Saturday, March 24, 2007

There's something wrong with the world today

Ahem. Excuse me, there’s something wrong with the world. For the past week, I have been meeting an unusually large number of people who feel this way. Either I’m hanging out with the wrong people, or we’re all going nuts in a synchronised sort of way … or there really is something wrong with the world.
I think it’s a bit of all three. The first shouldn’t worry anyone except me, and the folks I hang out with. The last is cause for concern for everyone who’s not from outer space.
My colleague Narendra, despite appearances to the contrary, is not from outer space. The other day he spent the better part of three hours telling me how we are really in the middle of the Third World War, and how the entire social and political structure that currently exists must make way for ‘something better’. In his calculation, this can only happen by the spontaneous appearance of a messianic character called The Maverick.
The Maverick will really have a tough miracle to perform: not only must he transform the planet; he should do so without really doing anything – by ‘just being’. Narendra himself will do nothing to assist the Maverick in his labours. He had some very convoluted excuse which I can’t recall but I think it’s actually because he’s a Bengali bhadralok.
This is all very funny of course. The funnier thing is, I broadly agree with Narendra. He may be wrong about the details but for all we know he may actually be right – there’s no predicting the future. And his basic idea, that there’s something wrong with the way the world runs at present, finds resonance with me. I’ve long felt the same way myself. If the world is being run right then why is almost everyone dissatisfied more often than not? Why do we have so many wars and insurgencies? Why is there crime? Why is all this increasing rather than diminishing?
It’s not as if only the poor are dissatisfied with their lot and unhappy. Some of the richest, most successful people on earth have died unhappy deaths. Howard Hughes was the richest man on earth when he gave up business, cut himself off from the world and began to self-destruct. He died after destroying large parts of his own empire.
Nor is it about recognition: who would say Marilyn Monroe or Kurt Cobain lacked fame? They killed themselves. I don’t suppose it can even be about self-expression or ‘doing what I like’. Earnest Hemingway expressed himself in great works of literature, but he also shot himself dead. And, in a very different way, Casanova (the original one) who led a famously full life doing what he wanted (and who he wanted) was an extremely unhappy person in his later years, and is said to have died of grief.
The World Values Survey last year found Nigeria to be the happiest country on earth. Mexico was second; the US was fifteenth and India twenty-first. In case it makes you happier, Pakistan was 23rd. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious correlation between standard of living and happiness, at least from this survey.
So what is it then that brings happiness? Can it be ‘true love’? For a long time I thought it was. By simple Sherlock Holmes style deduction, when you rule out the other possibilities, this seems the one that’s left, but I find myself increasingly doubtful about it. That’s because of all the possibilities we’ve considered this is the most abstract and depends almost entirely on chance.

Which is why the world needs to change. Narendra, with an air of Newton watching the apple fall, pointed out something that many wise men have said – that people mistake pleasure for happiness.
The problem as I see it is that the entire structure of society is geared towards getting and spending. If tomorrow people everywhere were to declare that they are happy with what they have, the global economy – and civilisation as we know it - would collapse. If the tribes living in the world’s last forests were to say they don’t want the joys of development and globalisation, they’d have to be ‘educated’. If a country were to say it did not want to sell oil, it would have to be conquered.
I can’t do without electricity or my car or phone. Therefore it’s not for me to knock development. But I do hope that human ingenuity continues to stay a step ahead of human wants, as both capitalists and communists wager it will, because the earth has finite resources, and the danger that we may lose even the bittersweet ‘fruits of development’ is very real.
And somewhere along the way, I hope we find a way of life that’s not built on forever wanting more. We need a new direction; our rudder is set wrong.

(This first appeared in my column in HT Next in 2004)

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