Internet straw polls on the post-coronavirus world confirm what is generally accepted, that there's no going back to business-as-usual. An existential threat has forced us to introspect and prioritise human lives over economic imperatives. We are thinking of ourselves not merely as consumers or producers of goods and services, but as citizens.
For many of us, the time-out from the rat-race is an opportunity to reconnect with human values and reimagine our world. To begin with, it means overcoming the soulless grammar of economics, which reduces us all to “human capital”. Governments must “invest” in education and healthcare in order to “accumulate” human capital. In other words, upgrading the quality of society's human components is fundamental to extracting “value” from them.
The toxic air we breathe, the stink from our water bodies, the mass death of honey bees from pesticides are not abominations, but “externalities”, side-effects of economic activity. The farmer's field is no longer fertile, fragrant earth; it is a “factor of production”. Ironically, economists have historically appropriated terms from the natural world (“green shoots” to signify economic recovery and “animal spirits” to evoke entrepreneurial confidence), which is itself commodified in the worst possible ways.
It is a language that reduces the “last man” to a statistic. Confronted with a visual of a skeletal baby, it is all too easy to retire behind an impenetrable emotional barrier of pie-charts and graphs on the incidence of malnutrition. This in turn will show up on someone's desktop as an “HDI (human development index)” indicator, to be featured in a World Bank report and finally, in an aid package for an LDC (least developed country) in Sahelian Africa.
The studied impersonality of numbers and macro-economic indicators covers up the worst excesses of our economic order – the inequalities, the violations of civil rights, the displacement of millions – and deifies profit as the ultimate index of human achievement. Even generosity/philanthropy consists of “giving back” a fraction of super-profits to the people from whom they were wrested in the first place.
For all too long, we have not taken taken exception to this trivialisation of ourselves. We have accepted the dictum that Homo economicus is somehow a superior version of Homo sapiens, that the currency of humanity has little value vis-à-vis the ever-accelerating flows of capital around the world.
Unsurprisingly, when confronted with the most critical challenge of our times, climate change, the laissez-faire pundits look for market-based solutions, in which communities do not figure. Thus, the carbon market or emissions trading system, based on the polluter pays principle. It proved a win-win for carbon billionaires who enriched themselves while waving their green credentials, but greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise inexorably. The pundits therefore fell back on the formulaic prescription of “sustainable development”. The term is an oxymoron, given our current understanding of development as an energy-intensive means of improving the quality of life.
As consumers, we have been fed on a steady diet of the free lunch mentality, a distorted version of the American Dream. We have been told that technology delivered us from the Malthusian doomsday scenario, by increasing food production a hundred-fold. Thus, we need not place any limits on consumption. And so we accustomed ourselves to poisoned air, water and food, as an inevitable consequence of a development model that we believed would better our lives.
As citizens, we know better. Our suddenly clear skies and clean rivers remind us that we have a choice in terms of lifestyle. Our current consumption-oriented model is not necessarily better. Its advantages (and admittedly, there were many) have been exhausted and now, we need to come up with something new, a model that ensures succeeding generations don't suffer from our excessive profligacy.
The truth is that we didn't dodge Malthus, we just passed the buck to the next generation. By replacing primal forests with crops or pastures and practicing intensive agriculture, we not only increased GHG emissions but depleted soils. At the same time, our much-touted “demographic dividend” has put intense pressure on natural resources, making it all the harder to deal with the impact of climate change.
The pandemic is a brutal reminder that we cannot sit around and wait for another catastrophe, most likely a climate-related one. We have to put the ecological agenda front and centre. This means cooperation. “Vasudhaiva kutumbakam” is not a euphemism for globalisation; it is call for multilateralism in dealing with an existential crisis. It implies that we are connected to one another and to the planet and that all life has value.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.