Pestilence, Famine, War, Neoliberalism, and Premature Deaths

By Judith Deutsch | 2009-07-01 12:00:00

The outlook for this century is dim. Climate change and nuclear weapons pose ever-worsening threats, and the living conditions on our "planet of slums" continue to deteriorate. Although a great deal is known about preventing premature deaths, there is a profound paralysis in applying this knowledge in an effective way.

Worse still, many commentators suggest that there is a powerful worldwide elite who accrue wealth by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, by investing in nuclear weapons and militarism, and who are systematically depriving the majority world and nature of the right to life. There is a narrow time scale for reversing these trends in that scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now predict a possible 90% extinction rate by the end of this century unless our way of life changes drastically.

A significant fact about the Nazi Holocaust was the belief that "it can't happen here." People were in a state of denial about the readily apparent ominous danger. A number of fine films convey this delusion of safety in various societies. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Vittorio De Sica), and Burnt by the Sun (Nikita Mikhalkov) paint pictures of the exquisite, subtle beauty of life, while the characters are oblivious to their destiny in concentration camps and the Soviet gulag. There are exact parallels now: the perils to existence are barely mentioned in the media. Also, distortions and outright lies minimize the magnitude of the problems.

Four threats to human existence

At present, threats to human existence come from at least four directions: climate change with its consequences of catastrophic climate events and of drastic water and food shortages; from nuclear war; from pandemics; from the severe impoverishment and destruction of society that is a result of neo-liberal restructuring. All are due to human error. All are preventable. But the time factor is most crucial around climate change. The lack of attention to the time scale is tantamount to believing that "it can't happen here."

Currently, most attempts to counter these dangers address the issues in isolation even though the main perpetrators implement a unified, relatively coherent programme that unites these threats. Neo-liberal plutocrats are the controlling shareholders of the large agri-business, weapons, water privatization, pharmaceutical (anti national health care), mining, non-renewable energy companies. It is their economic practices that decimate water resources, deplete soil, pollute air, and increase greenhouse gas emissions. The culpable individuals, their think tanks, the supportive government bureaucracies, and the specific methods of control are well-documented in a number of recent works.1

From recent history it is readily apparent that mass extinction "can happen here." A similar confluence of climate events and exploitive socio-economic re-structuring occurred in the late-Victorian period. Retrospective statistical studies established that worldwide droughts between 1876 and 1902 were caused by El Nino weather events. Based on the British Empire's laissez-faire approach to famine that enjoined against state "interference" in the for-profit trade in wheat, between 13 million and 29 million people died in India alone.

True to the precepts of liberalism, the British converted small subsistence farms in India into large scale monocrop farming for export on a world market. The new globally integrated grain trade meant that disturbances in distant parts of the world affected Indian farmers. Advances in technology actually made things worse, for steam-driven trains were used to transport grains to England while locals starved, and telegraph communication was used to process international monetary transactions that destroyed local communities. Gone were the traditional social institutions for managing food shortages and hardship.

The Victorian world view also bequeathed us the myth of the inferior Third World and denial of British responsibility for the de-development of tropical countries. Mike Davis points out the compelling evidence that South Indian laborers had higher earnings than their British counterparts in the 18th century and lived lives of greater financial security, including better diets and lower unemployment. "If the history of British rule in India were to be condensed into a single fact, it is this: there was no increase in India's per capita income from 1757 to 1947. Indeed, in the last half of the nineteenth century [due to colonial structural adjustment], income probably declined by more than 50% There was no economic development at all in the usual sense of the term."( Davis, p. 311).

In today's world, neo-liberalism continues to increase global misery and poverty and the dehumanization and invisibility of millions of "warehoused" people. Whatever conditions increase poverty also increase premature deaths. In the US, a 1% rise in unemployment increases the mortality rate by 2%, homicides and imprisonments by 6%, and infant mortality by 5%. The 225 richest individuals worldwide have a combined wealth of over $1 trillion, equal to the annual income of the poorest 47% of the world's population, or 2.5 billion people. By comparison, it is estimated that the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and safe water and sanitation for all is roughly $40 billion a year. This is less than 4% of the combined wealth of these 225 richest people.2


Neo-liberal policies have mandated the destruction of the social safety net that would be the lifesaver in climate disaster, epidemics, and war. The International Monetary Fund has required countless countries to dismantle public education, health, water, and sanitation infrastructure. Neo-liberalism strenuously opposes government intervention on behalf of the common good while hypocritically and deceptively protecting narrow class interests and investments in the military, non-renewable energy, privatized health care.

