Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political

Do world leaders understand the consequences of the climate crisis?

School children playing on melting ice in Yukon Delta in Alaska

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have created a hodgepodge of human systems that are at odds with natural systems that support them. In the process, we are pushing billions of people into a dystopian future by bequeathing them with a climate crisis.

While schoolchildren worldwide are on the streets protesting government inaction and millions are displaced by climate-induced disasters, the laissez-faire attitude of our leaders, save a few, sends the message that the current upward trajectory of the crisis does not seem to be a pressing problem. Instead, those who resist the powerful that are savaging our ecosystems and driving people off their land face death and fear, according to the latest annual report from Global Witness.

At various conventions and Conference of Parties (COP), discussions on climate change resemble the tale of a group of blind men touching various parts of an elephant, each arriving at a very different conclusion of what it is like. To one it is like a tree, to another a snake, to a third a wall, to the fourth a spear, so on and so forth. A wise man tells the group that an elephant has all the features they mentioned, but they are missing the big picture. The moral of the parable is that we have a tendency to project our partial experiences as the whole truth, contrary to what reality is. Thus, just like the blind men, politicians and world leaders are missing the “big picture” of human-induced climate change.

Scientists have been warning since the 1980s that to limit the most damaging impacts of climate change, strong policies are needed to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Ignoring their warnings, politicians allowed greenhouse gases to build up to potentially dangerous levels in the atmosphere. The reason: most likely their lack of knowledge about climatology—a multidisciplinary subject requiring insights from astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, cosmology, economics, geology, history, oceanography, palaeontology, physics and statistics, among other disciplines. One wonders, how many of them or their advisors have mastery of more than one or two of these disciplines.

Eventually, in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed by the United Nations Environmental Programme and World Meteorological Organization to play a leadership role in tackling climate change. That said, instead of setting the agenda on global climate, IPCC has become a political body controlled by a few powerful nations that are also the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Other nations that claim to be victims of climate change, yet emit carbon dioxide in copious amounts or build coal-fired power plants near huge carbon sinks or open up rainforests for mining, are third world and developing countries lacking a government strong enough to enforce any measures.

Failing to find a one-size-fits-all solution to counter climate change has prompted IPCC to water down the global climate target in the hope of getting some sort of an agreement. Consequently, it is no longer pushing for binding commitments to reduce emissions, whether for developed or for developing countries. Furthermore, the widely publicised pledge of giving developing countries billions of dollars to cope with the effects of climate change is essentially relabelling foreign aid already going to those countries. Besides, in countries where corruption is endemic, how much of the money, though laughably inadequate, is used for adaptation is questionable.

One could argue that the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement hammered out at COP21 was the first step towards solving the problems resulting from climate change. Regrettably, that first step has so far been Captain Ahab’s “Moby Dick”, the elusive white whale. Hence, there are ample reasons to believe that the agreement is not going to effect any meaningful change in global warming.

So far this year, more than dozen conferences and symposia on global climate change were held in different countries. These conferences, including COP24 last year, dealt with adaptation measures only, which are needed to respond to climate change that has already occurred. However, are there any plan(s) for the future when our planet might become close to uninhabitable? Can we expect an answer from the “political climate pundits” when they will meet in New York and Santiago (Chile) later this year?

While we are waiting for an answer, global emissions of carbon dioxide are at a record high, with no signs of slowing. The atmosphere is warming, glaciers are melting, permafrost is thawing and seas are rising. Extreme weather is bringing floods, storms, droughts and other disasters to every region of the world. Moreover, climate change is creating problems in almost every aspect of our life, from public health to food security, from water availability to the economy, and much more.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise unchecked, repercussions of climate change are going to be profound in the future. They would destabilise governments, produce waves of refugees, flood most of the world’s coastal cities and most importantly would make continuing degradation of the Earth irreversible.

Clearly, because of inaction by our leaders, we will be handing over to our future generations a planet that will be close to unliveable. As for themselves and their descendants, they would probably buy their way out of the worst effects of climate change while the rest of us drown or choke to death. This is “climate apartheid,” already practised by the perversely wealthy and powerful.

