Every Man’s Burden: A Call For a New Era of Benevolent Globalism
I write to you in the wake of one of the most stunning elections America has ever seen, and I write in suspense and fear. I hope to God that the changes we now experience not manifest themselves as the harbinger of more difficult times to come, but I reserve the right to profess my profound skepticism as to the direction of the U.S. and similarly for the world at large. The election itself presents no novelty in itself (we’ve seen populist campaigns before), but the polarization of peoples, whoever they are and wherever they reside, should alarm everyone. Profound distrust of institutions frightens us all and economic stagnation that seems to fuel most of this political change presents unprecedented threats to our standards of living. While I do not intend to participate in the discourse surrounding this past election, as there exist too many factors to conceivably capture in a short piece such as this, and, additionally, out of the fear of offending the sensibilities of those who may differ in their opinions, I do wish to outline for the reader the shared challenges and difficulties that all of humanity faces in the near future. It becomes increasingly apparent that this generation and the next hold the key to so much more than just their own livelihoods. The significance of the decisions we make over the next few decades will have tremendous ramifications for all of us, and all who come after us. For that reason, we must come together and discuss the issues that are critical to our survival.
In order to minimize the effect of seeming too alarming or apocalyptic, I would have liked to skim over the potential obstacles that may encumber our continued progress as a species, but, considering the significance of the challenges at hand, I must indulge. The challenges present themselves threefold: Economic, Socio-Political and Environmental. These do not represent three separate, distinct categories, but rather overlapping generalizations.
To begin with, we can talk about the environment. As we all know, levels of Carbon Dioxide as well as other greenhouse gasses continue to pour into our atmosphere. Most scientists now agree that governments worldwide must work together to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that escape into our atmosphere. While we’ve witnessed some progress in the past, much work remains in order to effectively deal with the threat of a warming climate. The warming of just a few degrees could potentially wreak havoc on low-lying nations and damage the global ecosystem, as rain and dry patterns tend to shift with the temperatures. We are making great strides in research and development of cleaner technologies, but the task remains immense.
In addition to global warming, general air and water pollution affect the lives of millions of people throughout the world, diminishing their life-expectancies, damaging their health and encumbering innovation and progress. When you have to worry about the counts of airborne particles to measure the air’s breathability, or the purity and quality of your supply of water, you won’t have much time or motivation to devote to research, higher education, or spirituality. In most developing countries, smoking remains the norm, with the government either unwilling or unable to deter its citizens from slowly killing themselves. These blights on society expose humanity’s utter apathy to the lives of those less fortunate, with no end in sight (well, you wouldn’t see it through the smog anyway).
In the developing parts of the world, where these problems present the most difficulty, other abuses occur. Forests are felled by criminals and opportunistic farmers alike, indifferent to the destruction they inflict. According to National Geographic, on average, an area of forest corresponding to the size of Panama (over 2.5 times that of all of Israel!) is felled annually. The loss of animal life associated with the encroachment of humans upon their natural habitats even has a name, the Anthropocene Extinction, and threatens biodiversity on every continent. The decimation of wild spaces does not just mean fewer animals and less green; the ability of trees to process the vast amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere has been compromised, hence the loss of the fertile tracts of hungry forests further exacerbates the problem of global warming.
The final category of environmental ills that plague humanity has trailed us since the beginning of time. Maladies such as malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, cholera, polio, dengue, now zika, and so many others severely handicap the developing world (and sometimes the more-developed countries too). They kill, maim, disable, and strike fear in those affected by these terrifying diseases. Treatable cancers go untreated, infection and disease decimate populations (UNICEF estimates that in some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa upwards of 20% of the entire population has HIV/AIDS), as the world watches. Sometimes doctors or medical personnel (e.g. MSF) succeed in delivering life-saving treatment to those in need, but many people continue to suffer.
