28 March 2020

A test-run for a better tomorrow

A time for concern or even fear is also a time for reflection and regret. This is when we encounter ‘should have’ and ‘shouldn’t have.’ This is when we revisit received ‘truths’ and start questioning their worth and our own wisdom. 

System failure is what’s before us and this is less evident in the onset of the calamity than in the (in)ability to cope. ‘Science’ is scrambling for answers. Technology is doing its best. The socio-economic-political edifice is navel-gazing. The human species is lost. It doesn’t know what happened, what is happening and what could happen. It doesn’t know why. It doesn’t know how to begin to comprehend things.

There’s a prophetic section of the Communist Manifesto that gets some currency each time there’s a crisis that worries the world. Open to multiple interpretation of course and certainly a shadow compared to the voluminous works of Marx, Engles and their theoretical followers, but still a convenient entry point: ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’ 

‘Relations with the natural world’ is not something that the conditions in 19th Century Europe warranted consideration but had they lived and engaged a century later, Marx and Engles would no doubt have factored such things into their analysis. 

Conditions of life. Relations with one another. Relations with the natural world. Isn’t that what we have been ‘compelled to face with sober senses’?

For decades we were bombarded with things and notions whose worth we were told were beyond question. Self-evident, we were told. We were not just told, but we were made to inhabit a world designed on the basis of these ‘truths’.

The market mechanism would resolve all issues, we were told. There’s no better system than capitalism, we were told. It’s all about consumption, we were told. It’s all about the individual. The state should facilitate all of this, we were told. The state should not subsidize, we were told. Multilateral organizations were set up (the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and later the World Trade Organization which was the more potent avatar of the now defunct General Agreement on Trade and Tariff) to set and/or enforce the rules of this game. They couldn’t really ‘theorize’ the environment into this overarching model and when the environment insisted a seat at the high table, so to speak, the world’s gun-toting, drone-launching, resource-plundering criminals against humanity, snickered, slithered and foot-dragged.

Now we have an unanticipated crisis. It began with China, but China came through or seems to have come through; these are still ‘early days’ and there’s danger in being conclusive about such things. North America and Europe are reeling.  Guess who is coming with help? Yes, the people themselves are doing their best, either by self-distancing or helping each other or simply resisting panic and keeping spirits high. Yes, the scientist and medical professionals. Yes, the public service (surprise! surprise!). And yes, it’s China, Russia and Cuba, three countries vilified for decades by those who sold us tall stories about development, modernity, human rights and democracy!

Right here in Sri Lanka, what’s helping us cope? Why, the public sector! It’s the doctors, nurses, attendants. It’s the armed forces and the police. It’s the divisional secretaries, grama niladharis, the public health inspectors and employees in all the state institutions delivering ‘essential services.’

It’s not only the public sector. It’s the public itself. And what are they drawing from if not a culture honed over millennia that values the collective and indeed has resisted all theories, institutions, processes and laws designed to subvert anything and everything that has to do with community and solidarity? That culture has also taught us to treat the vicissitudes of life with equanimity, thereby etching into cultural DNA a kind of resilience which we have not seen in North America, for instance (think ‘Tsunami’ and think ‘Katrina’).

And it’s driven us, as a nation, to consider with all sobriety the true worth of our personal and collective pursuits over the past several decades. All of a sudden we are all realizing that there’s a lot we chased which we don’t really need and which are of absolutely no value in situations such as this.

Why didn’t we grow something when we could? That’s probably a question many ask themselves. This country is blessed with fertile soils and decent climates. We’ve poisoned our treasures. We were into ‘show-off’ and the acquisition of elements that gave us membership in the Good Life Club. We lost ourselves, we lost each other. We lost the earth. We lost birdsong. We lost the whisper of the wind in the trees.

But guess, what? We have been been compelled to assess the worth of our choices. We have been compelled to question the worth of things labeled ‘self-evident’ for the evidence is now clearly visible, shed of gloss, glitter, luster and frill. We are learning thrift. We are un-learning over-consumption and even gluttony. We are learning the folly of being selfish, self-absorbed and self-indulgent.

We are not putting in place ‘fixes’ but are essentially reverting to a system that was wholesome, stood the test of time and was sought to be dismantled by ignorant and incompetent leaders who were servile to boot.

The earth can regenerate but only if we cleanse ourselves and resolve to work with the earth, so to speak. We are using new technologies no doubt. Nothing wrong in that. Their efficacy, however, is dependent on the fact that certain systems and values rubbished and pushed aside have been too robust to be buried altogether. 

This is a dry-run then. A test-run of a different kind of future that puts us in touch with ourselves, each other and the natural world. That, now, would be a concert of many melodies. 

Let’s not only stay positive, let’s do our bit and more, for ourselves, each other and the good earth that has not abandoned us despite all the violence we’ve unleashed upon it.