Understanding Today’s Worldwide Crisis and Upheaval

We just went through a year that brought all of us the most incredible adversity. It is hard for us to even make sense of what happened. 2020 was mind-boggling everywhere in the world and no other year in recent memory can compare in terms of its impact. What is clear is that it was a year of extremes. These extremes were building up in the waning days of 2019 and are ongoing in 2021, so we continue to live in an age of extremes. The 2020s is off to a stormy beginning. We have no idea what the rest of the decade will be like, but the world is, no doubt, going to be permanently different in many ways as a result of what happened in 2020.

What distinguishes 2020 is that it was a period in which the world transitioned from the normal one we were familiar with before into one rife with unprecedented crises and upheavals. We will now spend 2021 living in new and very tough circumstances. Time will tell how everything will turn out from now on. But 2020, as the period of the monumental shifts that brought us here, is giving us a lot to look back on.   

Going over and understanding everything that happened is a huge task. My preference is to focus only on what makes 2020 (and the current year) unusual, not going over all the generic developments that could have easily happened in any previous year. There were, and continue to be, extraordinary developments on a very wide variety of fronts. And most of it is not good news. It seems just about every kind of problem afflicting the world is being severely exacerbated since 2020 began.

Respect for liberal values and humans rights came under question at the highest positions, with the designated leader of the free world doing everything from rashly killing a top official of a country he was not at war with to trying to keep himself in power by any means possible, motivating his supporters to attempt a violent assault on a co-equal branch of government. Hundreds of millions of people are experiencing worsening poverty and deprivation as a result of the pandemic and other factors. For nearly a year, hospitals everywhere in the world have been periodically overflowing with coronavirus patients, burdening healthcare systems beyond their capacity. Billions of people were thrust into an unfamiliar life in which stepping outside of home, meeting other people, and seeing their faces was restricted. And the planet’s weather patterns are becoming more extreme than ever witnessed before, resulting in severe natural hazards ravaging every region of the world since late 2019, from 46 million acres burnt during Australia’s Black Summer to the 30 named storms of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.

As noted in this blog’s first post since the current year began, 2020 was a year of disaster, specifically humanitarian disaster. There are all kinds of serious issues the world is having to deal with, from destruction of cultural and historical heritage (the threat Trump made after killing Soleimani), to environmental destruction and endangerment of wildlife as with Australia’s mass conservation crisis after the events of Black Summer, to attacks on the foundations of democratic values exemplified by last month’s storming of the US Capitol. These issues concern me deeply. You may find me covering them on my personal blog https://jshahzebkhan.wordpress.com/. But the type of issue PPLDM is concerned with is the most serious one, humanitarian threats to people’s lives and wellbeing, and the world is rife with such since 2020. Pakistan’s share of this is no bubble. As a result of last year’s events, life for every person in the world is now much more dangerous and harsher that it ever had been in at least decades, a shift that set in really rapidly. So it is very important to determine, to put it mildly, just what on Earth is going on.

One thing I am very curious about is, when history books are written in the following decades, how historians will cover this current period. For one thing, a huge amount of text will be devoted to the early 2020s. In the future, a book devoted to world history (or the history of many individual nations like China and USA) will probably devote as much space to 2020 and 2021 (and hopefully only those two years) as to the previous three decades from 1990 to 2019. I dare say that even World War 2 could be competing with the early 2020s for the number of pages in a standard book. Certainly, 2020 will occupy a big place in history. But the real question is, just what place will that be?

The fact is that 2020 is a historic era for the entire globe, but it does not seem to be the era of anything in particular. It saw various major developments come together in a bizarre assortment that seems to have no parallel in the past. There have been many instances in history when the entire world descended into rough times. But the changes that occurred were typically of one kind or had one underlying cause. Not so for the last year we experienced. 2020 basically had the pandemic of 1919, the economic collapse of 1931, the social unrest of 1968, the growing international hostilities of 1938, and the climate disturbances of 1816. That all these things could suddenly start happening at once, when everything was relatively normal in 2019 or at least 2018, is what is extraordinary about the world at present.

