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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 50-51, December 3, December 10 2022 [Double issue]

Review: Raghavan on ’New threats to human security in the Anthropocene’ by UNDP

Friday 2 December 2022, by G Narasimha Raghavan

Reviewed by G Narasimha Raghavan

New threats to human security in the Anthropocene:

Demanding greater solidarity

United Nations Development Programme
New York: UNDP - 2022, viii+175 pages

Available at: https://hdr.undp.org/content/2022-special-report-human-security

The renowned cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker, said that we are all visual creatures. Images, rather than sound, impact us more. There are three images during the most recent period (an unofficial unit of geologic time called Anthropocene Epoch) that astonish our own ability to wreck havoc. The first is the monochrome image of the Mushroom cloud from the atomic bombing in 1945. The second is that of the ‘Afghan Girl’ that adorned the cover page of the National Geographic Magazine in 1985. The third is the image of a lifeless young Syrian boy washed ashore in Turkey in 2015.

All the three images reveal the power that humans have over other humans. These also disclose the supremacy of humankind on this earth (that is why this era is called Anthropocene - the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment). Importantly, these images unveil a lesser known trait of humans – to act, and later to think about it. Not to repent, but to aimlessly deliberate, till somewhere else another incident happens, and the images of that gore supplant our earlier ones.

In this Special Report by the UNDP, the Secretary-General of UN, Antonio Guterres, states, “In short, humankind is making the word an increasingly insecure and precarious place. The report links new threats with the disconnect between people and planet, arguing that they – like the Anthropocene itself – are deeply entwined with increasing planetary pressure” (Foreword)

In general, post corona pandemic, there has been a slew of literature on how unfamiliar threats can make our lives ambiguous, and our behavior, undefined. The present report also belongs to such genre, with one exception though. Given the UNDP’s access to data, and their wherewithal for graphical representation of data, the report makes for a stimulating read.

The central theme of the report is this: the impact of humans on this planet is negatively increasing, leading to a variety of uncertainties, and hence to ward off these fears, it is important for all of us to come together, with a view to build a better future. Among the threats that the report states, four of these are important for our understanding: Inequalities (hunger, forcible displacement of people), violent conflicts (wars, women disempowerment), digital technology threats (cybercrime) and health threats (pandemics, vaccine inequality). These, rightly pointed by this report, are forms of insecurities that humans face, and of course, these anxieties are particular to the recent era (aka Anthropocene). Without doubt, as humans, we have also been privy to and party to the highly dishonorable global issues like climate change, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, thus singularly causing an increase in natural hazards.

Living in a highly globalized world, where one small event in a far- away continent can have severe repercussion in our home town, it is important to recognize the inter-relationship of the above mentioned threats. The report attempts to illuminate the overlap between these fears. For instance, in page 82 of the report: “Questions of human rights and accountability are raised in relation to the growing number of people forcibly displace by conflicts and the use of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence in war”.

So, what is to be done to mitigate these threats? Completely expunging these threats would be unmanageable. The report talks about two important solutions: building trust among nations, states, communities and people, and a focus on the power of ‘agency’ (giving greater freedom to stakeholders to influence policy matters). These two proposed solutions would likely bring together an international community of people. This is what the report terms “Solidarity” – to work with each other for advancement of human security in the light of emerging and lingering threats. By following the idea of solidarity, people will no longer bear the brunt of fragmented policies of governments. Governments too will appreciate the inter-linkages of the threats looming large in the Anthropocene era, and will hopefully avoid working in silos. This special report by the UNDP puts this sentiment, very effectively across: “As vaccine inequality problem shows, humanity’s problem is not lack of ingenuity but an inability to see our security in the security of others”. (p. 141)

(Author: G Narasimha Raghavan, Associate Professor - Economics, Jansons School of Business, Coimbatore)

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