Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 24 December 2012

Did we miss the end of the world?

21 December came and life still goes on, but for some it was the end of their world and humanity as a whole still faces an existential threat.


So we can sigh with relief that 21 December came and went, and the world is still alive. 

According to an influential interpretation of the Mayan prophecy, the end of the world would happen on 21 December.

Another interpretation, which will now be more influential since the end did not come, is that the day would mark the beginning of a new era.

Even if the world as a whole did not end, it must have felt something like that for some unfortunate people.

The hearts of all Malaysians must have gone out to the parents of the three-year old child who was dragged for miles by another vehicle after the family’s car was involved in an accident which threw the family passengers out from their own car along the North-South expressway at the Perak-Penang border one dark night last week.

Any family that goes through such a tragedy would be feeling, for a long time, that the end of the world has come.

The same feeling is surely upon Newtown in Connecticut, where 20 young schoolchildren and six adults were shot dead by a 20-year-old man who also killed his mother and himself.  

The end of the world would have come for the families of those killed, a feeling made worse by the senselessness of the act.

Americans as a whole seem affected by grief and perhaps guilt over this incident. It baffles the rest of the world why the US still allows the unfettered ownership not only of simple guns but also automatic weapons, even after so many incidents of killings in schools and public places.

In Malaysia, the ownership of a gun without a permit carries the death penalty.

In the United States, the rights of the individual are very much prized, whereas in many other societies the right of the community, including the right to be protected against individual misbehaviour, is given a greater weight.

After the Newtown shootings, Americans seem to be re-thinking whether respecting the absolute right of individuals to own powerful weapons is taking the concept of freedom too far.

There is now a chance to re-install a previous ban on owning assault weapons.  But restricting the ownership of handguns is still impossible.

For Palestinians in Gaza, life must seem like the end of the world for years since Israel imposed the siege, and during the recent session of Israeli bomb and missile attacks.

For the family of eight innocent Palestinians, and many more, who were wiped out by the missile strikes, it really was the end of their world.

But with the upgrading of the Palestinian state’s status in the United Nations, and the growing strength of the resistance, there seems at least to be light at the end of the tunnel for the Palestinians.  

The end of the world also came to the victims of the typhoon that struck the south of the Philippines on 4 December, with a thousand dead, another 850 people missing and over 300,000 displaced.  It will take a long time for those affected to pick up the pieces of their lives and move on. 

Big storms, heavy rains and massive floods are now common phenomena in Asia, with capitals like Jakarta, Beijing and Bangkok suffering from devastating floods, and large parts of countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh coming under water almost every year.

The United States has also been hit by two major weather-related events this year, the drought that affected farm output in the South and Hurricane Sandy that hit the East Coast including New York city.  

Climate scientists and prominent international organisations are now alarmed at the signs that the climate change crisis is now upon us.

“Climate change is taking place before our eyes,” was the conclusion from the most recent report of the World Meteorological Organisation.

It highlighted the unprecedented melt of the Arctic sea ice and multiple weather and climate extremes which affected many parts of the world.

Scientists are coming to the conclusion that it is already impossible to meet the target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level.

We are now at 0.8 degree above, and extreme weather events are already taking place.  Two degrees and the world will be in terrible state.

But worse news:  we are on track for a 4 or 6 degree world, by the end of the century, in which conditions in the world will be unimaginable, with a complete breakdown of civilisation as we know it.

Long before that, there will be natural catastrophes and very extreme weather events, much worse than what we have seen this year.

The end of the world did not come on 21 December.  But the prediction that it would has given us the opportunity to ponder what it would be like, and what may still come to pass.

Unless we do something to prevent it, now.