Today, we are seemingly transitioning to a new geologic epoch, Holocene to Anthropocene, where the climate is very different from the one our ancestors knew. Confronting realities of the new epoch requires courage which many of our leaders lack. Also, their myopic vision does not allow them to think beyond the next election. In fact, a group called Extinction Rebellion claims that their failure in addressing the climate crisis makes them guilty of “criminal inactivity.” It is, therefore, obvious that to keep our planet inhabitable, we need leaders with fortitude, wisdom and acumen, leaders who are not beholden to “corporations financing the injustice of climate change,” and more importantly leaders with vision to guide us through what, by all accounts, will be some challenging decades ahead.

Suffice it to say, should we falter in dealing with the challenges of climate change head-on, not only will the universal goal of peace and happiness for humankind slip out of our grasp, but man’s struggle for mere survival will also be jeopardised.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

Isn’t Great Britain in existential threat?

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

It may sound utterly surreal – a country with long and admirable tradition of tolerance, inclusiveness, multiculturism and parliamentary democracy is now in utter disarray due to onset of intolerance, bigotry, populism and ugly nationalism that may well lead to disintegration of British unionism. Decency, honesty, fairness and truthfulness are all attributes of the distant past. Ideological arrogance, spinning of facts to meet one’s selfish ends are more in keeping with the reality of Britain today, particularly with Tory political elites, than with the traditional virtues. In the pursuit of selfish benefits, the interests of the country and people had been blatantly abrogated. These are the sad realities of Britain today.

One may say, leaving the EU on its own volition is the beginning of Britain’s decimation. Nothing could be furthest from the truth. Leaving the EU (with or without a deal) may be the symptom but not the cause. The real cause is more deeply rooted and strongly anchored in the psyche of the British people – more accurately, the English people.

One must look at the inner causes that led Britain to opt to leave in the first place. What was so abhorrent in the EU that Britain, after over 40 years of association, had to leave the EU? Was that a genuine reason or a manufactured reason by some opportunistic political leaders? Was there an aspiration, an unfulfilled ambition of ‘English Elites’ that could not be met by being in the EU? Was it the ideology that the second era of British Empire, another ‘Golden Age’ of British Imperialism, thwarted by the EU can be fulfilled by leaving? All these unfulfilled ambitions, dormant aspirations were confluenced to arouse British people to go for it.

The present predicament could be seen to have started more than 100 years ago – from the beginning of World War I – when Britain was at the height of Imperial Power. Britain was ruling the waves of seven seas, Sun never set in the British Empire . A tiny island at the western fringe of Europe was ruling nearly half of the world. That mighty Empire was lost since World War II and, surely, it can be regained! This aspiration of a certain section of the British people, aided and abetted by delusional ‘Imperialist Elites’, became so vivid that it found expressions in the EU referendum in the form of ‘take back control’, ‘establish sovereignty of the parliament’, ‘day of independence’, ‘future is bright’ etc. The uninitiated general public fell for these deceitful pronouncements of the opportunist politicians.

The WWI did damage Britain significantly, not only militarily and economically but also reputationally. The mighty Empire was found by the colonies not to be invincible. Then came the World War II, only about 20 years later, when Britain hardly had had enough time to recover. The end of WWII in 1945, even with a victory, was the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Within short two years, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire – India became independent – followed in quick succession in other parts of Asia and Africa.

The USA did come to the rescue of Britain but extracted a high price for it. On high moral grounds, the USA demanded Britain should forgo its colonies and offer freedom to all nations. A new world order was established – USA would lead the western powers and Britain would follow it subserviently. This is what was dubbed in British diplomatic circles a ‘special relationship’.

The waves in the seven seas are still there, but there is no single power to rule them anymore. However, USA is gradually taking over the role vacated by British Empire and it is now called America, comprising the central mainland of 50 States and hundreds of overseas territories, protectorate and sovereign lands with their military bases. America’s overseas territories are almost as big as the original USA mainland, both in terms of territorial size and population!