Just don’t get me wrong on one thing. 2020 is a horrible year for humanity, but for almost all of humankind’s existence, most people were living in circumstances far harder than we are in right now. 2020 is only the worst year of the 21st century. But what makes it really stand out is that since 2020 began, it seems, everything that can go wrong is going wrong.

How do we make sense of this? The pandemic is the main affair, so, if anything, we are in the era of COVID-19. The virus that emerged in late 2019 spread rapidly through the world’s entire human population and the resulting health crisis has had vast knock-on effects on every aspect of life, causing economic devastation and social disruption which, in turn, can lead to rising instability, hostility, and violence. These circumstances can also lead to other disasters becoming more common because of people being knocked off their guard, such as industrial or transportation accidents occurring more frequently because of less well-maintained safety standards or cases of other diseases rising due to cancellation of public health campaigns. The enormous protests sparked by George Floyd’s death and America’s epic post-election row that climaxed with Capitol Hill’s thrashing are two events that may not have been possible, or at least would not have occurred on such a grand scale, without the unprecedented disruption and chaotic environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the world was already becoming a more turbulent and abnormal place by the time the coronavirus began to have a significant impact. The bushfires in Australia were a disaster unlike any the world had seen before. Burning tens of millions of acres, it seemed like they would drive Australia’s entire population into the sea. The record-breaking positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole responsible for the fires also produced extreme flooding in East Africa in late 2019 that caused a locust outbreak there to blossom into a massive trans-continental upsurge by January 2020, beginning a massive food crisis. This is the first time desert locusts spread so widely in the face of robust pest control measures in place since the 1980s. Meanwhile, the United States military killed Iran’s leading general, bringing the two countries to the brink of a huge war that could have destabilized the world. The US president threatened war crimes in response. The United States was also going through the third presidential impeachment trial in its history. India was becoming more unstable, with protests and communal violence spreading widely while Jammu and Kashmir endured the longest shutdown ever imposed in a democratic country. Finally, in January 31, 2020, the United States dismayed the world by lifting the ban on its military using landmines, the reason for this move reportedly being that the nation was shifting its focus away from counter-insurgency towards preparing for conventional wars with nations like Russia and China. All this is the very picture of a world getting out of hand.

Then the coronavirus had to arrive on the scene and shoot everything through the roof. Things have been going from bad to worse ever since. So this is not just the era of the coronavirus. The world is in an era generally of crisis and change. It seems impossible to devise an underlying explanation for all of 2020’s upheavals. But there is a practical explanation. I believe that what is happening is essentially the 21st century imploding. The world has become such a dynamic and integrated place that it is very easy for everything to go haywire at once.

Previously, the challenges of the world were disconnected from each other. What people did in one continent, or one region, or one country, often even one town, typically did not affect people elsewhere very much. It took a long time for events to extend their influence across a wide area. And what humans were doing in general had little effect on the natural environment, particularly the climate. It was a slow-changing world as well, pretty stable. 

Now, the world is transforming at breakneck speed in every way. Technology is advancing. Ideas are emerging and spreading and social attitudes shift easily. Financial and commercial trends and developments are whizzing by. The human population is growing. The Earth’s natural environment is being altered in every way. That includes the very climate, due to the building-up of greenhouse gases.

This is in a world where everything is deeply interconnected. Thanks to technology and social media, a network of instant communication links the globe and ordinary people. Developments in transportation enable the fast movement of people, materials, and living things across unlimited distances. Knowledge, ideas, attitudes, and cultures are intimately exchanging influence across nations. The global economy is deeply integrated, with there being very few people whose lives and livelihoods are not shaped by commercial activity around the world. And there is hardly any part of the Earth above its rocky crust that is not being influenced and altered by this human civilization and its activities. Almost the entire biosphere is changing beyond recognition and falling under, and often out of, the control of humans. Natural environments are being reshaped all the way up to the atmosphere, where changes in climate in turn are impacting the Earth’s surface.

