Empowering the world’s poor and our youth
Over the past two weeks, the world has been following events at the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. We did not expect much in substance from this gathering of global leaders and our expectations have been largely confirmed. As we anticipated, there was a lot of talk and empty announcements, but little was achieved, and certainly nothing likely to slow the devastating trend of climate change.
Two crucial subjects have hardly even come up: The essential and largely achievable goal of reducing waste, and dealing with the immense implications of current and future pandemics. The only constructive elements we saw or that were reported in any newspapers came from outside the conference hall, from the youth demonstrating in the streets, expressing the urgency everyone except the politicians attending seems to feel.
We are reminded that politics today is more about appearances and strategies to hold on to power than about responsibly leading the world toward a future beyond upcoming election dates. As older politicians pontificate and procrastinate inside the conference halls, the youth — who have most to lose from a failure to implement bold measures to limit climate change — are seizing responsibility not only for their own future but also for the future of the overwhelming numbers of poor people in the world.
We all know that the poor are disproportionately affected by a host of issues world leaders are failing to deal with, from dwindling clean water supplies to malnutrition, from pollution to disease, and the already-direct consequences of climate change on the livelihoods and living spaces of the poor.
The poor are also those overwhelmingly succumbing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Already threatened by malnutrition, pollution and a host of diseases that have been largely banished from the developed world, the vast number of impoverished people dying from the virus are not even identified or counted.
We are reminded that politics today is more about appearance and strategies to hold on to power than about leading the world responsibly toward a future beyond upcoming election dates.
Hassan bin Youssef Yassin
Lack of Western empathy and the failure to deliver vaccines to the poor only increases the risk of further variants and future pandemics that will threaten us all. This is on us and I hope that, at the very least, it gives the poor a new voice and a new place in the conscience of the West and the world.
As we have said before, the poor today have access to the same information and communication tools as we all do. They see how obscenely rich other existences can be and are no longer subdued by the old promise of a better lot in the next life. Religion has sustained the poor for centuries, but has also tragically failed to move enough hearts on its injunctions to help the poor. Again, that is on us.
Let us also not forget that the poor are not exclusively located in Africa, Asia and South America, but are also an increasing component of Western society. Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope” reminds us not only that one out of seven Americans lives below the poverty line, but also that half of all Americans will at some time in their lives fall below that poverty line.
This is basically what Financial Times commentator Martin Wolf calls the “crisis of democratic capitalism.” Kristof and WuDunn cite Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Ray Dalio, the billionaire founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater, who both acknowledge that modern capitalism is broken and has proven incapable of “sharing the pie” adequately within a society where the three richest men possess more than the entire bottom half of society.
As Gandhi said: “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” That violence is even greater today when the poor can plainly see how the other half lives and are no longer subdued by promises about the afterlife. The poor have never been at the forefront of the agenda of life, only of suffering and death.
In recent articles, we have demonstrated how only the spontaneous participation of individuals in a collective project will allow us to overcome the immense challenges our world faces today. And those individuals will overwhelmingly come from the world’s poor and the world’s youth, not only because they are most affected by the tragic path we are currently on, but because they also have the strongest consciences.
Thankfully, there are also some in the more affluent West who have recognized this and are organizing to get individuals around the world and from all backgrounds to come together to address the age-old plague of poverty, the looming environmental disaster, and the need to re-establish a fairer and more realistic economic model. We can all begin with small steps, such as cutting waste and changing our models of consumption, but it will take all those forces coming together to initiate broader, urgent change in the world.
Every day, we add to the urgency of that call, as we are constantly confronted with greater dangers. As estimates of temperature rises keep climbing, we are also facing entirely new dangers, to cite but one example, from the permafrost. Arctic ice has not only trapped methane and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but is also filled with radioactive waste from hundreds of nuclear tests and decommissioned nuclear submarines, as well as toxic waste from the mining of arsenic, mercury and nickel.
As if the release of all these perilous gases and materials were not enough, academics also warn of so-called Methuselah microorganisms that will be freed from the Arctic ice — essentially millions of microbes resistant to current antibiotics that could set off entirely new waves of disease.
This is only one of the additional dangers we face as we careen toward the cliff of climate disaster. Artificial intelligence will not save us from such dangers, artificial as it remains in comparison with the endless and overwhelming force of the planet that barely still tolerates our existence.
If I were to point to one aspect of COP26 that cast doubt on its entire process, it would be the absence of the young and the poor as its most important interlocutors, especially since they are the most concerned and affected by the decisions made or, more accurately, not made there. Greta Thunberg and the youth movement were not invited, yet they still stole the show. Just imagine a single representative of the world’s poor being invited to express truths at the conference, dressed not in suit and tie but in a cloth garment. This one individual would have been the heart of the conference, receiving a standing ovation from the world at large.
It is time to break old habits and turn our processes upside down, as befits the complexity and urgency of the planetary challenges we face. Instead of enriching fat-cat gamblers behind desks, we must turn toward a new economic model that aims for equity, coexistence and lasting solutions. The empowered poor and the world’s youth are the ones who must lead the way.
* Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked closely with Saudi petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He headed the Saudi Information Ofﬁce in Washington from 1972 to 1981, and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.