The powerful and wealthy few control the military-industrial complex, surveillance, and the media. The connections with climate change are manifold. Already there is military preparedness for the potential impacts on peace and security posed by climate change -- not to help victims but to keep refugees out. Ominously, there are now overt racist overtones to the discussion of "environmental refugees" and the closing of borders. The model of response to disasters is most likely Hurricane Katrina, namely, protection of the wealthy and outright cruelty to the poor.

Wars are tremendously costly to the public but highly profitable to powerful elites. "The arms trade has expanded by more than 20% worldwide in the past five years" (The Guardian Weekly 01.05.09, p. 11). The military itself emits enormous amounts of greenhouse gases and brutally protects the extractive industries of the wealthy. There are innumerable unreported incidents: In May 2009, alone, the Nigerian army razed villages in the oil-rich Niger delta to protect oil companies, killing many civilians; in Papua New Guinea, 200 heavily armed soldiers and police were sent to the Barrick Gold Porgera area to destroy indigenous villages. In the 20th century, it is estimated that as many as 360 million people died prematurely due to state terrorism--"terrorism from above."

Besides Proliferation

The use of nuclear weapons in wars would appear to be increasingly acceptable. "We have created a situation in the world where we have a very small number of people in control of nuclear arsenals - people whose competence is not necessarily proven, whose rationality is not necessarily at a high level, and whose ethical standards may or may not be acceptable. These people are in charge of making decisions about the use of weapons that could destroy civilization and most life on earth" (p. 245). In their recent collection of papers on nuclear weapons, Falk and Krieger further suggest that the grand military strategy is "largely to project power in order to reap the benefits of profitability for the few. To take control of resources, and to place our military bases strategically around the world in order to have greater degrees of control, sounds like a strategy to benefit corporate interests." They state that the power elite has cleverly manipulated the public by focusing almost exclusive attention on the issue of proliferation, "with corresponding inattention to possession, continuing weapons development, and thinly disguised reliance on threatened use."

For real change to occur, it will be necessary to penetrate the "deepest bowels of the governmental bureaucracy," the silent and unknown people who support the nuclear weapon option.

We must be realistic about the forces obstructing reduction of greenhouse gases, all forms of militarism, and economic inequity. Conventions and international law all too often provide a smokescreen that delays real change. For example, the United States simply changed the description of its captured detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid meeting the requirements of statutes on terror. Similarly, Israel invented a new term for Gaza, a "statal entity," to avoid the term "occupation" with its specific legal obligations.

Despite international courts of justice, the powerful remain immune. Israel barred two UN-appointed investigators (Richard Falk and currently, Richard Goldstone) from entering Gaza by simply claiming that charges of war crimes were "ridiculous." International law remains the victor's justice as the likes of Pinochet, Blair, Clinton, Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Union Carbide claim immunity. Belgium, with its horrendous historical crimes in the Congo and in Rwanda, deceptively positions itself as an arbiter of justice.

We must differentiate wish from reality in all these areas to assess actual progress. Currently, climate change accelerates as GHG emissions continue to increase. The nuclear precipice will lead to catastrophe or transformation. On the helpful side there is the ready availability of knowledge and of immediate eyewitness accounts. There is also the knowledge that people are capable of curbing violence, of living together, of taming and modifying their desires. After all, kindergarten children have the ability to not hit and are expected to cooperate with each other. For millennia, people have gotten along without private cars and throwaway electronic equipment, without nuclear/ chemical/biological weapons. Immediate, reasoned action is necessary; there is no time to waste.

Judith Deutsch, president, Science for Peace. Member of Canadian psychoanalytic society. Works clinically with children and adults.


1 For example, see Pilisuk and Rountree "Not Quite a Conspiracy: Networks of Power." Peace Magazine, Jul-Sep 2008, p. 20; D. Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press: Oxford 2007; P. Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal. W.W. Norton: New York 2009.

2 J. Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. Vintage: New York 1997.


M. Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World. Verso: New York 2002.

R. Falk and D. Krieger ed. At the Nuclear Precipice: Catastrophe or Transformation? Palgrave Macmillan: New York 2008.

M. Mandel, How America Gets away with Murder: Illegal wars, collateral damage and crimes against humanity. Pluto Press: London 2004.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2009

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2009, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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