February 2016
#2045 , 2433 Views
Told You So

By: Bhanuj Kappal

16 things no one thought would really happen. Except they did.

You know when you’re watching a horror movie and a character goes to investigate a strange noise, and you’re thinking, “I can’t believe he’s so stupid, he’s obviously going to die”? This list is kind of like that, but about real problems facing the world that we all saw coming, but refused to do anything about because what you don’t acknowledge can’t hurt you. We know hindsight is 20/20, but come on humanity, are we really this stupid?


Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first warned us that emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion could lead to catastrophic climate change way back in 1896, and the past few decades have brought us overwhelming evidence that the threat is indeed real. Al Gore even made a documentary about it (though that may have hurt more than it helped). But as always, the politics of growth and short term profit trumped long term concerns about the future of the planet. We continue to burn fossil fuels prodigiously and our governments dither over committing to doing even the bare minimum, all while we hurtle towards the point of no-return. Enjoy your wealth while you can, because 8% GDP growth won’t help when the waters rise.


Air pollution is reaching alarming proportions, what with China buying up all the air Vitality Air can bottle. This Silicon Valley start-up began ‘capturing air’ from the Rocky Mountain area in Canada in massive cans as a joke, but people actually started buying it, and it is now a roaring success. But given that Delhi has now surpassed Beijing as the world’s most polluted city, slowly turning its residents into maskwearing Immortan Joes, let’s just look at our capital: In 1998, air pollution in New Delhi was so alarmingly high that the Supreme Court was compelled to take action. The Court’s order forced all public transport vehicles — approximately 1,00,000 of them — to switch to the cleaner CNG as fuel. That decision, along with a few other measures, led to a swift improvement in air pollution levels over the next few years. You could walk the city’s streets again without feeling like you’re stuck in a giant gas chamber. But Delhi being Delhi, that wasn’t going to last. While the government spent the next 10 years patting itself on the back (and doing little else), Delhi’s burgeoning middle class kept buying gas guzzling cars like shopaholics on a rampage during Black Friday. Add rapid, unplanned construction and a deeply flawed mass transit system and voila! You have the ongoing pollution crisis. At long last, New Delhi is number one at something other than making women feel unsafe.


Back in the 1990s — when most of us first discovered the internet — it was a digital version of the wild, wild west. Governments were still trying to figure out how e-mail worked, corporations hadn’t yet carved up the world wide web into their private fiefdoms, and for a while it seemed like a place where anything was possible. But the chaos of the free internet was neither profitable nor easily governed, and so it had to be tamed. Since the mid-’90s, internet activists, groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and concerned netizens have campaigned against the government and corporate assault on internet freedom. They warned about increasing online surveillance long before Edward Snowden blew the lid on the NSA, but were dismissed as conspiracy theorists. And while government regulation and surveillance generated outrage and protest, big businesses quietly eroded any right to privacy we had, scooping up terabytes of personal information we didn’t even know we were putting out there. By the time everyone realised what was happening, it was too late. We’re left fighting a desperate rearguard action as governments snoop through our e-mail and corporations turn the internet into a collection of walled gardens. The free internet is dead, leaving in its place an Orwellian dystopia.


The late ‘90s and early ‘00s were heady, euphoric years for proponents of free market capitalism. The global economy was booming, new markets were opening up (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and Francis Fukuyama had declared the end of history with unregulated capitalism as the undisputed winner. What could go wrong? A lot, as it turns out. In 1996, Brooksley E. Born took over the Commodities and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and realised that there was an entirely unregulated branch of the commodities market known as ‘derivatives’. The government knew little about this market, called the ‘black box’ of trading by Wall Street insiders. Worried about the risks this posed to the global economy, Born tried to investigate and regulate this market only to find her efforts blocked by the finance industry lobby and by Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, the high priest of the free market. Her warnings were ignored, and she eventually resigned. In 2005, Raghuram Rajan — then chief economist at the IMF — again warned of the risk of unregulated financial commodities, but was dismissed as a ‘luddite’. By the time Greenspan himself turned around and spoke of a possible depression in 2007, it was too late. Derivatives played a key role in the collapse of financial markets in 2008, and the global economy has still not recovered. Oops.


In February 1993, Robert D. Kaplan wrote a piece for The Atlantic about Syria’s national identity crisis. The lack of a nationalist movement and division on sectarian and religious lines, he said, meant that the Balkanisation of Syria is inevitable if the Ba’athist regime of Hafez Al Assad — Basher’s father — ever faltered. Other analysts had made similar predictions before then, and would continue to make them till the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2012. But none of those warnings prevented the United States from meddling in the conflict, arming the rebels in a half-hearted attempt to get rid of their old Ba’athist enemies. Once Iran and Russia entered the conflict on the Assad regime’s side, the die was cast. Cue the destruction of the Syrian state and the biggest “I told you so” of all time.


