The World is Telling Us Something – Are We Listening?

The world you will meet this evening when you come back home will be a different world than the one you left this morning when you got out to start your day.

Whilst you will have gone through your daily occupations, duties, pleasures and struggles, 345.000 children will be born, most of them in the world’s poorer or developing countries and 150,000 people will have died, 300 of them from hunger related causes and 150 from drinking bad water; during those same 12 hours, 10,000 hectares of forest will have been destroyed (this would cover the size of Singapore’s main Island in three and half days), 270.000 tons of fuel consumed (a volume comparable to 10 football pitches piled up 10 meters high), 145.000 tons of carbon added to the atmosphere (the volume of air breathed by 8 million people), and 36 species or variety of life will have disappeared from the surface of the Earth – all will have happened in the course of a single day and will carry on happening throughout the night, and tomorrow, and every day.

The world in which we live is now changing faster than it takes to write about it. The trends are alarming. They are messengers who tell us our way of living is hurting the planet, hurting humanity and hurting ourselves.

The new face of conflict

After the 20th century turned out to be the bloodiest in recorded history with some 170 to 200 millions deaths in conflicts and genocides, the new millennium began with much of the world at war or maintaining a fragile peace.

But the face of conflict has changed: most modern conflicts are now civil or “intrastate.” They are wars fueled by competition for resource but mostly by racial, ethnic or religious animosities as well as ideological fervor. Their greatest number of victims are civilians, a new trend that characterises modern conflicts. During World War I, civilians made up fewer than 5% of all casualties. Today, 85% or more of those killed or wounded in conflicts are non-combatants.

But today, it is not even so much the ‘external’ wars which cause the greatest number of casualties but more a chronic ‘internal’ state of conflict taking place within communities, families and within people. It seems that conflict, which used to occur primarily between nations, is now increasingly taking place within communities, weaving itself in the very fabric of societies and manifesting a deeper conflict taking place within the mind of individuals themselves.

The United States, for example, which has less than 5 percent of the world’s population has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners with one in 100 adult Americans being in jail.

In China, Amnesty International estimates at 22 the number of prisoners executed every day for the sake of ‘social harmony’.

Over-consumption and the new psychosomatic diseases

“There is enough to satisfy man’s needs but not to satisfy his greed.”  –  M.K. Gandhi

Whilst the traditional problems of endemic poverty, malnutrition, lack of hygiene and epidemics still claims the highest toll of lives in poor countries, ill health in the developed world has adopted new forms with the emergence and spread of diseases born of stress, immune deficiency but also over consumption and addictions.

What doctors call an ‘addiction’ used to relate to things like alcohol and drugs but the term addiction now applies to an increasingly wide range of things like eating, shopping, gambling, sex, work, antidepressants, energy boosters, computers, internet, video games, noise, TV, talking, etc which seem to have developed, as a result of the consumerist attitude, into needs creating psychological disturbances when they are not met. A lot of what we call stress is a direct expression of this inner state of ‘wanting’ or ‘needing’ and the underlying insecurity those two things generate in an individual.

Stress has been labeled as the “plague of the 20th century” and it is thought that 70 to 80% of the problems family doctors treat daily are psychosomatic in origin – produced by the stress of pressure, overwork, chronic irritation, frustration, anxiety and worries.

Although consumerism is effectively driving economic growth, it also seems it is undermining personal life: approximately half of all employed people in consumerist societies say that they are overworking and feel they are losing control over their life.

Individuals often face heavy personal costs for their life style: the financial debt, the time and stress associated with working to support high consumption levels, the time required to clean, upgrade, store or maintain possessions, and the ways in which consumption replaces time with family and friends. 75% of Americans for example report that they are torn by the conflict between their jobs and their desire to spend more time with their families. Yet, studies show that fathers, who used to spend 45mn a day with their children in the 60s, have now little more to give them than a meager daily 6mn.

At the extreme end of the psychosomatic factor, studies show that the number of suicides has increased by 60% in the last 50 years, mainly in the developed world. Every year, one million individuals are taking away their life – this is one every 40 sec – and for every completed suicide, there are 25 ‘failed’ attempts. Suicide has become the 13th cause of death worldwide, and a leading cause of death among teenagers and adults under 35 who are faced with the pressure of increasingly heavy study programs and parent expectations increasingly competitive market conditions – in India for example, the highest teenagers suicide rates are in states like Karnattaka which have the highest levels of education.

