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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Environment

Humanity or Bust: Why the Carbon Footprint Threatens More Than Just the Future
Benjamin Frew


Before I get to the nub of this article, I would like to declare that it is a statement of personal opinion and not a carefully deducted and objectively reached conclusion. I have absolutely no background in international development, environmental science, global economic trends or geopolitical discourse. I would wish to make no attempt to defend the possible categorisation of this article as an ill-informed, smug little idle rant from an ignorant hypocrite with a tenuous grasp of the facts; that’s exactly what it is.

I’m just venting, idly pontificating, thinking out loud. I am, if you will, simply letting off hot air.

Ahh… Hot Air. Breath it in; the sin of civilization. It is hot air, so I am told, that has let loose the plug from the hourglass that counts down towards our destruction; that threatens our shoreline, our wildlife, our natural world, and even our very existence. The carbon that has spewed from the chimneys of industrialization has warmed the air to such a degree that the polar icecaps are melting and the Gulf Stream is freezing - carbon that you and I expel from our daily lives is killing our children. And not only our children (gasp!) - our children’s children. Every second that your mobile phone charger is left in your plug socket whilst you read this a puffin is dropping dead from the cliffs of northern Scotland, a crop is failing in Madras and a family barge holiday in the Norfolk Broads is literally ruined by an untimely rainstorm. And who knows, maybe at the same time the lives of one of the 26,500 children that die every day is slowly expiring from a curable disease that nobody cared to cure. Or maybe it was AIDS, or Malaria or Ebola, or perhaps just plain old hunger, because sometimes just not eating can kill you too, y’know?...

And there goes the fore mentioned nub of this article; the conflict of worthy causes that jostle for parity in the policies of parliament and the headlines of the media. Theirs is a battleground strewn with the spent ammunition of rhetoric and morality; ethical claim and counter-claim, whose hands are outstretched in need and whose footprints are made from carbon. And theirs is a war that nobody likes to admit is being fought. It is difficult to reveal in the arena of moral imperative that there exists a certain heightened competition amongst the worlds worthy causes, but there certainly is, and the battle to hold a front page or a news headline is soldiered by press secretaries and public representatives the world over. And here’s the problem; the wrong side is winning. Because for me, the wrong side - the less deserving side - is the side of the Environmentalist, and it is increasingly the cause of the Environmentalist that takes precedence over the cause of the Humanitarian in the newsreels and the governmental policies of Britain today.

Of course, worthiness is about as contentious a debate as there can be, and can never be an argument that is ever truly ‘won’. Even if it was agreed that human suffering should be the focus of our concern, the flag of worthiness would still be fought for. Who should be most worthy of our attention, it might be argued; the people of Zimbabwe, Sudan, or Burma? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know this much; they are all more worthy than the Polar Bear. I am aware that that statement may cause offense, but it is something I believe is worth saying. Whenever I see the headlines on the front of ‘The Independent’, or other green-centric newspaper, bemoaning the decline in natural wildlife on the icy tundras of wherever, I wonder how many pages I might have to turn to find a report on the ten year old boy who was shot yesterday in Liberia or the village full of women who were raped and murdered in Darfur.

Of course, I’m dishing out a fair bit of ploddy emotional rhetoric myself here, enough to persuade you that maybe my sanctimonious hypocrisy and holier-than-thou complex might just be for effect after all, but I don’t really care if I sound like a twat because these things really happen and every day that they are hidden from the public arena by the media scramble to pander to the global warming campaigners is another day that they are being allowed to happen.

There could be many reasons for the shift in exposure from humanitarian to environmental, but I’m not a social anthropologist and can’t really be bothered talking to any, but I will indulge in a spot of ill-advised speculation and suggest there’s a healthy dose of self interest going on here. We are unlikely in this country to suffer from an epidemic of rickets or malaria, and the threat of hygiene-based diseases is all but dissolved (well, unless you catch them in a NHS hospital ward, natch). But we’ve all got a story about the floods last year (my best Adidas Hi-Top shoes were ruined in Warwickshire), and we were all caught unprepared by the unpredictable summer (at Glastonbury, right?), so it stands to reason that the pest of global warming and its direct effect on our lives is top of our political agenda, yeah? I don’t think so, but the three main parties certainly do; the last conference season saw all kinds of pleas and promises on behalf of the environmental lobby. Our new Prime Minister proudly announced to the labour delegates in Blackpool how he would be the first world leader in history to write into law binding limits on carbon emissions. The Lib Dems declared an intention to make Britain fully carbon neutral by 2050, and not to be overshadowed, the Tories invited Humvee fan Arnold Schwarzenegger to address an audience on the imperative of combating global warming – possibly with big guns and catchy punchlines. But of poverty, oppression and disease abroad, there was barely a comment breathed in vain. Where was the promise of medicinal aid, food packages and debt relief that we used to demand?

