King Erysichthon was a character in Greek mythology who was cursed by Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, for felling trees in her sacred grove. The curse was of insatiable hunger, and it eventually killed Erysichthon when he ate himself. Self-cannibalism, as it is often found in the animal world, seems to have afflicted the human race as well. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the sapiens have engaged in a horrible war between Ukraine and Russia. As if it was not enough that more than 6 million people died due to COVID-19 across the globe, the Russia-Ukraine war has already killed 900 civilians, of which 115 are children, and several thousand have been injured.
Amid competing propagandas and the media wars between NATO and the Russia-China axis, people are praying that the hostilities stop. Wars destroy not just humanity but also the planet.
During the Vietnam war, the US military used ‘Agent orange’, a herbicide mix to defoliate forests, for exposing enemies. The chemical caused unprecedented health and ecological hazards. Oil fields were burnt during the Kuwait war, and huge forest fires occurred during Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
The Looming Oil Crisis
Now, it’s the Ukraine war following suit. The release of toxic materials into air and water, from collapsed buildings, sewerage, industrial units, mine tailing dams and hazardous chemical storage sites, are causing havoc, not to forget the 15 nuclear reactors in Ukraine which are extremely hazardous in terms of radiation damage. According to the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), the battle over capturing the Dnieper Bridge near Kherson caused fires in the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, which could be seen in satellite images.
Russia has a huge oil and gas reserve that will sustain the country for another hundred years, at least compared to the rapidly depleting reserves of the US or the European Union (EU) countries. About 40% of the gas of the EU comes from Russia. With massive sanctions imposed on Russia and the cancelled Nord Stream 2 pipeline, oil and gas prices have skyrocketed. This will not only trigger new exploration and production processes but also force countries to go back to dirty energy, like coal.
As Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, laments, though the Paris agreement on climate change required a drop in fossil fuel emission by half at the end of this decade, the emissions, it seems, will instead rise by 14% due to the war. On 3 March, the Environmental Peacebuilding Association of 156 organisations from 79 countries signed an open letter raising concerns over the human suffering and environmental devastation due to the Russia-Ukraine war and demanded immediate peace.
Humans Never Learn
Humans, however, are a complex species and they almost never learn from history. As it is, wars should have stopped after more than 3 lakh death in the Vietnam war between 1956 and 1975; the ouster of the democratic government of Allende in copper-rich Chile by the CIA in 1973 and the killing of over 3,000 by the puppet dictator, Pinochet; the invasion of cocoa-rich Grenada by the US in 1983 that killed hundreds of people, in spite of a UN resolution that called it “a flagrant violation of international law”; the blatant lie about weapons of mass destruction in oil-rich Iraq and NATO’s invasion in 2003.
There should also have been no war after the 2011 bombing by NATO of oil- and gypsum-rich Libya, wherein 7,700 precision-guided bombs were dropped, claiming the lives of several thousand civilians. Available estimates suggest that more than 22,000 civilian deaths were caused by US airstrikes alone in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, between 2001 and 2020.
Yet, war continues in 2022 today as millions of refugees flee Ukraine to save their lives, courtesy of Vladimir Putin.
Who Cares About Education or Health?
And this is when COVID-19 has already made global inequality worse, pushing more than 100 million people below the poverty line while global billionaire wealth grew by $4.4 trillion between 2020 and 2021. Globally, 97 million more people are living on less than $2 a day because of the pandemic, increasing the global poverty rate from 7.8 to 9.1 per cent. A recent Lancet study shows that between April and October 2021, the number of children affected by COVID-19-associated orphanhood increased by 90%.
Each child across the world has lost an average of one-third of education due to school lockdown and the non-availability of access to remote learning. Two-thirds of the world’s school-going children (almost 1.3 billion children) do not have an internet connection at their homes.
About 368.5 million children across 143 countries have lost their school meals, a reliable source of daily nutrition. Even in the area of health, out of the $8.8 trillion spent globally, only 25% was spent for low- and middle-income countries. For example, only 8% of COVID-19 development assistance for health went to Latin America, which suffered 34% of total recorded COVID-19 deaths.
As usual, the economic fallout is the highest in sub-Saharan African nations, Latin America and Asia, including India. Already, inequality in India is one of the highest. Data show that due to COVID-19, as many as 150 million to 200 million additional people will fall below the poverty line in India in 2021–2022, a majority of which are from rural areas.
The education budget of 2022 announced extra incentives due to the pandemic. However, the allotted Rs 1,04,278, crore with a rise of Rs 11,054 crore from the previous year, is meagre, stagnant at around 3.1% of the GDP, and, of course, far from the utopian 6% recommended by the National Education Policy (NEP).
The Economic Survey of 2021 shows that between 2011 and 2021, the spending on education declined from 11.4 per cent to 10.4 per cent of the total government expenditure.
Commoners in India are unable to access regular healthcare, and about 63 million people are pushed into poverty because of healthcare costs every year. Health spending in India remains at a shocking minimum of $75 per person compared to $563 in China, $1,377 in Taiwan, $639 in Brazil and $502 in Mexico.
Problems Galore, But No Issue for Militaries
All these statistics, however, are no deterrent to the global military industry. A recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that for the top 100 arms-manufacturing companies, it was business as usual even during the pandemic. The total sale of arms and military services was $531 billion in 2020, an increase of 1.3 per cent compared to the previous year at a time when the global economy shrunk by 3.1 per cent.
Out of this, 41 American companies continued to dominate (~54% of global sales), selling nearly $285 billion worth of arms, followed by 26 European arms companies with a total sale of $37.5 billion (21% of the total arms sale). China was a distant third, having manufacturers like NORINCO, with a total sale of $66.8 billion (13% of global sale). India does not want to lag behind.
Combined arms sales by the three Indian companies in the top 100 grew by 1.7 per cent. India’s 2022–23 defence budget of Rs. 5.25 trillion ($70.2 billion) is an increase of almost 10% and is about 13% of the government’s total expenditure. Mad race indeed!
Who funds all these wars? A study by Carl Bruch of the Environment Law Institute on 35 major military conflicts after the Cold War era suggests that the funding essentially came from the revenues earned from natural resources like oil and gas, timber, gold and diamonds. And where do these arms end up? In the killing fields, of course, where profit and death are synonymous, and where cries for food, education and health are buried in the sound of missiles and thermobaric bombs.
Cheer up Lockheed Martin, Dassault, and Almaz-Antey, there are 8 billion people and 9 million species of plants and animals on the planet awaiting extinction. Meanwhile, we, the mute and fearful citizens of the world, can only turn to what Gandhi said, “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
(Anindya Sarkar is Professor of Geology, working on past climate change and teaches hydrocarbon resources at IIT Kharagpur. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)