For billions of human beings, Brexit, Trump and dead celebrities are the least of their worries
A year that started with the death of David Bowie and ended with Donald Trump as President Elect was never going to go down well. The ‘curse of 2016’ narrative surfaced early. Famous faces were kicking the bucket by the busload. Fascist-looking right-wing populism was on the rise. By now, as people look back on Trump, Brexit and a frankly surreal procession of celebrity deaths, talk of that ‘curse’ has hardened into a more blunt and straight to the point social media catchphrase — ‘fuck 2016’.
What it proves, more than anything, is our catastrophic insularity — our short-sightedness, our fixation with the trivial, and our profound detachment from suffering elsewhere in the world. Is it a shame some talented people have died? Yes. Is it terrible that far-right rhetoric is winning elections. Yes.
But of the seven billion people on earth, not all that many knew or cared who David Gest or Alan Rickman or Carrie Fisher were. For most, Brexit and even the prospect of President Trump are of marginal significance. Instead, they’re more occupied with trying to survive — billions living in suffocating poverty, hundreds of millions going without food, water, basic shelter and basic medicines, millions starving and dying of preventable diseases, and millions chewed up by war. We could help them if we weren’t too busy moping about Nigel Farage and listening to George Michael on repeat.
Umpteen things worse than Brexit
There are a few humanitarian disasters clinging on to the very outer edges of the public consciousness. We know, just about, that things are very bad in Syria at the moment. Amidst a geopolitical train-wreck of competing world powers, tens of thousands of people have been shot, maimed and/or blown to bits, and millions have been displaced. Half the country’s pre-war population have been killed or forced out of their homes. More than six million refugees are still inside Syria. Another five million have fled abroad. Over 13 million need aid.
If you’ve thought about or acted on something vaguely humanitarian in the last six months, it’s most likely to have been Syria — it’s the one most people are aware of, in some form or other. It’s often on the news and in the papers. There are charity ads about it on the TV.
But similar situations in other parts of the world aren’t even on most people’s radars. Take Yemen, two years into a devastating fight between Saudi Arabia-backed government forces and rebel groups that’s created a humanitarian catastrophe. About 18 million people are living without access to reliable food, clean drinking water and other life essentials, and desperately need aid — this in a country where even before the conflict almost half the population lived in poverty.
In Nigeria, Islamic extremists Boko Haram have caused chaos in regions already plagued by poverty and poor infrastructure. Over 13 million need help, and the UN warns 75,000 children could be dead in months without food aid.
These are situations where conflict is partly to blame. They still barely feature on the news — but it immediately makes them more visible than many others. The media likes war. If there’s fighting involved, it’s much more likely to turn up with a camera than, say, if it’s just some people dying in a hut in sub-Saharan Africa.
Meanwhile, base-line suffering goes on
Currently, 1.3 million people in Kenya are facing starvation. A bad rainy season meant crops failed. Virtually no-one in the world is aware of that. I wasn’t. I had to trawl the internet to find it out.
And that’s the baffling, maddening crux of the issue — the fact that millions of human beings are staring into the abyss for reasons we could easily prevent isn’t considered newsworthy. People will think about refugees, sometimes, or other victims of war — but famine, drought, extreme poverty, mass death through preventable disease, none of it troubles the popular consciousness at all. The other day, the top news story was that the Queen had a cold.
2013 is the last year we’ve got comprehensive data on global poverty for. Then, 767 million people were estimated to be living below the international poverty line — that’s about a tenth of the human population living on less than $1.90 a day. Around 780 million were chronically undernourished — ie., haven’t had enough food to meet their most basic energy requirements for a year. We think about 50,000 people die every day because of extreme poverty. About 2 million a year die through something as pathetically preventable as diarrhoea.
I’d argue these were the real losers of 2016. And, gut-wrenchingly, of 2015, and 2014, and 2013, and probably 2017 and 2018 and so on as well. And without a root-and-branch overhaul of the way societies and economies work, their lives are going to get even worse.
Climate crisis is coming, and the poorest will be hit the hardest
2016 was the year climate change got real. One key landmark fell in September. Usually, it’s the month when the concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at its lowest. This year, it didn’t dip below 400 parts per million for the first time — a figure which some climate scientists have cited as the point of no return.
Yet again, it was the hottest year on record. Our climate is now warmer than it’s been in 120,000 years. Sixteen out of the seventeen hottest years have been since 2000 (bearing in mind there have only been sixteen years since 2000), and in November there was less Arctic sea ice than at any point since records began in 1979.
Climate change is happening, more quickly and more drastically than a lot of experts have predicted — and when it bites, it’s the already impoverished who are going to be least dealing with the worst effects.
It’s been conservatively estimated that climate change could push 122 million more people in extreme poverty — the kind that cuts lives shorts and makes living agony. Disrupted agriculture and higher food prices will take bread and rice — not what people need for a healthy, nutritious life, but the basic calorific intake that will keep them breathing — out of the hands of the very poorest, who already have to spend 60% of their income on food. Upped temperatures are likely to result in rising incidences of malaria, and increased water scarcity will cause more droughts, hit hygiene and bring about more disease.
The very poorest are also the very lowest emitters of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. They’re the least to blame for what’s happening. We’re the most to blame — the grossest gas-guzzlers and most wasteful throwaway consumerists. And we should probably be spending the time that goes on moping about Princess Leia and Donald Trump to thinking how we’re going to get them and ourselves out of the near-apocalyptic mess we’ve created.