Blog

Uncategorized

Coronavirus – virus of the lungs and Meme – virus of the brain

We are in throes of two strains of virus – one is the virus of lungs, called coronavirus and the other is the virus of the brain, called meme (similar to gene in biological speak). I would deal with these two viruses sequentially below and show that there are many commonalities, despite the fact that one is biological virus and the other is cultural virus.

Despite this dissimilarity, there are a lot of common traits – they both replicate, colonise or parasitize the respective organs of the human body; they both propagate through air from human body to human body and incubate within the host body for a while before they express themselves; when they express themselves, they destroy the host body and transmit the virus to other adjacent bodies; they cause tremendous damage to the society, economy, education system and all other branches of civilised society. Worst of all, there are no known cures against them at the moment. They are so vicious that either humanity will manage to eliminate them or they will eliminate humanity.

So, what is this vicious coronavirus – also called COVID-19 as a particular strain? It is a virus, which means that it is a microscopic parasite that infects living organisms. It consists of nucleic acid molecule – typically RNA but it can also be DNA – with a protein coat. It can replicate itself, like genes, within the living cells. When it invades the specific organ – the lungs – of a host body it spikes through the cells’ membranes and gets inside the cell and start replicating. It is speculated that this coronavirus jumped from animals to human species.  

Coronavirus – virus of the lungs

Obviously, the host cells do not like this invasion and their defence mechanism (generally called the immune system) is called on and put into action and a battle ensues. While this battle is raging on cellular levels in a specific organ, other organs are functioning normally and the host body is completely unaware of the vicious battle taking place within his or her body. This may take a few days, which in coronavirus case is called incubation or dormant period. After three or four days of the battle, if not won by the body’s defence mechanism, it goes into all-out war against the invading parasites. That is when the host body starts showing some symptoms, like high temperature, coughing and breathlessness etc. The fight goes on and depending on the outcome, the patient can start recovering or go progressively worse.

At the moment there is no reinforcement or vaccination that can be given to the defence mechanism. It is assumed that any vaccine that can be developed is at least 12 months away. Only assistance that is suggested is not to weaken the defence forces by allowing further incursion of parasites and hence the advice is to wash hands regularly, stay away from other infected people etc. – the so-called isolation period.

In the worst case, if the invading army is in the verge of victory and occupies the lungs creating pus in the alveoli sacs and impeding breathing, then ventilation units can be used to artificially supply oxygen to the body and keep the defence system going to fight to the last. Quite often body’s defence mechanism can beat off the invaders even at this stage and recover. This is the do or die stage. Altogether it is anticipated that it will take 14 days from initial invasion to full recovery.

The other virus – the virus of the brain which Richard Dawkins, Professor Emeritus of the University of Oxford and an evolutionary biologist, calls it a meme to resonate with gene – is equally, if not more, vicious and malicious as coronavirus. Meme is not a biological virus in the strict sense as coronavirus is. But it is a cultural virus behaving exactly like any other biological virus – replicating, propagating, colonising and eventually destroying the host body.

Memes carry a remarkable resemblance to gene. As genes propagate in the gene pool from body to body through sperm cells or egg cells, so do memes in the meme pool jumping from brain to brain of human beings through cultural imitation or peer pressure. It could sometimes be benign or not too intrusive, when there is just the cultural imitation. A new designer dress or the latest mobile phone can take a ‘must have’ label to a group of people and that may take on obsessive space in the brain. The other example can be a catchy song or rhyme or a social media movement like “Me Too” etc, which may become obsessive mimicry. These are benign memes with hardly any damaging aspect.

But the real meme with uncanny resemblance to gene or virus is the parasite that colonise the brain obsessively. It can easily propagate from brain to brain, jump over cultural barriers, jump over national barriers and last for a long period of time. Take, for example, the “belief in life after death”: it is a meme that can easily parasitize brains and propagate across all social, political, educational and cultural boundaries and there is no antidote to it. No rational argument or concrete evidence (similar to remedies against viruses) can be produced to counter the belief that there is no life after death and hence this meme would flourish almost unhindered, even without any evidence supporting that there is life after death!

