The World Is Not Burning

Be advised—parts of this post will not be easy reading. The overall conclusion, however, aims to be generally positive.

On December 4th of 2018, Katy Waldman wrote an article for the New Yorker Magazine titled: ‘The Best Books of 2018.’ She began by lamenting the truth that she had not read all the books she wanted to during the year, then added, ‘Meanwhile, in 2018, our politics further devolved into a baying theatre of horror. How do you read when the world is burning?’ (Although this is an American publication and she apparently writes ‘about language,’ she spells the word theater as ‘theatre.’ As in, British English. Interesting.)

On November 30th a man named Christopher Borrelli had an article published in the Los Angeles Times titled: ‘Our 10 Best Books of 2018.’ In his introductory paragraph, Borelli—a regular contributor for the Chicago Tribune—wrote: ‘Reading while the world is burning down around you tends to give whatever’s in your hands the contours of apocalypse.’

Both book reviewers mentioned the same three exact words in sequence: the ‘world is burning.’ One even mentions apocalypse.


I recall a few burning events myself on the world stage.

In 2010 I began what turned out to be a four-and-a-half-year term of living and working in Pakistan. I was employed as an engineering manager and then as an infrastructure director for two different companies, one based in the U.S. and the other in the U.K. At the time I wrote little about this experience, primarily from company security concerns. I enjoyed working with Pakistani people and respected the local engineers as some of the best I had worked with in the world.

There was also a dark side to that experience partially associated with books. And with burning. And I do not mean burning books.

On a crisp Monday morning with a blue sky on January 3rd, 2011, I invited three Pakistani engineers from our Islamabad city office out for coffee. We walked for five minutes to the nearby upscale Kohsar Market, then ascended to a second-floor café named Mocca Coffee. There, we ordered a few lattes and talked about non-work-related subjects such as family and where they lived, and then we returned to the office. Such forays without a vehicle or an armed guard escort were often restricted. Nevertheless, the city had been tranquil for months and that region was considered generally safe.

The following day, January 4th, the Governor of Punjab Province—named Salman Taseer—stopped into Kohsar market for lunch with a friend. When he was leaving, his personal bodyguard—a man named Mumtaz Qadri—used an AK-47 to fire 27 bullets into Taseer’s body, killing him instantly.

Over a week later, when Mocca Coffee re-opened, we visited to find some windows still shuttered. One that was not included a single bullet hole.

The bodyguard murdered his charge because he resented Taseer for trying to amend or dispense what is known as the ‘blasphemy law.’ This was created in the 1980’s by military dictator Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, and has since often been used as a tool to incarcerate or kill others, even when no legal justification exists. The law is routinely used as an excuse, without evidence, to encourage mob violence against, or imprisonment of, those accused of criticizing the religious faith of others. Since it was created, it has been used as rationale for killing well over five dozen people in Pakistan by ‘mob justice.’ This has included hanging the accused or burning them alive. These actions are usually carried out in rural areas by people with little or no education; many revolve around spurious accusations which, if ever investigated, lack substance. The law is so firmly ingrained in the mindset of many citizens that after assassin Qadri was executed in 2016, over 100,000 people attended his funeral to show support for his actions. Riots and burnings broke out throughout the country.

At the time that he was murdered, Taseer was involved with the legal defense of a woman named Asia Bibi. You may have heard this woman’s name in recent news. This illiterate Catholic woman had lived in rural Punjab province. One day in 2009, while picking berries, she apparently filled a jug with water and offered it to her workmates. They refused, saying it was contaminated by having been touch by someone not of their faith. Two women then accused Bibi of, after they argued, insulting their faith and the holy book. (Such verbal accusations associated with the blasphemy law are routinely unfounded and lack substance, but can serve to have an enemy, if they are of another faith, locked up and tried.) Once the accusation was made, a mob gathered. They beat Asia. A cleric denounced her. She was locked up. In 2010 a district court sentenced Asia to death by hanging.

