By Sundeep Waslekar
A few years ago, SARS appeared out of nowhere. It was feared to grow into an epidemic. Soon bird flu competed with it. AIDS was already there. Futurists around the world were worried about pandemics annihilating large parts of population all over the world.
In 2012, there is not much talk of pandemics, though nobody can predict the future. Low cost vaccines are being developed to tackle SARS and AIDS through international collaborations. Laboratories in 13 countries were involved in developing rapid solution to SARS. The model of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation based in North America is to develop low cost vaccines in partnership with companies in emerging economies in Asia for use in poor countries in Africa. If any breakthrough in new health challenges is achieved, it is only possible through collaboration across continents. This thought underpins global initiatives in meeting old health challenges as well including malaria, tuberculosis and polio.
In the late 1980s Rotary International launched End Polio Campaign. Other non-governmental organisations and government bodies also pursed the same objective. The fact is that polio is no longer the menace that it used to be during my childhood, though it may not have been completely eradicated. This has been made possible because of cooperation between a wide range of governmental and nongovernmental organisations.
Some of the latest attempts to investigate deeply the laws of physics are only possible because of international cooperation. The realisation that neutrino can travel faster than light, search for Hig’s boson, and operation of large hadron colliders all involve scientific collaboration between most developed and developing countries in the world. International Thermo Nuclear Experimental Reactor to produce fusion energy brings together scientists from India, China, Europe, Japan and the United States. International Space Station accommodates astronauts from the United States and Russia. If a new source of infinite energy is developed, it will happen through one of these collaborative experiments. The main impetus for governments and corporations to provide billions of dollars to a wide range of endeavours ranging from Large Hadron Collider to the synthetic genome project at Craig Venter Institute is search for energy.
The spirit of cooperation is most pronounced in times of natural disasters. When cyclones, tsunamis and earthquakes hit Japan, Sri Lanka, the United States, Turkey and Pakistan in recent years, people from all over the world came forward to help the victims.
The irony about the principle of cooperation is that it seems most active in times of crisis or in search of solutions to impending crisis such as energy. Somehow it disappears in the context of prosperity when greed and competition dominates human nature.
At the beginning of the last century growing prosperity and expanding naval power of Germany and France pushed the world into a world war. At present China and the United States, the two largest economies in the world, are preparing to extend potential warfare to space. Turkey, Iran and Israel, the strongest economies in the Middle East are engaged in intense competition. Russia and Canada, both rich in natural resources, compete over the Arctic even before it starts melting.
It does not mean that the world has to live in perennial crisis for cooperation to materialise. Impoverished Sudan, Somalia and Congo have been involved in the bloodiest conflicts in the world. On the other hand, prosperity in Europe has made Third World War impossible in the European theatre. Strategic Foresight Group has published 3 reports on cost of conflict in South Asia and the Middle East, which demonstrate that conflict and deprivation have mutually reinforcing relationship.
It is necessary to examine critically relationship between conflict and cooperation on one hand poverty and prosperity on the other. Underlying such a question is the issue of precise role of power in our times. And underlying the question of power, state power and super power are the issues of state of nature and nature of Homo sapiens.
What we need is a vibrant philosophical discourse backed by evidence. The tragedy of the twenty first century is that we have relinquished philosophy from application to life, except in personal realm where a crop of gurus have come up.
Advancement of human civilisation depends on philosophical clarity. Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Chanakya, Hobbes, Locke, Kant provided thought that has guided both science and politics. Unfortunately, the list of philosophers ends in the 19th century. In 20th century, we had philosophical deficit, which gave way for ideological competition, arms race and risk of massive annihilation.
The 21st century has begun with ideological confusion and therefore there is a risk of competition subsuming collaboration as the main guiding force for human affairs. The competition has already resulted in hundreds of thousands of death in the Middle East and elsewhere and massive unemployment in the United States and parts of Europe. Yet the spirit of cooperation surfaces in times of tsunami, fear of pandemics and talk of energy crisis. Scientific and political solutions are a must for solving these problems. But without philosophical underpinning we will not find them.