Then there are other more gripping memes: the idea of God or Yahweh or Allah. This meme had been digging in human brains for almost 4,000 years through various religions, cultures, art and literature, music and social encounters. The existence of God is now taken as absolute, without any shred of evidence supporting it. This is the most durable primary meme supporting other subsidiary memes like “life after death” or “heaven and hell” or “hell-fire for the sinners” etc. Each of these memes supports the other meme and together they stand strong, invincible, absolute and incontrovertible.

When a meme gets a strong foothold in the brain through continuous reinforcement, it comes as vivid as a gene or even stronger. In Islam, the first sound a newly born child in any culture is supposed to get is the prayer call for Allah. Admittedly, it is symbolic, but it is the symbol that will become real throughout the whole life. The first lesson a child gets is how to read Arabic and Quran. A practicing Muslim is supposed to have prayers five times a day in a mosque and each time he is reminded of the existence of God and his supreme power with the rhetorical question, “Who created the Earth”? With such persistent messages and unquestionable submission to God’s authority by fellow Muslims, it is quite normal that God and his divine messages become as vivid a meme in the brain as gene is in the cell.

Although memes are cultural imitation and analogues of biological genes, they are no less real and damaging than other viruses. In fact, when fanatic Muslims happily sacrifice their lives (i.e. their gene pool) for the messages carried through their memes (i.e. guaranteed place in heaven who give up lives on Earth for God), then one must wonder what is more vivid and real: gene or meme?

Cure for coronavirus in the form of vaccines can possibly be found in 12 to 18 months, but it is highly unlikely that any cure against religious memes can be found in 10 or even 100 years. One can call an embedded religious meme a prejudice, but to the man who holds that prejudice, it is as real as the Sun and the Moon in the sky. No wonder, even Albert Einstein had to say nearly a century ago, “What a sad era, when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.”

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist    

Cultural, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political

World Population and Environmental Catastrophe

We are all aware of, indeed seriously concerned about, the climate change and global warming. The large majority of scientists – environmentalists, climatologists, atmospheric physicists, geophysicists, geochemists, oceanographers and experts of hosts of associated disciplines – as well as overwhelming proportion of human population unanimously hold the view that significant climate change is indeed taking place and that is all due to human activities. But then a small but powerful section of the population, mostly in America, reject this contention and assign changes to just natural activities. Obviously, these people have vested interests in deflecting away human activities.

It is blatantly obvious that human activities are the root causes of climate change. Of course, nature may be reacting to adverse conditions created by human beings, but the initial cause is human activity. One may ask, why is it that earth is reacting so disastrously over the last few decades when it existed in stable conditions for millions of years? The answer is undoubtedly ‘WE ARE’, there are too many of ‘US’ – human beings on the surface of the earth demanding, exploiting and extracting earth’s resources ruthlessly without any regard to its stability and sustainability.

Some 200 years ago or even 100 years ago we were doing what we are doing now – spewing out carbon dioxide and other global warming gases into the atmosphere – but that did not change climatic conditions irreversibly, because not enough of us had been doing the abusive actions. But now more than 7,500 million of us abusing the earth and probably pushed the earth to the threshold or beyond its sustainability.

The large human population of the present day is causing the problems. The United Nations’ estimation of human population from 1050 to 2017 is shown in Figure 1, where the past numbers had been compiled from human records and best estimate values. At no time until 1850 the global human population exceeded 1.0 billion. Around 1750, when Industrial Revolution took place, the Western World started using coal and other natural resources to improve living conditions and consequently the population started to grow significantly. From that time on, not only the standards of living started to improve but also better hygiene and improved medical sciences managed to bring down the death rate and thereby help increase population growth. At the moment the global population is 7.5 billion and growing at the rate of 80 million every year and this number is also growing! Since 1970, the global population had gone up by two-fold!

In 1960s and 1970s there were intense debates about the sustainability of the world population beyond about 3.5 billion, particularly with regard to food production. As estimated at that time that in about 12 to 15 years the population would grow by more than a billion (about 30% of the prevailing population). If so, could the food production be increased by about 30% in that time scale? The global population had been going up at that rate ever since despite all the measures taken to curtail it.

