The recent revelation that India intends to oppose the extension of a global ban on cross-border e-commerce duties at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) raises critical questions about the intersection of technology, commerce, and international relations.
Progress has been frequently understood to mean improvements in technology as well as in material goods and services making possible increased and wider access to comforts and luxuries. On the basis of such an understanding human society is considered to have progressed with great continuity for thousands of years and such progress has been the greatest during the last three centuries or so.
In any region there may be temporary setbacks due to disasters and wars, but the forces of progress assert themselves again and again and the path of progress is resumed. However, such an understanding of progress runs against increasing evidence of greater human suffering and distress over vast areas.
In terms of technology and material comforts, the last two or three hundred years are supposed to have seen the peak of human progress. Unfortunately, however, these years have also seen the peak of destruction caused by wars and weapons. This period has seen very destructive colonial and imperialist wars, which in many cases were also followed by famine and other man-disasters as the survival conditions had been badly disrupted by conflict and exploitation.
Then there were two world wars with a short, tension-ridden gap between them. More than 50 million people were killed in the two wars directly, and many more indirectly in the form of longer-term impacts including serious injuries, disability, displacement, hunger and denial of basic needs. In addition to all this, there was something even more horrible in the form of the holocaust.
This was followed by massive destruction in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Palestine, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Congo and many other countries. Millions perished in the man-made disasters and atrocities of the Soviet Union and China. Much earlier, in the Australian and American continents, the arrival of European settlers led to such terrible genocides that the majority of several indigenous communities perished within a few decades.
This mass distress was caused by the forces supporting aggressive and violent pursuit of narrowly perceived self-interests, authoritarianism, exploitation and injustice. Why were such forces allowed to be so strong as to be able to go on causing the death of millions of people and inflicting massive distress on even more people? If there has been constant progress of humanity then why do such forces remain so destructive as to inflict massive ruin in one country after another? Why do poverty, hunger and deprivation continue to exist on a big scale in the world if there has been real progress? Why do even the richest countries continue to experience enormous human distress in several contexts?
These questions have been raised in the context of human progress. However if one looks at the impact of human activities and actions on other forms of life, then even bigger questions arise. In the centuries when humanity was supposed to be ‘progressing’, most wild animals, birds, insects, river and sea life as well as their habitats were destroyed on a massive scale, in some contexts to such an extent that the rate of the species getting extinct or endangered increased manifold, apart from the extreme pain and suffering caused to various forms of life due to the manysided onslaught on them by human beings. What is worse, it is in the period of the supposed period of greatest human progress, as narrowly perceived, that the biggest threats to the basic life-nurturing conditions of our planet have appeared.
These threats, in the form of nearly a dozen serious environmental problems led by climate change as well as the accumulation of huge stocks of weapons of mass destruction, have led to the unprecedented man-made possibility of terrible disruption of life-nurturing conditions, sparing no one and leading to even greater suffering for coming generations. In such conditions, it is difficult to speak of such continuing human progress leading to enhanced welfare. Instead it is much more realistic to speak of a highly distorted understanding of ‘progress’ leading to immense distress to humanity as well as other forms of life, and high likelihood of even more distress in the days and years to come if long-overdue significant reforms continue to be neglected. As an integral part of such an agenda of change, it is important to have a very different understanding of progress which in a true sense can be really consistent with the creation of a better and safer world.
It is important to see progress more and more in terms of commitment to the basic precepts of justice, equality, peace, protection of environment and biodiversity, with special emphasis on ensuring the survival of our endangered planet. Thus instead of considering progress as a taken-for-granted continuity with the passage of time, it must be seen to follow only if a lot of efforts are made for enhancing justice, equality, peace, protection of environment and biodiversity.
These efforts by an increasing number of people alone can lead to the kind of progress we need for creating a better and safer world. It is fallacious to go on speaking of more technological advances and more attractive consumer goods as necessarily being indicators of progress. Instead of continuing to fall victim to such narrow understanding which has done enough harm in the past, the future path of humanity should be led by a much wider and enlightened understanding of progress – based on justice, equality, peace and protection of the environment – to create a better, safer and happier world.
(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.)