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What’s the worst that could happen?

It’s a question that is often rhetorical. But what if you answer it?

September/October 2012

Famine

Robert Guest

I once went without food for 24 hours. It was not much fun. I was in a West African rainforest, where journeys sometimes take longer than expected. By the time I found a village with a shop, my stomach was howling and I was feeling wretched. I bought a bread roll and a tin of sardines. It was the most delicious meal I have ever tasted.

Because I am a pampered citizen of a rich country, that’s the closest I have ever come to starving. Which is to say, not close at all. But over the years as a foreign correspondent, I have seen real hunger, and it is ugly.

In Angola, I saw children so desperate that they foraged in rubbish heaps for their breakfast. And they were not the worst off. Some kids did not have the energy to forage. Instead they sat listless on plastic mats in a foul-smelling refugee camp, barely surviving on the aid rations that hadn’t been stolen by men with guns. 

I saw even worse hunger in the Afar region of Ethiopia. There, the soil is arid and the government taxes away any surplus the peasants might save in good years. Malnutrition is the norm; and when the rains fail, it quickly tips into starvation. One time I visited, the hot sand was littered with dead livestock. In one village of 100 homes, 13 people had perished in the previous month. Muhammad Hassan, a peasant with sunken, cavernous cheeks, told me simply: “We need food, or we’re going to die.”

Hunger makes people stupid. The brain, like any organ, requires nourishment. Children who are deprived of food grow up stunted mentally as well as physically. This robs them of any chance of fulfilling their potential. The chronically malnourished are doomed to live half-empty lives, struggling to imagine anything beyond the battle for subsistence.   

So the worst that could happen would be for mankind to lose the Malthusian race between population growth and food production. So far, technology has outpaced demography: crop yields have risen faster than the number of mouths to feed. The world has suffered some terrible famines in modern times, but only when a political cataclysm, such as a war or a Mao Zedong, has ruined the harvest.

My worry is: can we keep squeezing ever more calories out of the same amount of soil? I suspect the answer is yes—adequately-fed humans are ingenious, and their ingenuity keeps them adequately fed. But the climate is changing in unpredictable ways, and we will have to be paranoid to survive.

 

War

Edward Carr

Adam Smith, the great thinker of the Scottish enlightenment, once speculated on how a European “man of humanity” would treat the news that China had been swallowed by an earthquake. He would express his sorrow, offer some judicious remarks on the damage to trade and reflect on the precariousness of human existence, before turning back to his own affairs. “If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow,” Smith went on, “he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren.”

When you think about the worst that could happen, you should resist this temptation to make yourself the centre of the world. Turn away from the injustice of being falsely condemned or the despair of being utterly alone. Quash the thought of losing a child. On this melancholy subject, at least, I am with Smith rather than William Blake: instead of trying to hold infinity in the palm of your hand, broaden your gaze and contemplate a tragedy for the whole of humanity.

In the next few decades the prime candidate is war between China and America. As the superpowers strive for economic, political and technological supremacy, so their mutual mistrust will become more explicit. By the end of 2020 China’s military spending will probably be double what it is today and the United States, which is pressed for cash, will have “pivoted” more of its forces into Asia. 

The tripwire for outright conflict might be trivial: a scrap between China and one of its neighbours over some islands, or a miscalculation as American warships sail up to the 12-mile limit that defines Chinese territorial waters. But when the dominant male and the pretender square up, everything about them is at stake. Just as two conflagrations burnt the heart out of the 20th century, so a war between the leading powers of the 21st could set off an orgy of destruction.

The shadow of nuclear devastation is one reason to be fearful. But even if we avoided that last, hideous step, the cost would be immense. That is partly because today’s conventional weapons are so potent, but also because China and America depend on each other in ways that Russia and America never did. The flow of goods to our shops would dry up, as globalisation failed. The financial system might collapse, because America could not borrow from China, and China would have nowhere to put its savings. Cyber-warriors might wreck communications and infrastructure. Collaboration on trade, science and action on climate change would be swept aside. Global economic depression would drag billions back into poverty.

