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The Battle between Past and Future
Fourth of six articles for The Bangladesh Today International
March 2008


This century we are faced with challenges which, if we fail to meet them, can cost us and our descendants highly. Costs and benefits are becoming increasingly relevant as deciding factors. Our capacity to waste, to support outmoded ways of doing things and to carry on with 'business as usual' is diminishing rapidly. Wider global issues are bearing down more heavily on us, imposing their own costs and exposing weaknesses in all human systems and societies.

When I was a student radical at LSE in London in the late 1960s, most people didn't know much about the issues we were bringing to the public domain – about human wrongs, human rights, the costs of war, pesticides and pollution, social and economic inequalities, resource depletion, political abuses, faceless societies and a host of other interrelated issues.

But in the decades since, this unawareness has changed. Today everyone, educated or illiterate, city-dwelling or living on the land, has a rough picture of what's going on, drawn from direct experience and commonsense. Everyone can see the smog, or has been hit by climatic extremes or visible changes affecting our daily lives and communities – the details vary, but the basic message is similar worldwide.

A sharp-eyed, questioning 17 year-old is hard-pressed to find good answers about the state of the world: it doesn't really make sense. It's a scary equation of what economists call 'diminishing returns', where the price of continuing doing something increasingly outstrips the benefits gained from it. Forty years ago, people like me harped on about the price our children's children would pay, and today the price-paying is advancing, and costs are rising. Not just financial, but human, social, ecological and spiritual costs.

At times it's all very discouraging. It's as if we're heading for a deadly shoot-out between the past and the future, and their respective priorities and game-plans. If we had started on these questions when they were first raised some forty years ago, there might have been more of a negotiation rather than a fight. But past and future speak different languages and see things in different ways.

The future brandishes weapons such as typhoons, market falls, toxic disasters, epidemics or the downfalls of the high-and-mighty, while the past engages in defensive rear-guard actions, fighting its ground to maintain 'normality' and 'stability'. Each works from a very different script. It's a global-scale conflict of the world against itself. The cost-curves, in loss of natural resources, size of cities, rising global temperatures, demographics, conflict, waste, nuclear proliferation and basic sanity, are still rising, and this is unlikely to stop.

Past and future agendas also get manipulated, obscured and complexified – an analysis-paralysis in which we risk losing track of what really needs to happen. Let's take an example from Afghanistan. Noble indeed is the aim of making peace in a troubled country such as this. But NATO and the West, seeing Afghanistan as a breeding-ground for terrorism and narcotics, have fallen into the age-old trap of believing that peace can be forged militarily, by beating the enemy.

Meanwhile, the Taliban and al Qa'eda have fallen into another trap, believing that anything that harms their enemy is good – this can include killing and scaring ordinary Afghans and letting the opium trade grow to enormous proportions, against their very own Muslim principles. Both sides assert that they have Afghans' interests at heart, but actions speak louder than words, and neither really behave like bringers of peace and justice, however these might be defined. Neither is really anxious to fulfil the needs of Afghans themselves.

This situation is bound up with the past. The position of the Taliban and al Qa'eda, who see Afghanistan as a bastion of resistance to the insidious historic influence of the West, is being overtaken by shifts of a larger kind. The 21st century world is not going to be Western-dominated, and fundamentalists might do well to look at Beijing or Dubai, not New York City, as targets for their disapproval and wrath.

Meanwhile, the West, still dominated by American thinking and preoccupation with endless wars on terror and drugs, fails to see how its position is also being overtaken by events. NATO invaded Afghanistan to give it democracy and modernity and to free the world of terrorists, yet the biggest single outcome achieved so far has been to stimulate the opium trade.

Western doctrine of recent decades advocates economic growth, business and free trade as the solution to all ills. So an Afghan farmer looks at ways of making money, does his calculations and plants opium. This helps his family and village – it's a product with a reliable market, high value and good returns. It makes him vulnerable to pressures from warlords and desperadoes but, if he grew other crops, he'd then get tax-collectors and government inspectors, so the difference is marginal.