As already noted, the modern world is a better place in the regular scheme of things. Humans have more control over everything and are able to achieve a near-infinite amount. We have come a long way in solving all of humanity’s traditional problems. But this world we have produced is also much, much more volatile. The probability is high of something happening that is out of our hands and has a major impact. Changes out of our control are also happening all the time under the surface, pushing us towards the brink. The world built by us is very fragile, with everything being so interdependent that any major shock could cause it all to come crashing down. 

In a world like this, one event can have a ripple effect, causing a cascade of other events until enormous change has taken place. This is the case with the emergence of the novel coronavirus, which, after quickly becoming a pandemic, has caused profound social, political, economic, and environmental shifts. It is also probable for multiple disruptive changes to coincide with each other. Thus, we have seen a global build-up of sociopolitical tensions and discord within and across borders just before the coronavirus came onto the scene and, all the while, climate extremes, which have been steadily building up over the decades, are undergoing a dramatic escalation in what might be a leap forward by climate change.

So we are living in a world where the emergence of universal upheaval, crisis, and change is likely and this is exactly what is going on since late 2019. “Crisis and change”, incidentally, are the two words most apt to describe this current state of affairs. If you just want to use one, there is “upheaval”. All three words form the title of prominent geographer and anthropologist Jared Diamond’s latest book Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change. It was published in 2019, just in time, because it can be considered a useful text for understanding all the crisis and change happening across the world in this period of acute upheaval. Rolling out his idea that the way entire societies cope with challenges parallels how individuals or groups of people do, Diamond analyzes six cases of nations going through a period of strife in the past and surviving by transforming in a selective manner. He also deals with the current state of countries across the world like the US and what threats the future might bring. The crises covered are of various kinds, political, economic, civil, and ecological, which is the same range of crises shaking the world since 2020.

Crisis and change, as the subject of Jared’s book, comprise a noteworthy concept. Not only have they defined human history in large part, but crisis and change, while having different meanings, typically go hand in hand. A crisis, by definition, is a change, because it is when people enter a situation that is worse than before and which requires them to undertake new actions in response. But changes of nearly any kind often lead to crisis for the people who are affected (typically, but not always, when the people in question did not intend for the change to come about). Human society tends to benefit from stability. People adjust their lives to their circumstances and if the circumstances change before they have time to adapt, they are almost certain to suffer. It is a crisis also when an old, established order people don’t want to let go of is slipping away.

The past year is filled with change all over the world and nearly all these changes represent crisis for someone. The Gamestop short squeeze is just a latest example. A few weeks back, retail traders on the Reddit group wallstreetbets, a large group of amateurs involved in investing, bought stocks en masse of the failing company Gamestop, which was the most heavily shorted on Wall Street at the time, followed by other companies. They drove the price of the stock up and made a huge amount of money by squeezing the shorts. This is a landmark event in financial history. Nothing like it ever happened before and it could herald a major change in the way the financial system works.

The trading frenzy was beneficial for the innumerable Reddit investors who got rich off the stock buying. But it was a disaster for the institutional investors who bet against Gamestop and then lost billions of dollars. Some major hedge funds went bankrupt as a result of this popular action coordinated on social media. Wall Street therefore got up in arms about the mass stock buying, branding it market manipulation. The crisis then escalated as brokerages like Robinhood, which was founded to allow the masses easy access to the financial market, blocked the mass stock buying, disrupted the rise in Gamestop’s value and the profits the Redditors were gaining. This sparked even wider outrage, with the matter going to the courts and politicians on both sides of the political spectrum expressing concern over Robinhood’s action.

This is the sort of thing Jared Diamond would be proud to write about in Upheaval and it is typical of what this world is coming to in the 2020s. Crises are breaking out everywhere, in every which way, from the spread of the coronavirus threatening the lives of every human being to the social media-led Gamestop trading frenzy threatening the interests of an established order of elites. Furthermore, these are not the kind of crises that routinely happen but are by-and-large of a novel or unusual nature or frequency, so their occurrence represents global change on a fundamental level.

