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Economic Crises, Social Instability and Environmental Catastrophe

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The title of this short essay is intended to capture the essence of the present human predicament in an increasingly integrated world. To an ever increasing proportion of the world’s population today, sudden shocks emanating from economic crises, social turmoil and environmental disasters have become commonplace. So much so, a growing body of research today is focused on human resilience – the capacity of human populations and social systems to adapt to the fast changing and unexpected circumstances. On the other hand, human response to a fast changing environment is a phenomenon that had drawn the attention of social scientists as far back as at least the mid-19th century. It was George Simmel, in an important essay entitled ‘the Metropolis and Mental Life’ published in 1903, who discussed how a fast moving urban environment negatively impacted on the lives of city dwellers. But, social environment today is many times more complex and volatile, as more and more people do not just move into cities but even shuttle between cities across the globe in search of a better life. These transitions that have become increasingly commonplace in many parts of the world expose people of all walks of life to ever more complex and transitory social situations that put enormous pressure on them to adapt and adjust. But, this is no easy task, because rapid change, increasing uncertainties and ever more terrifying natural disasters often play havoc on the lives of men, women and children.

Grave threats to the lives of ordinary people have not been uncommon in the past. Historians have documented famines, earthquakes, wars, invasions, collapse of entire civilizations, etc. in many parts of the globe. Economists have written a great deal about the more recent economic depression in America in the 1930s. But the most recent economic crises in the 1990s and 2008 in Asia, America and Europe are not yet fully behind us. In fact the accumulated public debts in the developed West, caused at least partly by increased public spending to save financial institutions and stimulate consumption and economic activity, continue to destabilize public finances in many countries. Countries that have already developed social protection systems and labour legislation favourable to workers can hardly compete with other countries to retain or attract investment capital as higher wages and other welfare measures drive up the relative cost of production. When governments cannot or do not want to ensure favourable working conditions, the workers tend to migrate overseas in search of higher wages. On the other hand, inadequate public investments in HRD and R and D coupled with the lack of productive capital investment prevent the expansion of decent employment, forcing many people into precarious forms of work.

Instability and uncertainty have become two defining features of work in many situations across the world today. The widely used terms like down-sizing, off-shoring, restructuring, and out-sourcing refer to widely adopted corporate strategies today, to cut down cost, avoid industrial trouble and remain profitable but all of them threaten the stability of the lives of many workers and their families who are at the receiving end of corporate decisions. The rise of China as a global industrial powerhouse has been both a blessing and a curse to the traditional industrial world. It is a blessing because Western and other industrial firms could shift their factories to China to benefit from cheap and abundant labour there. It is a curse because labour-intensive industrial production became less and less viable in the West resulting in the loss of stable, regular and often lifelong employment for many local workers. However, the continuing technological advancement in countries like the USA, northern and western  Europe, Japan and a few other Asian countries has enabled these countries to move into high-tech industries and at the same time maintain a technological edge in industrial manufacturing. Yet, technology has not helped most of them to avoid major economic and social dislocations for many of their citizens.  Most other countries with industrial ambitions have not been any more fortunate.

" Grave threats to the lives of ordinary people have not been uncommon in the past. Historians have documented famines, earthquakes, wars, invasions, collapse of entire civilizations, etc. in many parts of the globe"



Lifelong, regular employment with guaranteed social protection and old-age pensions have become an increasingly unrealizable dream for a majority of people in most parts of the world. Millions of workers are literally on the move today, rather than having a settled working life in a stable and familiar environment. Families are split up and scattered across countries. Even small babies are separated from their mothers who are minding others’ children in distant lands to make a living.
So what Simmel observed in Europe at the end of the 19th century with regard to the fast moving life of people in the metropolis becomes almost insignificant in comparison to what we could observe on a global scale. In fact, today, people move around in a fast changing global environment, not just within a country. So, the social and psychological impact of spatial mobility of people in a volatile economic and physical environment can be many times more intense. Moreover, the sense of insecurity and uncertainty created by environmental change is an added burden that the present and future generations have to live with and this can have as much a debilitating influence as the volatile social and economic environment that many people find themselves in today.

Japan’s most recent nuclear disaster, induced by a devastating Tsunami  continues to threaten the well-being of people living in a much larger area around the actual focal point.   Nuclear power no doubt provided a short cut to cheaper energy in a number of technologically advanced countries. It has allowed people to live and work comfortably, until a disaster strikes. The Middle East became a beehive of economic activity and consumption and attracted millions of workers and tourists, almost entirely due to the oil wealth there. This is understandable because industrial civilization would have perhaps come to an impasse if not for the increasing exploitation of fossil fuel. Industrial civilization meanwhile has introduced energy intensive consumption patterns to countries where most people hitherto lived without cars, household gadgets, etc. But the downside of all these has already come to pass. Energy and material intensive production and consumption of goods and services have already had an immense impact on the natural environment leading to what has been widely referred to as climate change. Extreme climatic events have become more common and frequent. There is hardly any country today that has not been affected by a major natural disaster in recent years.

 The cumulative impact of economic, social and environmental change described above on the well-being of people everywhere can very well be the biggest disaster in the making in the recent history of the human civilization. We are yet to develop a set of indicators to measure the combined impact of economic, social and environmental change on the well-being of people at a global level.
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