Throughout the history of man, we have desired convenience, and it’s not always been aligned with the l’évolution rapide in all phases of human life with time: the convenience of transportation, communication et al. The convenience of shifting blame has always been a primal and constant resource for our species throughout. From an academic perspective, Julian Rotter’s seminal concept of ‘locus of control’ assigns a psycho-analytical perspective to this particular trait. In Brief, individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life derive primarily from their own actions while those with a strong external locus of control tend to praise or blame external factors.
This trait has particularly come into focus because of what has gripped the world in the past few months, plunging human life into an exhilarating yet nonsensical Hollywood paradigm. The COVID-19 pandemic takes centre stage, and the global community is yet to figure out when, or how (or do we even?) get rid of the virus. Wildfires have erupted everywhere, from Australia to Uttarakhand in India to California. Hurricane Isaias, that made landfall in the United States in August, was an unprecedented ninth Atlantic storm of the year, while cylones Amphan and Nisarga wreaked havoc in eastern India and Bangladesh in May. The news from Antarctica and the Arctic is worse than ever before.
Ask a layman who’s to blame for the year’s plight, and the globalised and scattered nature of the occurrences would possibly persuade him to make an astrological slight on the year itself. Social media does have explanations for the astrological buttress behind the accusation, although, like everything else on Twitter and Facebook, its veracity is questionable.
Has this year of gloom made more people switch from an internal locus of control to an external position? That question demands an academic investigation. But if you dig deeper purely through a cause-effect lens, there looms one single perpetrator behind all that has threatened man in 2020.
It is man itself.
The origin of the COVID-19 virus is still to be given a final stamp of surety, but the widely accepted theory traces it to a wet market in Wuhan, China. It would seem incredulous to think just 30 years back that the next global pandemic would be caused by a virus evolved from a concoction of pangolin and bat DNA, but stranger things have come true. China’s leaders have come into deserved criticism over the country’s wet markets, and its initial response, which amplified the impact.
But what should also be intensely scrutinised after the pandemic somewhat subsides from the world leaders’ agenda is why they suffered like they did. The United States and the majority of highly developed Western Europe faced the initial tsunami of the pandemic, with their health systems coming under unbearable pressure. The rather ungraceful fall stumble of the developed hemisphere of human habitation raises important questions about where we are in 2020 after years of tremendous progress in wealth and science, and just how much more we need to do collectively to be have a chance when a future pandemic hits.
To say that the cause of the wildfires, the hurricanes and the other environmental disasters that are acquiring a fearsome regularity and uncertainty is more difficult to pinpoint is a convenient lie we cannot afford to tell ourselves anymore. The happenings of this year give us the loudest yet warning that despite our most advanced computers and best brains, nature is unpredictable. Some have rushed to call this unpredictability the new normal, the age of the unknown. The truth couldn’t be wider from the truth, as eloquently mentioned by David Wallace-Wells in his striking yet harrowing book ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future’.
“The truth is actually much scarier. That is, the end of normal; never normal again. We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unsure and unplanned bet on just what that animal can endure. The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilisation, is now, like a parent, dead.”
What awaits us is a ‘dustbin of environmental nostalgia’, a continuous onslaught from the ‘angry beast’, as the earth was termed by Wallace Smith Broecker who was responsible for popularising the term global warming (it’s rather interesting that I don’t put global warming within quotes given its status as a household term now, and it’s anybody’s guess as to the number of years it’ll take to bring something like ‘thawing permafrost’ into popular usage).
As most studies point out, however, all is not submerged, literally as well as figuratively. Atleast not yet. The earth of 2050 and beyond is based on several different permutations of our decisions and actions till then, and none of the versions of the future is optimistic. But we are beyond the age where we could choose between the gold, the silver and lead caskets, and the sooner the human race realises that the ‘climate talk’ is not fearmongering but a wail for action, the better.
Yet, inspite of its proclaimed spirit of historic recurrence, our rate of learning is even slower than our pace of responding. The COVID-19 pandemic might have been avoided if we had learned from the SARS outbreak of 2002, linked to a busy wet market in Guangzhou. That time, despite the initial calls to ban wet markets and consumption of certain animals in China, usual traffic resumed soon. The fact that the virus behind the 2002 outbreak bears close links to the SARS-CoV-2 behind the current pandemic is the damning evidence of our failure to learn.
The events of 2020 don’t make sense for an average person, you and me. We aren’t the Chinese government, or any government for that matter. We don’t feel personally responsible for the atmosphere’s choking. We don’t understand cyclones, fires, tsunamis. What we know is that we can only survive. Or try to survive.
It is not a pessimistic assertion when I say that the Prime Ministers, Presidents, Secretary-Generals, Chief Scientists of today are not very different from us in terms of where they stand against the monsters that face us. The monsters are hybrid, unpredictable and much more destructive than the ones we’ve heard about from our past heroes. The key to reaching the best case scenario of the future lies in accepting the truth that the time for enforcing prevention has passed. It is time that today’s leaders give their all to cure their wards and the species that has given them the baton to take the decisions.
But to initiate that change, it is extremely important to understand that the fate of our species resides not in our stars which is the easy exit route, but well within ourselves. The sooner we realise that 2020 is the precursor of the incalculable future, a great scary hothouse where we risk becoming fragile beyond repair.
It is up to us to give our species a fitting jubilant Hollywood climax.
About the author: Debdut Mukherjee is pursuing his MBA at Indian Institute of Management Indore. Like the quintessential Bengali, he likes to ramble about football, politics and cinema.