Vanity of vanities: Listening to the music of ‘economic growth’ while the planet sinks

Recently, news reports emerged indicating that large parts of nine Malaysian states could be underwater by 2050. At around the same time, an article in noted that sea levels rose by 11-16 cm in the 20th Century.

Nov 14, 2019

By Anil Netto
Recently, news reports emerged indicating that large parts of nine Malaysian states could be underwater by 2050. At around the same time, an article in noted that sea levels rose by 11-16 cm in the 20th Century. And it could rise by another 0.5 metres this century, even with cuts in carbon emissions. If emissions were higher, the rise in sea levels could reach two metres or beyond.

Using a coastal digital elevation model, data suggested that people’s vulnerability to the rise in sea levels and coastal flooding could be three times higher than previously thought.

If this is true, then we could see low-lying areas in many parts of the country being submerged, eventually displacing many. This is a grim prospect.

This alarming scenario should put our present-day obsession with the divisive politics of ethnicity and religion, the hate speech and bigotry, in perspective. After all, what does it matter if many of our homes are eventually going underwater in the decades to come?

It reminds me of that popular tale that the Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned” in 64 AD (though some historians point out that the fiddle as a musical instrument didn’t exist back then). Instead, Nero blamed the fire on an obscure sect (the Christians). He also raised suspicions of his own motives when he  used the cleared land to build his golden palace and leisure gardens.

Are we fiddling while the planet sizzles, going about our business with complete apathy?

How else can we describe our lackadaisical attitude towards the climate change crisis? We continue to be obsessed with unsustainable economic growth. We remain drawn to materialism and consumerism. Many struggle with limited incomes to cope with the rising cost of living while wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Meanwhile, the transfer of governmentlinked companies to certain ministries has raised concern – especially if government assets are privatised to vested interests.

All these vain illusions of wealth and grandeur. Our present generation’s obsession with growth and profits at all costs should remind us of Ecclesiastes 1: Vanity of vanities, sheer futility; everything is futile. Meaningless emptiness.

This does not mean that our efforts at build ing the kingdom of God are meaningless. What it means is that efforts focused on all which does not contribute to the kingdom amounts to an exercise in futility and vanity.

Not only that, our apathy towards climate change and our obsession with a business-asusual model is hurting the planet.

Think of the brave musicians of the Titanic — a quintet and a trio — playing their tunes dutifully as passengers scrambled into lifeboats while the magnificent vessel slowly sank.

In our day, our attitude towards climate change appears like this: instead of looking for the lifeboats, we are scrambling for the caviar and champagne. We are rushing to book the best seats to listen to the music while the planet is sinking as the sea level rises ever so imperceptibly.

This economic growth and neoliberal economic model we are obsessed with is, arguably not even helping many people, nor does it seem sustainable. Instead it seems to be wors ening ecological destruction – sand mining, massive land reclamation, hill clearings, the destruction of the coastal ecology, farm land and forests and rivers, the acidification of the oceans. You get the drift.

Meanwhile, the total fertility rate is falling below the population replacement level of 2.1 babies per woman. Nationwide, the rate is now just 1.8 babies per woman – below population replacement level. In Penang, each couple now has just 1.4 babies.

It appears that we are not going to have a serious problem coping with population growth.

But you wouldn’t know that from the way we are building, building and building, more skyscrapers, more luxury condominiums, more land reclamation, more highways – and apparently eroding our food security and ecosystems in the process. Think of the loss of coastal fisheries due to the land reclamation process.

Not surprisingly, we have an alarming glut in expensive luxury homes, which few locals can afford. So who are we building for? Wealthy foreigners would be one target group, it would seem.

Vanity of vanities. Perhaps we can finally realise what the writer of Ecclesiastes was trying to tell us.

We have a small window of opportunity to save the planet. Let’s not waste it.

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