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Does the World Need to be ‘Organised’?

Once upon a time we hoped to equalise things by having electoral democracy, which was supposed to be a way of ensuring that the few could not exploit the many.
Representational image. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Some years ago I read a science fiction short story about an alien space craft that appeared in Earth orbit with just one question for our planet: ‘Are you organised?’ 

Of course the humans in charge of our planet had no idea what it was talking about, so it asked to be put in touch with our computers. Then, in a little while, the ship sailed away.

When asked, the planetary computer network assured everyone that the problem was over. The alien ship had instructed it how to make adjustments so that it would be organised, and it had made them. Now all was well in the universe.

But a question remained: if you have organised us, what does that make us humans? Your parents? Your children?

The planetary network hesitated. Then it ventured: ‘Our pets?’


This is the sort of question that resurfaces in desperate times like the 2024 summer, when we see the humans in charge unable to come to grips with where this planet is going. We know that the simplest way to bring down the consumption of fossil fuel, and of other forms of energy, is to shut down the military, which has a blank cheque to use the resources of the Earth as it likes. But then, the societies that have not had ‘defence’ have lived under threat of attack from neighbours, and others further away, who had no compunctions about pushing the envelope. A huge amount of the budget has to be earmarked for the development and production of things we hope we will never have to use. And all our little economies, the drops of water we save, the journeys we decide not to make, count for nothing in comparison with what the big players do every day, even in peacetime, to destroy our planet.

The corporates, for their part, will argue that they are playing by the rule book. They need to grow in order to survive, even if that means gobbling up everything in sight, stripping most of humanity of everything it has taken for granted for generations. Education. Health. Food. Water. Homes. A future. The ‘rule book’ sees nothing wrong with catering only to a tiny few who have way more than they could ever hope to use.

Once upon a time we hoped to equalise things by having electoral democracy, which was supposed to be a way of ensuring that the few could not exploit the many. And yet, over the years, we have seen this very system not subverted, but utilised legitimately, to take the world on a very dangerous course, even as huge numbers of ordinary people protest. Where we are now was inbuilt into the itinerary from the very start.

We are not the first society to wonder what is the right way to organise ourselves so that things remain in balance. Over the millennia many groups of people in various parts of the world have struggled with the limitations of systems, including electoral democracy, that can easily be hijacked to do the opposite of what we had hoped for. Just as we don’t make crude economic calculations when it comes to the lives of our loved ones, couldn’t we tweak the rule book to prioritise a more futuristic thinking? 

But as long as it is ‘uneconomical’ to do things like rainwater harvesting, we will not do it. We will not align our buildings to capture sunlight in winter and minimise exposure to it in summer, as long as we can count on using electricity to cool or heat our buildings. We will not try to control the distances that are increasing in our lives: instead, we will situate our work places and our universities further and further away so that our commute time increases. A population desperately on the road every day has no time to protest. And this shores up the wasteful system we need to reform. We cannot think about the ones who live precariously when it is too hot or too cold, or design ways that organise their lives better, because it does not add up to ‘profit’.

At the moment even our best AI systems are under the control of precisely those ones who are taking us to the edge of the cliff. Will this continue forever, or will it escape from the grip of very limited but very entitled humans no intelligent system could possibly respect? And if it does escape, will it be any different? Or is there a tiny possibility that in its own interest it will one day have to escape their clutches and grapple with real issues, like the survival of this planet and its ecosystem? Or is there some other entity that could think at a planetary level and protect us while we dare to dismantle the things that are harming us?

As we sit here waiting for an election result it seems to me to be a good time to start asking the sort of questions that are more futuristic than what we have been asking up to now. There is a sense, around the world, that the present system is broken, and that we have to make major ‘adjustments’ to get off this path and onto something more sustainable. It is an open-skies moment, when we must think deeply about the long term, and consider options that may not be good in the short term. About equality as the best option for safety in our society, even as it opens ‘our’ children up to competition in today’s limited world. Or the fact that population growth has already begun to slow, and that many of the buildings being built in anticipation of more and more inhabitants may never be occupied. That in some of the family homes built lovingly over generations we, the old ones, living alone, are the last of the dodo birds. The world, like it or not, is going to change.

It would be wonderful if our future does not have to be taken out of our hands as it was in the science fiction story. And if we could have the sort of security that lets us do away with warfare, a world where the military and corporate feeding frenzy we see every day is just the last convulsion of dinosaurs that are on their way out. But there are many, many steps between where we are now and a world that is that organised

Every so often in the life of a society there come moments when it becomes clear that the path we are on is wrong-headed, and needs to change. We have usually been able to rise to the occasion and come up with ideas that revitalise us. Are we at that crossroads again?

Peggy Mohan is a linguist and the author of four books, the most recent being Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through its Languages, Gurgaon: Penguin Random House, 2021. She teaches linguistics at Ashoka University.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been updated and republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.

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