When given the opportunity in the EU referendum, the deprived underclass of Britain blamed the EU for the demise of British power and opted to leave the EU in the vain hope of regaining the bygone glory of ‘British Empire’. Of course, they had been incessantly fed by the opportunistic, populist politicians the messages that getting out of the EU would usher in the opportunity of regaining world power without the shackles of the EU, Britain would ‘take back control’, Britain would be ruled by ‘elected representatives’, Britain be ‘sovereign again’, Britain would make better trade deals with countries etc. Those deceitful politicians claimed (egregiously) that £19 billion that is paid to the EU as annual fees would be given to the NHS – £350 million per week extra! None of these claims is true. But the unpretentious general public did fall for such mendacious claims and voted to leave.

But the question is, why did this bunch of politicians mislead the public with downright falsehood to leave the EU? Apart from personal financial gains – most of these politicians are wealthy tax dodgers and supporters of overseas dwellers of tax havens – they had the agenda of getting back the second era of British Empire! The EU was, in their minds, the only impediment. Once free from that shackle, they would be able to go around the world, make trade deals with various countries and everything would be just hunkydory.

Those delusional Tory politicians started going around the Commonwealth countries to make trade deals which would be needed post-Brexit. Liam Fox, ex-International Trade Secretary, went to India to draw deals under the guise of Commonwealth fraternity. But he had been told bluntly by India that any future deal would be made on purely commercial basis, no amount of Commonwealth or past Imperial flag waving would cut any ice. However, special relaxation of travel restrictions, residence requirements etc for Indians might persuade India to come to a trade agreement! In other words, India would extract special price for any future trade deal. Of course, the same practice would be applied by other Commonwealth countries. The delusional Tory Brexiteers thought making new deals would be a breeze with their imperialist past! Liam Fox said before the EU referendum that making new trade deals would be ‘the easiest thing in the world’!

Leaving the EU, the largest trading block (44% of all exports from the UK goes to the EU), without a deal would leave Britain so severely damaged that other countries would definitely try to extract heavy price for any export-import relationship. No country would even come to make a fair-trade relationship with a lame duck country. After all, Britain under the British Imperialism, did the same thing! Now the hunter has become hunted and that is by choice!

Another sinister issue is the likely disintegration of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Why would Scotland be dragged out of EU against the will of their people by England, when 62% of Scots voted to Remain? Where is the democratic accountability and fairness to the constituent countries of the United Kingdom? In the EU, every Member States (MS), no matter how large or small, has equal say. A small country like Malta (population 500,000) or Luxembourg (population 600,000) or Cyprus (population 1.2 million) has equal say as big countries like France (population over 67 million) or Germany (population 83 million) on all matters of interest. And here is Scotland with a population of over 5.4 million has no say at all in the union with the United Kingdom. This is creating a great deal of strain in Scotland and the demand for its independence from the United Kingdom is growing ever louder. The same narrative goes for Northern Ireland which voted 56% to Remain in the EU.

Gordon Brown, the ex-prime minister of Great Britain, said in an article in the Observer on 11 August 2019 that Britain is sleepwalking into oblivion fuelled by destructive, populist, nationalistic ideology deployed by Boris Johnson. This is not an alarmist view; it is an honest view of a senior politician. When the idea of inherent unfairness will go into the minds of people of those countries within the United Kingdom, it would be extremely difficult to put a stop to it. The strident calls by delusional Boris Johnson to ‘do or die’ and ‘come what may’ will come to haunt him as the disintegration of the United Kingdom rolls on. History will come to look in utter amazement how a country which ruled over half of the world came to smithereens in just about seventy to eighty years!

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political, Technical

We are hurtling towards a disastrous climate change (Part I)

The human race is staring at the disastrous climate change of their own making. The climate change clock is ticking remorselessly; it has gone past the 11th hour and, although not exactly on the 59th minute, but not too far from it. We pride ourselves to be civilised human beings, we claim unprecedented scientific and technical achievements; but we have failed to realise the damage we have inflicted and still are inflicting on our planet and our actions are anything but civilised. A large section of the human population under the guidance and influence of ‘civilised political leaders’ in many Western and Eastern countries is in complete denial of the climatic damage!