The few speeches that were given on the humanitarian crises all over Africa were poorly promoted, poorly attended and poorly reported. Last season at least, the political class pinned its flag firmly to the mast of Global Warming.
I should interject at the moment before getting too carried away – I am not some kind of fridge-burning earth-hater with CFC steaming out of my ears and propane bellowing out of my arse. I understand, I think, the argument that is presented in regards to carbon emissions contributing to the rise in the Earth’s temperature, and I believe that anything that we can do in our daily lives that reduces it and does not adversely affect others should certainly be acted on, in the spirit of pragmatism if nothing else. However, my quarrel here is not that the efforts to slow down global warming is not worthy at all, it is just not as worthy as people who are dying right now this very moment. The irony with Al Gore’s celebrated film is that it is not really ‘inconvenient’ at all; the ‘truth’ of the planet’s destruction by global warming is hundreds and thousands years from materialising, we have the convenience of generations and generations of human activity employed to prevent or cope with its effects. The same cannot be said of poverty or starvation in the third world, or for the oppression and subjugation of innocent people by dozens of failing governments and oppressive regimes.

By all means, turn off the tap while you’re brushing your teeth, but don’t forget there’s a whole village of people somewhere in Mauritania who would crawl over hot coals for a drop of that running water. We all as individuals pick and choose our causes, that’s fine, I’m just worried that so much public support has been swayed by the environmental lobby that governmental attention will follow, at the cost of millions suffering all over the world right now.
Anyway, back to the rant...

A further complexity of the global warming ‘crisis’ is how we are being told to deal with it. The emphasis is on slowing down something that is already in motion rather than investigating how we might best survive it, and that seems so anomalous in the history of civilisation as to be almost deluded. When, in the nineteenth century, London was suffering a typhoid epidemic caused by the human faeces that swam in the drinking water of the people, the great minds of industrialisation did not just tell the people to stop shitting, they created the most advanced sewer system in the world and over time saved hundreds of thousands of lives. It is not a pointless task to cut our emissions, of course it isn’t, but it has never been in the nature of the human mind to solve problems simply by ceasing to cause them. What is called for in the case of global warming is the prediction of future problems and circumventing of the effect alongside a policy of reducing the cause. And when those solutions are found, they should be first implemented for those who need them most.

There is a counter-argument that is staring me in the face here, I know; the third world is already suffering the effects of global warming and will suffer still further unless we drastically reduce our emissions. Which is fine, but the effects of that doctrine would not benefit the people who need help now, we are in danger of sacrificing people today for the sake of an imagined, hypothesised future generation, and I think it is casual and reckless in the extreme.

We of course, can afford to be casual and reckless for the sake of transient fashions, and another cultural curiosity of the modern age is tied up with in the same box as global warming; its champions are the same and so are its victims. It’s food, stupid. Just as impressive in its rise to dominate our sensibilities, the good food lobby has every man and his sheepdog convinced that the only right way to eat is with local produce from the farm down the lane; potatoes grown without any artificial manipulation, carrots dug with recycled spades, half the size and twice the cost of (spit) genetically modified equivalents. We have somehow, quite unbelievably, become entrenched in the idea that organic and local is somehow ethically right and that modified and sustainable is ethically wrong. But wait, potatoes don’t have feeling too - what place does ethics have in food? Why is it wrong to modify food to make them easier and cheaper to grow, requiring less labour and reaping higher reward? I’ve never heard anybody even attempt to answer that question, it’s just taken as implicit fact. But it is naive and it is dangerous. Would it kill Jamie Oliver’s baby if we discovered how to genetically modify potatoes to make them more resistant to drought and less likely to fail in an African harvest? Explain to me that argument somebody please? Is it because you don’t like all those nasty chemicals inside your (chemical) body? Fair enough, have a neon-blue WKD on me, yeah?

Even if we put aside the arguments about choosing publicly-subsidised hyper-inflated produce just because it’s local rather than supporting developing economies who suffer huge undercuts by ruthless rich governments, it still cannot be downplayed how the fashion for organic and the vilification of GM is having direct consequences on people who do not have the luxury to choose. Whilst the organic market is growing and the GM market is under threat, the scientific and governmental impetus for continuing research into the benefits of genetic adaptation of food is waning and the possible benefits to agricultural production in the third world is suffering, and it is our first-world indulgence that is making it so. Put bluntly, international market forces drive scientific development, and if you are contributing to the scientific freeze in the advancement of agricultural methods that might save millions of people around the world then I’m sorry but I hope that you choke on your organic courgette that you bought for £17.95 from Alex-from-Blur’s auld country farm.

Unlike global warming, poverty is not a misfortune - it is an injustice. It takes the disinterest of those who can solve it to keep it so prevalent, and whilst our concern is becoming increasingly overtaken by the less-worthy cause of global warming, poverty continues to kill tens of thousands every day. All the good natured environmentalism in the world will struggle to solve the problem of global warming, but it is so relatively simple to combat poverty and disease that every penny spent on fighting the effects of climate change that might otherwise have gone to aid the third world is a penny, in my mind, wasted. It would be an obnoxious and vicious future that finds us in tiny hyper-expensive insulated fibreglass houses with solar panels on the roof and wind turbines in the garden whilst a family in Mali still can’t get a drop of water that won’t possibly kill them.

Political and charitable causes can co-exist, of course they can, but surely if there must be a dominant and principal cause that cedes to no other it should be the saving of lives in the present day. Politicians are only really clever enough to deal with one big issue at a time, please God don’t let the usurping of public attention by the global warming brigade cause them to take their eye off the ball in terms of poverty and disease and oppression. It would the cruellest and most painful irony of all if we saved the planet but left nobody worthwhile living on it.

© Ben Frew May 4th 2009
benfrew@gmail.com

I'm with the Polar Bears- Ed

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