As the population grows, there are extra demands for housing and other socio-economic facilities and consequent shrinkage of arable land. But human ingenuity prevailed – multiple crop production, better yielding crop, crop rotation, disease resistant seeds and now GM crop etc – had improved food production. In fact, food production had been improved so much that food supply for the population is no longer an issue. But that had created more serious problems, particularly environmental problems, which need to be tackled.

Figure 1 Human population from 1050 to 2017

The United Nations have also produced a population growth projection for the years 1950 to 2100, as shown in Figure 2. Many factors affect population growth and incorporating various assumptions in those factors produce widely varying outcomes.  The middle thick green line is the outcome based on best estimate values, whereas the top and bottom lines are those with 95% level of confidence in various assumptions. If corrective actions such as proper family planning, better education and social responsibility of the population etc. are taken, the population growth could be limited to 9.6 billion in 2100, whereas unbridled growth will show a figure of 13.6 billion! The difference between two extremes in population numbers in 2100 is about 4 billion, more than 50% of the present population! That is an alarming prospect indeed!

Figure 2 Human population projection until 2100

Population distribution is not uniform round the world, as shown in Figure 3. At the moment over 60% (4.6 billion) of world population is in Asia and Africa constitutes 1.4 billion (less than 20%). But by 2100 the Asian population may remain same or even decline, whereas African population will shoot up to 4.4 billion, more than three times of the present population. This drastic increase will place enormous burden on the continent and may even lead to violent responses, unprecedented population migration to other continents etc. This situation will arise on top of ensuing environmental deterioration – global warming, extreme weather conditions etc.

Figure 3 Population growth by continents

It is interesting to note that China’s present population of over 1.42 billion would come down to about 1.06 billion by 2100, whereas India’s population would grow from 1.35 billion to 1.46 billion in the same time scale, as shown in Figure 4.  China’s drastic reduction in population is due to lower fertility rates which arise due to older population group. China had imposed two-child policy right from its inception and gradually it is bearing fruit.

Figure 4 Most populous countries

As already mentioned, population growth is multifactorial. But a very important factor is the economic condition of the country. A run away population growth stunts the economic growth of the country and at the same time a low economic growth tends to encourage higher population growth. A family tends to produce more children in a poverty-stricken country so that the children can look after the parents at their old ages. Thus, population growth and poverty form a vicious circle. Examples are Pakistan and Nigeria where large population growths are anticipated. On the other hand, Bangladesh is the country which has broken out of this vicious circle.

Let us get back to the aforementioned theme that climate change is primarily due to the presence of vast population. Coal extraction and its use by limited number of people catering for one or two billion people in the Western World in the 18th or 19th century was not that damaging to the climate. But, as deprived population of the East as well as other decolonised countries’ population are striving to improve living standards from abysmal depths, demand for natural resources like coal, gas, oil as well as minerals have gone up exponentially and environmental degradation followed the suit.

Nature has an inbuilt mechanism of correcting itself when there is any deviation or offset from the norm, which is commonly known as negative feedback. If there is an increase in temperature in the summer, more water from the sea would evaporate and subsequent rain would cool down the area. There are lots of factors acting in opposite phase to the initial condition to stabilise the natural conditions and that is the negative feedback.

But there may be situations when moderate negative feedback condition could breakdown and violent response would ensue. If due to excessive increase in global temperature, arctic and Antarctic ice caps melt, then there would be no seasonal cold stream of water, no moderation of summer temperature etc. In some areas the temperature would become so high that there would be almost spontaneous fire – as in Australia, California and even in Siberia. Condensation would be restricted to limited areas giving large increase in rainfall – as in England now – causing unprecedented floods etc.

So, either we pull ourselves back from the precipice by limiting and then reversing the damage that had already been inflicted to the nature or let nature go berserk threatening the very existence of human life or for that matter any form of life on earth.  