In order to appreciate how close are we to the tipping point of the irreversible climate change, we need to look at the factors that initiate climate change. The term ‘climate change’ embodies the totality of processes like global warming, sea levels rise, loss of polar ice caps, floods, fires, droughts and so forth. These processes do not take place for no reasons; there are deep rooted reasons for these effects.

The causes for these effects are multifarious. Causes range from emission of greenhouse gases from uncontrolled industrial activities, excessive exploitation of Earth’s resources, deforestation, rise in human population, demands for improved standards of living, increased air travel etc. All these factors contribute to climate change due to enhanced greenhouse gas emission. And the quantity that is primarily used to characterise climate change is the increase in global temperature.

The root cause of the increase in temperature is the increase in greenhouse gas concentration in Earth’s atmosphere. A sort of runaway situation has developed here. Increase in greenhouse gas leads to higher global temperature and higher global temperature leads to higher greenhouse gas. Unless decisive action is taken by human beings to arrest this situation, the human race is at peril. 

The legitimate question that arises here is that how can one assert this rise in global temperature leading to climate change is mainly due to human activities, when both natural processes and human activities do contribute to global temperature? That is a genuine question.  

The planet Earth had undergone over the millennia large climate swings. Scientists had looked into these variations in Earth’s climate over the past 650,000 years and found that there had been as many as seven ice ages during this period and in between ice ages there had been some warmer periods with increase in global temperatures. Modern human beings (Homo sapiens) had not yet evolved 650,000 years ago and so global temperatures could all be assigned to natural causes. There was no trend of temperature variation over this period.

When nearly 250,000 years ago, modern human beings emerged from the savannas in Africa, man started interacting with nature. But those primitive men had no way of exploiting the Earth; they were passive, subservient onlookers of nature.

Climatologists looked at the inter-glacial periods i.e. between two cold glacial spells and established a baseline temperature. After the baseline temperature was established, then any excess global temperature found over a period when human activity was known to have taken place can be assigned to human activities. This is an established scientific technique and it is applied to many scientific disciplines to separate out human activities from natural activities.

The planet Earth is blanketed by a layer of gases in the outer atmosphere. This atmosphere containing a variety of gases lets in solar radiation to come through, but blocks out or shields harmful ionising radiation from the outer skies. A small fraction of solar energy is reflected back from Earth’s surface to outer skies. Normally if the atmosphere is unpolluted, this reflected energy in the form of infrared radiation will escape to outer space. On the other hand, if there are pollutants such as carbon dioxide, methane etc, this radiation is held back and reflected towards Earth again. Thus, gradually excess energy is accumulated in the planet and its temperature goes up.

The types of gases that refuses to let infrared escape from Earth had been found to be carbon dioxide (CO2), methane gas (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) and a few more. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide in ppm (parts per million) and methane gas in ppm over the period 1500 to the present time had been estimated by scientists and presented in the graphs below. The period 1720 to 1800 is the industrial revolution period when human activities kicked in large scale. Before this industrialisation period, humans were living in harmony with nature. It can be seen from both of these graphs that the industrial revolution was the spurt in increase in concentration which continued in accelerated fashion right up to the present day.

Greenhouse gas concentration from 1500 to 2000 AD
(Courtesy: http://www.theconversation.com)

Along with these two graphs, one should consider the rise in global temperature which is shown below. The similarity in the overall shape and pattern of these graphs is striking and one can draw conclusion that are correlated. It shows beyond doubt that the rise in temperature above the 1850 to 1900 (industrialisation period) baseline is due to increased concentration of global warming pollutants – CO2 and CH4. There are other significant pollutants such as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), but it is not shown here.

The CO2 concentration in pre-industrialised period was between 200 to 270 ppm and Earth had a thermally stable period. But now this concentration has risen to about 350 ppm leading to about 1ºC rise in temperature. But, if the present trend continues, by the end of the coming decade the temperature may well go up more than 1.5ºC and that would bring in very harsh conditions for all forms of life on Earth.

