution to Darfur, one of the most urgent crises on the planet, is all about peacekeepers and troops and sanctions, when we know that in Western Darfur the rebellion started because this is just about the poorest place on the whole planet, where the rebellion started because there's not enough water to keep people alive, where the livestock have no veterinary care, where there's no basic infrastructure, where a power grid may be a thousand miles away? Can we really think that peacekeeping troops and sanctions will solve this problem?

And how can it be, ladies and gentlemen, that we think we can be safe? We think we can be safe when we leave a billion people to struggle literally for their daily survival, the poorest billion for whom every day is a fight to secure enough nutrients, a fight against the pathogen in the water that can kill them or their child, a fight against a mosquito bite carrying malaria or another killer disease for which there's no medicine though the medicines exist and are low cost but there's no medicine in the village available to save the child and thus a million or two million children will die this year of malaria. How can we think that this can be safe? And how can we choose, as we do in the United States, to have a budget request this year of six hundred and fifty billion dollars for the military - more than all the rest of the world combined - and four and a half billion dollars for all of African assistance, and think that this is prudent? One might say oh it's a science fiction that a zoonotic disease could arise and somehow spread to the world, except that Aids is exactly that. How many examples do we need to understand the linkages, and the common threats, and the recklessness of leaving people to die, recklessness in spirit, in human heart, and in geo-political safety for us?
However, despite Sachs' infectious optimism, like a number of people in the audience, I felt that the kind of "gradual evolution in human institutions" that Sachs is calling for if mankind is to rise to these great global challenges requires too much faith in intergovernmental institutions and a step change in human nature which is simply not going to happen.  Any thoughts anyone?


Tim P said...

Sachs' thesis also supposes the threats of tomorrow will be no worse than those of today, whereas an MOD report quoted in Monday's Guardian makes clear that the world is changing faster than any of us can keep up. The article begins:

“Information chips implanted in the brain. Electromagnetic pulse weapons. The middle classes becoming revolutionary, taking on the role of Marx's proletariat. The population of countries in the Middle East increasing by 132%, while Europe's drops as fertility falls. "Flashmobs" - groups rapidly mobilised by criminal gangs or terrorists groups. This is the world in 30 years' time envisaged by a Ministry of Defence team responsible for painting a picture of the "future strategic context" likely to face Britain's armed forces.”

Cranmer said...

Professor Sachs falls into the trap of articulating an apparently enlightened socio-political lietmotif, while understanding little of the contemporary context. He is suggesting a modern solution to a postmodern problem.

He fails to understand that postmodernity repudiates foundationalism; it dispenses with the idea that knowledge can be erected on a bedrock of indubitable first principles, nor, indeed, can it emanate from any single institution. All knowledge is subjective, and subjectivity has become truth. This may not be comfortable to hear, but it is the reality.

Postmodernism does not regard positivistic, rationalistic and instrumental criteria as the sole or exclusive standard of knowledge or social progress. Rationalism and foundationalism are undermined. There are no longer any universal intellectual tools such as logic, and there are no indubitable first principles from which to interpret ideas or experience. The fundamental basis of science is questioned or abandoned; indeed, the further one progresses in scientific investigation the less one can claim pure objectivity in the formulation of what is known. In the postmodern era, truth is encountered emotionally and intuitively as well as rationally.

Professor Sachs attempts to formulate a global strategy for the earthly salvation of mankind, but in the postmodern era the construction of meta-narratives becomes impossible, since to do so is to resort to the outdated confines of modernity. There is now a shift from the muffled majesty of grand narratives to the splintered autonomy of micro-narratives. There is now an undeniable focus on the self, and how the self is expressed, and modes of self-expression relate supremely to the religious realm. In this tension, if the individual is expressed anywhere, it is supremely as consumer, noting the slogan ‘free to choose’ has become part of the postmodern creed.

Spirituality has become a consumer item. Indeed, choice, rather than constraint, has become almost creedal. In an era typified by fragmentation and superficiality, the call to set aside that which divides and focus on that which unites is brave, but it comes in direct challenge to the zeigeist, and therefore ceases to communicate anything meaningful in a disparate and divided world.

Indie Jones said...

Check out Dominic Lawson in The Independent, who refutes the economist's whole premise: 'Humanity has consistently demonstrated that there is no causal link between population growth and increasing poverty. Our numbers are higher than they have ever been - and the average member of our species has never been further from starvation. As Indur Goklany points out, "Since 1950 the global population has increased by 150 per cent, but at the same time the real price of food commodities has declined 75 per cent... average daily food supplies per person in developing countries increased by 38 per cent."'