8 min read

Why the 21st Century is a Tragedy, the Horror in Gaza, Climate Change, and Our Imploding Moral Calculus

Why the 21st Century is a Tragedy, the Horror in Gaza, Climate Change, and Our Imploding Moral Calculus

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. Why loneliness is bad for your health (Nature)
  2. Capitalism Decarbonised (London Review of Books)
  3. Biden blasts Israel over aid workers, but his Gaza policy is unchanged (WaPo)
  4. Trump Media saved in 2022 by Russian-American under criminal investigation (The Guardian)
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  7. Anxiety really has increased over the past 10 years – but why? (New Scientist)
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  9. Europe Must Prepare for a Trump Presidency (Project Syndicate)
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Hi. How’s everyone? Thanks for joining and helping me build this wonderful community. I’ve really been enjoying the depth and resonance of the comments. Please keep them coming!

Today we’re going to discuss…the 21st century. Gaza. Climate change. Collapse, stagnation, conflict, this turning point in history we find ourselves in. How they’re all connected. 

What do you see when you look at the 21st century? I see tragedy, and I’ll come to that. By way of an example.

The Horror in Gaza as a Window Into the Future of Climate Change

What do you see when you look at Gaza? Most sensible people, these days, I imagine, feel a sense of horror. Of repulsion. When is it enough? What level of abuse and violence is an intolerable level of punishment? What form of degradation is finally unacceptable?

When I look at Gaza, though, I see something more, too. I see the future of our planet. I see climate change, and what it will do. Please don’t read to think I’m minimizing anyone’s suffering. Rather, I’m highlighting it, because…

Over the last few years, we’ve already become inured to death and suffering. We learned, in a way, to shrug at Covid, as lunatics told the masses it was “no big deal.” And yet, something close to 15% of Americans have had long Covid. That is an astonishing toll, and more so, one that passes almost unremarked upon. The normalization of the unthinkable is already upon us.

What will climate change do? It will create situations like Gaza. Very much like Gaza. Catastrophes will level cities, towns, and regions. People will starve, due to famine, and go thirsty, as droughts rip through the soil. Crops will fail. All of that will of course force prices to rise, and just as in Gaza, mafias will rise. It’ll be innocent people who bear the brunt of all this, of course, who’ve only had the misfortune to be born in the wrong place. And as the world closes itself off, such people will be trapped, too, like those in Gaza—imprisoned in catastrophe: after all, the West will hardly welcome them in with open arms, already tidally sinking in a far right tsunami.

Gaza presents us with a sort of microcosm of what climate change will do. To many, many poor parts of the world, and even to richer ones—just to our world, really. 

I’m not asking the question “how many people will climate change kill?” That’s a naive question, asked from a place of privilege, which has become a kind of bloodsport amongst American columnists and pundits. Ten million, some cry. Why, never, only a mere million, object others. This sort of privilege both baffles and repulses me—the “brown guy” in me.

The calculus of death is never so simple, nor should we ever reduce it to mere “numbers,” as Gaza teaches us. At least 30,000 people are dead, yet a million are on the brink of starvation. Is starvation suffering enough? Are kids screaming in hunger somehow lesser than “death”? I suppose that depends on a sort of Western calculus of suffering, in which one has never seen one’s kids starve. But if you have, then these aren’t forms of a lesser evil—just evil, just suffering, just harm. Quantity can often mask quality, and when it comes to human suffering, that lesson is eternal.

So “how many people will die” is eminently a naive question. The numbers will dwarf any event in human history, to be sure, and that’s perhaps the first important point. The second, though, is the sheer immensity of suffering to come, which is exemplified by Gaza, from starvation, to entrapment, to hopelessness, to terror, to having one’s home and neighborhood destroyed, to the loss of possibility itself. What “number” can we assign that suffering that makes it any more—if not less—meaningful or sensible?

We are losing our empathy at precisely the point we need it most, is one way of reading the above, if you like. But that’s not entirely my point, though it’s part of it. My point? Let me try again, now that we’ve discussed what you might call the phenomenology of suffering, a little bit.

The (Implosive) Moral Calculus of the 21st Century

Sometimes, in history, a moral calculus is a difficult thing. Do you kill one person to save a thousand? A dozen, to save a million? And so on.

Right about now, we face a relatively simple moral—and socioeconomic—calculus. Not a tricky or complex one, but a clear and straightforward one. 

  • If we value every life, and that means every life, from trees to animals and beyond, then we will save countless lives, in the very near future.
  • If we value every life, and that means every life, again, then we will save untold amounts and levels and intensities of suffering, in the very near future.