Global average temperature and industrial baseline.
(Courtesy: http://www.theconversation.com)

From 1970s the scientists had been saying that human beings are damaging Earth’s atmosphere and its natural conditions and care should be taken to limit it or even reverse it. But political leaders of various persuasions, particularly Americans and vested interests dealing with fossil fuels, kept denying any global warming or any climate change etc. When confronted with increased severity and more frequent incidences of droughts, bush fires, floods, storms, tropical cyclones, cold spells etc, these climate deniers started saying that these are natural phenomena; nothing to do with human activities. Their denial is either based on ignorance or moral depravity.

Few countries holding such views are destroying the good work of large number of countries. Donald Trump, president of America, is the most famous deniers of all, mainly because America is the second largest polluter of the world and to limit polluting activities would cost America a lot. And hence denying the whole thing is the easy option. Pursuing such damaging policy, America, under Donald Trump, had withdrawn from the Paris Agreement in 2017.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 aims to limit global warming to 1.5ºC relative to a pre-industrial baseline. Its precise commitment is:

Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

We all live in the same planet. If one country i.e. America, the second largest polluter, keeps damaging the planet for its own benefit, that would wipe out the sacrifices of large number of countries. America is pushing the Earth to a precipice for their selfish interests.

(The next Part (Part II) will deal with the likely consequences of the present predicament and the most likely prediction of the future scenario.)

.  

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist
Cultural, Environmental, International, Life as it is

America’s ‘Last Frontier’ becoming the ‘Lost Frontier’

Missing glaciers at Denali, Alaska

Nick-named the “Last Frontier”, Alaska is the largest state (in area) of the United States. It is also one of the richest states; thanks to its abundance of natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, gold and fish. The state is home to a vast expanse of pristine wilderness, towering mountains, breathtaking glaciers and big game animals.

Alaska may not fit the bill for what most people envisage as a vacation spot, but it has been on my family’s bucket list for a long time. Finally, our 10-day jaunt started on July 1, 2019 in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. We visited three national parks: Denali Wilderness in central Alaska, Tidewater Glaciers on the Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords near Seward.

We also took a 90-minute flight-seeing tour of Mount Denali followed by landing and strolling on a glacier at 1,750 metres. At 6,200 metres, Denali is the highest peak in North America. A panoramic cruise through the Orca Inlet at Cordova allowed us to see the highest concentration of sea otters in the world. We saw the midnight sun at Anchorage and basked in 24 hours of sunshine at Healy, a backwood small town close to the Arctic Circle.

Besides appreciating the awesome natural beauty of Alaska, what struck me most during the trip is how global warming has pushed this Arctic region into an entirely new climate regime, one that is outside the experience of the aboriginals and native wildlife.

Climate change is occurring faster in high-latitude regions–twice as fast as the rest of the world–due to the phenomenon of “Arctic Amplification,” which is the self-reinforcing process that warms the Arctic and subarctic regions much faster than the rest of the world. Being located on both sides of the Arctic Circle, effects of climate change in Alaska are no longer yearly anomalies; rather, they are daily occurrences.

Over the past 60 years, the average temperature across Alaska has increased approximately by 1.7 degrees Celsius. Warming in the winter has increased by more than three degrees. Temperature in Anchorage three days after our arrival was 32 degrees.

As Alaska continues to warm, average annual temperatures are estimated to increase by an additional 1-2 degrees by the middle of this century, while precipitation is projected to increase during all seasons by the end of this century. Despite increased precipitation, Alaska is likely to become drier due to greater evaporation caused by warming temperatures and longer growing seasons.

With rising temperatures, the threat of massive wildfires continues to grow over time across Alaska all the way to the Arctic. During our stay, about 350 wildfires were raging in south and south central Alaska. Smoke from the fires made driving hazardous, particularly through the scenic backroads.

Warmer temperatures have left vegetation more susceptible to parasites and spruce bark beetles. They have killed more than four million acres of trees in Alaska. Indeed, we saw thousands of dead trees in the Denali Wilderness.