In its World Health Report from 2002, the World Health Organisation pointed to “an intriguing – and alarming – insight into … human behaviour and how it may be changing around the world … showing just how much of the world’s burden is the result of under-nutrition/consumption among the poor and of over-nutrition/consumption among those who are better off, wherever they live.”

The widening revenue gap

We live in the first civilization in known history which has the capacity to produce enough to comfortably meet the needs of every individual on the planet.

With the recent discovery of the power of oil, we have developed fertilizer and pesticides which have allowed farmers to draw several fold more from each square inch of land. Machines now do in one hour what a hundred pairs of hands used to do in 24 hours enabling the 3 million farmers left in the United States to produce enough grain to feed 2 billion people.

Oil also allowed the development of new materials like plastics and spurred a flurry of technological innovation which drastically changed the way we live.

Since the beginning of this revolution in the 50’s, international trade has increased 20 times and the amount spent on goods and services at the household level, topped $20 trillion worldwide in 2000, a four-fold increase since 1960.

But this new abundance doesn’t benefit everyone: half of the world’s wealth is still concentrated in the hands of 2% of its population and the three richest people in the world own more than the combined GDP of the 50 poorest nations.

The United States alone represents 5% of the world’s population but consumes over 30% of its resources. Since 1940 Americans alone have used up a larger share of the earth’s resources than all previous generations put together. Yet, in the most prosperous nation of the world, 18 million children were living below the poverty line in 2002, up from 13 millions in 1985 – an increase of 40% in less than 20 years.

The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme estimate that 925 million people, almost three times the population of the United States, will go hungry in 2010. That’s down from 1.023 billion people in 2009 and the first decrease in 15 years. Yet, “with a child dying every six seconds because of undernourishment related problems, hunger remains the world’s largest tragedy and scandal,” said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.

Every year, 5 million children die from malnutrition. Worldwide, 2 billion people live on less than $1 a day. Compared to that, every cow in the European Union is subsidised by $2.50 a day whilst Japanese cows get $7.50.

More than 40 percent of the hungry live in the two largest nations, India and China whilst only 19 million of the world’s undernourished live in developed countries.

The problem is not that we do not have food: grain is produced in superabundance but it is not used for feeding those who need it. Most of the grain is now used to produce alcohol, feed animals for their meat or create biofuel in consumerist countries and this directly deprives people suffering from malnutrition in poor countries. Estimates show that if we were to reduce the consumption of meat and alcohol by 30 percent in the developed world, it would solve the problem of hunger in the world.

Half of the world’s poor actually live on land rich in natural resource but those resources are used to produce consumer’s goods which travel thousands of miles from the country of production often leaving less than enough to survive to local communities.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo for example, blessed with perhaps the world’s single most abundant, diverse, and extractable supply of minerals, has been exploited from the moment its riches were known — first by Belgian colonialists, then by miserable kleptocrats, and today by the Army and various rebel groups and militias. Meanwhile, miners work for meager wages and the only thing left today is one of the world’s most desperate humanitarian situations.

Those are not new trends: they started during the colonial period and have only gained momentum in the last 30 years with the ratio of income between the richest and poorest 20 % of the world population doubling from 30:1 to more than 80:1.

But what is new is that the fracture of income between rich and poor is not anymore a matter of developed and developing countries: it now emerges in similar proportions within developing nations like China and India where the new rich seem to have adopted the same consumerist pattern that now proves having failed the Western world.

The cycle of poverty, abuse and corruption

One of the direct consequences of poverty, unequal repartition of resource and ruthless exploitation is the growth of abuse and corruption when some take advantage of crippling living conditions to further exploit weakened individuals who cannot resort to any protection system.

In Kenya for example, bribery payments make up a third of the average household budget, not because people are more dishonest, but because they struggle to survive and reproduce the example they see in their leaders as well as in the behaviour of unscrupulous foreign investors.

Corruption weakens the social fabric and further feeds the cycle of poverty by discouraging foreign investment.

