If the year 2019 was so filled with trials and tribulations, one must bear in mind it belongs to a rough historical passage. It is not just the 2008-11 'Great Recession' still haunting the global economy, but democracy too is being hunted down, for all that it stands for, as if they serve as the springboard for all our erupting and accumulating ills. Be them as they may, the environment seems to be headed south, with some of the key players drawing their shutters down on salvaging what is left of Mother Nature on earth. Just to make sure the foreboding cup runs over, refugees have multiplied or being stationed in stagnant camps as populists, bred in part by those influxes, usurp power reins as if to confirm human-kind's liberal hour, replete with multiple freedoms, has definitely been brought under emotional control.
It would not be appropriate to repeat how these specific ailments originated and amplified: that has been done many times over through multiple media. Yet, some broad brushstrokes indicate issues/arenas deepening enough to hold the rest of the world at bay: private action trumping public goods; identity-searches shifting from the macro-and-motley extreme to the normal trajectory now shifting from that normality space towards the other extreme of micro-and-miniscule trajectory; and the atmosphere encompassing both of the above dynamics, better understood as the environment not only deteriorating faster than ameliorating efforts, but also suggesting a vicious cycle capable of nullifying even the better intentions. Unless we begin to nip them, the sooner the better, they could continue infinitely.
Privatising human actions is the most fundamental of liberal features. On the economic front, it breeds freer trade, which has historically been the most welcoming type of policies if kept under eternal vigilance: left completely in business hands, it could deteriorate into a survival-of-the-fittest engagement to the detriment of a majority of smaller states, even enhance corporate controls over the policy-making levers. If this represents how the key neo-liberal proponent, the United States, behaves, the opposite is perhaps even worse: mercantilist behaviour, as we have seen in China's broad economic policy approach. Although China's ascendant new look shows more diluted protectionism, 2019 was a year of heightened tariff-based skirmishes between these two top-rated economies. Signs of toning down the tempo was less evident than the scare to out-do the other side. With 2020 being an election year in the United States, we cannot expect significant enough deviations from this 2019 imprint.
On the political front, privatising has pushed minority groups to rethink their own identities again, especially in multinational states. Scotland, for example, drifted even more significantly from the rest of the United Kingdom in the December 2019 election than in the previous election, even promoting 'independence' chants. Though that did not rock the British boat, at least not yet, Catalonians have been far more vociferous and vigorous in seeking independence from Spain. Even inside the United States, California is distancing itself assertively from a Trump administration in Washington, DC, a theme resonating in India's Northeastern states against the Indian Union, as well as in Rakhine against Myanmar (or more correctly the other way around), and Xinjiang province against China, among others. At its worst, political privatisation could produce entities like Islamic State, a threat that did not flare up during 2019, though far from lying in its embers.
On the social front, private action gradually but successfully displaced the extended family for the nuclear, but now threatens to substitute the nuclear family with a motley of single-parent family and children born with a family, that is, a legal 'father' and/or 'mother'. Being born out of wedlock foretells the social plight today: the slow evaporation of social institutions that themselves anchored political and economic institutions and development. Without a family, it is hard to think of community cohesion; and such anomic invasion only predicts further social attenuation, not the balancing-out behaviour upon which communities have thus far been built.
What these private actions do is to thwart collective action. This may be more urgently needed to protect the Global Commons against climate-change threats, as the Greta movement, Amazonian and New South Wales fires, and Bangladeshi flooding indicated during the year. Any failure to collaborate, for instance, within regional trading blocs (as Great Britain in the European Union), over trade (the World Trade Organisation being increasingly ignored), and in settling human rights abuses (as Israel with Palestinians or China with the Uighurs), opens a can of worms exposing the deep tentacles of identity-searches: some of the ingredients will be positive, but others could become too selfish to permit any cooperative atmosphere. During 2019, for instance, the Kurds, split between 5 (five) countries, found themselves more alienated in every one of those countries, hunted by Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and abandoned by the United States. If thwarting Kurdish statehood represents an extreme selfish jolt, then the other end must be populism, the aggregation of like-minded people whose anti-establishment approach begins with the hatred typically reserved for outsiders. Europe may be the 21st century poster-board version of this, but suddenly 2019 found populist sparks disseminating everywhere, on all continents. Identity searches, then, have not just come alive, they reminisced rather bluntly another age when the end-product was World War II.
Both privatising behaviour and identity searches assume an environment that cannot be shared with others precisely at a time and age when the environment can only be preserved by collective action: too many mountain glaciers have melted, leaving, for example, the Himalayas as an ecologically vulnerable zone, while melting polar ice, especially in the Antarctic, only feeds explosive oceanic waters, with fierce and untimely rain outbursts in some areas while this atmospheric crisis moment one does not know, but one is far more certain that some sort of a catastrophe awaits when so many barometers head in the wrong direction. Lapland's Sami people, for example, face an existential threat, as the earth's warming denudes the essence of their livelihood, and thereby culture.
How these three forces translated into actual defensive policy measures may take far longer to determine, but judging from the forecasted annual growth-rate dipping in so many parts of the world during 2019, some clarion calls have indeed been made, if we care to listen.
If we do not do so now, it will be harder in 2020, a figure so uncharacteristically associated with clearer vision than others. Or maybe it symbolises the superficialities of the year: privatising behaviour when public action is urgent; identity searches when an identity already exists; and an environment rattling away to a deaf, dumb, and blinded civilisation.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Dean (Acting), School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (SLASS) and Head, Global Studies & Governance Program Independent University, Bangladesh
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