The End Of The World As We Know It? Nope

It's tempting to imagine the pandemic as a turning point. The thing that undoes the EU, perhaps, or challenges the capitalist hegemony. But that may just be wishful thinking.

Empty Berlin on April 20
Empty Berlin on April 20
Hannes Stein


BERLIN — The Greek word "apokalypsis' doesn't mean catastrophe: It means revelation. The old is gone and a new world is born. The moment of apocalypse is when everything is revealed. It's a new beginning — in other words, not the end of the world.

In the biblical Book of Revelation, John doesn't only speak about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who are "given authority over a quarter of the earth, to destroy with the sword, and with famine, and with death, and by means of earth's wild animals." He also — indeed, above all — tells of the return of Jesus to judge the godless and gather his followers to him.

When the apocalypse comes, it doesn't mean everything is over. Instead, a "new Jerusalem" descends from heaven to earth. In the end, everything is better, as God wipes all the tears from people's eyes. "See, I am making all things new."

It's not surprising that the pandemic surrounding us has been compared to the apocalypse, as people are trying to find a meaning in this plague. At the moment, many leading thinkers are predicting that once the four horsemen have galloped past, they will have the world they have always wished for.

One is the British philosopher John Gray, who for many years has been one of the leading critics of globalization. In an essay in the New Statesman, he was uncompromising. "Liberal capitalism is bust," he claims. Gray also believes that the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis will lead to a fundamental reordering of our way of life.

Once the four horsemen have galloped past, they will have the world they have always wished for.

"Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were," the philosopher writes. "A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient."

Gray says the EU will become a pale shadow of its former self, like the Holy Roman Empire in its dying days, and that mass tourism will soon be a thing of the past. The good old nation state, with its "hard borders," will return, he argues. Economic growth will no longer be an important aim for society, because in future the "anarchy of the global market" will be regulated by governments. And there will be measures put in place to combat overpopulation. Small is beautiful!

In a text that's been doing the rounds on the internet, future researcher Matthias Horx shares a similar vision. He also believes that the virus will change the world for the better. Horx says that when we look back on this time, we will see that "people who didn't know how to rest and be calm, including young people, are suddenly taking long walks … reading books is in fashion again … cynicism, this way of keeping the world at a distance through negativity, is suddenly ceasing to be cool … and at the same time this endless flood of grisly crime series is reaching its tipping point."

Berlin, April 21— Photo: Bernd Von Jutrczenka/DPA/ZUMA

The famous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, for his part, believes that the coronavirus will spell the end of the capitalist market economy and usher in a new communist era. And then there's me, also wanting to jump on the bandwagon of all this apocalyptic prophesying. I hope that the plague leads to a renewal of liberal democracy. I hope that Donald Trump and his Republican allies suffer an embarrassing defeat in the U.S. elections this November.

I hope that once the right-wing party Alternative for Germany has proven that it is not capable of being in government, only of criticizing from the sidelines, it will be consigned to the history books. I hope that Vladimir Putin will discover that the younger generation of Russians doesn't want to be ruled by an authoritarian leader.

Perhaps we will feel nostalgic for the time of COVID-19 ...

I hope that the Communist Party of China will be pressured into reforms that will bring about its own demise, that its power will diminish as it did for the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. I hope that the regime in Iran finally topples. I hope all of this will come about, but I'm by no means confident.

After all, the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 didn't lead to any great changes in society. The United States didn't become less racist, or more racist than it was before. The Bolsheviks in Russia were still the Russian Bolsheviks. The authoritarian and nationalist regimes in Europe were not weakened by the disease. The Weimar Republic overcame its opponents, at least at first.

Once it was over, the pandemic was quickly forgotten. It didn't fit into the overarching historical narrative. It didn't lead to widespread changes. And it didn't prove anything at all. What makes us think that COVID-19 will be any different? Especially if — as we hope — we will soon be able to bring the pandemic under control through mass testing and antiviral medicine.

Maybe in a year's time we will be talking about other things: the re-election of Donald Trump, a new wave of attacks against Muslims by the Hindu majority in India, lies and misinformation spreading through the internet. Maybe we will have forgotten the few weeks spent shut up in our homes.

Or perhaps we will feel nostalgic for the time of COVID-19, just as older generations in Britain are nostalgic for the Blitz Spirit, when all Londoners — from the Queen Mother to the poorest East Ender — stood firm together against the German bombs.

It is perfectly possible that in 10 years, we (the ones who survive) will be telling stories about the time when city streets were beautifully peaceful, when you could hear the birds singing and we all sat at home — apart, but connected through the internet — and were forced to focus on what we had. Our families. Solidarity. Faith. Art. And no one will mention the fear, the loneliness or the misery of not knowing when this senseless disaster would end.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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