Don't look up!

January 03, 2022 08:44
Photo: Reuters

The asteroid that’s heading for Earth in Don’t Look Up; the raging COVID-19 pandemic and omicron variant; the collapse of our environment under the weight of climate change; the ever-encroaching threat of a nuclear (or partial) war… These threats, these existential challenges, these calls for reckoning and awakening that would lead to little but futility… these are also the very problems that have come to comprise and define the zeitgeist of our times.

Don’t look up. Don’t look up.

After all, the price to pay for looking up is excessive – the ruffling of feathers and rustling of jimmies aren’t worth it. We live in fear, we live in blissful ignorance; we live like a pack of blind mice – lemmings searching for the cliff to jump off. What’s the point in caring, when those who care are flogged, captured, and silenced? Where lies the purpose in seeking to change the unchangeable, when we’re far better off… keeping to ourselves, to our private lives of solitude?

Here’s the thing. Looking up is not an option. Not looking up is also not an option. We live in an age where we have no choice but to eschew, and to put an end to the decades of apathy that have undergirded our collective reasoning. As much as I’d like to end 2021 and embark upon 2022 a cynic – it behooves me to point out the obvious: we’re not looking up not because we can, but because we’re running away from the inevitability when we have to look up.

We have to look up – when climate change threatens the residences of the most vulnerable millions residing just narrowly above sea level; when extreme weather ends up destroying a plethora of crops and horticulture – more specifically, in countries that are at risk of turning arid due to desertification; when the melting ice caps transform the poles into unhabitable spaces sparsely populated and abandoned by all wildlife. Abandon your dreams and hopes, folks, for none of this will change unless we act.

We have to look up – as missiles and gunfire ricochet off the blooded walls and structures lining the coasts and key military sites; as war is waged and fought across battlefields stretching from the Urals to the West Pacific. We find war unlikely, implausible, and frankly abhorrent – distantly so. Yet few would have considered the prospects of war over a non-existent “threat” in Iraq likely, let alone the decade-long struggle and counter-struggles in Afghanistan. War is not kind, but war is possible. War is not giving – it takes at all costs. And we need to reckon with the raging chances that are far too high for comfort.

We have to look up – at the despots and tyrants who froth with delight in the Middle East and Northern Africa, at the populist ineptitude that has surged and spread far and wide in Western Europe and America, at the destabilising forces threatening to dismantle governance structures from within. Look at them – not as idols to fawn over, but as realistic and imminent challenges that call for urgent redress; redress not through symbolically performative protests and opposition, but pragmatic reforms that transform power structures and dynamics, step-by-step, bit-by-bit.

We have to look up – for we can hide in our little woodworks all we want, but the wheels of time will not wait for those who sit idly by. If 2021 is a year of ignorance and oblivion, then 2022 is a year of us paying the price for our slovenly dereliction of duties. From world leaders to those being led, from those who govern to those who are being governed, it’s high time that we grappled with the problems that are befalling us, head-on, as opposed to running away from the problems. And what does that look like?

Are we to campaign ceaselessly, to protest till we part, to partake in vociferous virtue signalling, at the expense of practical progress and genuine change? Or are we to pray for the best and await the divinations from a Higher Being – till hope comes about? I’d suggest that neither is the option.

We must start closer to home. We must start with consciousness raising – raising not only awareness, but also understanding and appreciation of the urgency that underpins these existential crises. As Toby Ord puts it, we stand at the precipice of a new era – an era of upheaval, distraught pains, and edging closer and closer towards the “X” moment, when human civilization is confronted with its lonesome and wistful extinction. A world without humans may seem far-fetched – but so did many tragedies, atrocities, and grievous episodes in our long history. We may not be able to save the world or salvage a sinking ship with the might of an individual – but the least we could do is to “look” at the problem head-on, as opposed to bowing our heads to the towering figure of self-effacement. Don’t look up only when it’s too late – look up now, for it’s already too late.

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Assistant Professor, HKU