Sleepwalking past the point of no-return

One of the great challenges in our world today is how to restore a balance in our approach to holistic development at a time when almost everything appears to have a monetary value attached to it.

Jan 13, 2017

By Anil Netto
One of the great challenges in our world today is how to restore a balance in our approach to holistic development at a time when almost everything appears to have a monetary value attached to it.

We have attached a monetary value to most things in life including our own wellbeing, which is now widely measured in terms of GDP per caita.

The excessive focus on gross domestic product or GDP and the pursuit of economic growth at all costs is leading us down a path that may have no return.

At the heart of the matter lies a crisis within capitalism which tends to assume that raw materials are infinitely renewable and that we can continue to ignore the environment.

On Monday, I woke up to the news that plans are afoot to turn Carey Island into a massive port-industrial city over 20 years. The numbers are staggering:

“infrastructure investments of over RM200bn”, “covering an area of over 100 sq km”, “more than twice the size of Putrajaya”, “gross development value could exceed RM1trillion”.

Port Klang being the world’s 12th busiest container port with 13.2m REUs is apparently not enough. Apparently, if we don’t do anything now, we “will not get a share of the bigger pie in future”.

Over in Penang, even the green lung Pulau Jerejak has not been spared. There are now plans to build 1,200 homes on the island – on top of the many more in the south of Penang Island. Some 4,500 acres off the southern coast of Penang Island are expected to be reclaimed from the sea and turned into three artificial islands catering mainly to the wealthy.

This project has alarmed fishing communities who worry about their livelihoods while others worry about our food security. It is not as if the Penang population is soaring and land is desperately needed. In fact, the fertility rate in Penang has been declining.

Quite apart from the quest for profits, this kind of ultra-ambitious thinking reflects a Big is Better mentality — in sharp contradiction to the Catholic thinker and economist EF Schumacher's Small is Beautiful philosophy.

These days, it is almost as if we see dollar signs every time we see an open green space that is part of the common good. The rate at which our land — and sea, in the case of land reclamation — is being gobbled up in the name of “development” (for whom?) makes it look as if there is no tomorrow. But then again, there might not be too many tomorrows worth living for, if we carry on at this rate.

Francis, the Bishop of Rome, has blasted unbridled global capitalism for the harm it has caused communities and the ecology. “This system is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, labourers find it intolerable, communities find it intoleratnble, peoples find it intolerable. The earth itself — our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say — also finds it intolerable.”

Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff warns that our present model of relentless economic growth brings with it two external effects: “degrading social injustice with high unemployment and growing inequality; and a threatened ecological injustice with the degradation of whole ecosystems, the erosion of biodiversity..”

Nature and the Earth, he warns will strike back and defeat capitalism, if we continue down this path.

The scholar Dennis Rivers describes the relentless urge to reap profits or develop at all costs, even if it causes harm as PDIM — profit-induced-destructive-mania, which he says, perhaps with tongue-in-cheek, should be regarded as a form of mental illness.

Those suffering from PDIM, he claims, “experience a chronic narrowing of the attention until they no longer recognise the people, animals, plants, oceans, forests and waters essential to their own survival here on Planet Earth, and begin an autism-like repetitive pattern of screaming, 'Drill, Baby, Drill!'”

If Lord Acton observed that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, then PDIM is its economic parallel, Rivers adds: “namely, that profits tend to disorient, and enormous profits disorient enormously.”

So maybe it is time for all of us to snap out of our collective tendency to succumb to PDIM and disorientation before we sleepwalk past the point of no return.

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