The Human Condition: 2017
On one hand, I’ve wanted to write a piece with this title for a while. On the other, this might turn out to be more rant than coherent piece as I try to capture my effervescing thoughts right now. I oblige you to bear with me as I digress now and then.
So, the world is getting richer. According to the World Bank, standards of living are rising globally, including the richest and poorest populations of the world alike. Inequality is also on the rise, so clearly the richest persons on earth are getting richer faster than the poorest.
There are 7.3 billion people on earth. 7.3 billion unique individuals, each with distinct lived experiences, feelings, hopes and dreams. Each of us found ourselves thrust into this crazy world without consultation, like a deer caught in headlights. From the millionaire investment banker in Sandton to the Mai Shai on my street, we spend the next eighty years trying to figure out why.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Inevitably, humans spend a great deal of time pondering the reason for their existence. Some people eventually arrive at a point where they believe they’ve found it, while others never do. According to Thomas Jefferson, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights possessed by all men. The similarity of this phrase to Maslow’s theory is hard to ignore- life as the base essential right, followed by the enthronement of human freedoms, and finally the need for happiness and self-actualisation.
“A collection of vital phenomena”
The 2014 novel 'A collection of vital phenomena’ by the American novelist Anthony Marra adopted the definition of life according to a medical dictionary. But human life is the premium bouquet and consciousness demands to be satiated.
Abraham Maslow proposed his famous theory in 1943. Since that time, the earth’s population has tripled. The proportion of those living in extreme poverty has dropped from 75% to below 10% in that time. Immense technological strides have been made but we’re still far from the idealistic future we once imagined.
Last year, the Lagos state government outlawed street trading. This was a crystallization of a tradition of harrassment and extortion by authorities that has gone on for as long as anyone remembers. Slums are regularly demolished to make way for infrastructure, urban renewal, or simply because they’re aesthetically embarrassing, often without providing any alternatives for the displaced.
I’m sitting in my old room in my parents’ house looking out the window at the changes in the neighbourhood. The old empty plot that was once a mechanic garage now contains a huge supermarket. Mimi suites, the hotel in the next plot has closed shop and the new owners are renovating the structure. The entire block is gentrifying even though the roads are still potholed.
I wonder where Apari is now, the danfo driver who was always stationed at the old garage. Does he still wash his danfo squeaky clean and set out every morning, with no conductor, because they’re all thieves? I’d always wanted them out because of how they dirtied the environment. Perhaps I was a tad selfish?
Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.
In tort law, the term duty of care refers to a requirement that a person act toward others and the public with watchfulness, attention, caution and prudence that a reasonable person in the circumstances would. But collective altruism does not exist. The law refuses to be stretched that far.
The year 2016 also marked the year of the populist. Governments were elected under toxic far-right ideologies, riding on the frustrations of a global population wearied by economic stagnation, and harried by accelerating globalisation. The result has been an erasure of political correctness, and moderation in its wake.
Where does all this leave us?
With little time to consider the primacy of collective human happiness, I’m afraid. What has happened globally has been a revolt over inequality and blurring racial class lines. In the languorous aftermath of the economic crisis that began in 2008, it’s a sudden grasp for a scapegoat.
The human condition is planet-wide contrasts. Elon Musk has his sights set on Mars while refugees are fleeing Mosul. Governments are debating legislation for self-driving cars, but migrants are drowning in their hundreds in the Mediterranean. Our earthly experience is a constantly shifting continuum.
The rise of populism has inevitably produced a new batch of global strongmen, and the conflict-ridden history of this world is nothing but the biography of strongmen (excuse me for remixing the Great Man theory). The combination of economic uncertainty, global terrorism, a resurgent Russia, and a tense power shift towards Asia is a recipe for global tension.
In the last one year, we’ve seen a gradual reversal of the gains made by globalisation. As we come to realise the full implications of the zeitgeist, 2017 will unfold as the year of the Pessimist.
Here’s a quote by Vladimir Putin in a 2013 letter published in The New York Times to conclude:
It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.