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist    

Advanced science, Astrophysics, Life as it is, Religious, Technical

Everything from Nothing

Can everything we see on earth and the planets, the stars, galaxies, supernovae and so forth come from nothing, from absolute vacuum, from empty space and can even empty space prop up from nowhere? This sort of query, some might say, is an absurd baseless query; while others might say it is a profound scientific inquiry, beyond the pigeon-holed mode of thinking.   

Philosophers and theologians of all persuasions tried to convince us that everything we see in the universe is the divine creation. But we must set off with certain fundamental assumptions – we have to accept the existence of an all-powerful, omnipresent, omniscient entity called God or Yahweh or Allah and we cannot question his origin, his present whereabouts or his mode of creation etc. Based on these premises, the revelations, directives etc as stated in the ‘Book’ should be followed as ordered by the creator!   

But science is unwilling to accept this premise without any evidence or verification. That is why there is a conflict between science and religion. As Richard Dawkins, Emeritus Fellow of New College, Oxford and Evolutionary Biologist said, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with but not understanding the world”.

Science had moved away from accepting the divine proclamation that human beings are at the centre of creation of the creator, Earth is at the centre of the universe and the Sun goes around the Earth! Scientific discoveries have proved many of these proclamations, if not all, are blatantly wrong.

Science explored material objects on Earth – day-to-day objects to their physical and chemical composition, physical objects to molecules to atoms and sub-atomic particles. On the smallest scale, quantum mechanics explored the origin of matter and anti-matter and on the mind-boggling expansive scale of the universe the general theory of relativity explored the stars, galaxies, black holes, warm holes, universe and even multi verse.

The theologians would burst out in fury if someone, be it scientist or a science writer, tries to give the scientific explanation of something or everything coming from nothing. They would throw out their anger, what is then the omnipresent omniscience divine power called God or Yahweh or Allah doing? Is He not the undisputed Creator of everything in this universe? For centuries the religions had been proclaiming and propagating this message relentlessly. Now any attempt to explain it otherwise, on the basis of scientific ideas and theories, would be branded as heretics and atheism.

Nonetheless science has progressed enough to give a rational explanation to the creation of everything from nothing. But, first, we must understand the scientific meaning of the term ‘nothing’. In everyday language, nothing means the absence of anything. If we consider a volume of space say, 20cm by 20cm by 20cm, in front of our eyes, we may say there is nothing in there as there is no book, no pencil, no string, no fruit or anything else in that small volume and so, we may consider, there is nothing. But then, we must recognise that there are millions of air particles of various types in that volume that we cannot see but we breath all the time. So, there are things where we perceive to have nothing.

Let us take an air-tight glass case where obviously there are air particles along with air pollutants, allergens etc. Now if we pump out these particles very carefully and make it an ultra-high vacuum, can we say that there is nothing in the glass case? No, we cannot say that there is nothing in the glass case and that is because the modern physics shows us otherwise.

Quantum fluctuations in an absolute vacuum

The two branches of modern physics – the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics – give us a description of physical processes which are mind-boggling, counter-intuitive and occasionally plainly weird. Even Einstein, who singlehandedly produced the general theory of relativity and pioneered quantum physics, had extreme difficulty in absorbing the full implications and interplay of these two theories.

Einstein produced the mass-energy equivalence, which is: E=mc2; a very elegant and at the same time extremely important equation. What it means is that the mass of an object such as an atom or a molecule or a large number of molecules in a ball or an apple or a pencil and so forth has an equivalent energy and conversely an amount of energy has an equivalent mass. It is not theoretical physicists’ crazy idea, it had been found in practice in particle physics experiments, in radioactive decay and in nuclear reactors. A certain amount of energy suddenly disappears and a very small particle called electron and its anti-particle called the positron appear. The electron is what we use to generate electricity and is used to run a television, radio, mobile phone etc and in our everyday parlance, it is a matter. On the other hand, positron is an anti-matter. When this matter (electron) and anti-matter (positron) come in contact, they annihilate each other and an amount of energy is produced which is exactly equal to what disappeared in the first place to produce this electron and positron pair.