Another very important matter is that these changes are often coming from the smallest of places, which also makes many of them completely unexpected. This means that ordinary things can become agents of upheaval, rendering us unable to forestall the crises they cause. Notably, also, non-human factors are playing a big role in human affairs. We have a tendency to think of history as being directed by long-term political, social, and economic processes, and the case studies featured in Upheaval are of this nature. But in the 21st century, things don’t appear to be that way anymore. Since 2016, everybody expected 2020 to be an impactful year in which the biggest events would be the US presidential election race, Brexit, and (after 18 December, 2019) the US president’s impeachment trial for his alleged Ukrainian quid pro quo. But they were eclipsed by things nobody was expecting at all.

The new coronavirus was first reported in China at the end of 2019, apparently originating from a one-in-a-billion mutation in a virus circulating in animals in a wet market, and it took only a few months for a state of emergency to sweep the entire world, causing such enormous changes that even Earth’s atmosphere and oceans felt the effects. Even a single infected person traveling to a certain region could introduce the contagion there and therefore single-handedly bring disaster upon that area. A police killing in Minneapolis involving ordinary people was caught on camera and the release of the footage caused the eruption of extreme unrest and strife in every urban area in the United States while a monumental shift in attitudes swept the Western world.

The George Floyd protests are the biggest example of how ordinary people organizing in large numbers through social media are demonstrating a huge impact. In America since 2021 began, they rocked the financial world with their Gamestop buying frenzy and they rocked the political world, too, by swarming into the US Capitol to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s presidency. In the past, attempted coups would be conducted by big players, like military officers, but it seems to have become a casual grassroots activity in the one country which has always been extremely stable at the federal level.

The weather-related events making their mark also represent events unforeseen to human agency or that aren’t taken into account in our normal outlook. We may not pay attention to their impact all that much, but it is still very much real. The 2019 temperature swing in the Indian Ocean nearly wiped Australia, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, off the map and left behind a food crisis for a huge chunk of the developing world by getting some grasshoppers hopped up on steroids.

The locusts can be considered a player coming out of the blue for the world. Those knowing the science and history are fully aware that locust outbreaks are major hazards, so the recent desert locust outbreaks are no surprise to the relevant experts. But most of us weren’t really concerned when the upsurge was in the making. In the regions exposed to the locust threat, things like the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Iran’s nuclear program were what were on people’s minds over the past few years. Now the locusts may end up being a bigger game-changer, whether we recognize it or not.

Weather is generally hard to predict (which means expecting what will happen), but the worsening weather events brought on by climate change are also getting to be hard to anticipate (which means expecting what can happen). In the past, weather followed well-established patterns that humans could be familiarized with. The more an event deviated from the schedule, the rarer it was. But because the climate is changing so rapidly, weather phenomena that deviate from the old patterns are becoming the norm. That means that the weather is behaving in ways that we have never observed before and which even scientists find difficult to foresee. Consider the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which smashed a large number of records and produced 30 named storms. At the end, Central America was devastated by two Category 5 hurricanes that formed in November, by which time tropical activity is supposed to be waning. In the Arabian Sea, Cyclone Gati pounded Somalia late last November, which is historic because it was the first time on record that a hurricane-strength cyclone made landfall in Somalia. It must have been assumed before that the risk of this for Somalia was very low. The level to which weather processes are behaving erratically nullifies our traditional planning.