From the floods in Uttarakhand two years ago to the recent deluge that brought Chennai to a standstill, India has seen a lot of natural disasters in recent years. The government pointed its fingers at things out of its control — irregular monsoons, shifting glaciers — and for once you couldn’t blame them, right? Wrong. As it turns out, many of these disasters are not just the result of nature’s caprices. In Uttarakhand, the CAG had warned the government about the risks of setting up hydroelectric projects that flouted environmental norms in 2010. In Chennai, NGOs including Exnora International had been talking about the perils of construction over rivers and canals for years. The cost of ignoring those warnings: death and destruction. And we haven’t learnt our lessons yet. Environmental norms are being diluted further, and in Mumbai — which had its own Biblical flood in 2005 — mangroves are going to be cut down for the coastal road zone. If you live near the river or in a region with heavy monsoon, we suggest following the advice of that old Tool song — “learn to swim, learn to swim, learn to swim.”


You know how you pop antibiotics when you have a cold, just to be safe? Or how you abandon a course of antibiotics halfway through because hey, you’re already feeling better? Congratulations, you probably contributed to the rise of superbugs — bacteria that have developed a resistance to antibiotics. Alexander Fleming warned us about the risks of overusing antibiotics during his Nobel prize speech in 1945, but that hasn’t stopped us from abusing the wonder drug. We feed them to our livestock and overprescribe them to our patients. And the result is that we’re heading towards a postantibiotic era, in which routine infections and minor injuries can kill. With the discovery of a new gene called NDM-1 (New Delhi Metallobeta-lactamase-1, go Delhi!) which makes bacteria resistant to almost all antibiotics, scientists say “it is almost too late” to stop the crisis. On the plus side, if we don’t act now, many of us won’t live to see the devastation caused by global warming.


The perils of wealth and income inequality should be obvious to us all. From Marx and Engels to Jawaharlal Nehru and John Keynes, political thinkers and economists have warned us about it for centuries. The 20th century saw a lot of different efforts to bridge the gap — some successful, some not so much. But despite those efforts, wealth inequality continues to increase. And if economist Thomas Piketty — writer of the bestselling book Capital and the Twenty First Century — is to be believed, we might be nearing the point where inequality starts to snowball into a massive problem. You can see the resentment and anger it engenders, and its own little contribution to the rise of the far right in Europe and the US. You can see it in the Occupy movements and global protests against the state and big business. You can even see it as one of the factors behind the Arab Spring that swept across the Middle East and North Africa. When this ticking time bomb finally explodes, “we didn’t know” won’t be a valid excuse.


In 1967, a French political prankster and philosopher named Guy Debord wrote a treatise called The Society of the Spectacle. In that book, Debord describes a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation. Sound familiar? Forty years down the line, Debord’s predictions of modern life are frighteningly accurate. He tackles many aspects of 21st century modernity, for example celebrity culture: “As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specialisations that they actually live.” He talks about alienation in an image-saturated, heavily mediated society — think of the white noise of social media. He predicts the driving-out of meaning from politics, with the spectacle of political drama hiding the lack of real political choice. He even warns us about the “purely spectacular rebellion” and the “commodification of dissatisfaction”. See: Che Guevara t-shirts, flash mobs and slacktivism. Back in 1967, Debord’s work was largely dismissed by the mainstream as avant-gardist nonsense. But just look around when you’re on the Metro or the bus on your way to work, at people squeezed together like sardines without acknowledging each other, their eyes locked on their screens as their fingers tap out an imitation of life. That’s all the evidence you need to see that Debord was right. The spectacle is real, and we’re all living in it.


When George Orwell wrote 1984, he meant it as a satirical critique of Stalinist totalitarianism. Instead, it has become a how-to manual for modern governments. In recent years, we’ve seen our civil liberties erode as our countries turn into authoritarian security states. You’d think a whole genre of fiction pointing out why this is a bad idea would be warning enough. Evidently not. Whether it’s due to the threat of terrorism, a fit of nationalism, or the seduction of convenience, we’ve given up our rights to privacy and freedom of speech with barely a fight. Pervasive online surveillance, check. Increasing censorship, check. The denunciation of all dissent as anti-national, check. Rising police brutality and impunity, check. Draconian antiterror laws, check. Sanctioned use of torture, check. We could go on, but you get the picture. Don’t worry about it, though. And definitely don’t try to do anything about it. Just sit back with a beer glass of milk, praise your leaders and watch the spectacle unfold. Anything else is too dangerous.


If you’ve ever wanted to see a zombie apocalypse in real life, you just need to take a look at the current state of the music industry. Ever since Rage Against The Machine got back together in 2007 for the shameless cash-grab that was their reunion tour, we’ve been flooded with rock ‘n’ roll has-beens and never-should-have-beens leaving their retirement homes and rehab centres to flog their past glories for one last fat pay check. And it’s all your fault. Despite all the warnings and protestations of music writers, millions of you “music died in the ’60s/’70s/’80s” types have opened up your wallets for a slice of raised-from-the-grave nostalgia, in the process encouraging more classic rock dinosaurs to try and squeeze a little more money from the dried up, rotten carcasses of their back-catalogue. And now look what you’ve done. It’s not bad enough that nonsense like Motley Crue, Take That and Puddle of Mudd is back to pollute our collective unconscious. 2016 has started with the horrific news that Guns N’ Roses is getting back together, for one last attempt to destroy our minds with their bloated, misogynistic, homophobic excuse for rock music.