If proper medication arrives, then liberal use of antibiotics may help in the immediate treatment of the sick, but the side effect of treatment, antimicrobial resistance, can become a significant problem if not dealt with quickly and efficiently. This headache of the increasing inefficacy of standard antibiotic treatment of disease does not occur only in developing countries, ineffective and wasteful use of antibiotics everywhere (e.g. agriculture/livestock) has created a nightmare for the next generation of medical professionals. The medical world continually works on developing new antibiotic drugs, but, sadly, the rate at which they produce effective drugs dwarfs the high turnover rate required to deal with new resistances. According to an article titled “The Antibiotic Crisis,” published in the journal “Pharmacy and Therapeutics,” a surprising 15 of the 18 large pharmaceutical companies have discontinued investiture in new antibiotic research. They prefer to invest elsewhere, as antibiotics don’t offer the same lucrative advantages as, for example, drugs for chronic ailments (since usually you only take a few doses of antibiotics and are cured). While the public has not yet fully appreciated the gravity of the situation, many doctors and politicians have seized upon it as one of the most critical hurdles of the century. The UN General Assembly held a series of high-level meetings late this past September, wherein this topic was explored at length, and priority was given to the concerns of many doctors and scientists worldwide (especially the WHO). Without proper surveillance of the use of antibiotics, and the incentive to invest in our further protection from disease, severe illness may become as widespread as the common cold!
Clearly, humanity’s current trajectory does not offer great dividends. We deplete our natural resources without sparing mother nature a thought, and, when granted the tools with which we may forge greater civilizations, we pollute the world and endanger everything and everyone alive or yet to be born.
[caption id="attachment_5978" align="aligncenter" width="675"] Intense smog blanketed New Delhi last month. This vivid image shows a man trying to shield his young child from the stinging, suffocating, acrid, dense smoke that plagues the city. (NYT 11/7/16)[/caption]
The cause of these great embarrassments of and threats to worldwide civilization trace back to fundamental matters of economics and politics. Without a stable government, progress cannot take root and without basic economic and social infrastructure, a country cannot develop enough to maintain control over its citizens and environment. Consequently, crime ravages great swaths of all of humanity, but particularly affects those already less fortunate. Coups, corruption, disease, and war all collude to counteract the opportunities of underdeveloped nations to grow and prosper. For example, the BBC reported that currently a famine brought on by Nigeria’s violent conflict with Boko Haram threatens the lives of at least 75,000 children! Compared to life in developed nations, the worries and dangers of daily life must exact a cruel toll on anyone subjected to such extreme poverty.
Woe to the world, for the difficulties that lay ahead may at times seem insurmountable. However, only a few years ago the outlook was significantly cheerier. Between 2000 and 2012 most of the developing world experienced levels of sustained, almost miraculous growth. For example, as reported by The Economist (9/13/2014), China’s economy grew (GDP growth) at the awesome catch up rate of around 12% annually, along with much of the rest of the emerging world (excluding sub-saharan Africa). (In comparison, the U.S. economy, while significantly more robust than the EU’s, has not grown faster than 4% annually since the year 2000, and is projected to average less than 2.5% through 2020.) But, alas, the rate of growth in the developing world has since receded to pre-2000s levels. It now lies at around 6-7% for China, and appears to be dropping further. Whereas many dreamed that the convergence of the emerging world’s economy (when countries achieve levels of affluence equivalent to those in the developed world) would occur in as little as 30 years, today that estimate has risen to 50 or even 115 years (!) if we exclude China. What had appeared as natural growth now seems unsustainable. Our resources are finite, time scarce, and obstacles abound in the forms of political instability, disease, and environmental concerns. This quagmire in which we find ourselves has baffled humanitarians and economists for at least the greater part of the past century, and today remains unsolved and increasingly menacing.
You see, now that the world experiences the effects of globalization, the Third World’s problems can migrate to the rest of the world at a surprising pace. Political instability begets terrorism and refugee crises, intense poverty combined with the accessibility of international air travel and trade allows for disease to spread to all the corners of the earth (e.g. ebola, zika, HIV, avian flu, drug-resistant TB) in record time. Intense inequality also allows the richest citizens in the developed world to add to their wealth by investing heavily in under-developed economies. While the receiving countries sometimes benefit from the influx of foreign investment (in the form of Foreign Direct Investments, FDIs), usually, the rich investors end up richer at the expense of the local population (e.g. paying locals less than the minimum wage of the investors’ home countries saves the investors money but does not reward workers fairly for their labor). This also leads to social and political tensions in the investors’ home countries, since increasing personal incomes from investments abroad lead to a highly stratified society at home. In America today, the rich have diversified their investments into industries abroad, while average Americans continue to struggle to find jobs to replace the ones that were moved offshore. If you doubt the significance of this predicament, just take a look at this past election.