Alaska is full of eye-catching glaciers adorning majestic mountains, but most of them are melting at an accelerated rate. The US Geological Survey estimates that Alaska is losing 75 billion tonnes of glacier a year. Melting glaciers have implications for hydropower production, ocean circulation patterns and global sea-level rise. In addition, glacial meltwater from tidewater glaciers, which are valley glaciers that flow far enough to reach out and calve into the sea, has chemical properties that can exacerbate ocean acidification that is already threatening the fishery industry.

As we cruised on the Prince William Sound, arguably the best place in Alaska to see spectacular tidewater glaciers, we saw fewer glaciers due to warmer temperatures. The largest glacier accessible by car, Matanuska Glacier near Anchorage, is shrinking dramatically at its toe. Furthermore, during the flight-seeing tour of Denali, we saw many mountains with barren slopes and valleys. According to our pilot, they were once packed with glaciers.

Nearly 80 percent of Alaska’s surface lies above permafrost—frozen ground that is typically located a few feet below the soil surface in extremely cold regions and remains frozen year-round. However, as air temperatures are rising, permafrost is thawing in many areas, causing the soil above to sink, resulting in ground subsidence that is damaging highways, railroads, airstrips, homes and other structures. Moreover, shrubs and spruce that previously could not take root on the permafrost now dot the Alaskan landscape, potentially altering the habitat of the native animals.

Because of melting permafrost and subsequent caving of the road, we could not drive from Healy to Valdez via the scenic Denali Highway. Instead, we had to take a 320km detour.

Arctic permafrost acts like a gigantic cap over mineral resources and fossil fuels containing greenhouse gases. But melting permafrost is releasing these gases, particularly methane trapped in ice. Clearly, the loss of permafrost and glaciers is opening new pathways for greenhouse gases, constituting a newly identified, powerful feedback to global warming.

Erosion of Alaska’s coastline is increasing due to the decline in sea ice that protects the coast from storms and tidal surges. The coastal areas are now more vulnerable to devastating storms and heavier rainfall.

The ripple effect of ice loss does not stop here. In the sparsely populated areas, where roads are few and far between, frozen rivers are indispensable for transporting goods, visiting family and taking children to school. With the loss of ice, their communication routes are cut off. Additionally, many people in northern Alaska depend on hunting on the ice. They no longer have access to traditional hunting areas, or access is much more dangerous because the ice is less stable.

Although climate change is having deleterious effects on people all over Alaska, those most affected are the Alaska Natives. Since they live so closely with the land and nature, small shifts in the ecosystems can perturb their way of life. Also, they get food mostly through fishing and hunting, including animals like polar bears, walruses and seals. Changing climate has resulted in the habitat destruction of these animals.

In summary, climate change in Alaska is not a distant or abstract concern, as some would like us to believe. It is real—simply because there is water where there was once ice. Hence, with a gloomy, disaster-prone future, it seems America’s “Last Frontier” will eventually become the “Lost Frontier.”

  • Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

Frailty in our ubiquitous Democracy

In the 1950s and 1960s, communism or socialism or their various shades of colour swept across the whole world, particularly across the developing countries (used to be called under-developed countries). Those political dogmas, however, did not or could not take firm grip on most of those countries. They came about on utopian sentimentality of certain sections of the public and faded away under the harsh reality, leaving behind a spattering of dogmatic title-tattle and lots of bitter memories.

The aspiration to move from proletariat dictatorship to democratic expropriation was strong among the left-outs of the great socialist revolutions. Democracy became the buzz-word, a tool which would offer the same fruit without the associated thorn. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt called his dictatorial regime ‘presidential democracy’, General Ayub Khan of Pakistan formulated ‘basic democracy’ for legitimacy, Sukarno of Indonesia devised ‘guided democracy’, Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay legitimised his 35-year long rule with ‘selective democracy’ and many countries adopted democratic veneer such as autocratic North Korea called itself ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ and so forth. The appellation ‘democracy’ became a touchstone for legitimacy, regardless of whether there is any semblance of democratic tit-bits or not in the country.

