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As we commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall this week, it feels somewhat wry to remember the exhilarating mood in 1989, when, for a brief moment in history, everything seemed possible, certainly in this part of the world. The contrast is huge with today’s relentless messages of climate emergency, ‘untold suffering awaiting humanity’ if we don’t change course’, other catastrophic threats (as diligently listed by Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk), or last week’s ominous quote by a UN official that “due to climate change the SDG agenda might be out of reach” (or as she put it, “ pushing to meet the SDGs could be a matter of “trying to solve the problems of the 20th century” even as grave new 21st-century challenges loom”).
True, the right analysis is perhaps, as described in this excellent essay: The great paradox of our time: everything is both better and worse than ever before.But that’s little comfort for the younger generations, who now begin to take over from us. Many of them aren’t very excited about what they’re seeing. When my generation studied at the university, we were far more optimistic about humanity and the planet, things didn’t look so bleak yet. I feel sorry for my nephews and nieces now in college or the youngsters taking to the streets. And yes, I know, sometimes people say young generations in other parts of the world are more upbeat than their gloomy counterparts in the North, but I have my doubts about that. I still remember the shock some of my Chinese students felt when entering ‘the real world’ of (often) 60-hour work weeks. Also, the global outlook for these youngsters in the South, certainly the ecological one, is pretty much the same. Many of them might in fact be hit even earlier by climate breakdown, as you know. (PS: I gather Delhi citizens won’t disagree with me this week 😊).
Against this backdrop, the current tsunami of ‘One Planet, One Health, One Future’ conferences and symposia feels a bit funny. As my dystopian colleague likes to grin, perhaps they’d better be labelled, ‘One Planet, No Health, One Big Mess for Humanity’ 😊.
Last week’s key plenary discussion in Berlin on the Global Action Plan on Healthy Lives and Wellbeing for All suffered a bit from the same problem. Vital discussion, no doubt, but the climate emergency seemed a bit ‘distant’ for the likes of Sands, Berkley and even Dr. Tedros. It’s not clear to me how this GAP, while very important in itself, can indeed “provide a shot in the arm to health SDG 3” if the global health community doesn’t start from the cold analysis of climate breakdown, and perhaps more importantly still, humanity as a whole doesn’t re-find some of the ‘out of the box’ optimism that the fall of the Berlin Wall inspired 30 years ago. I’m personally convinced that – rather than relying on neoliberal recipes still too common in global health power circles – we need to dare dream of a future with a totally different economic system, based on different values, to indeed ensure “a life in dignity” for all. A post-capitalist future, in short, let’s not beat about the bush. Increasingly, indeed, leading a life in dignity is also a key concern in ‘the North’, as economic insecurity has become a hallmark of the age of neoliberal capitalism. Fortunately, if I may believe Stiglitz and many others, neoliberalism is at last coming to an end. Even the “global health emperor” has less clothes, increasingly 😊.
So let’s dare to dream about a world whereby people would work 4 days a week (as Microsoft piloted in Japan recently), including the exploited workers in supply chains all over the world, real division of labour, a guaranteed basic income for all, good public services financed by global tax justice (as compared to the tax race to the bottom we’re currently facing, which is haunting the SDG agenda), redefining what ‘productive work’ involves, etc. We owe it to the young and future generations to dare to dream big.
On a lighter note, I wholeheartedly congratulate South Africa with its well-deserved world cup victory in rugby. I happen to have a few family members with links to South Africa, and they were over the moon. For neutral observers like myself, rugby looks like a sport our Neanderthal forefathers must have had wicked fun with as well 😊, but being a bit of a Neanderthal myself, I guess I’m just too dumb to understand the rules.
Enjoy your reading.