Unpredictability is a defining feature of the recent upheavals. Most of the major crises of the last year caught everybody by surprise, such as the emergence of COVID-19, numerous extreme weather events, certain outbreaks of civil unrest, and the specific time and place that new COVID-19 variants appeared. This means that what happens from now on will likely also elude prediction. If we try to forecast what will happen next, our attempts will turn out in vain. The only way to be prepared for further problems down the line is to brace ourselves for any change and expect things to get much worse than they already have been. We have to maintain ourselves in crisis mode, basically. Right now, in February 2021, the planning of most of us is largely taking into account only current crises and trends. We hope new problems don’t spring up in 2021 like they did in 2020. But as we can tell from experience, we must expect the unexpected. In the rest of 2021 and also 2022, perhaps afterwards as well, we have no choice but to expect the world has more surprises in store for us and catastrophes could happen that we can’t imagine. For this, mental preparation is needed.

While prediction may be a futile activity, anticipation is what can work. In the prologue of Upheaval, Jared Diamond, in describing the content of Chapter 11 which concerns global challenges, writes, “While one could assemble an infinite list of problems facing the world, I focus on four for which it seems to me that trends already underway will, if they continue, undermine living standards worldwide within the next several decades.” In the two years since he wrote that, it certainly seems like worldwide living standards have instead been undermined by events that suddenly arrived without warning. But, in fact, they all are part of long-running trends that scholars like Diamond could identify. That includes climate change for most of 2020’s natural disasters. It is the case with the coronavirus pandemic, too. In recent times, diseases new to mankind are emerging at an ever-quickening pace, such as HIV, Ebola, Zika, and two coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, making it clear that a pandemic of whatever kind was hanging over us. So while we could not predict that a new coronavirus would appear in China in 2019 and ravage the world the way it did, we could anticipate the basic nature of the pandemic.

And anticipation is what we need in order to weather 2021. We have to get a full grasp of everything that could happen from now on. That will be very challenging, because the modern world is extremely complex and so are its problems. The world has to be studied thoroughly and all the knowledge we have about it must be integrated together. Only then can we minimize the chance that the world’s future trajectory catches us by surprise, because we can watch out for every possibility. With anticipation, we may not be able to forecast the chance of a new development, but once it starts, we can forecast where it leads to. Even that can be a hard task, though, because of how anomalous events are interacting with each other to produce very complicated effects. If many things out of place happen together, they can produce a result out of this world, like the US Capitol storming likely made possible by years of Trumpian rhetoric, social strife and distrust caused by George Floyd’s death and lockdowns, and the way the pandemic disrupted the conduct of the election. Chaos theory is applicable to current global events. But just as weather can be forecasted a few days in advance, the ability to stay just ahead of whatever 2021 throws at us should be within our reach.

For now, we must be busy dealing with all the problems that are happening right now or are expected to happen. We have gone through the worst phase of the coronavirus pandemic, the spread now declining for probably only seasonal reasons, and the battle between humanity and COVID-19 is just beginning to heat up further with the development of the vaccines and the emergence of the mutated virus variants. Nations have yet to work out all their strategies for how to deliver the vaccines to all who need it and the more the virus is allowed to be widespread worldwide for a prolonged period, the more likely further dangerous mutations will appear. The economic fallout of the pandemic remains as bad as ever. Billions of people are desperately in need of help due to heightened impoverishment. Many parts of the world have their own particular problems to deal with. America has to sort out its socio-political tensions, which remain strong even after the transition to the new president was completed. Various geopolitical hostilities must be defused or else they will grow. The continuing threat posed by the desert locusts to the food security of as much as a tenth (perhaps more) of the world’s population needs to be overcome.

In these circumstances, PPLDM suggested the Year of Survival as a challenge to motivate us, in which, by the time 2021 ends, we make great strides in tackling the challenges present at the beginning of the year (barring the arrival of new, unforeseen crises, of course!). 2021 can then be made into a reverse 2020. Remember, though, that, even if we do overcome the current level of adversity by the year’s end, we may still be left with a new normal. Also, what is happening now is most likely only a taste of the future. The 21st century world will continue to be a volatile and unpredictable place and where it is ultimately headed is the most unpredictable thing of all. If we succeed in turning 2021 into a year of survival and resilience, we will make the world better equipped to tackle the challenges that the decades ahead will bring. The shocks of 2020 may turn out to be merely wake-up calls. For example, the risk of a pandemic far worse than COVID-19 exists on the horizon, if there happens to emerge a pathogen that spreads faster, is more virulent, or infects more persistently.