Nearly 50 years on, right wing fanatics and extremists seized on this opportunity to grab power through the democratic veneer. Once in power, by hook or by crook, clutching the touchstone of ‘democracy’, the ‘non-democratic’ power becomes almost invincible; no popular movement or ideology could dare touch it. Such is the magic of democracy.

The xenophobic racist views such as – “America first”, “Brazil first”, “Philippines first” etc – are sweeping across the world.  Whereas in the communism-socialism rounds there were at least some semblance of social care, workers’ rights etc; but now in the right-wing extremism all those things have become peripheral and have been contemptuously dispensed with. The veneer of ‘democracy’ is only required to get to the power and the rest becomes superfluous.

The word ‘democracy’ originated from the Greek word ‘demokratis’, which is an amalgam of demos (mob, the many) and kratos (the rule). Thus, the original word signifies the ‘rule of the many’. The Greek philosophers Socrates and then Plato along with his disciples had high hopes in democracy. Aristotle over the centuries looked at various forms of governance and gradually the consensus view emerged that democratic participation of the citizens as equal would ensure free and fair form of governance; where rights, liberty and freedom of the people would be preserved.

But there were many shortcomings and apprehensions in that form of ‘democracy’, which Plato did pointedly bring out. He asserted that democratic system might lead to the establishment of the view of the majority, but that might not encompass the view of the whole or a large fraction of the society. He particularly disliked the connotation of ‘rule’ over the whole society. Wouldn’t that ‘rule’ by the majority mean the tyranny of the majority? And what form or type of ‘rule’ that would be applicable over the whole society?    

A true ‘democracy’ is something that may offer good governance, political justice, liberty, equality and human rights. Of course, not all of them can be fulfilled all at the same time. But the majority of these attributes can be met with the majority of the society. And the concept of ‘rule’ can be kept in abeyance, as it inherently means dictation over the society.

The more important point is the ‘issue’ (the choice of government; a matter of national interest in a referendum etc) on which consensus of the society is sought. Has the ‘issue’ been brought to the attention of the public with its pros and cons truthfully? In other words, are public knowledgeable or suitable to pass their opinion on the ‘issue’?

The outcome would be blatantly distorted if people are ignorant or misinformed or misled with different or conflicting interpretations of the same issue. There are plenty of opportunistic populist politicians in this country and around the world who are ready to manipulate the situation to gain the support of the majority and gain power. This practice does constitute a blatant abuse of ‘democracy’. It is very easy to mislead the public with convenient lies. Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

Contrary to the conventional ‘democratic principle’, Roman Republicanism advocated that everyone was not fit to vote to elect the government. It gave some very good reasons including stating that only those who participate actively in public life and affairs of the State are qualified to vote. This ruling is eminently more sensible than allowing everybody to express opinions on issues regardless of their knowledge or suitability or association.

For example, a significant majority of the general public with very little or no knowledge of the role or functioning of the EU voted in the EU referendum on 23 June 2016 to leave and then on the following day more than one million people carried out Google search on what ‘EU’ means. Their expressed opinion against the EU the previous day was not based on knowledge or rational assessment, but on prejudice and ignorance. Car workers throughout Britain voted overwhelmingly to leave Europe, because they were unhappy with their working conditions (nothing to do with EU). The farmers in Wales and in large parts of England voted to leave on misinformation and false promises by Populist politicians. The general public were fed blatant lies that the NHS would get extra £350 million per week on leaving the EU and there were many more lies. All of these misinformation and blatant lies had fundamentally corrupted the knowledge base on which the public had voted and hence the outcome became skewed.

David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, said on 3 July 2019 in his Mansion House dinner speech, “A willingness by politicians to say what they think the public want to hear, and a willingness by large parts of the public to believe what they are told by populist politicians, has led to a deterioration in our public discourse”. He also said, “This has contributed to a growing distrust of our institutions – whether that be parliament, the civil service, the mainstream media or the judiciary.”

Democracy cannot survive in ignorance, illiteracy or moral degeneracy. When honesty, integrity, morality and ethics are divorced and opportunism and bigotry make inroad, democracy takes leave. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”.

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.