Sarita Sarvate

The End of the World We Know

Mar 07, 2009

India Currents


SARITA SARVATE, Mar 07, 2009

Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, paints a bleak picture of a post-apocalyptic earth in the grips of a freeze akin to nuclear winter, much talked about in the ’70s. The sun’s rays cannot penetrate the grey cloud around the planet; the soil, covered with ash and soot, cannot grow vegetation; and all non-human animals are long gone. What trees are left standing are slowly disintegrating, crashing to the ground in the dark of the night. Marauding gangs of survivors are scavenging the remnants of cities, first for supermarket leftovers, and then for human prey.

At a superficial level, the story evokes a pessimistic scenario, but as one reads on, one begins to identify with the father and son pair carrying the human genus into an unknown future.

Reading the book as the economic crisis was deepening and George Bush was being booed out of Washington, I could not help wonder if The Road was not one of the best parables ever written about the fragility of planet earth and its civilization.

Alas, so wedded are most people to their cushy lifestyles and the fruits of capitalism that, in their vocabulary, the stock market decline is not a crash but a “correction,” the Iraqi war is not a sorry spectacle of human arrogance but a noble effort at restoring democracy to an ignorant people, and climate change is something that might or might not happen in the distant future.

But, as I travel through deserted Mayan empires, writing this column on the road, I cannot but wonder, is America past its zenith? Are we seeing not only the fall of the American empire but also the defeat of the American paradigm?

“You want the Chinese empire instead?” a young English woman I meet in Guatemala on Lago de Atitlan asks, scandalized by my comment. “Do you want to learn Mandarin instead of English?”

I shudder at the thought. The Chinese, with their totalitarian capitalism, paranoia about individuality, and demonstrable disregard for the environment, would perhaps be a worse superpower to be subjugated by, but are these the only two options? Can we not have a world without superpowers, without hegemony, without an economic system that measures prosperity in terms of GDP, which roughly translates into how many material goods a person has rather than the well being a person enjoys?

Many so-called experts have been extolling the virtues of globalization, with Thomas Friedman in the vanguard, so much so that I finally borrowed the audio version of The World is Flat. Alas, so annoying was Friedman’s exuberant tone that I could not stick with it. What I found ironic was that while Friedman was lauding the idea that a person in an Indian village could enjoy a high standard of living off work outsourced by American companies, he was ignoring the reality that this sort of economic dependence on a country halfway around the world could also mean that the same villager could lose his or her livelihood in recessionary times.

Even more ironic was the fact that Friedman never stopped to consider that perhaps he himself was an overpaid wordsmith who could easily be replaced at one-tenth of his price. If you do not believe me, just look at the financial jeopardy the New York Times is currently in.

Why did Friedman not consider such a scenario? Because, his book, from what little of it I was able to stomach, seemed to rely on the false premise that India is a nation of techies and number crunchers, capable only of following orders from American intellectuals higher up on the evolutionary ladder.

Friedman’s failure hints at a deeper problem: a world reliant on flawed assumptions.

As the world became small, or flat as Friedman claims, it lost many of its redundancies that, as any engineer will tell you, are necessary for any system to function without failure. So the world became vulnerable. Now, there is nowhere one can hide one’s money safely; there is nowhere one can simply go to get away.

The current economic crisis has revealed the fragility of our planetary system. Turns out Wall Street is nothing but a gigantic Ponzi scheme. Once people lose their faith in the system, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down because the companies they are buying stocks from have no real worth. Instead, they are depending on China to produce more junk to fill more landfills.

I do think the economic crisis will not go away as easily as people wish. Something fundamental has shifted. We are on the verge of environmental, economic, political, and social calamity caused by inequity, greed, disregard for natural resources, and hunger for power.

Almost 200 years ago, the English economist Thomas Malthus predicted that the world would soon grow out of resources because of population pressures.

Our so-called gurus have long pooh-poohed Malthus, but today many people believe that Malthus will ultimately be proven right. Among these believers are people known as dystopians, who foresee, not a utopia, but an imminent world collapse.

The Popol Vuh, the Mayan Bible, long ago predicted that the great cycle of life, which began around 3,000 BC, will end on December 21, 2012.

Could it be that the current economic crisis, death and destruction in Iraq, global climate change, ongoing blood bath in Palestine, ceaseless bombings in India and their repercussions, all point to the fast approaching end of the world?

I think so.

But that may not be such a bad thing.

After all, things can scarcely continue the way they are. The end of the world as we know it could also mean the birth of a new world, a new system, a new vision.

That is, if we take up the challenge to create a new human civilization!

But that would mean creating a new paradigm to defeat Cormac McCarthy’s stark vision.