Westerners believe in eliminating opium crops – ideally by spraying, a very blunt weapon. But the negative 'hearts and minds' effect of spraying and crop-destruction, at times poisoning villagers and ruining land, is counterproductive – NATO's need to get Afghans on its side outweighs its need to deal with drugs. Yet opium production feeds socially-destructive heroin addiction in the West and funds the very terrorists and warlords NATO is trying to control. So NATO's strategy in Afghanistan is fundamentally flawed.

Meanwhile, the Taliban's own battle includes permitting the drugs trade, making deals with drug barons and creaming off the rewards, undermining the very moral stance it originally grew strong on in the 1990s. The Taliban are no longer really viable as liberators from foreign oppression, and foreign troops are no longer viable as liberators from the warlords, the Taliban and Pashtun dominance in Afghan affairs. Both sides charge their price. All this makes ordinary villagers wonder who is on their side, or whether anything at all makes sense. So they keep their heads down, waiting to see who comes out on top, and which set of rules they are next to comply with.

Then, someone in the West thinks sensibly, for once. Westerners, rather addicted to healthcare and longevity, consume vast amounts of painkillers and anti-depressants, and there is a global shortage of opiates to supply this need. So why not legitimise opium-growers, buy up their crops, relieve pharmaceutical shortages, let Afghan farmers make some money and get them on the West's side? Sounds logical, but there's a problem.

This suggestion comes up against vested interests and old mindsets. The War against Drugs has been America's longest war – a war of disinformation, aggression, double-standards and prohibition. It has had the effect of stimulating organised crime and smuggling by creating a high-value black-market product such as heroin, when previously the product was legal, unrefined, less profitable and not much used in the West except in medicines or by artists, poets and bohemians.

For the last 50 years heroin has become a socially-destructive element in Western society, brought about partially by its prohibition – heroin was first made in USA, around the time that opium was first made illegal around 1920. It also happens that the vast funds generated in smuggling heroin and other drugs can quietly be reaped for other uses – so there are now hidden financial interests who prefer the trade to continue.

The plan to buy Afghan opium thus exposes a Western cultural conflict between the Christian-based moral imperative to clean up society through eliminating drug-taking, and the amoral capitalist principle that anything that makes money is good. It reveals other nasty issues too. This policy has criminalised many young Westerners without resulting in a significant clean-up.

It turned innocuous drug use before the 1960s into larger-scale drug abuse, carried out by everyone from streetwise teenagers smoking crack to top executives snorting cocaine. The most socially-destructive of all drugs, alcohol, has meanwhile remained legal and approved – there's money in it, and alcohol is a cultural prop helping drown out the heartless insensitivities of Western society.

Worse, setting up the cops-and-robbers game of prohibition has professionalised the drugs trade, concentrating power and riches in few hands and making billions available in unaccounted cash. The drugs trade has funded the weapons trade, corruption and organised crime, generating vast wealth for some. Organised crime conceals its billions in offshore banks, making massive, unaccounted black funds available in the banking system to anybody who trades in billions. Very useful. Organised crime indeed has a place in the ecology of capitalism, as long as it behaves itself.

In the early 1990s, Chechen crime-clans had amassed such massive financial reserves that they disturbed the delicate balance of global organised crime, thitherto the domain of mafias, Triads, Colombians and sundry freebooters. The Chechens got rich from crime during the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan. By 1994 Boris Yeltsin was heavily and quietly leant upon by the West to cut the Chechens down to size – in return for favours he needed. Russia's war on the Chechens was unwinnable, but winning wasn't the point – the Chechens just needed reducing. Even Russia's own oligarch-mafiosi were threatened by turf-wars with the Chechens in Moscow. So the Chechen wars just had to happen. It kept a cosy set of international arrangements intact.

Back to Afghanistan. To preserve the status quo, a creative solution to the Afghan impasse cannot really be entertained. Besides, it suits all those who promote the mindset of international conflict to keep the conflict going. Nowadays, a key driving force behind conflict is the arms industry itself, which wins whichever side it supplies. It has a vested interest in keeping weapons consumption, arms races and the politics of war-readiness alive.

Afghanistan is one of the world's great dumping-grounds, where hardship and despair are dropped on it from far away – in all honesty, to enable others elsewhere to avoid facing their own painful truths. Whether or not this dumping is intentional, it happens.

