So, apparently the world’s ending today. Maybe it’ll all end up looking like this? On the upside, it’ll make things a lot simpler for landscape photographers, because you won’t end up with people barging into your frame, or unwanted vehicles, or anthropometric clutter, or people telling you to stop standing in their field.
Also, the skiing will be killer without all those lift-lines. Especially for those of us smart enough to preposition ourselves with seal-skins and randonée bindings.
Okay, so maybe it isn’t. NASA‘s certainly pretty adamant that it will be a very ordinary Winter Solstice for most of us. In fact, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki presents my personal favourite quote on the whole conversation about theories the world will end today:
On the 21st of December, inconveniently only two shopping days before Christmas the Mayan calendar will click over. But to say the world will end is like saying today’s date is the 29th and therefore your cut lunch will turn into a shoe. That’s how rational and logical it is.
However, for some of us, it will be the end of the world. In a very personal sense, for some of us, our world will end: We will die today. In fact, around 70 million people die each year, which means 190-odd thousand people are going to die today. It is a part of the world we live in. Most of these deaths are natural, just a part of growing older and moving on. For friends and family members, this is often a time of grief, although can also be a time of celebration for a life well lived, under gracious circumstances.
For many people, though, their world will end too quickly. Far sooner than it ought. Their deaths are preventable, in as far as contemporary science and medicine are concerned, but due to a range of injustices- many of them economic, some of them social, others political- they will not have access to the services and technology that might have saved their lives. For example, today:
Roughly 13,000 of us around the world will die because we don’t have access to clean drinking water or sanitation facilities. We will get diseases, most involving diarrhoea and vomiting, dehydrate and die.
Around 1,800 of us will die of malaria, just a small portion of those who will die from a long list of preventable diseases. Around 3,800 children under five will die from vaccine-preventable diseases alone today, and 4,900 people will die of AIDS.
As many as 98,000 people in the world today- as much as half the daily total- will die from causes related to hunger and malnutrition- including that deadly interplay of malnutrition, unclean water and disease.
You get the picture. And that’s just today. Tomorrow, the same thing will happen, the same number, roughly, will die. And the day after that. And the day after that, too.
We have the resources to stop these deaths. And we’re doing it. In terms of disease control especially. With the right regime of drugs, nutrition support and care, HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence it used to be. Child mortality in Africa has recently been noted to have fallen significantly, as this widely-acknowledged piece in the Economist from May this year points out:
16 of the 20 African countries which have had detailed surveys of living conditions since 2005 reported falls in their child-mortality rates (this rate is the number of deaths of children under five per 1,000 live births). Twelve had falls of over 4.4% a year, which is the rate of decline that is needed to meet the millennium development goal (MDG) of cutting by two-thirds the child-mortality rate between 1990 and 2015 (see chart). Three countries—Senegal, Rwanda and Kenya—have seen falls of more than 8% a year, almost twice the MDG rate and enough to halve child mortality in about a decade.
Access to clean water is improving in many parts of the world (though in other parts of the world it is falling as water sources become increasingly polluted or used for agricultural production), and emergency interventions by the World Food Program, NGOs and Governments keep millions of people alive each year. We know that world has enough food resources to feed everybody- in fact, we’re producing 17% more food per person today than we were 30 years ago, and that’s despite a 70% population increase (or a good hefty 3 billion-or-so people)- a total of over 2,700 kcal per person per day, enough to sustain the world at the recommended level for adult males in the USA (2,700 kcal, versus females at 2,200 kcal), and well above the recognized average minimum requirement of 1,800 kcal.
We have the resources. The problem is distribution. Which in turn is an issue, as Amartya Sen, the Nobel-prize winning economist pointed out long ago now, of entitlements. In short, power, and will.
There have been many victories in the journey towards solving some of these problems. We still have a long way to go. The situation remains unacceptable. And we’re facing an uphill struggle in many areas. The increasing extremes and erratic nature of global climate patterns are having a direct and tangible impact on marginal communities around the world, and will exacerbate both hunger and water issues, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and large swathes of Asia. As industrialization and technology become increasingly available in poorer, populous parts of the world, demand for unsustainable lifestyles is increasing, resulting in dissatisfaction and the risk of extremism and violence. Industrialization and the intensification of agriculture is reducing the supply of clean water available to maintain healthy people even as water facilities are rolled out to higher and higher portions of the world’s population.
In short, this isn’t a problem with a fixed horizon. This is a constantly moving equation, one that requires continual recalibration.
We won’t fix it today. We won’t fix it tomorrow. But we need to try.
As you head into the Christmas period, I don’t expect us to save the world. But I do ask that we consider the question of what we can contribute to make the planet immediately around us a little better. Is what we’re purchasing really necessary? Has it come from a place of injustice, like the technology used in cell phones contributing to conflict in the DRC, or will its disposal simply add more non-biodegradable poison to the planet? Is there something I can do to help people far away who are not able to meet their basic needs, whose world could well end in the near future despite the human race having the potential to stop it? Or is there somebody closer to home who I could support? Only each of us as individuals can answer these questions. But I’d like to think that this season, this Silly Season of over the top purchases and wild conspiracies about the end of the world, is far better represented by asking these questions honestly of ourselves, and then acting.
Shalom, Salaam, Peace (for those of you without a Babel Fish). Merry Christmas, and see you on the other side of the Apocalypse.
Photo: Burning rubbish tip outside Bahir Dar, Amhara Region, Ethiopia