Levels of corruption in the world have now reached such a level that corruption is one of six priorities of INTERPOL’s fight against crime alongside drugs, criminal organisations, terrorism and human trafficking. Transparency International estimates that only some 20 countries in the world are almost clear of corruption, whilst half of the world’s nations fall in the category ‘very’ to ‘highly’ corrupt.

And here also, the trends are on the increase: a recent poll conducted by Transparency International revealed that the world is a more corrupt place now than it was three years ago, with 80% of people regarding political parties as the most corrupt institutions; with religious organisations experiencing a sharp rise in people’s estimation of them as corrupt (50%); and with a general consensus that governments are ineffective at tackling the problem.

With the additional widespread abuse taking place through ethnic conflict, authoritarian or lawless states, Amnesty International describes the current state of human right abuses as “a social, political and economic time bomb fuelled by an unfolding human rights crisis which underlies the world’s economic problems … This crisis is about shortages of food, jobs, clean water, land and housing, and also about deprivation and discrimination, growing inequality, xenophobia and racism, violence and repression across the world.”

According to estimates from the UN Labour Organization there are now 246 millions child labourers aged between five and seventeen worldwide, 44 millions of them being in India. Of those, half work in hazardous conditions and 8 millions are involved in what ILO calls ‘the unconditional worst forms of child labour.’

Anti-slavery groups estimate that there are now 20 million slaves in the world, some 20% – and growing – forced in the sex trade. This is almost three for every 1000 individuals. Slavery exists in every continent, producing goods that the Western World use everyday. An average slave in the American South of the 18th century used to cost $40,000 in today’s money; today, a slave costs an average of just $90.

The failure of states and financial systems

The strangest things is that the wealth for which humans are struggling, competing, exploiting and sometimes killing each others doesn’t even really exist: it is said that in Britain today, notes and coins only account for 3% of the total money supply, down from 50% in 1948. The remaining 97% is numbers in account books, virtual money supplied and regulated as credit, money banks do not have or only have potentially: deposits which turn into loans, mortgages, overdrafts on which interest is payable therefore adding value to the assets of banks and financial institutions.

Most of today’s wealth is virtual generated by ‘predatory lending’ and speculations on the stock market. It has no equivalent in terms of goods, work, assets or resource; it is money generated by money and by promises, a play of numbers in computers, a resource which doesn’t exist.

Financial institutions lend money they do not have and operate on the assumption that people will not withdraw what they have deposited all at the same time – which they did in 2010. Because the entire system is a game of numbers which reposes on the trust of investors, it easily leads to abuse and to the creation of what was called a shadow banking system.

The recent economic crisis was triggered when investors lost trust triggering massive withdrawals and revealing the inherent fragility of financial systems worldwide. It caused an estimated loss of close to $6 trillion in housing wealth and an even larger amount of stock wealth – estimates claim a total loss of $22 trillion in six months – and wide-spread negative consequences on credit, employment and consumption.

Most economies in the developed world have abused of this system and are now struggling with gigantic amounts of debts. The estimated global debt amounts to $57 trillion with European countries and the US bearing most of the weight – $13 trillion for the US (almost 100% of GDP), $9 trillions for the UK (410% of GDP), $5 trillion for Germany and France (155% of GDP)

States like Greece got insolvent and had to be rescued from bankruptcy by a $1 trillion package from the European Union and it is now the turn of Ireland with other European nations showing signs of being affected by a similar ailment.

Parallel to the failure of financial systems, many countries in the world also face endemic political crisis which undermines the authority of the state and leaves room for the growth of a shadow world defining its own laws and operating beyond the control of governments.

The Fund for Peace, an independent research organization, and Foreign Policy Department in the US, has drawn a list of 60 states at risk of failure. Most are in developing countries, including insurgency and debt-plagued Pakistan as well as Yemen with disappearing oil and water reserves, a mob of migrants flooding in from Somalia, the failed state next door, and a weak government increasingly unable to keep things running. Those states are breeding grounds for individuals who, because they are excluded from the world, take their own initiatives, substituting mafia for business, terrorism for politics and bombs for votes.

A recent statement issued in the soon-to-be-published 2009 State of the Future warns that without sustainable growth, “billions of people will be condemned to poverty and much of civilisation will collapse” The report adds: “Too many greedy and deceitful decisions led to a world recession and demonstrated the international interdependence of economics and ethics.”

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