We in the developed world must begin to think of the other upwards of 80% of humanity that does not enjoy the luxuries of advanced societies. We have been blessed with freedoms of expression, mobility, and enterprise. We benefit from relatively stable governments and economies, from societies heavily nurtured by both the sciences and the arts, but we are not alone. We must invest heavily in our underdeveloped brethren, or face the consequences. Years ago, I may have written this as a moralistic argument in an attempt to convince you into thinking more empathetically about your poor brothers and sisters, but I need not choose that path today. As time goes on, we become more cognizant of the fact that the Third World’s problems affect us too, and that their plight has now become a globalized phenomenon. In order to help us, we must help them first.
While I cannot offer a perfect solution guaranteed to solve all these problems at once, I can share with you the sense of direction you get from exploring the subject. After getting acquainted with the harsh realities, some trends stick out as universal. Much of the issues at hand don’t originate in isolation. Most of them, in fact, develop out of our own corruption and neglect. Humans tend to lack the foresight necessary to anticipate all of the problems facing the world, and then they tend to make matters worse by trying to ignore them. But don’t despair! Upon considering the situation, we are far from beaten.
However, in order to effect positive change, a shift in ideology as well as in the economy is required. This era of neocolonialism must come to an end. The capitalistic exploitation of less-advanced countries robs them of their motivation and freezes them in dependent relationships with the rich world. While some western nations, NGOs, and charitable funds make some large sums of money available to developing countries, the overly-ambitious capitalistic structure of big-money banks and international corporations hampers the economic and sociological development of weaker countries. Even Adam Smith, the author of capitalism’s bible, The Wealth of Nations, admits that the government must sometimes involve itself in the economy. He realized that sometimes governments (in our case, foreign capital) need to make unprofitable investments in order to maintain public order, and general safety and well-being. In his words, some of the government’s responsibilities involve “erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works which may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society,” but “are of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals.” Why invest in a computer factory when the local population lacks potable water? Why employ workers in textile production when they lack the basic health care to ensure the proper monitoring and management of disease? What use does a peasant have for an HDTV when he doesn’t have enough money for basic subsistence? Developing countries desperately need foreign investment, but not necessarily those that specifically favor returns on capital. Instead of profitable investiture in the industrial sector (e.g. mining, manufacturing), foreign entities should think about investing in critical sectors (e.g. sanitation, health care, basic infrastructure, public transport) projects and education. While some investment is always necessary in industrial and manufacturing sectors, the system as is greatly favors foreign investors, and does not return profits to locals either fairly or efficiently (trickle down does not work well enough). I don't think that every single person needs to own a car, multiple televisions, or air-conditioners, but the quicker we help poor countries achieve the basic minimum that their citizens need, the easier for us to deal with the bigger threats.
How can we fund such a revolution in global trade, you may ask? Well, by encouraging the rich countries to forego some of their wealth as an investment in the future of all peoples, we can fund immense structural improvements in poorer nations, as well as in research and development critical for solving some of these issues (of which Israel should take a significant part). Thomas Piketty, a French economist, calls for a global tax on wealth. Bill Gates, the famous billionaire, proposes a tax on the consumption of goods (related to carbon emissions per capita). Using these inherent inequalities, we can maybe gain insight into the actual numbers that such an overhaul would require. Internally, richer countries may suffer temporarily, some instability may ensue, and they would need to perform a restructuring of their internal economies as well (i.e. dealing with domestic wealth gaps). Some consumers would probably need to cut back on some spending, but weaning ourselves off the drug of consumerism offers us some benefits too. This would take a revolutionary approach to global spending, but the benefits are endless, and the risks of not acting are catastrophic. An awakening of the population must occur; we must discard the infantile, wasteful mindset of colonial capitalism, and adopt a responsible and realistic vision for our shared future.
For those interested: The Yeshiva University Medical Ethics Society’s annual conference, taking place on Sunday, December 4th (9:00-13:00), will discuss the perils of infectious disease (“Humanity’s Biggest Rival”), including antibiotic resistance. For more information, visit their website at www.yumedicalethics.com .
“Wake us up when the Messiah comes to close the hole in the Ozone [layer].”
- Arik Einstein