All I want is 2020 vision

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Are we moving towards a dystopian future?

“I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

With each year that passes, I agree a bit more with the wisdom of Michael Frayn’s words. As originally spoken by John Cleese in the 1986 film Clockwise, the playwright’s words were always amusing. The actor plays a punctilious headmaster whose authority and dignity are broken in a matter of hours by a series of very English mishaps. Late in the day after many delays, while he ponders if it is still possible to make the speech that he is due to deliver, Cleese’s character curses the persistent existence of hope.

As advice for dealing with the human condition, Frayn’s words certainly feel like they ring truer with time. But the optimist within can’t help but say there is no point to existence without hope.

On the cusp of a new decade with the world plagued by climate chaos, inequality, and xenophobia, I admit it is getting harder to hang on to optimism. 

For joining the wrong side of history, few can match Aung San Suu Kyi’s descent from house arrest at the start of 2010 to being a racist defender of ethnic cleansing in The Hague as 2020 dawns. (Assuming that it is possible to learn from history in the first place.)

As the decade also saw Obama replaced in the White House by Trump, Suu Kyi’s defense of the Tatmadaw’s brutalities fits the global zeitgeist. In a world where election-wining politicians like Erdogan, Modi, Putin, and Trump use power to indulge in demagogic attacks on minorities, it is easier for the coercion and paranoia exhibited by CCP ideologues towards Hong Kongers and Uighurs alike, to pass with limited global condemnation and challenge. 

It falls mainly to Scandinavia and New Zealand to offer optimism. But also, Bangladesh. (At least a bit.)

Not just because of GDP growth delivered by the demographic dividend, or the societal progress on Millennium Development Goals and SDGs advanced by the exemplary impact of people like Fazle Hasan Abed. These positives were apparent or foreseeable 10 years ago. 

Nor is it because the nation has solved the endemic problems it faced in 2010. It hasn’t. Corruption, dysfunctional institutions, and lack of respect for law and individual freedoms, are much like the poor, always with us.

Yet, both the nation’s economy and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are in a much stronger position today than most would have predicted ten years ago. Simply getting through an entire decade in office, will in itself be a unique achievement in Bangladesh’s political landscape come January 1, 2020.

Two more years of cumulative service and, health permitting, Sheikh Hasina is poised to overtake both Nehru and Sirimavo Bandaranayake as the longest serving prime minister in South Asia.  (She has already leapfrogged all post Plassey British prime ministers in place before Partition.) Resilience in the face of terror attacks and disasters like Rana Plaza, or for that matter, financing the Padma Bridge independent of the World Bank are notable markers in themselves. 

But in a world beset by racism towards refugees, not least within Bangladesh, and against a backdrop of traditional bureaucratic reluctance, it is the common sense and decisive leadership Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina showed by declaring, “if we can feed 160 million people, we can also feed 700,000 Rohingya refugees,” that the world will see when it looks at Bangladesh’s achievements in the run up to its 50th anniversary of independence. 

That is, provided the world even bothers to notice. 

The ugly truth about the systems in which the world lives today, is that they care little for the majority world and nations like Bangladesh.

The second decade of the 21st century ends with no accountability or repair for the financial crashes of the first, as COP Madrid breaks up amid more blame games than accomplishment on combating climate change. 

No number of bombs dropped by Saudi Arabia on civilians in Yemen was too many to stop Saudi Aramco becoming the world’s largest listed company. Even as Australia burns, its largest export industry remains coal and economics deems it acceptable for some of this to be burned in Bangladesh, rather than have its carbon kept under the ground.

While as a country with only negligible contribution to historical carbon emissions, this is permissible, a rational COP process would have ensured more funds for clean energy generation in countries like Bangladesh and China, to which the consumers of wealthier nations have outsourced their own manufacturing and pollution needs and impacts.

Contemporary capitalism makes it economic to heat up the planet and eat up the lives of the workers it wants to turn into serfs and the serfs it seeks to replace with robots.

At the very moment in history when science offers more scope for hope than ever, with global communication, education, and healthcare technically deliverable for all humanity, the runaway nature of the systems on which we all depend pose a genuine risk of global civilizational collapse. 

Global politics seems in no fit state to meet the scale of the challenge. Wherever you look, from Bolsonaro in Brazil, to the EU and the UK wrought by Brexit, the omens look negative. Impeachment may well not stop US voters re-electing Trump in November.

We have been trending towards dystopia for some time now. In the absence of hope or improvement, it can only get worse for generations to come. 

With only this one working biosphere accessible in the universe, the optimist within has to foresee a happy ending. All alternatives are less morally defensible. Or sustainable; either everybody stands to gain, and we find ways to overcome or share beyond impending resource crunches, or humanity risks the survival of its very civilization. (The planet and other forms of life on Gaia will cope just fine in our absence.)

Michael Frayn’s aphorism should be confined to sporting bets, as in risk what you can spare on whoever is playing your favourite team so you may monetize your misery if your side loses. Everything else should be bet on co-operation, education, and hope.

In the long run, we are all dead, that much is true.  But until then, there’s still time to change the road we’re on. 

Niaz Alam is Dhaka Tribune’s London Bureau Chief. A qualified lawyer, he has worked on corporate responsibility and ethical investment issues since 1992. He sat on the Board of the London Pensions Fund Authority between 2001-2010, is a former vice-chair of War on Want and was Hon. Secretary of the Foreign Press Association in 2018-19.