In 2018, Asia was released from prison. After she spent eight years unjustly incarcerated, a supreme court finally overturned the verdict. Taseer, unfortunately, was not around to witness her freedom. After the new verdict was issued, the lawyer who successfully represented Asia was forced to hide for three days until he was able to escape the country by flying to the Netherlands. Asia and her family remain in hiding—lest they be killed by mob justice—while they seek to obtain permanent refuge in another country.

During years of living in that country I heard of many similar cases. The most disturbing and memorable occurred in 2014.

A couple in their 20’s named Shahzad Masih and Shama Masih worked as laborers at a kiln in the Kasur District of Punjab province. They had three children. Shama was also pregnant with a fourth. Apparently their boss was unhappy with them having been slow to repay a debt. One day he apparently claimed to have ‘found’ pages of a burnt holy book in the trash, and accused the Christian couple of having incinerated the book. They were locked up in a room next to the kiln. Over 600 locals, incited by local clerics who denounced the couple via loudspeakers, showed up outside. They pulled the roof off of the building, shoved off five local police who had arrived, and extracted the couple. Without any evidence but hearsay, they beat the couple, breaking their legs (according to later trial testimony), before dragging them to a furnace. A group of a half dozen was delegated to open the furnace hatch and push the couple inside, where they were incinerated alive.

This did not happen in the year 1560. This happened less than five years ago.

I write this not to criticize the country of Pakistan, where I spent time with well educated, generous and intelligently ambitious people, but to put such events into current context. I used this country for examples because I recently lived there, and learned of these events. Consider that, first, these events occurred amid an uneducated segment of a population still practicing indentured servitude. They also occurred because the judicial system remains woefully slow (mostly because lawyers, like Taseer, fear for their lives) to banish an abused law that has proven to be worthless. Second, and more importantly to this article, I highlight these cases because they are examples of what are becoming increasingly noteworthy aberrations; they are no longer considered standard acts on planet earth.

We increasingly live in a world where massacres of others for having different religious views is generally no longer considered acceptable, or encouraged by political and religious leaders, as it might have been in Europe in the 16th century. For example, in late August of 1572, between 5,000 and 30,000 Calvinist Protestants were massacred by Catholics across France as part of the ‘Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre.’ The event was actually incited by the king. And, fortunately, reminders of the evils of the holocaust have prevented similar events from taking place since the Second World War. Such events as those I mentioned are today highlighted throughout the world not because they are commonplace, but because they are becoming increasingly publicized and shamed, which may lead to their relative scarcity over time. Still, such acts (regardless the country) are barbaric, unjust and antiquated. Again, I have not singled out this country, but highlighted events because I recently lived there.

Is it true however, even metaphorically, in light of such events I just mentioned that the ‘world is burning’? Is the overall situation on earth becoming worse?

Consider input from two authors who have spent ample time and energy researching and writing about this subject.

Oxford doctorate and author Yuval Noah Harari, in his bestselling book Homo Deus (sequel to Sapiens) tells, right at the beginning of the book, how humans for millennia lived in fear of obliteration from three sources: famine, plague and war. He goes on to tell how, by the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty first, humans mostly tamed those three potential threats. Regarding famine: in 2010 famine and malnutrition killed about one million people, whereas obesity killed three million; by the year 2014 more than 2.1 billion humans were overweight compared to the 850,000 suffering from malnutrition.

Regarding plague, or epidemics, millions continue to die each year. Globally, however, now less than five percent of children die before reaching adulthood. Smallpox has been eradicated and even the potentially deadly Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014 was relatively quickly contained. Epidemics cause far fewer deaths now than they did during past millennia. Today most humans die from non-infectious diseases and old age.

As for war, consider: in 2012 war killed about 120,000 people in the world, compared to the 1.5 million who died that year from diabetes. The combined number of American soldiers who have died in both Afghanistan and Iraq in the past two decades is less than 10 percent of the number of American soldiers who died in two years during the First World War.

Harari’s gist is that life on planet earth is actually improving for human beings as a whole.

