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‘You see pictures of the tsunami and you want to help, so you pick up the phone.’
Voluntary fund-raiser, 2005
HARD not to be moved and heartened by the response to the earthquake in the Indian Ocean. The urge to help was strikingly spontaneous, big-hearted and immediate: the same inherent altruism that makes human individuals rush instinctively to rescue complete strangers. And it’s still going on, with fund-raising projects both ambitious and movingly modest.
Of course fundraising for the world’s suffering continues quietly all the time. But why did the world react so readily to this emergency, when it ignores so many others? Why was the urge to help not hung about with our human ifs and buts? Maybe it was because there were no political complications. The tsunami was nobody’s fault.
Aid agencies working in war zones know only too well that it’s politics and the risk of ‘taking sides’ that interfere with ordinary human impulses to good, triggering fear of ‘getting involved’. Aid donations to conflict areas may not reach the people, either appropriated by corrupt leaders or paid directly to private companies awarded contracts by donor governments.
It’s not only politics that so often holds us (and governments) back. There is also the great divide between wealth and poverty, between greedy haves and struggling have-nots. There is oppression and fear. And there is the great engine driving the world’s economy: trade.
‘I don’t have much faith in rich people looking after poor people. They don’t yet seem to understand that they’re interdependent. Rich people can’t stay rich if poor people don’t have hope, and if they don’t have hope, you don’t have peace, and you don’t have markets. So my hope is that people will decide that they need to have a more equitable world, before it’s forced upon them.’
James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank 1995- 2005
Yes, of course we want a more equitable and war-less world, and it’s great that James Wolfensohn thinks it matters. But hang on: the point of the exercise is that the rich ‘stay rich’. Doesn’t that mean the poor must keep them that way? And motivated by what? By the ‘hope’ of becoming rich too? How?
Too many developing countries are trapped in dependency on aid from the developed world. They need to be able to work their way out of poverty. The West requires them to industrialise, for greater efficiency, speed and quantity of production. But can the pressure to industrialise be just, when industrialisation is the prime cause of pollution, depleted natural resources, and adverse climate changes? In fact it looks increasingly likely that people will indeed have an ‘equitable’ world forced upon them a world in which everyone is worse off and the struggle is for survival, rather than economic success.
During his watch, James Wolfensohn (who’s made a point of discussing renewable energy with Greenpeace) has promoted debt relief for the poorest countries. It’s a step. But problems remain. We now know that industrialisation endangers our species.
‘It is not the natural world that will suffer most, it is people who live at the limits of what the planet can sustain, and who have erected political barriers across the face of the planet to prevent ourselves from moving with the climate zones as they change. If we get this wrong, we will suffer, and our civilisation will be stretched to the limit.’
Professor Bruce Yardley, University of Leeds, 2005
Sea levels are rising. Already Pacific island states are under threat. Take Tuvalu (3 feet above sea level): its 11,000 people are, they realise, ‘at the front line of global warming’: their sandy beaches have gone, and exposed tree roots hang over the shoreline. Within a few decades the island chain will have vanished under the waves. And nobody is keen to take in Tuvalan refugees.
Because of our reckless exploitation of natural resources and people are prepared to go to war for them we run the risk of losing what is essential to life: clean air - and fresh water.
Less than 3% of the world’s water is fresh, and less than 1% of that is accessible (because it is underground or frozen). Vast quantities are used in irrigation and industry: it takes 25,000 gallons to make just one car. In China, where water is scarce anyway, developing industries are expected to increase water needs by 600% in the next decade.
Water sources, of course, aren’t evenly distributed. It’s easy to forget that up to 2 billion people have no access to clean water. But within the next 30 years most of us won’t have enough. At the very least, we have to learn to manage the world’s water supplies more efficiently. (Desalination of the seas? not until it can be done with renewable energy sources, and not until rich countries are prepared to spend the huge amounts needed.)
History has pointed this out already. There have long been disputes, armed struggles and wars over water. Where rivers pass through several countries they continue to this day. The Nile (the longest river) collects and disperses water in 9 African countries. The Tigris and Euphrates water Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The river Jordan now emerging into the Dead Sea simply as a flow of sewage is argued over by Israel, Palestinians, Lebanon and Jordan. The Indus is shared by Afghanistan, China, India, Pakistan and disputed Kashmir. The Mekong is linked with Tibet, China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. All these regions are historically associated with conflict. Although efforts have been made in all of them to solve water disputes by agreement, armed conflict for other reasons means that there is always a threat to supplies.