America and China have every reason to avoid such a catastrophe. China’s leaders nurse no particular territorial ambitions and they have their hands full at home. You might conclude therefore that the superpowers will not fight – that they have too much to lose from war and too much to gain from peace. But that is just what was said about Europe in 1909.

 

Continuous Erosion

Irving Wardle

In a story by Patrick Süskind, an old man writes a last letter to warn the human race that they are being taken over by shells. He’s writing against time because he’s turning into a shell himself, and when he dies he has to be buried in an L-shaped grave so as not to snap in two. When I first read this, I thought it a chilling but harmless fantasy. Now it has become more like a prophecy.  

My experience of life in Britain over the past 20 years has been one of imperceptible but continuous erosion. Before, the passing scene offered a lively spectacle with many growth areas in the arts and imaginative investment in public works; also, however tested, we Brits hung on to our reputation for tolerance—which may have contributed to our undoing. For wherever you go beyond surface impressions, whether in the food industry, the housing market, the universities, newspapers, publishing or sport, there is a gut sensation that, while we were looking the other way, something essential has been extracted from the cultural heart and is either being sold back to us in a debased form or has vanished altogether. You cannot say who or what is personally responsible for this act of theft. But something is bringing us to dust, and, like Süskind’s implacable ur-shell, it is our enemy.

The best clue to its identity is in technology. Theft is invisible and easy to overlook. Technology is there for all to see; the speed-camera, the taser, the Exocet missile—all perhaps defensible as means of protection. But what about drones? What about surveillance cameras that can read the contents of your wallet at 50 metres? And what about some future satellite that will rifle the contents of your head like a dawn police raid? 

Technology, Max Frisch said, is the means of controlling the world without experiencing it. We know who owns the technology; and who else can have committed the theft? When those in power achieve full detachment from mankind, I foresee a pincer movement  of theft and coercion in which we shall be petrified in attitudes of compulsory happiness—like those gladiatorial victims who had to hide their faces behind grinning masks as they were cut to pieces. Happily there is another side to technology. Those who use it as a club are like Auden’s omnipotent Ogre, never mastering speech. There are others who use it for the free exchange of information; and who may outwit him.

 

Fear itself

Clive Stafford Smith

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The line is often credited to Winston Churchill, the master of the rousing speech. In truth, Franklin Roosevelt (or rather his aide Raymond Moley) coined the phrase for his inaugural address in 1933, as America tried to drag itself out of depression: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

The modern politician has forgotten Roosevelt’s words. He prefers to play on fear—fear that prevents sensible action, and never inspires it. In America, many say we need the death penalty to prevent crime, thereby distracting us from demanding restrictions on guns, a wise drug policy, or adequate education. We are taught to fear terrorism to such an extent that we end up forfeiting our liberties, even if the chance of it affecting our lives is infinitesimal. We are told to fear losing our jobs to immigrants, rather than to the powerful who destroy the economy.    

Fear escalates in inverse proportion to experience. So white people in the white-flight suburbs of American cities fear crime far more than do black citizens in the city centres—because of, not despite, the fact that the suburban white is far less likely to be a victim.   

We spend hours catastrophising horrors that will never come to pass. Meanwhile, we are frozen most solid by our fear that we won’t succeed. We are so averse to failure that we ensure before we begin that nothing will ever be achieved. One of many examples came at Guantánamo Bay. Over several years, I cannot recall a single strategy that really harmed our efforts to get the authorities to act within the law (even when one attorney dropped his trousers at a press conference in Yemen, in an ill-advised effort to illustrate how detainees were being humiliated). But some of the lawyers who joined our coalition were devoted to dithering, constantly worrying that a particular action would backfire. As a result, they achieved little and prevented others from accomplishing a great deal.

Ultimately, and most pointlessly, we fear that which we can neither understand nor amend. So our fear of death impedes us from fully living life.