Alongside this mass-energy equivalence, one may consider quantum physics’ uncertainty principle produced by Werner Heisenberg. We must remember that quantum mechanics deals with very small particles such as electrons, positrons, atoms and sub-atomic particles. The basic tenet of this principle is that we cannot simultaneously measure certain pairs of observables such as energy and time or position and momentum of a particle with absolute accuracy. The degree of inaccuracy or uncertainty of the pair of observables (ΔE.Δt or Δp.Δx is always higher than a quantity called Planck constant (h/2π). In other words, if we measure the energy of a quantum particle very precisely, then there would be an inherent uncertainty in time at which the energy measurement had been made and the product of these two uncertainties is going to be higher than the Planck constant, h/2π. This uncertainty principle is the bedrock of quantum mechanics. It had been proven time and time again that this uncertainty principle is inviolable and holds true in all quantum events. Heisenberg received Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932 for his contribution to Quantum Mechanics.

In the sub-world of quantum mechanics, there may be a situation which is known as quantum fluctuation. In an otherwise complete vacuum (having nothing), a quantum fluctuation can produce an amount of energy and that energy can generate a virtual electron-positron pair in the system. Now that energy comes from the nature, as if the nature is lending that energy to the system. When the electron-positron pair comes in contact with each other and they do it in a flash, both of them disappear instantly, and an amount energy is produced (equal to the energy that produced the pair in the first place) and that energy is returned to the nature and everything is squared up.

This borrowing of energy from nature, electron-positron pair formation (or for that matter matter-antimatter formation) and annihilation and then returning the energy to the nature are taking place all the time everywhere, even in a vacuum where we consider there is absolutely nothing. These are the quantum fluctuations. These are not mad professor’s or mad scientist’s utter gibberish, these are actual physical phenomena which have been demonstrated in high-energy physics laboratories. If one measures the charge of an electron with high precision, one can find a sudden fluctuation in the charge of the electron or a slight wobble in the electron trajectory. This is due to interaction of the real electron and the momentary appearance of the electron-positron pair.  

Billions and trillions of matter-antimatter particles are being generated and annihilated all the time in space. Now a situation may arise when a small fraction of these particles is not annihilated instantaneously and these matter, anti-matter particles move away from each other. In fact, it had been estimated that approximately one in a billion of such pairs had escaped annihilation and moved away to lead separate lives at the time of Big Bang. Electrons and other matters (atoms) in our everyday world (called fermions) came out and formed our world or the present universe, and the positrons and other anti-matter particles formed the anti-matter world somewhere far away from matter world, or they may have formed a separate anti-matter universe.

Our matter universe and the anti-matter universe are blood enemies. Should they come in contact, they will kill each other instantly and an unimaginable release of energy will take place. However, this energy is what these matter universe and anti-matter universe owe to the nature, because this energy was borrowed at the time of forming matter and anti-matter particles in a gigantic scale. Whereas all the other particles returned their energies to the nature, these particles, statistically one in a billion particles, escaped repayment and formed the universe.

The Big Bang from quantum fluctuations

This is how the universe, as perceived now, came into existence. It is the formation of universe out of nothing and the likely disappearance of the universe to nothing. There is no need to invent a divine power and then lay everything at the feet of that invented divine power. In fact, such an invention, all within the confines of our minds, would create more insurmountable problems in explaining things as they stand – such as where is the divine power now, how did he create these things, did he create the universe on a whim or did he have an ultimate purpose etc?

Albert Einstein was deeply sceptical about the divine power. He expressed his thought quite bluntly in saying, “I want to know how God created this world, I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details”.  

It must be stated that the present perception of creation of the universe is not a done deal. The debate about the universe, its progression, its ultimate fate etc are all raging in the scientific community. This is the credit for science – science never claims to have achieved the ultimate truth; anything that is held to be true now can be changed in the light of new evidence, new facts. This is in stark contrast with religion where everything is claimed to have come from God or Allah and hence not subject to any alteration or modification. This is what science rejects.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political

Abnormal of the past becomes normal of the future in climate change age

Sandbag embankment in Khulna, Bangladesh after the cyclone, Fani in 2019

For millions of years, we were in equilibrium with our environment. Over the past 11,500 years, a period in Earth’s history called the Holocene Epoch, there had been a global climatic stability with the average surface temperature fluctuating around one degree Celsius up or down. Our civilisation emerged and progressed against this backdrop of a relatively stable climate.