Harvard professor Steven Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now and in his TED talk (below) reaches similar conclusions. He tells how, compared to 30 years ago, the U.S. homicide rate has dropped from 8.5 to 5.3 events per 100,000 persons; the poverty rate has declined from 12 percent to 7 percent, and particulate pollutions have declined from 20 million to 4 million tons of sulfur dioxide annually. During this same time, global extreme poverty declined from 37 percent to 10 percent and the number of nuclear arms decreased from some 60,000 to 10,000. Pinker mentioned that he is wary that citing these numbers will ‘court derision,’ because—he only partially jests— he has found that ‘intellectuals hate progress.’

And a recent, January 8th article from the Wall Street Journal tells how cancer deaths decreased 27 percent in the last 25 years, according to a report from the American Cancer Association.

Certainly, in segments of the world lawless burnings still take place. Both of humans and of materials. Horrific crimes still take place daily, but are more likely now to be publicized (and filmed) and to become the focus of international scrutiny more than at any other time in history.

As for our book reviewers who tell us that the ‘world is burning,’ I am curious as to their justification. And why now? I suggest two courses of action that might make them think again before insinuating that we are somehow living in an age where any form of darkness is spreading. First, rather than complain or alarm others based on emotional reaction, they could—besides making sweeping generalizations about a planet denuded in apocalyptical flames—identify some specific problem they see, and take specific actions to address it. Second, they could travel off the beaten trail. And I don’t mean to some AirBNB in Barcelona or backpacking around New Zealand or a flying to some yoga retreat in Argentina. I mean, out there.

Although uncertain, I suspect that neither of these who say the ‘world is burning’ has really ever gone far afield to see how so. I suspect that neither ever used an outhouse with a single hole in its floor and a candle as a light; never spent time living in a mud hut without electricity; never sat stranded alongside a broken vehicle on a dirt road in the back end of Angola, a four hour driving distance from the nearest clinic or telephone while shivering with malaria, and never walked through a field of land mines. I’ve done all these things. I’ve seen a bit of the world, and poverty, and injustice and the effects of war. And I never sat in some comfortably heated apartment whining about hesitating to open a book, any book, and read it because, somehow, the world around me was ‘burning.’ Even if that was the case, it would be a good time to begin opening more books and learning more about the history of the world around to try to understand events in context.

During decades of living and working overseas in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, I have seen that such types of acts as those described above are becoming increasingly rarer for humans to have to endure. Because in general, health, sanitation and access to food and potable water are improving. And news and communications can, unlike less than two centuries ago, travel faster than the speed of a horse. Yes, we have challenges: the endangerment of wildlife species and polluted oceans and increased opiate addiction, to name a few.

But to say that now, if considered in comparison to any other period of human history, that the ‘world is burning’?

Not quite.


Comments from Readers

  • As one who has lived in the 3rd world for years, I concur with the author and thank him for reminding us of hope.
    I fear, however, that this progress will be vitiated by the effects of climate change and the demographic disruptions it will cause.

  • Tom

    Thanks for your input (and readership) David. Yes, much about the future remains uncertain …

  • Tom

    Brant, from Napa Valley in California, USA, wrote:

    ‘Excellent article in Roundwood Press re: doomsday elitists.’

  • Tom

    Professor James Murphy – who I was in peace corps in Malawi with years ago, wrote:

    “Great post. I completely agree with the notion that the world is improving/has improved overall but it was doing the same in the 1920s, by-and-large…and then… The world is not burning but the planet is facing some potentially catastrophic tipping points with respect to climate change, populism, fascism, etc. and progress is very uneven as we see by, for example, expanding inequality everywhere. These are not halcyon days IMO and hate is omnipresent.”

  • Tom

    Thanks for the input. Again, balance is key. I generally agree with this, but not with the statement that ‘hate is omnipresent.’ I generally find that when I expect the best from others, that is most often what is received.

    The following aphorism, told to me in college by a woman friend who won an Emmy last year for a documentary about overcoming PTSD, is instructive: ‘Two men looked out through prison bars; one saw mud, the other saw stars.’

    Although I too often look downward, the effort to look forward – to solutions, and to a better, brighter future, usually provides incentive to improve surrounding situations. However, doing so requires discipline, keeping an open and positive mind, and very often steering clear of mainstream opinions. Easier said than done!

  • Tom – Great post. Thank you for the reasoned perspective.

  • Tom

    Glad you enjoyed!

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