The modern world economy is characterised by ravaging of natural resources and over-dependence of economies on each other. It is, in the long run, essentially unsustainable. Driven by political jingoism and vague notions as ‘conquest of nature’, the modern economy seems to be guided by the principle that the more complex and automated and bigger a system, the better it is. The reality is the other way round.
Nothing illustrates the fragility of human societies better than pandemics. Guided by the inductive reasoning of our sciences, we humans love positing our assumptions about the world and ourselves as being inviolable. Our social structures are built likewise. We have always assumed that increasing complexities and connectedness are invariably indicative of an improving and a better world. Many a time you would have come across people making remarks like ‘world is shrinking now’, ‘world has become a global village’, ‘humans have become more like machines now’, etc, in a boastful manner without taking into consideration the risks which these developments have brought.
And then, a virus like corona comes up, which makes us re-evaluate all of our assumptions. The swift spread of coronavirus to almost every nook and corner of the world today is something truly unfound in human history. Inferring from the number of humans infected by the virus and its steady increase (in case no vaccine is developed) the coronavirus becomes comparable in its severity only to the Spanish Flu which engulfed the world from 1918 to 1919 with the ongoing first world war facilitating its spread mainly through military personnel and infecting one-third of the then world population.
Although many governments and corporations, after the pandemic outbreak, started referring to COVID-19 in their public statements as a Black Swan Event (a totally unpredictable event with catastrophic consequences) but thinkers as Nassim Taleb (who popularised the term ‘Black Swan’ with his 2007 book of the same name) debunked these claims saying they are doing so to cover up their ill-preparedness.
Corona instead is a Grey Swan Event (a somewhat predictable event with far-reaching consequences) as pandemics have been striking human civilisations intermittently throughout history. With governments around the world hiding true statistics, Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Zizek highlights the importance of the once famous Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, in bringing truth to the public. But maybe the swift spread of the virus is attributable to the very structure of the world today. The virus has exposed the fragility of human society at a cardinal level.
Post industrialisation and particularly after the end of Second World War, human societies/countries have integrated at a historically unprecedented level and become over-dependent on each other, particularly economically. For instance, for the first time in history, the price of OPEC oil barrels hit zero and then slid into the negative – which means that the oil producer actually has to pay to the consumer as disposing of such environmentally harmful product attracts huge penalties. The majority of the OPEC’s buyers are foreign countries and when vehicles went off the roads in these countries, the demand for OPEC’s oil almost shrunk to zero.
Globalisation has its merits and simply cannot be ‘done away with’. But it also has made world economies far more fragile than earlier. Granted, no economy in the world can function as ‘self sufficient’, but integration with other economies comes with a cost, too, which in case of a export-dominant economy will plummet down in event of a pandemic. Such an economy if not supplemented by local produces/industries is bound to be doomed. At a micro-level, same can be said of individual consumers as well. Families which cultivated fruits and vegetables in their kitchen gardens found it way too easier to procure essentials during lockdown compared to families which didn’t.
The modern world economy is characterised by ravaging of natural resources and over-dependence of economies on each other. It is, in the long run, essentially unsustainable. Driven by political jingoism and vague notions as ‘conquest of nature’, the modern economy seems to be guided by the principle that the more complex and automated and bigger a system, the better it is. The reality is the other way round. If coronavirus had emerged from some African or Asian economy which isn’t as huge as China, then this pandemic would not have spread at such a large scale. China has trade relations with majority of the world and trade/people exchange acts as a vector. The more complex a system, the more fragile it is. Also, the bigger system thrives at the expense of smaller ones. As Ernst Schumacher remarks in his great work ‘Small Is Beautiful’: “Any intelligent fool can make things more complex and more violent but it takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction”.
Simple microscopic life forms like bacteria, protozoa and viruses also possess many a distinction over and above the higher mammal life. The catastrophe which wiped out dinosaurs and along with it around 95% species inhabiting the world, microbes survived even that. Microscopic life thrives even in the most unlikely of places and that’s the reason why most space probes search for microscopic life at first, even in the harshest of environments. A simple Lindy Effect is at play here – which in simple terms means that a system/ idea/ organisation which has survived for a longer period of time is likely to survive more. The natural world excluding humans as such has an upper hand as it has been around since the past 500+ million years while the modern industrial civilisation of humans is only about 400-500 years old.
What is harmful for humans need not to be so for the entire planet, but on the contrary may be beneficial. This is evident in the decreasing levels of pollutions worldwide due to the lockdown or other mammal species ‘reclaiming’ their spaces. If we want our ‘progress’ to be sustainable then we must synchronise it not only with our interests but of the world at large. We need this planet for our survival, not vice versa.
The fragility of human structures is likely to increase with their increasing complexities and this fragility is not restricted to economic and social spheres only. The political quagmires created out of large political-ideological factions which not only hijack local political movements but also turn them into proxy wars are undeniable examples of the dangers of political over-connectedness.
Perhaps the shamans were right: anything in excess of needs is poison. It may include food, power, ambition, or connectedness, complexity, the conquering of nature (and disregard for it) and social organisation. As such, a little humility in the face of the gigantic powers of nature, the unpredictability of the world, and innumerable black and grey swans waiting to confront us, would go a long way.
The writer is a student of Management at Aligarh Muslim University