People are already on the move, trying to escape drought, or sea floods, or crop failure because the land is exhausted, or war over what land is still fertile. The numbers of environmental refugees are going to grow, fast. War is a disaster we have created for ourselves. So is climate change.
‘We do not have the luxury of doing nothing. …The costs of not embracing renewables are the costs we truly cannot afford.’
Mike O’Brien, UK Energy minister, 2005
Solutions? There are plenty of suggestions and counter-suggestions. Nuclear power, though carbon-clean, is very expensive; and as Professor Tom Burke (founder of EG3, Third Generation Environmentalism) has said, ‘no-one has yet discovered how to make atoms work for peace without making them available for war’. Wind power doesn’t yet have enough support. Getting power from sea tides is still in its infancy. Some scientists are working out how to make artificial clouds, using seawater, to deflect the sun’s heat. Some technologists are designing power stations fuelled by ‘biomass’ (fast-growing plants and trees) and, once built and running, cheap. Others are developing hydrogen fuel cells (at present, pricy) to replace petrol. Yet others are working out how to extract and ‘sequester’ carbon dioxide underground.
And then there is social reform. How about diverse economies, not dependent on a single product? How about rethinking the world in local terms: neighbourhoods each with their own renewable energy sources and technologies? How about compact high-density cities across the globe: more water- and energy-efficient and crossable on foot or bicycle? As individuals we can all take responsibility right now for reducing our environmental footprints, cutting back and managing our use of power and water more carefully. We can also make different consumer choices, refusing to buy produce manufactured at too great a cost to the environment or requiring petrol-driven transport across great distances of land, sea and air. (Planes are heavy polluters.)
And there is the Kyoto Protocol: the nearest we have got so far to rationing the world’s carbon emissions, in the feeble hope of making the future a little less awful. It isn’t enough. As Michael Meacher (Environment minister 1997-2001) recently warned, exploitation of resources and global warming will ‘within a decade or two enforce a fundamental change in the world economy and human societies….The capitalist model is not sustainable’.
One way or another, we will have to give up many First World ideas of what ‘quality of life’ means.
‘People not yet born cannot express their opinions, but we must take account of their needs…. The consequences of our acts exceed what our environment can bear, and they are often irreversible.’
Albert Jacquard, scientist and humanist, 2004
Today’s children will have to face the effects of climate change even more than their parents will. It’s our responsibility to do what we can to keep those effects to a minimum. Future generations, we are warned, will have to manage with a third of the energy supplies we use now even if we do manage to switch to renewables.
The problem can’t be solved by a phone call and a credit card. This is what Ignacio Ramonet, an organiser of the first World Social Forum, says: ‘The level of need exposed by the tsunami demonstrates that humanitarian generosity, however admirable and necessary, is not a long-term solution. Each new disaster reveals in detail the structural suffering of the poorest, who are the everyday victims of the unequal, unfair distribution of the world’s wealth.’
In fact, we have to make changes as basic as the industrial revolution that created the present carbon problem. Changing patterns of behaviour, social and economic, are going to be forced on us, there’s no doubt.
Well, there is a change that could and would start putting things right almost immediately. It would liberate huge sums of money, and free up the world to concentrate on co-operating to meet the needs of the planet as well as ourselves. How? By diverting what we spend on militarism and war towards preparing for the future and towards abolishing that ‘structural suffering’ which underlies most of today’s conflicts.
Just a tiny (but huge) example: the US military uses 85 million barrels of oil a year. 60,000 soldiers are employed simply to provide the petrol, oil and lubricants for tanks, planes and other war machines. In real terms each gallon costs close on $400. Think what US defence expenditure ($450 billion and rising) could do for Africa…. Yes, the US does contribute to international aid: $4 billion much of which goes towards ‘foreign military’ financing.
The Nobel Peace Prize was recently awarded to an African: Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s assistant Minister for Environment who brought about the planting of over 30 million trees. She agrees that ‘we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system…. The choice is ours.’ What, some people have asked, does planting trees have to do with peace? In Kenya trees provide people with food, shelter and fuel, as well as income to pay for education and other needs; they also nourish the soil and protect the atmosphere. A safe and viable environment is crucial to peace.
‘The environment knows no borders’: everyone in the world is facing, as it were, a giant tsunami. The resources we need to keep us alive, healthy and secure have to be shared and protected by us all. International environmentalist Jonathon Porritt says: ‘As the threat of ecological meltdown gets greater by the year, so too does our awareness of our interdependence and the need for unprecedented solidarity if we are to secure any kind of sustainable future. We may well see in the extraordinary response of the rich world to those countries shattered by the Indian Ocean tsunami precisely the kind of empathy and engagement on which our ability to avoid ecological collapse will depend.’