Will the future be better?

Ilya Prigogine, Nobel Laureate in chemistry, said that ‘you cannot predict the future, but you can prepare for it.’

Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel Laureate in chemistry, said that ‘you cannot predict the future, but you can prepare for it.’ Although we have managed more or less successfully the recent cyclone, Beguitta, as experience has taught us to do, when it comes to the larger picture of where we are going, at times there seems to be more room for pessimism than hope. And we had better realize that we are all in the same boat, even those on the brighter end of the inequality gap. After all, with the repeated pattern of flooding that we have been undergoing, we may soon have to ask ourselves which would be the most adapted means of transport: boat, car or metro express!

Luckily we are not in the situation of the Maldives islands where there is a real risk of submersion as the sea level rises, but who knows? Look at what has happened in advanced Paris, with the Seine unexpectedly going to nearly six metres above normal level; to the flooded east and west of the city, parents were shown ferrying their kids to school in boats!

The reason Ilya Prigogine came to my mind was that many years ago, I listened to him delivering the keynote address in a three-day seminar on ‘Culture and development’ at the India International Centre in New Delhi. What, I remember wondering, had a pure scientist got to do with this subject, and what could he possibly say? But he delivered a most informative and insightful lecture, in which he compared mankind’s development to that of the ‘dissipative structures’ that he had worked on and that won him his Nobel Prize.

The basic idea is that as the universe evolved from cosmic gases to become distinct structures in its early stages, there came an unstable equilibrium point when the developing structures had to go down one path or another, and the physicochemical conditions prevailing then determined the course of events, giving rise to different structures which coexisted and continued to change over time.

Similarly, he had advanced, human communities too had evolved over time conditioned by historical and environmental circumstances, and that is how we find societies at different and unequal levels of development. Not only must we accept them as they are, but we must also be careful when trying to help those which we think are lagging behind not to force the pace of change which might cause disturbance and problems of adaptation to change. This was not only a call for tolerance — which has become more acute after 9/11 and regularly features in the key speeches of all major world leaders – but it was also about making allowance for local values, customs and context in the push for development that usually came from the developed world.

As it happens, it is commonly accepted by experts in the field that the current state of gross inequality in practically all countries has resulted from the neo-liberal model of capitalistic development that has been pursued over the years. Hence Thomas Piketty’s thesis and the flood of literature analyzing the phenomenon and trying to work out solutions. Leaving this for the experts as it goes above my head, I have to come to the more concrete issues that we face, and for all I know they may well be linked to that pernicious model, but let the experts work that one out.

Questions come to mind about local matters that raise queries about preparing the future of our people and our country. Among others, two topics draw my attention. One is the minimum wage, which we are assured has come about after comprehensive deliberations among all the stakeholders. But one cannot deny that there are apprehensions, and job loss is feared in small enterprises which may not be able to meet the cost, and therefore lay off staff or refrain from recruiting any, even trainees for that matter.

The idea of a universal basic income has been in vogue for some time in Europe, especially in Switzerland I think, but I doubt if consensus has been reached about an acceptable formula. Be that as it may, we are taking the plunge and will have to face the consequences – will there be more cons than pros? –, which as always will impact the common folk and leave untouched those who are deciding on their behalf.

Another issue is the 9-year schooling that has been introduced, amid controversy and without adequate preparation in terms of pedagogical training, of numbers of staff required, of textbooks which in our public school system are a perennial source of headache for both parents and pupils because they change every year and become ever more expensive, making a mockery of ‘free’ education – and a host of other queries which have been ventilated by several interested parties.

Granted that a government has to take decisions and implement them, but as we are dealing crucially with our future generations we cannot but wonder what is in store for them as a result of what is seemingly an uncertain experiment on tender heads, trying to fix what ain’t broke. A current of opinion is that our educational system is being made to undergo a nivellement par le bas, and this is to the benefit of whom, pray?

So where do we go from here, for there are so many other uncertainties looming. Be optimistic nevertheless? Like Bill Gates and his chosen team of contributors to the TIME issue of January 15, of which he has been guest editor and which headlines in bold on the front cover ‘THE OPTIMISTS’? In his editorial, he avers that despite all the awful news about devastating hurricanes, mass shootings, bloody civil wars, brinkmanship over nuclear arms between the US and North Korea and so on, which makes one ‘feel like the world is falling apart’, ‘on the whole the world is getting better.’

His optimism is based on data and improving metrics. For example, below-5 infant deaths worldwide (cut by half since 1990, saving 122 million children), reduction to a tenth from one third (1990) of those living in extreme poverty, over 90% children attending primary school, women being able to speak about sexual harassment, a majority of countries having democratic systems, etc.

His explanation for ‘why does it feel like the world is in decline’? It’s ‘partly the nature of news coverage,’ he writes. ‘Bad news arrives as drama, while good news is incremental – and not usually deemed newsworthy… It’s human nature to zero in on threats: evolution wired us to worry about the animals that want to eat us.’

Well then, let us wait for some good news about our future! Like the metro express really taking care of road congestion and getting people to their destination in good time, and about the Verdun bypass very soon to be ready for use. That will indeed be good news!


* Published in print edition on 2 February 2018

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