 

Africa unfulfilled

Kah Walla

The birthplace of humankind is today one of its greatest repositories of human talent and natural resources. With over a billion people, half of whom are under 20, Africa is home to the world’s future workers. It has 25% of the world’s arable land, and 57% of the coltan; it mines roughly half of the world’s diamonds and will produce 15% of global energy by 2015. Enormous potential, for the continent and for the world.  

Yet, over the last five decades, Africa has consistently been the world’s poorest performer in human development. Select any statistic from access to potable water to maternal mortality, and Africa is likely to be at the wrong end of the list. This is the despair of Africans and many others. 

Yet evidence that this continent is fighting hard to transform its potential into success is abundant. Governance, which is the non-negotiable foundation to this process, is going in the right direction. Botswana, Ghana, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania, Senegal, Mauritius and Cape Verde have all turned the corner to becoming stable democracies. If they are imperfect, I defy anyone to point out a perfect one. 

According to The Economist, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies from 2001 to 2010 were African. From 2011 to 2015, the figure will be seven out of ten. The Millennium Development Goals prescribed a two-thirds decline in the rate of infant mortality, and 12 countries in Africa surpassed it. 

Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa are among the world’s top performers in gender parity in elected positions. Kenyan techies, some of the most innovative in the world, are building apps for mobile phones that bring health care and banking to people in the remotest areas. This is encouraging, but it is still far from a continent-wide, irreversible trend. There is still no critical mass of African countries achieving good enough governance to ensure sustainable development and economic prosperity.  

Africa’s ecological footprint is one of the world’s smallest, its population dividend is outstanding, and its poor development performance, to date, is actually an opportunity. This continent stands an excellent chance of creating governments with equal numbers of men and women, building schools that are eco-friendly and teaching respect for the environment as a core subject. African architects can design smart cities that use technology to ensure access to water, housing and health care; cities that can grow truly green economies and create new categories of employment.    

Will we be able to take advantage of this unique position to provide the world with a new model of society? First must come the African minds that decide to lead themselves and the rest of the world to a new plateau in human development. The worst that could happen is that Africa does not fulfil its potential.

 

Our imagination

Ann Wroe

You lose your sight. Your house burns down, with everything lost. You contract a terrible, lingering disease. Your children die before you. A tsunami obliterates your town. An asteroid strikes. The air is turned to poison gas. Humankind immolates itself on a pyre of carbon-fuelled self-indulgence. 

To picture these things is to dwell on unrelieved darkness: to bring horror, grief, the cold fist in the belly, the struggle for breath, into the quotidian comfort of our lives. Yet if we experienced them wholly, rather than in part, the darkness would surely reveal—as only the dark can—unexpected gleams of light. Without our sight, we would hear, taste and touch more keenly. Without possessions, we might treasure anew what we get and are given, and start afresh on a new uncluttered life. Struck down by grievous illness, we would find resilience from somewhere. Robbed of the future we imagined for our children, we might eventually discover how rich the unimagined past has been, for knowing them. Those who have actually been through these miseries assure us that it can be so.

For some, the worst that can happen is evidently death. But there is nothing evident about it. None of us knows for certain what follows the end of the body. Socrates, on the point of drinking hemlock, reflected that he would go either to restful oblivion, or to an eternity of good life and better conversation; and neither was to be dreaded. Or, if we distrust the ancient wisdom, we can listen to Walt Whitman, who saw daily the worst that civil-war artillery could do to young men, and who held their hands through the agony of hacksaw-and-brandy surgery, and watched them die: "The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, / And if ever there was, it led forward life".  

The fearful, fretful mind takes no account of this capacity to endure and overcome. Instead, it calls down horror on itself. Milton (who comforted himself with the thought of other blind poets, and trusted that his own blindness would open him to Celestial Light, shining inwardly) perhaps put it best, in "Comus":

Peace Brother, be not over-exquisite
To cast the fashion of uncertain evils;
For grant they be so, while they rest unknown
What need a man forestall his date of grief
And run to meet what he would most avoid?

In other words, the worst that can happen is to imagine the worst that can happen. 

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