Whither the 21st Century youth, the very persons we teach yesterday's priorities to confront their future challenges? Faced with eroding coastlines and climate-change refugee prospects, on the one hand, and a Fourth Industrial Revolution context of artificial intelligence haunting routine service-sector and assembly-line job opportunities, on the other, where must the undergraduate students go, to learn what, and how to assemble a road-map when their own peers may be more lost in today's technological whirl than proficient with strategies?
If those questions are not already haunting their parents and the burgeoning population of victims of those climatic and technological forces already, digging deeper we find even more concerns and confusion: what will happen to pensions and unemployment benefits that typified 20th Century work? Where in the sprawling metropolitans will the climate-change refugees find the relatively far more stable anchors of their past and more steadfast life: property-ownership, extended family to fall back upon, rural social networks of acquaintances to soften hardships, and so forth? None of these await them in slums; indeed, even local, national, and international rules and laws skirt them, raising a disturbing question: are they human enough to partake in the fundamental rights every country's constitution bestows upon all its citizens, be it democratic or authoritarian, capitalist or socialist, or Christian or Muslim?
Between the affliction-points (perhaps a corroded embankment, or an office downsizing because of costs, or factory facing closure), and new destinations (higher grounds to shift to, metropolitans, or differently skilled offices/factories), lives a precarious gray zone where the climate migrant will face other imperatives: How to get from Point A to Point B, if the infrastructure is absent? What new skill to acquire or harness? Where, indeed, to find that training?
If metropolitan campuses struggle to fit these increasingly potent questions/issues/concerns into their own curricula, how would rural residents, particularly those now floating, adjust? All the while, sustainability imperatives and 'gig' economy outlets further compound human rights: loosening property-rights and labour laws (minimum wage being mocked), while reducing claim-windows (for potential insurance beneficiaries, gender discrimination charges, or exploitation of sorts), predict both un-sustainability and insecurity.
Herein lies the tyranny of unrelated circumstances producing one whacko of a paradox. With every technology we think of upwardly creeping development, but we fail to equip ourselves with the requisite training/education, so that ultimately we fall behind, to be displaced by a brand new technologically developed contraption. Climate change then comes calling, in part because we unwittingly invited it through some of our reckless production, consumption, and adjustment behaviour, and even though the timing has just not been right: as we fight to keep up with technological upgrades, we end up lowering our guard elsewhere, with environmental concerns ranking high on that list (given our free-ridership instinct: if I do not do what must be done, someone else will do it). Compounding these is the growing human rights violation problem: our familiar technologies get old-fashioned far more rapidly these days, which, coupled with our understandably less sensitive climate-change concerns, leaves us more flat-footed each passing day with new technologies.
Three arenas will demand urgent attention: accommodating climate migrant needs; 'gig' economy imperatives; and sanctifying legislations in this market-friendly, lean-mean era of downsized government, and new public management.
In reverse order, public management streamlines neo-liberal tenets too heavily, thus casting labour rights into the wind straightaway, and with that, trampling human rights to a lower threshold. It also introduces reforms more suitable for developed countries, where they are, in fact, borrowed from for less-developed country implementation. These lower-level developmental countries need attention from the fast-disappearing public sector. Poverty-reduction strategies, for example, do not get represented in such reforms, but particularly in highly-indebted poor countries, they must be in place if sustainability is to succeed and to protect workers against 'gig' economy frailties.
Downsizing the government also preys upon developed countries, particularly in bad weather, such as a recession. Social security networks were invented by upwardly mobile or developed countries to ward off unfavourable circumstances, like recessionary insecurities. Therefore, not only highly-indebted poor countries but also developed countries confront increasingly vulnerable moments for human rights preservation.
When the 'gig' economy bloats the impacted community, not only does this asymmetrical need for protective rights show, but it actually feeds the plight, worsening an already fragile rights demand-supply nexus. Canada and the Scandinavian countries have amended their social security provisions for such unanticipated threats, but unless the model is more universalised, we stand no chance of fulfilling our democratic and value-based obligations. Doing so is becoming less a choice: funds just happen to be getting scarcer independently.
Climate-change havocs may be the most unwanted guest in this spectrum, but its asymmetrical bent may inflict the most fatal of impacts. Without new legislations protecting new migrant circumstances with full human-rights honour, the remainder of the 21st Century may become one of witnessing the evaporation of human rights, evaporation for reasons we can both control and remain helplessly exposed to. Maybe the next time we promote innovation and gather to discuss climate-change developments, we might just pay human rights a little bit more attention and respect if we are to retain our human identity against technological substitutes.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.