We could dig deeper, lifting other carpets. We could look at modern people's aversion to pain, giving Big Pharma the power to sell profitable medical products to captive markets – hospital clients – who unquestioningly pay billions for them. We could look at foreign policies which advocate eliminating perceived evils rather than healing their root-causes.

We could look at the conflict industry, which strives to keep war high on the agenda, persuading people to permit high military spending and the influence of military-industrial interests in politics and society. We could look at the refusal of faiths and belief systems to accept and respect one another, as well as the habitual tendency of nations to look on other nations as a threat against which they must defend themselves. These are all old-think, part of the problem, not the solution.

So many of the world's major problems are stoked up by age-old assumptions, interests and beliefs which permit little or no movement or fundamental change, because change upsets vested interests. To an extent, we all play a part in this, as perpetrators, accomplices or victims – then we wring our hands at the regrettable fixity and insanity of it all.

This cannot continue, since reality itself is shifting its baseline. The costs of all this are rising. The world currently works on the basis that unrestrained economic growth is A Good and Necessary Thing – the 1980s 'Washington Agenda' – yet economic growth benefits the prosperous more than the poor, and it's not growth but distribution of resources and wealth that is the real issue.

Meanwhile, wider considerations are increasingly bearing down on us, in every department of life. Life on Earth, for rich and poor alike, is coming into question. Today, in 2008, we are already in a climatic, demographic, economic, social and spiritual crisis worldwide and, tragically, we still delude ourselves and deny that it's happening. But it is.

We habitually believe that the customary ways, situations and ideas of the past represent the only possible route to follow. But when we're forced to look ahead at the dangers of the coming decades – such as the disappearance under water of low-lying coastal areas, of which Bangladesh has more than a fair share – the future starts affecting the present far more strongly.

Increasingly, we're being forced to make the future the basis of our current calculations. We face a sharp-edged dilemma: the solutions needed for dealing with the future are heading for a collision with the ways of the past. The future demands a serious reassessment of what is deemed important and practical. If we don't make such reassessments, crises screech along to force the issue and expose systemic weaknesses.

Yes, chemical fertilisation of land, increasing crop yields and profits in the short term, makes sense in terms of the agenda of the past. But death of fish-stocks and ecosystems, decline in the land's natural water-absorption properties, pollution of water and the chemical degradation of food stocks, with the social and political implications of all these, start red lights flashing and alarm bells ringing.

This demands quite an objective cost-benefit analysis. From a purely selfish viewpoint, if businessmen wish to profit by selling to markets, they need to have people living decent lives to form such markets and consume their products. If governments wish to stay in power, ordinary people need to feel their interests are genuinely served – whether or not they have democracy.

But this isn't the biggest question. The biggest question concerns the sustainability and quality of human life in decades to come, and the global-scale rebuilding of the natural environment and of new social, economic and technological systems to work in greater harmony with it. Today, we're caught in a contradiction: it is in our interests to change, but we are not yet willing to change fundamentally. The consequences of this paradox fall not just on Afghans.

We're heading for something, some sort of crunch in which we all are asked a simple question. What is most important – short-term self-interest or the longterm collective good? This isn't a voting matter: when we vote, we usually vote for money-in-pockets and self-interest, not for wisdom and our grandchildren's welfare. It's a far more fundamental choice: it's para-political, overriding our former concepts of belonging to a culture, class, clan, faith, nationality, gender or allegiance, and bypassing former concepts of where our interests best lie.

It's an option-less referendum. We all know what self-interest does, while the 'collective good' option is yet to be properly tested. If existing systems worked well, we would have less of a planetary problem today. But they don't work well, in the context of the emergent future. This means systemic change is needed. Not like old-style socialism, or any other -ism: we're talking about care for and sensitivity to the needs of people and nature and the need to fit fruitfully within our planet's constraining parameters.

Perhaps we need to get those coins and banknotes out of our pockets, look hard at them, and decide how important they really are, since they don't actually represent the true and full costs and benefits we need to reckon into the future. If the past prevails over the future, even our deepest, most valued traditions are likely to be eliminated. Paradoxically, if we greet the future and its demands more openly, the past might be better preserved.

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© Copyright Palden Jenkins 2008.
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