Melting glaciers

But then something happened that led to the change of whole edifice for worse. The Industrial Revolution that began around 1760 had drastically changed, indeed corrupted, our environment. Today, we live on a planet whose air is polluted, whose water is contaminated and whose soil is chemically altered. Indeed, human influence is so substantial that Earth is no longer in the Holocene Epoch, but rather in a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. For comparison, the epoch before Holocene, the Pleistocene Epoch, lasted nearly 2.5 million years.

Our insatiable appetite for energy using fossil fuel to have higher and higher living standards is placing unbearable burden on the planet. Until 1970s there had been little or no concern about the detrimental effects of extraction and use of fossil fuels on an industrial scale, particularly the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere.  The current concentration of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, is about 415 parts per million. It is the highest concentration since the Pliocene Epoch, which extended from about 5.3 million to 2.5 million years ago.

We now live in a world where “abnormal” of yester-years have become “normal” of present day. Examples of present day normal that were abnormal some 50 years ago are Bombogenesis, Arctic Amplification, Hell Fire, Pyro-cumulonimbus Storms aka Fire Tornadoes, Heat Waves and Climate Refugees, Derecho, Sneaker Wave, Squall Line, Microburst, Frankenstorm, and so forth.

Under normal conditions, cold air mass sits above the poles in an area called the polar vortex. It is a large, low-pressure zone that exists at two levels of the atmosphere, one in the troposphere, where most of the weather-related phenomena occur, and the other a bit higher up, in the stratosphere, home of the ozone layer that protects us from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation. The vortices are seasonal atmospheric phenomena.

However, scientists believe that the phenomenon of Arctic Amplification, which is the self-reinforcing process that warms the Arctic and subarctic regions much faster than rest of the world, distorts the vortex in the North Pole, thereby resulting in a sudden plunge in temperature south of the Arctic Circle. This anomaly, a consequence of global warming, was abnormal before the 1970s, but quite normal today.

It is no longer implausible to have record snowfall and record high temperature on the same day. On November 16 of last year, Anchorage in Alaska saw its high temperature top out at plus seven degrees at 2:30 a.m. (Average November temperature in Anchorage is negative five degrees.) Before midnight that day, 21 centimetres of snow fell on the ground. This oddity, as well as 20-25 degrees swing in daytime temperature within 24 hours in the winter months—abnormal few decades ago—are normal now.

Located a few feet below the soil surface in extremely cold regions, permafrost is one of the most unique kinds of soil containing more carbon and methane than any other soil on Earth and twice as much carbon as is available in the atmosphere. But as global temperatures rise, Arctic permafrost thaws and greenhouse gases trapped in ice are released. Clearly, permafrost thawing is opening up additional pathways for greenhouse gases, constituting a newly identified, powerful feedback to global warming. Besides, ancient carcasses are emerging from the melting permafrost, and with them germs from illness long thought eradicated.

Nowadays, Australia and California are ground zero for out-of-control wildfires. As cataclysmic wildfires continue to rage across Australia, the loss of life—humans and animals—has reached staggering numbers. An estimated one billion animals have been killed so far and approximately 107,000 square kilometres—roughly 70 percent the size of Bangladesh—burned on the east coast.

Climate change is making heat waves longer and more frequent. Temperatures soaring over 50 degrees in many parts of the world are becoming the norm, while nice and comfortable weather has become the exception.

Some other wild weather phenomena due to climate change that were rare or considered abnormal in the past but not anymore are Derecho—a straight-line wind storm with hurricane-force winds; Sneaker Wave—a disproportionately large wave that suddenly appears during a wave sequence; Squall Line—a line of thunderstorms preceding a cold front; Microburst—severe downdraft caused by a thunderstorm; Frankenstorm—remnants of a super storm reinvigorated by an early winter storm and a blast of Arctic air.