A couple of months ago, a foreign affairs journalist complained about a well-respected news organisation, who got in touch with him to write about the implications of the Iran-US nuclear deal. The catch? They wanted it to be a listicle. Back in 2011-12, there was a deluge of articles (even the BBC got in on the action) warning us about the risks of BuzzFeed and its efforts to transform journalism into ‘viral content’. At the time, these concerns were dismissed as journalistic luddism. Fast forward to 2015, and the age of the listicle. ISIS attacks Paris? Here, have a listicle. The world’s governments are trying to negotiate a deal to tackle climate change? Here’s 10 Ways How They’re Doing It. Even this article that you’re reading is a listicle, never mind the disguise. It won’t be long before the kind of long form journalism that takes the time to analyse and explain complex issues is buried under the weight of all these listicles. And then, some editor will want to commission a piece on the death of journalism. And of course, that too will be a listicle.


In 2007, a study by the National Endowment For Arts found that less than half of Americans aged 18-24 read for pleasure. A more recent study showed that over a quarter of Americans had not read a single book in 2014. This isn’t just an American phenomenon. In the age of ‘Netflix and Chill’, the idea of curling up with a good book seems as curious as the steam engine. That’s appalling news, and not just because it means hipsters can no longer accrue cultural capital through strategic references to obscure literature. The end result of this decline in reading is a rising tide of anti-intellectualism that prefers predigested pap churned out by the likes of Paulo Coelho and Deepak Chopra to the high investment, high reward literature of Arundhati Roy or Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s what makes heroes out of snake-oil merchants like Chetan Bhagat — who have made a fortune out of pandering to and adding fuel to the fire of anti-intellectualism. So please, if you’re a parent, introduce your child to the pleasure of a good book early on. Let them be quiet little bookworms in peace. Because if you don’t, you’ll be leaving the world in the hands of a generation that makes Chetan Bhagat fans look like Oxbridge dons. And then the world will be well and truly buggered.


If you want to visualise the state of public discourse in India today, just imagine 10 people with Tourette’s standing in a circle, all shouting obscenities at the top of their voices. And there’s one person more responsible than anyone else for this state of affairs. But since we don’t want to be dragged to jail, we’ll put the blame on Arnab Goswami instead. TV journalism in India has always been questionable — ‘high quality journalism’ on the streets, TRP chasing in the sheets. But it wasn’t till the rise of Arnab Goswami and his channel that it truly turned into a race to the bottom. Taking inspiration from the trashy newsertainment of Fox News, Goswami turned prime-time news into The Ninety Minutes Hate, broadcast straight into our living rooms. It didn’t matter that so many journalists — at least those who still cared about the spirit of journalism — went out of their way to point out the problems with what he was doing. It didn’t matter how many times Goswami’s fear-mongering was exposed as factually incorrect. We just ate it up, encouraging all the other channels to follow suit, and added our own voices to the chorus of hate. Now here we are, a nation so busy shouting at each other that we’ve forgotten how to listen. The nation no longer wants to know, Mr. Goswami. It just wants to shout.


If you’re one of those cute, idealistic people who believe in the ideals of peace, love and inequality, here’s a prescription for industrial strength anti-depressants. After years of ignored warnings about the rising levels of hatred, xenophobia and racism, the dam finally burst in the last two years. Whether it’s the increasing intolerance and communalism in a polarised India, the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. or the gains made by fascist far-right parties in Europe, the world is an increasingly divided and angry place. With the global economy still faltering, unemployment rates soaring and resources getting scarce, it won’t take too much for the rest of us to get a taste of the violence tearing apart the Middle East. There is a silver lining though. If the Thatcher-Reagan era is anything to go by, we’ll at least get some great music out of this.


When Salman Khan finally remembered where he’d put his Get Out of Jail Free card, Twitter was full of jokes about him being set loose on Mumbai’s streets again. But in all the concern about letting Bhai anywhere near the driving seat, we completely forgot about the chinkaras — you know that highly endangered species that bhai was allegedly caught nudging into extinction. But don’t blame Twitter. It’s hard to keep track of endangered species when so many of them are going extinct around us (the Western Black Rhinoceros has been going extinct every six months since 2011, according to our Facebook news feed). Despite the best efforts of WWF, of environmentalists and bleeding hearts, we’ve continued to kill off species and devour their natural habitats at a prodigious rate. The end result is that we’re now responsible for the Earth’s ‘sixth extinction event’, according to a study published last June. The rate of extinction is a 100 times higher than it would have been without our help. Achievement unlocked, I guess. Bring on the robo-pets!