This is what a “narrowing window” to address climate change means.

That’s one of the things that’s remarkable about this age. In actuality, despite pundits and wannabe intellectuals and whatnot making it out that the calculus of now is somehow “difficult” or “complicated”—just as they pretend Gaza is “complicated,” when it’s not—the moral calculus of now is crystal clear. It is one of the easiest decisions in human history, or at least should be.

The difficult part is ahead of us. As climate change’s mega-scale impacts intensify, as it creates mini and macro Gazas around the globe, and as resources dwindle, then the calculus will grow more and more complex.

  • shall we accept a few million climate refugees, when our own social contracts are already breaking?
  • Should we invest in rebuilding areas that encounter repeated devastation, just because the rich and powerful live there, or should we invest in the larger systems that all of a society will need to survive an age of climate catastrophe?
  • Should we save this set of lives, or those? 
  • Who do the last few resources belong to? 
  • And what decides who gets them—in an age of imploding democracy, is it to be violence, coercion, brutality?

Every single day that passes now, our civilizational moral calculus goes from crystal clear and straightforward to the kinds of insoluble dilemmas and breakdowns above. Let me put that differently. 

The potential of this moment is that it’s still possible for us to make choices that save countless lives, and vastly reduce the suffering to come. And those choices are—just as that description implies—the right ones.

Those choices, in terms of political economy, are easy to describe, and I’ve written about them so much, I won’t repeat myself: investment, which has a large multiplier effect, in systems and institutions we need most, which are for basics, whether food, water, or air, or materials, or basic services like healthcare, finance, and transport.

But we aren’t making those choices. Not as societies, and not as a world. Every day that goes by, the window narrows. We used to wonder not just when but if we’d hit 1.5 degrees, and we’re already there, cruising towards 2 degrees. But 2 degrees of course is where tipping points are hit, and so that means closer to 3, 4, maybe higher. And at those levels, the planet melts down, and much of our civilization with it.

Every day that goes by, we are wasting the opportunity to make the right choices. I know you know that, but I want you to feel it, to really grasp it. Gaza teaches us what happens when we get this moral calculus of suffering wrong—the devastation comes quicker and harder than we ever knew, just as even Joe Biden seems flatfooted and flabbergasted by what his own inaction has sown, sadly. 

The narrowing window will close by the end of this decade, if it hasn’t already. And I’m not here to BS you—it’s not looking good, it’s looking emphatically bad. If Trump’s re-elected, that’s it, game over, more or less, for the planet, as it is if the European far right triumphs. For us to even make this decision, the chances grow more slender by the day, and they were never high to begin with.

I don’t want you to think, by the way, that I’m “using” Gaza, as a kind of “metaphor”, or even an “example.” Quite the contrary. I’m pointing out that this is now poised to be a century of degradation, the loss of agency, the diminishing of human development, the twilight of freedom, in all these ways, and Gaza demonstrates viscerally and powerful where that road of grief ends. This is what “we’re making the wrong choices” means.

The Tragedy of the 21st Century

And that leaves us back where we began. What are we to learn from Gaza? Nobody deserves this. I imagine that’s what most people with a heart think. And yet this is sort of what’s in store for much of the planet in the not too distant future. I’m sure there’ll be the kind of Westerner who imagines I exaggerate, so let me remind you that a third of Pakistan flooded not so long ago, and that’s a nation of 250 million people, and tens of millions lost their homes, belongings, harvests, and everything they’d ever had. 

This is the tragedy of the 21st century. Not just that we’ve set all these smaller tragedies in motion. But that the right choices are so painfully self-evident, and right before us. That we can still make them. Only we’re not, young people paralyzed, masses radicalized, democracies cratering, collective delusions spreading, a feeling of hopelessness and despair endemic. 

That’s the tragedy. History will look back on this moment as the time when we could have still made the right choices. But didn’t. And that locked in what was to come. A half century or more of growing disaster, in which civilization was pushed to and beyond the brink.

Will it be a future of the first trillionaires ruling over the ashes of a dying planet? It’s looking like it. More so by the day. What happens when we make the wrong choices? They result in conflict, violence, and brutality. Our inaction now will inevitably produce all that then. And as the horns of this devil interlock, scarcity, catastrophe, and violence feeding on one another, what is to be left of the project once called civilization? 

This is the tragedy of the 21st century: that our moral calculus is imploding into catastrophe as we speak. I don’t know if I’ve expressed all that well. You see, reading what I just wrote, you could imagine a sci-fi script. But you shouldn’t. Like I said, you should just take a hard look at the horror in Gaza, and how fast it came to be.

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