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Living In Our Final Century

Published in Nov-Dec 2022

Interview with Professor Ilhan Niaz .

Professor Ilhan Niaz, Department of History, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, speaks to Mariam Ali Baig about the costs of ignoring climate change and his book Downfall: Lessons for Our Final Century.

MARIAM ALI BAIG: What prompted you to write this collection of essays?
ILHAN NIAZ: I normally write about the history of governance, and in that context, I have written about South Asia, Pakistan and Eurasia. The next book I am working on is about the Americas, and while doing my research I became aware of a bigger problem; what we write about governance, or politics or administration is built on the assumption that we will be operating in a more or less stable environmental system. One that we can manipulate to our advantage but which fundamentally remains resilient and allows our civilisations, government structures and ideologies to function. However, the amount of damage we have done to our environmental life support system appears to be so great that this fundamental premise of the research I and other social scientists do, no longer appears to be operational.

MAB: What are the main points that the nine essays make?
IN: Our evolution in terms of our ability to think about our problems has not evolved at the same rate as our technical, scientific or consuming abilities. We have been extremely clever and ingenious in terms of learning how to manipulate our environment for our selfish material advantage and extremely unwise in terms of dealing with the long-term consequences of that manipulation. The more we manipulate our environment for our selfish ends the better life becomes for some people in the short to medium-term, and it is therefore very hard to convince these people that the things done to sustain their increases in consumption and lifestyle are responsible for the destruction of the planet’s environmental systems. The current crisis has not come all of a sudden. Science has been predicting what we are facing for at least 40 years; more than enough time to do a lot of things to avert the outcomes we are facing. The book is about our lack of long-term thinking. It tries to explain why our deep conditioning, our desire for more material wealth and our psychological temperament have effectively conspired against us.

MAB: In a way, this is a very pessimistic book.
IN: When we talk about the world’s environmental systems, we have crossed many tipping points and in many cases, the scientific consensus on those tipping points was quite conservative. We are finding that the level of ecological destabilisation we are facing today is approximately in the range of what scientists were expecting to see at the end of this century, not at the beginning. In that context, if I am making a case that we are not likely to make it to 2100, that might, in relative terms, be an optimistic projection because other projections might indicate that by 2060, much of the world will no longer be habitable.

MAB: One of the book’s central arguments is that the planet cannot sustain further GDP growth.
IN: In 2000, the world had a per capita income of about $8,500. This is important because 2000 was the first year that human civilisation exceeded the natural resource renewal capacity of the planet. Now $8,500 may not sound like a lot of money if you live in Scandinavia or the US, but it is more than enough to ensure a decent quality of life for every single human being on the planet. The problem is that to achieve a world in which the median human being lives at that income level, you need massive redistribution, something the rich countries are not prepared to contemplate. Yet once you exceed the carrying capacity of the planet, any further increase in GDP will be purchased by mining the environment and making it impossible for the planet to recover from the effects of economic growth. The tragedy is that we can sustain an advanced industrial civilisation with a reasonable quality of life for everyone and within the natural carrying capacity of our planet. What is killing our planet is the insatiable greed of the people at the top who insist on increasing their wealth, energy consumption and lifestyle choices, regardless of the wider consequences for anyone else.

MAB: Is what is being discussed at the global level, be it COP or other forums, addressing the measure of the problem?
IN: You can see where the real priorities are by looking at US allocations. Between 2001 and 2020, the US spent six to seven trillion dollars fighting wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan; during the same time frame, it spent about $150 billion fighting climate change. Yet, although the US can be harmed by terrorism, it cannot be destroyed by it but it can be destroyed by climate change. Huge parts of it are already under acute environmental stress. Given the seriousness and imminence of the threat, you would expect the US and other developed countries to mobilise their full scientific, technical and other resources to beat this challenge – and yes, for the indeterminate future, there will be acute hardship, rationing, redistribution and other forms of social and political mobilisation. But you don’t see that reaction.

MAB: Do you think this book will make a difference?
IN: No. There is a limited market for academic analysis and within that limited market, there are competing voices and more powerful platforms that people are more likely to pay attention to, especially if they advocate policies that do not require them to be greatly inconvenienced. The recent floods in Pakistan demonstrate how you can deal with such a crisis without much of a ripple at any level. During the height of the floods, the top trend on social media in Pakistan was the audio leaks and there was no comparison between the amount of attention paid to these and other political stories and the attention paid to the very real problem that a territory four times the size of Portugal is inundated and 33 million people are forced to abandon their homes. Wherever a natural disaster is caused or intensified by global heating, thoughts and prayers are sent along with a little bit of aid here and there. Fundamentally, no government is willing to do what is necessary or prepared to make the case that the fault lies in our global economic structure and the way we are using resources and that if we would like to be able to survive on our planet, we need to move towards a more selfcontained world. A world where there is greater local production and greater economic distribution, and start to think in terms of regenerative economics. But these are fringe ideas and are not taken too seriously by policymakers.

MAB: Your book clearly suggests we are living in our final century. Isn’t that a rather scary thought?
IN: The interesting thing is that for most people, it is not scary, it is business as usual – that is the great success of the big oil companies and big corporate interests and their aligned politicians. They have been able to lull people into a state of apathy and lead them to believe that there are solutions, and these solutions do not require them to make any sacrifices; that we will somehow figure this out. It is unfortunate and a function of our manufacturing defect.

MAB: By manufacturing defect, you are talking about human beings?
IN: Exactly. Our propensity towards short-term thinking, our inability to react to abstract problems and our unwillingness to accept that our overconsumption is driving this calamity. Our propensity for ritual and tokenism as solutions when they are not there. All this is part of what makes us human. That is the great problem we face. Our underlying mental and moral evolution has fallen far behind our technical and scientific capacity and that gap is now creating the likelihood that the story of our civilisation is coming to a conclusion.

Downfall: Lessons for Our Final Century
By Ilhan Niaz
Published by CSCR, Islamabad 138 pp The book can be downloaded by clicking here.
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