Rising temperatures due to climate change is driving out oxygen from our oceans, threatening many species of aquatic life. According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature, around 700 ocean sites are now suffering from low oxygen, compared with 45 in the 1960s. Lest we forget, oceans are the source of most of the oxygen we breathe.

If the seas ever do rise by even a meter, our children and grandchildren may find themselves living cramped lives with other climate refugees on shrinking continents. “Humorously speaking,” they may even try to adopt the underwater lifestyle of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, provided ocean acidification caused by absorption of carbon dioxide has not already wiped him and his pineapple home from the bottom of the rising seas.

Few years ago, the sight of polar bears roaming the streets of a village or town would have been abnormal. Nowadays, it is normal because the land on which they live and hunt is under siege. As Arctic ice thins from melting, an occurrence linked to global warming, their habitat is shrinking and food supply is decreasing. As a result, they are moving out of their natural habitat and traveling hundreds of miles south of the Arctic region in search for food.

To tackle these and other new normals, every year since 1995, our leaders and/or their disciples have been meeting at various world capitals or cities, some of which are tourist hot spots―Bali, Cancun, Marrakech, Montreal, Paris―debating climate change in climate-controlled halls at the so-called Conference of Parties (COP). In order to feel what it is like living in one of the hottest places on Earth, maybe they should hold a future COP in halls without air conditioners in Jacobabad (Pakistan) during July when the average daytime temperature regularly surpasses 50 degrees.

The hype around these conferences is high, but expectations of the people are low because the proposals are not bold enough and interests of the developing countries are marginalised. Gone is the focus on establishing global “top down” approach for stabilising emissions of greenhouse gases that would be legally binding. On the contrary, focus is on voluntary “bottom up” commitments by individual nations to reduce emissions.

It has become clear that the much-touted Paris Agreement thrashed out at COP-21 for keeping the rise in global temperature this century to two degrees above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even lower to 1.5 degrees is on life-support system. America under Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement as Donald Trump categorises global warming as “fake news!” Subsequent summits, including COP-25 in Madrid two months ago, were stuck in a rut. There is no agreement yet and none is in sight.

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres roped in some world leaders, members of civil societies and corporate executives at a climate summit in New York on September 23, 2019 to highlight their plans to bring down greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. As expected, they “prioritised” a laundry list of Action Portfolios without any firm commitment to implement them.

The star of the summit was Greta Thunberg, the 17-year old Swedish activist, who delivered a blunt speech, excoriating world leaders for their inaction. And the shameless world leaders clapped and cheered every time she chastised them with phrases like “How dare you,” or “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” If they had any self-respect, they should have hung their head down in shame instead of applauding. They did not do so because they are “normal” 21st century leaders.

All said and done, what is the end game? Can pre-emptively embarking on a revolutionary change that will lead us away from dependency on fossil fuels and embracing eco-friendly renewable energies save our planet? Can we avoid the risk of a catastrophic failure of our increasingly ephemeral and tightly interlinked global civilisation as we know it? The answer to the above questions is NO, because our leaders lack the collective will to take the decisive steps required to keep our planet liveable for the future generations.

Scientists believe that if we started to cut down on emissions of carbon dioxide even by one percent in 1990, tackling climate change would have been manageable. Instead, we wasted 30 years by inaction. The inertia of the climate system is such that even if we stop introducing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere right now, the ones already in the atmosphere will keep on warming the Earth for another one to two hundred years before equilibrium is reached. In other words, climate change would keep on accelerating, regardless of what measures we take to mitigate its effects.

We can, however, partially solve the seemingly unsolvable problems we have created by changing the unsustainable lifestyle of many of us. More importantly, we have to work to address the problem of the world’s ever-growing population. We are probably within a few decades of a point in time where the sheer number of people on Earth will make continuing degradation of our planet irreversible. So, it is up to us whether we choose to take actions in a direction which will reduce overall global population.