It is an understatement to say that overcoming the current pandemic and other crises will take a lot. Humanity is up for an uphill struggle and if the bulk of that struggle is to be finished within a year, we need more than just hard work and perseverance. We need ingenuity and brainpower. We are dealing with what will go down as typical 21st century problems, but the paths to tackling them are pretty clear. Just as the potential for the emergence of new problems in the world is rising, so is humanity’s potential for solving problems. As mentioned, mankind’s capabilities nowadays are vast. We have used them to make the world a better place to live, and while we have made the world more volatile at the same time, any problem coming out of that should meet its match in us.

People today are extremely creative. Many of us are able to transform our behavior, our customs, and our outlook rapidly. The level of technological advancement is vast and is rising at breakneck speed. And our capacity for gathering knowledge is unlimited, as is the ability of that knowledge to spread from people to people. We have all the tools we need at our disposal to tackle the challenges of 2021. Now let’s use them wisely and responsibly.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that, as explained already, we need to be ready for everything we cannot imagine. When you look back at the last year, you can see how much happened that most people would have considered inconceivable. The same might turn out to be true for 2021, and maybe the year after that, and the next year, too, etc. So be on guard. It gives Pakistan reason to be wary. This country seems to be one of the relatively luckier ones so far, but that could easily change, and in ways we might not expect. PPLDM’s duty is to participate in managing the nation’s ailments and making it more resilient. Disaster management and disaster risk reduction alike are the need of the hour in ways they never have been before. We don’t just need to engage in them on a bigger scale. We need to transform the way we do so in order to adapt to the new global circumstances.

PPLDM will do whatever it can to play its part, helping guide Pakistan through today’s challenges with a knowledge-based and people-centered approach. Everybody has a part to play in helping themselves and their society to persevere. And truth is needed above all else. PPLDM’s priority is learning all about the crises around us, gathering as much information as we can and using the power of analysis to draw inferences and conclusions from them. The power of prediction is needed to assess the likelihood of hazards and crises about to come. And perhaps the biggest task of all is finding the solutions to the problems. This always requires a whole lot of research, because if you want to know the problem, you just look at the problem, where it is coming from, and how it is affecting people, but if you want to figure out the solutions, you literally have to look everywhere, because the possibilities are practically endless. To simplify the endeavor, understanding the problem and its fundamentals may lead us on the path towards finding the right solutions. But surviving 2021 will also require a lot of thinking outside the box.

So research and development (R&D) on a grand scale is badly needed. Pakistan should participate in it as much as it can. PPLDM will promote this national capability and will, from now on, be fully engaged in studying the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises and risks and developing ideas for how we can cope. PPLDM hopes to guide the entire world in addition to Pakistan. You can find much of that work here on this blog. Regular info will hopefully appear on PPLDM’s official Facebook account https://www.facebook.com/Pakistans-People-Led-Disaster-Management-PPLDM-1189813241092698/. And an announcement: in 2020, PPLDM launched its official YouTube channel Disaster Management, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3_vsqGckhCgB7WjdIGMoew, which will keep you up-to-date on the latest in the field of disasters and risks and deliver innovative ideas with concise videos by PPLDM’s directors.

This article has hopefully given you the ability to understand how the world has become filled with the crises and change we experience today. I know many of you are living much harder lives than you used to and when you hear about what is happening in the world, it may instill in you a sense of hopelessness and despondency about where humanity is coming to. But knowing why and how things are happening the way they are will enable you to have a clearer outlook on life and will be a source of encouragement. My aim in writing this article is to ensure that this world we find ourselves in, terrible as it is, no longer bewilders you. Now that we are equipped with the knowledge we need, we can begin our journey to ensure the world survives 2021 and that every nation including Pakistan proves itself capable of coping with this round of upheaval.