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

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

Solzhenitsyn – an ardent Communist to a devout Christian

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (11 Dec 1918 – 3 Aug 2008) was a Russian novelist, short story writer, philosopher, historian and a political ideologist. Born a year after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in October 1917 and in the immediate aftermath of WWI, his life and works were shaped by the harsh realities of life during his formative period and the consequences of war. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

His parents had all the trappings and background of Imperial Russia. His father, Isaakiy Solzhenitsyn, was an officer in the elite Cossack Brigade (which was fiercely Tsarist) of the Imperial Russian Army and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy landowner in the Kuban region in the northern foothill of the Caucasus. Thus, his family fitted the typical bourgeois family, as defined by the revolutionary Bolshevik party, against which Bolshevik revolution was carried out in 1917. His father died soon after his mother conceived him and so he was brought up by his widowed mother in extreme hardship deprived of her wealth by the communist regime of Soviet Russia. Although he was to become a great literary giant, he studied Physics and Mathematics at Rostov State University.

As he grew up as an ardent communist, the drums of next war (WWII) were beating louder and louder and, inevitably, he had to join the Russian Army against Nazi invasion to save his motherland. As a brilliant officer of Cossack heritage, he showed his military excellence and was twice decorated. But the war left a very painful imprint on him. He witnessed war crimes by the Soviet Army against German civilians – the non-combatants and the elderly were robbed of meagre possessions, women were gang raped and killed, houses were burnt and the whole village pillaged. On atrocities, he wrote in agony, “You know very well that we have come to take revenge against the Nazi atrocities in the Soviet Union”.

While serving in the Red Army in WWII, he was arrested for derogatory remarks on the conduct of the war by Josef Stalin in a private letter to a friend in 1945, just a couple of months before the end of the war, and was sentenced to eight years imprisonment in labour camps. He was in a prison in Moscow when on 9th May 1945 Germany had surrendered. While the whole city erupted in jubilation, the person who fought for the country and risked his life was in the prison!

His sentence started in 1945. He chronicled his life in labour camps as forming three phases. In the last phase, from 1950 to 1953, he was in a ‘Special Camp’ for political prisoners in Kazakhstan, where was forced to work as a miner, bricklayer and a foundry foreman. His experience during this time formed the basis of his novel ‘One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’ (1962). This was the only book that was allowed to be published in the Soviet Union after the reforms that were carried out by Nikita Khrushchev and, even then, only after Khrushchev’s personal patronage. That reform also freed him from exile in 1956 and allowed to go back to Moscow. His books ‘Cancer Ward’ (1968), ‘August 1914’ (1971), ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ (1973) and many more were all published abroad.  

In all of his books, ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ received most attention in the West, as it was in this book, he exposed the moral depravity of communist ideology. The Gulag, in Russian, is the acronym of Main Directorate of Camps (labour). It was written over a period of ten years taking materials from reports, interviews, diaries as well as legal documents and his own experiences. The three volumes of this book published in 1973 in the West led to his expulsion from the Soviet Union.     

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”. The authorities in Soviet Union were very much angered by his supposedly anti-communist moral and ethical propaganda in the form of literary contributions. In 1974 Soviet Authorities withdrew his Soviet citizenship. He was then flown to the then West Germany and after protracted negotiations, he was allowed to move his family to America in 1976. He lived in America from 1976 until 1994 when he returned to Russia after the fall of Soviet Union. During this period, he wrote the dramatized account of Russian Revolution of 1917 in “The Red Wheel”.

Although in the West he is portrayed as the voice against communism, a lone writer standing up to the might of an ‘Evil Empire’ etc, in reality, he was simply expressing his moral values – be it against communism or capitalism. He wrote a number of articles, while in America, showing the vacuousness of American capitalism and its moral degradation. He strongly criticised America for invading Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. He wrote, “In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State”. This narrative is now relevant to many countries, East or West.  

He also wrote, “Any man who has once proclaimed violence as his method is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle”. It may have been written against the backdrop of Josef Stalin’s atrocities and violent measures in WWII, but it also applies very well to modern day politicians – democratically elected in Western affluent countries – like George W Bush, Tony Blair, Donald Trump and many more.

In 1994 he returned to Russia with his family and lived in Western part of Moscow. Although he lived over 17 years in America, he never accepted American culture and way of life. As he became old, he moved away from socialism and became a devout Russian Orthodox Christian. He died on 3 August 2008 of heart attack.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist