Except he doesn’t. He comes up with an answer alright – 15 billion if we all live like the average Indian, 2.5 billion if we all live like we do in the UK, and 1.5 billion if we all live like fat, horrible Americans. It’s all derived entirely from standard ecological footprint stuff.
Attenborough tells us that:
Malthus’s principle remains true. The productive capacity of the Earth has physical limits. And those limits will ultimately determine how many human beings it can support.
We were looking forward to hearing a good argument for why that might be. It’s Sir David Attenborough, after all. There wasn’t one. Just lots of footage of people without access to enough food, water etc. No historical or political context. Just lots of simplistic environmental determinism. Apparently even the Rwandan civil war/genocide/whatever you want to call it was the result of too many people. Nice. And of course…
But the picture may be even worse than this. These figures are based on rates of consumption that many think are already unsustainable.
Happily, for anyone wanting arguments for why Malthus, Attenborough and sustainability are wrong, here are some we prepared earlier:
Five months is a long time in climate politics. The arguments change with the seasons. Back in the hazy days of July and August, the eco-newswires were dominated by stories about ‘record-breaking’ arctic ice extent – even though it wasn’t record-breaking, and the record is only 30 years long. Now, they are more likely to be stories telling us that 2008 hasn’t been all that warm, but that global warming is still happening.
The other dominant story was the genuinely record-breaking oil prices. Every time you filled your car with petrol, the price had gone up by several per cent. The environmental movement was keen to interpret this as another harbinger of the beginning of the end, and used it to demand that we change our ways. It seemed to prove that we were in the grip of what they said peak-oil theory had predicted. Here is Caroline Lucas, Green Party MEP on BBC TV, in June.
‘The days of cheap oil are over’, she says. ‘A look at the figures’ (what ‘figures’?) would demonstrate that we’re past the ‘half way point of all oil’, meaning that it would get more and more expensive, she claims. Demand outstrips supply. Lucas must be disappointed then, that OPEC have announced that they are cutting production by 2.2 million barrels a day in an order to rescue the price from its current plunge. In July, a barrel cost $147. Today, it costs just $41.53. If ‘the days of cheap oil are over’, why is it so cheap? Why is it necessary to create the scarcity which Caroline Lucas said existed in order to create the higher prices she demanded?
It could still be argued that the price drop reflects the current economic climate. And indeed, there is some sense in the argument that as demand has dropped so too has the price. But this doesn’t explain the peak. Because, back in June and July, it’s not as if the world was experiencing an economic boom. Another major story – you may have noticed – of the last two years has been the ‘credit crunch’ that began in early 2007. Yet these two years of worsening economic affairs saw the price of oil rocket upwards. Just as we know house prices can ‘bubble’, so too can commodity prices. The upward prices were driven, in part, not by imminent scarcity, but by the idea that they might continue. After all, many – not just Greens – were lining up to make this drama a crisis. And who wouldn’t invest in oil, if they thought it was running out? And here’s the funny thing… It’s not in oil producers’ interests for people to believe that there is an abundance of oil. The idea of scarcity makes their product more valuable. Who are these Greens working for? On this basis, too, there is no real incentive for companies to invest in new exploration. New extraction facilities are hugely expensive. Invest prematurely, and you alter the market, price, and of course, politics. Imagine that in July 2008 you had invested your capital on the basis of reports that…
Some analysts have raised the possibility of prices rising as high as $200 a barrel during the next 18 months. … “You really cannot forecast how much further the market will rally now,” said Tatsuo Kageyama from Kanetsu Asset Management in Tokyo. “All I can say is the market will continue to rise.“
… you’d be feeling the pinch now.
Search the web for charts showing oil prices, and what they reveal is that upward surges in oil price reflect political events. Regional conflict in the Middle East, and Africa, the War on Terror, assassinations, strikes, and so on, litter the upward progress of curves. Yet environmental doom-sayers are quick to tell us that there is something fundamentally wrong about our relationship with the natural world, and that we stand on the brink of a precipice. Nothing could be more arse-about-face. Oil prices were high for very human reasons.
The ‘half way point’ between what was in the ground and its depletion has been given incredible significance by various alarmists. It is yet another ‘tipping point’ that is used to manufacture drama from dull statistics, in much the same way as Arctic ice progression is used to manufacture drama from dull statistics. Once this fictional point is passed, we are supposed to enter some dark new epoch, in which a society that has foolishly been predicated on some ‘unsustainable’ relationship with the natural world begins to collapse. The search for these points-of-no-return represent a religious mission to look for ‘signs’ from Gaia. So convinced are people that such algebraic maxima exist, which give mathematical identity to society’s relationship with nature, that anything and everything becomes a ‘tipping point’ at the expense of understanding the world more deeply; understanding the increasing price of oil as a shortcoming of the market in the face of events in the human – rather than geological – world, for example. The idea of the ‘tipping point’ then assumes political significance. Rarely a day goes by without it being applied to something – gun crime, obesity, you name it. Where there is a moral panic, you will find the ecological metaphor – the “tipping point” – being used to paint a picture of inevitable decline into social chaos.
The invocation of social chaos is a demand for social control. Like alienated weirdos who once stood in public places wearing ‘the end is nigh’ placards, the people making these statements cannot explain the world – it’s already chaotic for control freaks. For example, they can’t explain oil prices in terms of political events. Curves representing Arctic sea ice approach ‘tipping points’, which they argue represent movement towards ‘runaway climate change’. ‘We’ve got to change the way we live’, they say. While they so comprehensively fail to explain the social world, we should ignore them, just as we walked past those men in their placards. They deserve only a bit of sympathy, at arms length.
There is a problem for people making these statements. Their luck runs out. Nature takes a different course. So…
As the environmental movement emphasises our relationship with nature, how about we treat doom itself as a ‘natural resource’ which is exploited for political capital? It is a resource that is depleted in two ways. First, let’s assume that it is finite – nature cannot continue to provide alarmists with these resources forever, and so their jumping on everything as the sign of ‘the end’ is unsustainable. Second, the utility of these resources becomes diminished as an increasingly credulous public tire of them – demand for more and more doom grows. Hence, climate change alarmists leap on sea ice extent one year, floods the next, heatwaves the next… and so on. Each new trend constitutes a new deposit of resource, that will be depleted, flogged to death, over the season.
Let’s call this theory the peak peak-oil-theory theory. So far, environmental alarmists have been able to avoid reaching the peak because they have been able to locate new trends, and invent new ways of telling stories about the progress of little blue lines which, for that season, appear to make sense. But now, there is clear evidence emerging that the tipping points have been passed.
Doom does not carry over from one season to the next. Arctic sea ice recovers from its ‘historic low’ in a year that climate-activist-meteorologists admit that global warming is postponed. The commodity price bubble of doom bursts. In order to prevent a crisis, alarmists pump ever more doom into the market, promising a bleaker future, but it just makes them look sillier and sillier. Confidence in the doom market crumbles still further, as the value of doom approaches nil.
The world’s doom-shale deposits, previously thought to contain enough pessimism to fuel the green project for centuries to come, don’t. The idea that technological developments will allow these reserves to be tapped is mere propaganda. The days of cheap doom are over.
It’s Oxfam. Again. Some people have been a little confused about our ‘attacks’ on Oxfam. Why would we want to criticise nice people who are trying to do good?
We are interested in the ideas which Oxfam use to understand and explain the problems they hope to answer. Intending to good is one thing. The ideas being to put into practice are another. Here is an example of bad ideas in action,
Oxfam America is proud to participate in an exciting project bringing together artists and activists from around the world, each doing their part to illustrate how climate change is affecting poor communities right now.
Oxfam America’s Climate Change on Canvas project commissioned the following picture by ‘painting activist’, Ashley Cecil.
Announcing the completion of the commission, the groups website informs that,
“I realized that farming is hard these days because of changing temperatures, but it’s often the sole survival for people in rural areas,” says Cecil. “It’s hard to feed a family when you can’t farm.” This struggle inspired one of the painting’s most striking elements: the long trail of dust that streams from one woman’s empty bowl. “I wanted to show that the women are not harvesting crops the way they had hoped,” Cecil explains. “They’re holding a bowl of dust, because this is what they’re left with—burnt, dry dust, dry branches… In other words, what we’d expect to see is not there.”
It is a shame that oil paintings do not carry a bibliography of the research they cite. As we pointed out previously, Oxfam’s claim that climate change is driving the poor in Bangladesh ‘further into poverty’ is not born out by the statistics which show steady increases in agricultural production, yields per hectare, GDP per capita, in spite of climate change.
She believes that Americans need to do more to tackle the crisis, even if it’s just by making small changes to their lifestyle. “The first piece is education,” she says. “Whether it’s though statistics, words, or images—whatever turns on that light bulb for someone, and makes them act.”
It’s hard to understand how a painting explains how a ‘small change in lifestyle’ will positively influence the lives of the world’s rural poor. It won’t hydrate the contents of the women’s bowls. It won’t irrigate their fields.
Oxfam America is just one of many Oxfam International affiliates who will be creating canvases for this project. Similar works of art will travel from all over the world—created by professional artists, unknown artists and members of developing communities—to be exhibited at the UN conference, representing a unified global movement around climate change and poverty. This piece will go to Poland and come back to the US where Oxfam plans to use art as a mobilization tool around climate change in 2009.
‘Art as a mobilization tool’? Just as both Oxfam and Cecil fail to explain how small adjustments to lifestyles are equivalent to a gift of fertility to the soils tended by the poor, they fail to explain how an image can create a positive engagement with a political idea. Can images do that? How?
Images such as Cecil’s don’t’ ask us to understand the complex economic, social and political interactions throughout the world, and how and why the poor are excluded from them. They only ask us to respond to the image emotionally. We are supposed to feel the women’s pain. But in asking ‘how can we make it better?’, we are only really asking how we can make ourselves feel better, so that we can feel and be less guilty. That’s the limitation of ‘art’ depicting poverty as a tool of ‘mobilization’ (manipulation), because that is the limitation of emotional engagement with images.
Cecil and Oxfam are keen to tell you how to make yourself feel better, nonetheless. It’s those ‘small changes to lifestyle’ (though many are urging ‘drastic action’) that are your salvation. Plus, no doubt, a small contribution payable monthly by standing order.
Back to the criticism of our criticism of Oxfam…
It is our belief that Oxfam’s increasingly shallow campaigns reflect the organisation’s difficulty in understanding development and poverty, and the relationship between them. In other words, it seems to have lost its purpose. This is a reflection of a wider political phenomenon, of which the predominance of environmentalism is a symptom. We seem to have forgotten why we wanted development in the first place. It is as if the lifestyles depicted in Cecil’s painting were to be aspired to, were there just a little more rain. Development is a bad thing. It stops rain.
If we were to add a city skyline into the background of Cecil’s painting it might ask a very different question of its audience. Why are people living like that, with such abundance in such proximity? Of course, in reality, many miles separate the two women from any such city, but the question still stands; there is abundance in the world, and there is the potential for plenty more. Yet Oxfam have absorbed the idea from the environmental movement that there isn’t abundance. This changes the relationship between development and poverty from one in which development creates abundance into one in which development creates poverty; it deprives people of subsistence. But really, the city (not) behind the two women could organise the infrastructure necessary to irrigate the parched landscape, the delivery of fertiliser, and a tractor. The field could be in full bloom, in spite of the weather. The two women could be wealthy.
Oh no, says Oxfam. That’s not sustainable.
Why should ‘sustainability’ be Oxfam’s concern? If, as we discussed in the last post, pits full of human excrement are an immediate end to the problems of poverty, why not have an ‘unsustainable’ solution to the immediate problem of poverty? And so on to the next ‘unsustainable’ form of development. And the next. And the next. And the next. Few of us still burn wood in our houses for heat. Yet we didn’t run out of wood. Unsustainable developments on top of unsustainable developments has made the world more sustainable. The process is sustainable, even if the mode at any given instant isn’t.
Oxfam seem to be making a role for themselves where they are able to dictate a mode of existence which is ‘sustainable’. This is a departure from the arrangement in which they were a means to an ends – solving poverty. Now, it seems, the means is the ends. Oxfam’s very purpose seems to be to purpetuate itself – it’s focus on development sacrificied for its own sustainability, the poverty it is responding to increasingly its own intellectual vacuity.A behemoth, searching the dark for its own purpose.
The myth of sustainability is that it is sustainable. The truth is that drought and famine have afflicted the rural poor throughout history – before climate change was ever used to explain the existence of poverty. Limiting development to what ‘nature’ provides therefore makes people vulnerable to her whims. Drought is ‘natural’. Famine is ‘natural’. Disease is ‘natural’. They are all mechanisms which, in the ecologist’s lexicon are nature’s own way of ensuring ‘sustainability’. They are checks and balances on the dominance of one species. To absorb what Hitler called ‘the iron logic of nature’ is to submit to injustice, if famine, drought and disease characterise it. We can end poverty, but not by restricting development. Yet that seems to be Oxfam’s intention. That is why we criticise it.
Oxfam, with the Climate Justice Program and Advocates for International Development are running a competition.
We are calling on lawyers, academics and law students worldwide to put forward the strongest legal case possible to demonstrate that rich countries’ greenhouse-gas emissions are violating the human rights of people in developing countries
The group want entrants to base their imaginary case on the fictional victims of climate injustice in the made up country ‘Algoria’. (Al-Gore-ia. Geddit?)
The complaint (etc.) should:
1. identify the plaintiffs, which may be the State of Algoria, and/or any of its citizen(s) or other groups, whom you consider could have a valid cause of action under international law;
2. identify the defendant State(s), which should be an actual State or actual States;
3. specify the remedy or remedies sought; and
4. set out the arguments for any of these obligations that you consider are enforceable before that forum.
The intention of the competition is ‘to emphasize the international obligations of states, stimulate innovation and progress in international law addressing climate change, and to bring public attention to the urgency of the matter’. But once again, it is more Oxfam’s intellectual poverty than a meaningful understanding of poverty, inequality and injustice that is revealed by its campaigning. Take, for example, the words of Oxfam’s Kate Raworth,
When vulnerable communities have tried to use human rights law for climate justice, it has thrown up major weaknesses. It’s extremely difficult for people in poor countries to identify who to sue, how to prove the injury done, or even where to bring their case.
The first thing that Kate needs to understand is that there is no such thing as ‘climate justice’. It is meaningless. Justice for the climate? Justice from the climate? Justice to the climate? Justice of the climate? Justice with the climate? It makes no sense. Justice does not exist between objects in the world, nor between objects and people. Justice (or injustice) exists between, and only between people. We can conceive of civil or social justice and criminal justice because, as concepts, they assume that people bear responsibilities to others.
Oxfam wish to construct the idea of ‘climate justice’ in order to establish the idea that acts are transmitted through the environment and inflicted on others. But this is nonsense. None of us can aim our actions at another through the environment in the way we can aim a gun at another, or to rob them, as is understood through the concept of criminal justice. Neither can we select groups, and oppress them, exploit them, or deprive them of what they need through the environment, as can be understood through the concept of social justice. In both these conceptions of justice, the way one party acts on another is direct. We can explain how an act of aggression is inflicted upon people. We cannot do the same thing with the climate. It is impossible to substantiate the claim that any climate event or change is the consequence of anthropogenic climate change. Even if it could be demonstrated that climate change had caused a particular problem, the ‘crime’ that the ‘victim’ is the subject of is not defined by the action of the perpetrator, but by the status of the ‘victim’. If I were to somehow make it rain more on your house it would annoy you. But the drains would carry the water away. If I were to make it rain less on your house, you’d probably thank me. That same ‘act of aggression’, inflicted on someone who, we must assume, has enjoyed a ‘stable climate’ (even though no such thing exists anywhere), but who existed in a society which could not extend such benefits to him, might cause him harm.
Oxfam asks its imaginary legal team to consider that,
Last week, you read an article in the Algoria Times reporting the Algorian Environment Minister as saying that, “We’re going to suffer massively from climate change. It’s already happening and undermining the human rights of our people. I blame the developed world. They’ve got to stop dragging their feet, reduce their emissions and pay up for their past profligacy. If they can’t come up with a fair negotiated deal at the UN by the end of 2009, we should take them to court instead to make them do it.”
The second thing Raworth needs to understand is that the climate does not give people rights. Accordingly, the climate cannot take their rights away. Just as ‘justice’ describes acts between moral actors, rights are given by people to themselves. The ‘right’ to a stable climate is a nonsense because it is not something which can be given by anyone to another any more than the weather can be controlled. Someone entitled to a ‘stable climate’ has as much a complaint about a natural shift in climate as he does about a hypothetical anthropogenic one. In both cases his complaint is identical – his rights have been trampled upon. But who is he going to take his complaint about an ‘act of god’ to? How would the court trying Oxfam’s fictional case under ‘international law’ (whatever they think that is) determine and make a distinction between ‘natural’ and anthropogenic shifts in climate, resulting in the injured party’s loss of a ‘right’ to a stable climate?
Oxfam’s morality play is set in
Algoria (an imaginary country) is a small, mid-latitude, developing country. With high mountain regions in the north, the majority of its population live in the mangrove-fringed fertile coastal plain to the south, mostly making their basic living from small-scale agriculture and fishing, benefiting from the glacier-fed rivers. Some progress has been made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, with notable reductions in cases of measles and maternal mortality. Significant expenditure is planned, with the help of international development assistance, to provide clean water and basic sanitation facilities for the 60% of the population with no access to them. But about 40% of the population still live on less than one US dollar a day, and over 25% of children under five are underweight.
Their conception of development is somewhat skewed. It asks for rights and ‘justice’ for people who make a ‘basic living’ from ‘small scale’ agriculture. The problem is that where justice is in greater supply, people no longer live such lifestyles. People who expect, and demand, and fight for justice and rights do not expect, demand or fight for ‘basic lives’ and for ‘small scale agriculture’. This is because there is nothing about ‘basic lives’ and ‘small scale agriculture’ which creates justice and rights. On the contrary, basic lives are an injustice; people deserve more. What is more, people whose lives are consumed by small scale agriculture necessarily lack the material means to organise themselves to demand and to create justice and rights. Oxfam’s ambitions to provide things such as ‘basic sanitation’, for example, miss the point. It is as if they believe it can be possible for there to be poverty and ‘justice’. To anyone with any sense of justice, this is a contradiction.
Progress, in Oxfam’s story, for example, is understood as ‘reductions in cases of measles and maternal mortality’ and ‘basic sanitation facilities’. This is not progress. Progress is the eradication of measles and maternal mortality (or as good as), and the provision of advanced – not basic – sanitation. ‘Basic sanitation’ is a pit in the ground full of shit. That is not progress. Progress is civil infrastructure. Why isn’t Oxfam arguing for sewers and piped water, and for roads, and factories, and businesses, and power stations?
It is curious that while Oxfam celebrates ‘basic lives’, it aims to ‘stimulate innovation and progress in international law addressing climate change’. That kind of ‘innovation’ and ‘progress’ are neither.
In this strange world of Algoria, development is impossible (it causes climate change) and progress is a zero-sum game (our ‘profligacy’ is their poverty). It is in this fantasy world that Oxfam’s conception of ‘environmental justice’ is invented.
Oxfam celebrate basic lives, and basic sanitation. Meanwhile, it turns anyone with more than basic sanitation who lives more than a basic life into the culprits of a ‘climate crime’. The result is that it tells people in the developing world, and the industrialised world how they ought to live, and what they ought to expect. Oxfam has ceased to be a development charity, and has become an undevelopment charity.
There’s an advert for Oxfam running on UK TV at the moment that caught our attention. It is most odd.
The little old lady and her friends seem to be vomiting at injustice, thereby making the world a better place. In a way, this almost represents the depths to which Oxfam have sunk in this campaign. It is as if they were marketing a product that would solve injustice in the same way that certain products soothe the effects of excess stomach acid after overindulgence. In other words it seems as though they want you to engage with the concept of injustice as though it is something which affects you personally. It makes you vomit. Hand over your cash, and we’ll get rid of it for you.
Here is another Oxfam film, where they appear to have persuaded passers-by to confess their carbon-sins. Again, a remedy for overindulgence.
As we have reported before, Oxfam presents itself as an agency through which problems in the world can be defeated, yet often they take a curiously anti-development line. A recent Oxfam report recommended that developing countries promote ‘traditional lifestyles’ as a means to combating climate change. In recent years, and in the light of the climate crisis, Oxfam has redefined ‘poverty’ and ‘injustice’ in environmental terms.
For example, Oxfam have their own campaign to stop the new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, the site of this years Climate Camp.
Coal or renewable? The old way, or the new. We head right back to dirty energy with E.ON’s Kingsnorth. We destroy our chances of avoiding a climate catastrophe and let climate change push poor people deeper into poverty. Or we innovate and start a clean energy revolution. Now is the time to choose.
You’d have thought, wouldn’t you, that a development agency would be in favour of power stations, both here, and in the developing world. But it seems they are more interested in ‘traditional lifestyles’.
Another Oxfam video shows what kind of lifestyle this is, in the context of climate change. After telling us that every year a third of Bangladesh’s land is flooded, and that ‘climate change is making the situation worse’, we hear Sahena’s story.
On you tube, the film’s blurb tells us that
The annual monsoon rains in Bangladesh are getting heavier and more unpredictable — last year’s floods were the worst in decades, affecting nine million people…
We were wondering how true is was that climate conditions in Bangladesh were getting worse, and less predictable. Here in the UK, the weather has never been ‘predictable’. Why should it have ever been any more predictable in Bangladesh?
The data relating to the extent of flooding in Bangladesh is very sparse. In fact, we spent nearly two days searching for it. If you know of such data, we’d be grateful if you could direct us to it. There also didn’t seem to be much long term data relating to the effect of floods on mortality, nor of damage done in terms of cash value.
There have been some tragic events in Bangladesh, which is, after all, the region most prone to flooding than any other. But there doesn’t seem to be any basis for the claim that floods are getting heavier because of climate change, nor that conditions are less predictable. It appears that the dictum ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’ has been used without regard for facts. It looks as though Oxfam have done little more than to look for people who are particularly vulnerable to climate (climate which, as it happens, has always been hostile and highly variable) to make their claim. It must be true that if ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’, and ‘climate change is happening’ then the poorest people in the poorest region must make the best case for Oxfam’s climate campaign. The image of the poor farmer, struggling to help her community defend itself against the conditions it suffers as a consequence of Western profligacy is second to none.
But just how bad are things getting because of climate change, in Bangladesh? There must be some data which shows just how terrible the conditions that we are inflicting upon them have become. It should be easy to show just how bad life for farmers already experiencing climate change has become.
Except it isn’t.
[All data: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, except GDP ($US per capita, constant prices): IMF]
This graph shows various trends in Bangladesh, relative to their levels in 1961, (and 1980, in the case of GDP). The amount of arable land has indeed slightly diminished (8% between 1961 and 2007), yet rice production and yield has increased substantially. Meanwhile, the population has increased nearly three-fold.
So, yes, clearly there is an extent to which climate conditions have affected life in Bangladesh. But we cannot say, as Oxfam has, that climate change has pushed people further into poverty. We might be able to attribute an 8% of the loss of agricultural land to flooding. And it may even be because of climate change. But this does not seem to have made life worse for Bangladeshi rice farmers (who account for 75% of agricultural production), who have meanwhile been able to realise a three-fold increase in production from a 30% increase in land area.
We can think of two ways to explain this. Firstly, the increase in population itself. In spite of claims that ‘overpopulation’ risks tipping the world into catastrophe, many hands make lighter work of big projects, such as farming, and recovery from disaster, even in Bangladesh – one of the most densely populated countries. Secondly, contrary to Oxfam’s desire to see poor people locked into traditional ways of life, industrial methods of production increase crop yields.
The worst possible strategy for Bangladeshi farmers would be to return to ‘traditional lifestyles’, and reduce their population. Oxfam’s campaign would likely cause far more problems than it can attribute to climate, let alone climate change.
This graph is by no means the whole picture. We’re not statisticians, so we may have made fundamental errors interpreting and presenting the data. What we were interested in was the claims endlessly repeated by the likes of Oxfam that things are getting worse, and worse, and worse in the developing world because of climate change, because of us. Nor are we saying things are rosy in Bangladesh, and that we should not be concerned about it, and the problems it faces.
But there is a difference between being concerned about a place and milking a developing region for the kind of capital Oxfam wants to extract from it. It’s shallow campaigns reduce the understanding of development problems to a kind of us-and-them, victims-and-perpetrators morality tale, where we inflict acts of violence on the Bangladeshi poor through the ‘environment’. While there is a good argument that the West has in many respects, failed poorer regions, often in its own interests, it is not the case that this issue can be understood in such black and white terms. It also forgets that Banglashis have made their own progress, but wants you to forget about it, so that it can capitalise on the images of victimhood that it creates, in order to elevate itself as their saviour, with your cash. It wants you to think that Bangladesh is a basket-case, and that you are responsible for it, and for sorting it out.
Oxfam have resorted to environmental language because they simply cannot conceive of development in any other terms. It is their intellectual vacuity which takes them here. Understanding development -real development – is impossible for Oxfam, because it doesn’t give them a role. It celebrates ‘traditional lifestyles’ because lifestyles in industrial society lead to the kind of politics that leaves Oxfam voiceless. It needs victims. And it needs culprits. Without them, it is cashless.
It is Oxfam which is the poverty stricken basket case.
Oxfam was once a charity set up to provide famine relief. It was hard to criticise without looking a bit mean. It is now a gigantic international NGO which influences the direction of policy towards and within the developing world. Like many other organisations, it has found a new way of arming itself by capturing anxieties about climate change. Where once there were ambitions for people in the third world to enjoy Western standards of living, now the voice of the voiceless instead celebrates the primitive lifestyles that the worlds poorest people suffer.
Africa should make more use of the skills of its nomadic peoples to help combat the challenges of climate change, the aid agency Oxfam says.
There are many ways to enjoy traditional culture. But, for example, when people in the UK have finished dressing up as vikings, and anglo-saxons, or reconstructing historic battles, they go back to their (slightly embarrassed) families in warm homes that are connected to mains water and electricity, in cars, on roads, and they return to jobs on Monday mornings. Traditional ways of life should be the stuff of museums, days out, hobbies, history lessons, and slightly weird obsessive people. There is nothing good – not even ‘sustainability’ – in primitive lifestyles. Primitive lifestyles mean dead babies, short and painful lives, a near total absence of justice, hard manual labour, child labour, disease, poverty, famine. The very things Oxfam aimed to abolish, it now seems to celebrate. Such is the logic of relativism.
It can be nice, educational, and fun to visit theme-parks, or read books, and all of that stuff, especially for families. It can raise interesting questions about the development of political ideas such as ‘state’ and rights. Why, though, would anyone want to actually live that kind of life? And for all the ‘rights of indigenous people’ and ‘preserving dying cultures’ rhetoric which emerge from the likes of Oxfam, shouldn’t the important thing be the right of such people to choose whether they want to live primitive or contemporary lifestyle? If you want to live in a mud hut, away from roads, water and power, we at Climate Resistance wish you all the best, and that you enjoy your experiment. But isn’t Oxfam doing it’s own ‘cultural imperialism’ thing here, and isn’t it more than a bit colonial? We wouldn’t accept such conditions. So why should we imagine that any other human wouldn’t want what we want – homes, running water, heat, transport, job prospects? Are cultures so different?
The UN climate panel predicts Africa will be hit hard by climate change in the next century, with tens of millions facing food and water shortages as rising temperatures are exacerbated by more droughts, floods and rising sea levels.
Let us assume the UN are right. Will the lives of nomadic people be better in the face of an unpredictable climate if there are roads, irrigation, running water, hospitals and all that stuff, or without? It’s got to be easier being a nomad if you can get the bus -or, shock horror, buy a van – when you’re bored of being a nomad.
Oxfam’s legitimacy on the world stage, and its role is entirely founded on the idea of there being an excluded voiceless people and forces in society which exclude them. There is nothing wrong with campaigning for change. But Oxfam would be impotent without voiceless victims to speak for. It needs a constituency, or it is redundant. Were the lives of the poor to be transformed such that they became politically and economically powerful, under the logic of Oxfam’s climate campaign, it would need to regard them as the criminals in the picture of the world they have painted. Instead of arguing for factories, roads, infrastructure (all the things which made Western lives better) Oxfam uses climate change to create the idea of victims and culprits, in an argument for ‘sustainablity’ over development. The tragedy is that the only thing it will sustain is poverty… And Oxfam. It claims that natural disasters are happening because of Western lifestyles, when in reality, natural disasters happen because of a lack of development. Oxfam stopped being a charity when it started telling people how they ought to live, rather than campaigning for equality.
Since the first case of the psychiatric disorder ‘climate change delusion‘ was diagnosed in an Australian patient earlier this month, commentators have suggested that the symptoms expressed by Al Gore and the like point to the condition being a rather common one. Indeed, it seems that the medical profession itself is not immune. John Guillebaud, professor of family planning at University College London, confesses all to the Guardian:
I’m terrified about climate change
More accurately, perhaps, Prof Guillebaud’s case is better described as ‘climate change delusion by proxy’ because while the Australian patient was trying to save the planet by ceasing to drink, the voices in Guillebaud’s head tell him that the solution is for other people to stop reproducing.
Writing in the British Medical Journal with Pip Hayes, a GP based in Exeter (who hasn’t expressed publicly how completely terrified she is), the father of three and patron of the Optimum Population Trust calls on
schools and GPs to develop education programmes to explain how a rising population is environmentally unsustainable, and how families who have no more than two children will help ensure the population remains steady or even falls.
As they write in the BMJ:
doctors should help to bring family size into the arena of environmental ethics, analogous to avoiding patio heaters and high carbon cars.
Guillebaud’s adamance that this does not amount to coercion is wholly unconvincing, especially when he claims that
It’s people’s right to have the size of family they choose, but surely that should be balanced against the rights of future generations.
Not only is it coercive; it’s also deeply patronising:
an opportunity is missed when a doctor is talking to a young couple, in saying, you know, ‘have you thought about the family size you might choose? Have you thought about having one child less?’
And, of course, misanthropic:
It’s a fact that each new UK birth will be responsible for 160 times more greenhouse gas emission than, say, a new birth in Ethiopia. Now, there are two ways of looking at that – three ways really. One is to say that we rich people in the UK must enormously reduce our consumption of resources. But also there’s the fact that, if each of us is doing 160 times more damage, then not having a UK birth is more beneficial to the planet than there not being an Ethiopian birth.
He doesn’t say what the third way of looking at it is. Perhaps it’s that it’s OK for Ethiopians to keep reproducing just so long as they remain poor and don’t consume much. Except that he isn’t even happy with that. He seems to prefer that they remain poor and stop reproducing, as is evident in his justification for why Ethiopians should be encouraged to have fewer children: it would reduce the high rates of maternal mortality. As would proper medical facilities, of course. But, well, have you seen the electricity bill of a modern hospital? We can’t let all and sundry have access to one of those.
What we say in our organisation, The Optimum Population Trust, is the greenest energy is the energy you don’t use. And one way of not using it is to cut down your consumption by using a smaller car, or preferably by not using a car at all and going everywhere by bicycle or train like I do. But also, a really green thing to do is to have one child less than you normally would have had, because every additional child born in the UK produces in its lifetime three-million-miles-worth of carbon dioxide as driven in a Toyota Prius.
Any positives that ‘every additional child’ brings to the world don’t figure in Guillebaud’s calculations. Never mind that every additional child is a potential solution to problems – environmental or otherwise. Never mind that every additional child brings happiness, interest and love into the lives of others.
When babies are viewed as analogous to patio-heaters and big cars, you can bet that there is more to Environmentalism than an urge to save the planet. It reveals a deep-seated dislike of humanity. Children are polluters, energy-wasters, or in Guillebaud’s words:
the environment is being trashed partly by the number of environment-trashers
Frank Furedi puts Guillebaud’s Mathusianism into historical perspective over at spiked. Climate change is, he argues, just the latest in a string of tenuous justifications for Malthusian politics:
In the past, Malthusians warned that overpopulation would lead to famine. When that argument disintegrated, they said overpopulation would undermine economic development. Later they claimed that overpopulation might assist the spread of communism, and more recently they have argued that it aids terrorism (lots of poor young men with no jobs apparently leads to apocalyptic violence).
Now they have latched on to environmentalism and the widespread concern about humanity’s impact on the planet. What we have today is a new form of joined-up scaremongering, where the traditional fear of human fertility is linking up with anxieties about what humans are doing to the Earth.
It’s interesting, then, that Chris West, director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, told the Guardian that population control won’t have an impact on climate change anyway:
“If we had a way to reduce the population … it would be one way to address climate change, but in the current circumstances, it’s not a very effective way,” he said […] “it’s not going to deliver emission reductions on anything like the timescale we need.”
We have said before that it’s really just a few Environmentalist cranks who talk about population control in positive terms, and that most of us are repelled by the idea. Even the editorial pages of the green-thinking Guardian are unsympathetic:
The problem that the BMJ authors and others highlight is real; the solution they give, however, is plain wrong […] Population control has a terrible reputation: India’s forced-sterilisation programme was among the blackest points in its recent history. Just as there is a reason why prophets come back into fashion, so there is normally a reason why history turned its back on them. In Malthus’ case, he was simply wrong.
But while few can bring themselves to agree with Guillebaud and Hayes’ misanthropic vision, Environmentalism remains dependent on the notion of population control. In fact, the Environmentalist case falls apart without it. Take Caroline Lucas’s claim that
this planet has finite resources. You cannot go on growing indefinitely on a finite planet
Though she’s talking about economic growth, her argument extends unavoidably to population growth. And it’s equally flawed whichever one you apply it to. But given the green establishment’s reliance on the concept of sustainability, it’s strange perhaps that it keeps resoundingly schtum on matters of population. The only occasions that the ‘issue’ of over-population gets an airing is when some eco-warrior pitches into an internet forum with something along the lines of ‘when will we acknowledge the elephant in the room and face up to the fact that there’s just too many people?’, which is usually received with an embarrassed silence, or when one of the small cabal centred around the Optimum Population Trust manages to secure a few column inches. (Unless you count this.)
The Green Party, despite having supposedly discussed the matter at its spring conference this year, have no policy on population. All they have to say on the subject is embedded within a so-called ‘policy pointer‘:
a stable or slowly reducing population is also necessary to achieve a sustainable and equitable society
That’s not to say they don’t think there are too many people – they almost certainly do. Or that they are not not concerned that their lack of commitment on the subject undermines their political philosophy – they must be. It’s just that they know that coming out of the closet on over-population will make them even more unelectable than they already are.
Nothing humans have ever done has been sustainable; and nothing that is billed as ‘sustainable’ is sustainable in the sense that it can continue indefinitely. Likewise, nothing is renewable in the sense that Environmentalists mean ‘renewable’. Paving the Sahara with photo-voltaics would be neither renewable nor sustainable. It would be bound to affect local and even global climate. And yet it would be worth doing because of the vast amounts of energy it would provide. But Environmentalists only ever sell ‘renewables’ to us on the basis that it will allow us to keep the lights on given that we’re all going to have to batten down the hatches, scrimp and save, make do and mend. That is all Environmentalism has to offer us, as spelled out, as it happens, in the sub-title of Sir David King’s book, The Hot Topic – How to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights On.
We suggest that greens are pro-‘renewables’ not because they are sustainable or renewable, but because they have not been expected to produce more energy than we have available to us at the moment. The test of that will be to watch and see as the green movement starts opposing large-scale solar projects such as this one.
Given that population control is so repulsive to so many, the only question we need to be discussing is this: How do we provide more energy and more resources for more people? And that’s a discussion that Environmentalists can take no part in. They’ll just have to settle for the voices in their heads for company.
According to architect Austin Williams, sustainability is ‘a philosophy of low aspirations, miserablism, petty-mindedness, parochialism, sanctimony’. Ben has reviewed Williams’ new book The Enemies of Progress: Dangers of Sustainability over at Culture Wars.
The idea of ‘sustainability’, at first glance, has some footing in common sense. To disagree with it seems to mean standing up for unsustainability, defending houses that will collapse: who would be mad enough? Architect Austin Williams’ new book, The Enemies of Progress: Dangers of Sustainability, offers a snapshot of the sustainability’s increasing influence, and gets beneath the sustainable agenda to reveal its true character and aim…
Read the rest of In Praise of Unsustainability here.
In a recent post, we looked at some of Green MEP Caroline Lucas’s arguments for action on climate change. One of them has stuck with us as especially absurd, and merits further attention:
this planet has finite resources. You cannot go on growing indefinitely on a finite planet.
This appeal to ‘physics’ pops up frequently in environmental debates. Interestingly, it’s a tactic also popular with Creationists and their ilk, who cite Newton’s second law of thermodynamics to suggest that evolution contradicts fundamental physical truths. In each case, a woolly argument about how the world should be is patched up with sciency-sounding facts, figures and laws. This is not the tactic of groups confident about their political position; it is a sign of the desperation of groups that are failing to capture the imagination of the world’s population.
In Lucas’s world, the appeal to physics is used as an argument against economic growth and technological development. It is principally a criticism of capitalism, which requires growth and is, therefore, inherently environmentally destructive. It is worth repeating a point we made at the time. The objection to capitalism on the grounds that it contradicts physical laws is a departure from prior objections to capitalism from the Left and is not a criticism of the kind that we would expect the Left to produce. Instead of offering a description of social problems – for example poverty – arising from the social relations produced by capitalism, Lucas seeks to explain social phenomena in terms of geological and biological processes. This is similar to James Garvey’s claims in The Ethics of Climate Change, which appeals to scientific authority to make a case for environmental determinism. In Lucas’s argument, there is a causal chain, from capitalism, via the natural world, to social problems such as poverty, which can be described ‘scientifically’.
Lucas might argue that she could hold both positions simultaneously. But if that were the case, why would it be necessary to emphasise the environmental aspect, let alone mention it at all, given that the social, human-centric perspective is a lot more powerful? The major reason is that the two perspectives are irreconcilable. One looks at social problems as the product of social relations, the other looks at social problems as the consequence of exceeding ‘natural’ limits – ‘unsustainability’. They are further contradictory because we can conceive of non-capitalist growth which is, in the green lexicon, ‘environmentally unfriendly’, but which produces a social good – we could build dams, relocate cities away from coasts, reclaim coasts, create ways for the developing world to have much cheaper access to energy and industrialise agricultural production, and so on. We can also conceive of capitalist growth that is environmentally destructive and yet produces a social good. After all, it’s not as if cars and labour-saving devices and all that stuff have no utility and have been foisted upon people against their will. And it’s not as if economic and technological growth has occurred against a backdrop of lower living standards and declining indicators of social progress. On the contrary, things have got better and better. Lucas – who is unable to make the argument that things are worse in order to challenge capitalism – needs to make the argument that things are about to get worse, and that development of any kind is necessarily environmentally destructive, and so creates a haunting spectre of ‘unsustainability’ and imminent social, ecological and economic collapse.
In this respect, Lucas does not offer us a principled objection to capitalism – she claims that it is wrong in the same way that arguments against gravity would be wrong. Whatever your thoughts about capitalism happen to be, and even if you still believe that environmentalism is a continuation of socialism, it is worth recognising environmentalism’s distance from the traditional Left. It highlights the Left’s political exhaustion, and the environmental movement’s intellectual bankruptcy.
On a similar note, it is not true that notions of sustainable development are antithetical to the economic Right or capitalism. After all Malthus, on whose ideas Lucas’s are based, was a classical economist, whose ideas were debunked by Marx himself. More contemporary conservatives have also embraced the rhetoric of ‘sustainability:
The Government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development. Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded. Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late Twentieth Century
The second problem with Lucas’s argument is that her conception of ‘resources’ is itself flawed. Malthusians – especially environmentalists – misconceive resources as ‘substance’. In a finite universe, never mind a finite world, all substances are of course finite. If our ‘dependence’ on Earth’s resources are ‘unsustainable’ because they are finite, then so too would our much more real dependence on solar, wind and tidal power, be ultimately unsustainable. They are not merely unsustainable in the sense that one day the sun – which drives all renewable sources – will collapse, they are also unsustainable because continued and increasing dependence on this form of energy itself cannot be sustained against growing numbers of people – there is only a limited amount of recoverable energy entering the system at any time. According to environmentalists, this is why we must therefore limit the number of people and ration the amount of energy they are entitled to. We are in favour of some of the large projects which have been conceived of as part of a ‘post-carbon economy’ for their own sake, particularly the idea of large, solar energy collecting arrays. Covering the uninhabited land of the Sahara with solar panels, for example, might provide 50 times the power used currently across the globe. But such projects, including hydro-electric, are met by environmentalists with anxiety about the environmental destruction that large scale developments necessarily cause. And, as we have seen, Environmentalists are against environmental destruction, even where it produces a social benefit.
And anyway, development itself is not intrinsically bad for nature. First, as economies develop, they are inclined to pay increasing attention to the environmental effects of development as wealth allows. Compare the once filthy development in the West to the comparatively cleaner industries of today. Even the destructive process of open-cast mining reinstates wilderness. Indeed, yesterday’s open cast mines are today’s nature reserves. They are clean ecological slates on which Mother Nature can work her magic of colonisation and succession, and are often home to rare, specialist species that are not found elsewhere. Similarly, landfill sites are recovered and repopulated with trees, and what’s more, nobody would want to develop on top of them, whereas nature hardly cares. Second, technological development allows for the possibility of moving away from a dependence on natural processes, resulting in a reduced industrial footprint as both science and economics permit. It would not require a leap of imagination to consider the shifting away from rural agriculture, to an indoor process, under perfect conditions. The reason for not doing that now is that ‘solar power’ makes using fields for crop production far cheaper. But a more abundant form of power would render such forms of production obsolete and inefficient. Of course, organic food faddists would baulk at the idea of lentils grown indoors. But such a step would create the possibility of safer, healthier, more plentiful food, protected from pests and other natural problems, and, of course, would be environmentally non-destructive. This would be a ‘green revolution’ second to none, as agricultural land would be freed up for other uses, including, if we so wished, nature conservation. What environmentalists should be calling for is a world-wide push for new ways of producing more and more energy, and more wealth, not arguing that it should be rationed and limited. Rationing is a guaranteed way to cause environmental problems. That they don’t reinforces the idea that Environmentalism is less about saving the planet per se and more to do with a discomfort with human aspirations.
Access to substance and its existence in sufficient quantities are only part of what constitutes a resource. The remainder is intellectual. Lucas herself must recognise this to some extent, because, as she knows only too well, methods such as domestic solar panels are not currently economically viable alternatives to centralised, fossil-fuel power generation. She argues that huge investments and massive infrastructural changes are needed to develop technology, and for the economics to be adjusted to make alternatives viable. So in this respect, solar energy and other renewables are not yet the ‘resources’ that she hopes them to become. So Lucas’s argument for renewable resources to be exploited in place of fossil fuels is predicated on a transformed relationship with a substance, and the development of the technology to make that exploitation possible. She cannot deny, then, that politics – as much as physics – are what determines which substances are resources.
Back to Lucas’s blind faith in the laws of physics… 500 years ago, oil was not a resource. Neither was uranium. People around at the time didn’t know how to use them. Things that weren’t resources became resources. Our ability to use new resources made old resources obsolete. Now, no home in the UK needs to burn wood for heat, for example. Or, as Bjørn Lomborg has put it, the Stone Age didn’t come to an end because we ran out of stones. What Malthusians forget is that development begats development. After all, you don’t make a jump from rubbing twigs together to atomic energy. Critics of this perspective on this site suggest that this represents some form of contemporary Lysenkoism – that blind faith in science’s ability to rescue us from future resource depletion is a dangerous, politically-motivated folly. They argue that science will not be able to continually provide ‘techno-fixes’ to the problems which emerge from our ways of life. We must come up against some ceiling sooner or later, the logic goes.
But anxiety about ‘growing indefinitely on a finite planet’ forgets that our abilities to make use of the finite space and finite resources increases the effective space and amount of resources that are available. And there is a colossal amount of space, and an abundance of resources out there. For example, we hear a lot about the looming ‘water wars’ that are to be fought because of apparent shortages. A quick look at any map will reveal that the Earth isn’t running out of it any time soon. The problem is simply technological. Instead of concerning themselves with how to provide for a growing population by coming up with desalination, distribution and irrigation schemes, the environmental movement instead uses the prospect of conflict to arm its arguments in favour of restricting development and of rationing what water comes our way through natural processes. What better way could there be of guaranteeing a ‘natural’ disaster than limiting the supply of resources – super abundant resources, never mind oil – to human populations? Environmentalists simultaneously warn of shortages, yet stand in the way of developing any alternatives that might not last ‘indefinitely’. There is only one way out of the resource-depletion scenario that is presented, they say, reduce the number of people, and the amount of resources they are entitled to.
What environmentalists refuse to consider is what a resource- and energy-abundant society might be like. What if stuff in the world just got cheaper? What if access to water and energy wasn’t an issue for anyone in the world? Perhaps, just perhaps, it is this very democratisation of resource use that the environmental movement is a response to. The possibilities that are opened up by technological development for our way of life and our politics are the real locus of anxieties about the future.
Environmentalists demand an impossibly high standard. Nothing the human race has ever done to improve its conditions has been ‘sustainable’. As technologies have changed our lives, and created new problems, so too have new politics arisen out of these changing conditions. If this process had been stalled during any era on the basis that it was unsustainable, we would still be living in stone-age conditions, with stone-age politics – at least, that is, until we really did run out of stones.
Writing in the Guardian this week, John Vidal says,
The government is in danger of losing credibility on climate change because more than half of all its departments are failing to reduce their carbon emissions enough to reach levels that the nation as a whole is expected to meet.
This data is from the Sustainable Development Commission, who are, they tell us,
the Government’s independent watchdog on sustainable development, reporting to the Prime Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. Through advocacy, advice and appraisal, we help put sustainable development at the heart of Government policy.
The fact that there is a public institution watching over the other public institutions to make sure they are ‘sustainable’, might have once implied some kind of economic auditing process in the public interest. But this quango is more worried about the UK Government’s carbon footprint than the uncorrupted delivery of public goods. The Commission’s website front page says,
Carbon emissions from offices have fallen by 4% since 1999, however nearly two thirds of departments are still not on track to meet the target of reducing carbon emissions from offices by 12.5% by 2010. The sixth annual assessment of government operations finds that, despite encouraging initiatives, government is still not on course to meet targets and urgently needs to raise its game.
But who gives a toss what the UK Government’s performance in delivering ‘sustainability’ actually is? Did anyone vote at the last elections for the concept of ‘sustainability’? Governments are supposed to deliver public goods, and the level of ‘sustainability’ of that process bears no relation to the utility of those services, the legitimacy of delivering services to particular end users, or the diligence of the civil servants engaged in delivering services. As long as services are being delivered, then it’s not as if anyone is being robbed.
Words that used to mean something in political discourse related to human experience; ‘Libertie, Egalitie, Fraternitie’. We know what these words mean, even if we might enjoy the expression of them in different ways. Similarly, once the influence of Churches and accidents of birth no longer had so much pull on the direction of society, political ideas were about how society might be more legitimately organised so as to best realise those values.
Today’s green buzzwords are instead designed to bridge the chasm between Environmentalism’s objectives and human values. Like ‘balance’ (as in ‘the climate is out of balance’), ‘sustainability’ in fact has very little meaning. Your house is not ‘sustainable’ – it is, at some point, going to fall down, or be knocked down. You are not sustainable – you are going to die, at some point. Nothing material is ‘sustainable’. The political currency of these words has not been achieved by the prospect of them making the world a better place, but by capturing anxieties about the security of the future. The values of ‘sustainability’ and localism reflect a breakdown in the belief in society and its ability to improve life through industry and democratic organisation. Indeed, industry becomes an antithesis to Environmentalism, and pesky democracy just gets in the way of ‘ethical’ lifestyles.
Environmentalism’s attempts to justify itself on a rational basis by using ‘science’ belie its mystical foundations; ‘sustainable’ lifestyles which are ‘balanced’ or otherwise in ‘harmony’ with ‘nature’ are designed well before any scientific evidence exists that they will have any effect whatsoever. Hairshirt lifestyles and Gaia worship existed before the Gaia hypothesis. Now it’s trendy, not because the world has been brought up to speed on the science, but because the ‘ethics’ are so appealing in our ethically disorientated world. In other words, being ‘sustainable’ is not about one’s actual ‘impact’, but about distancing oneself from the chaotic, immoral world in favour of the comforting morality of natural orders.
Vidal is wrong, the Government may be embarrassed by it’s performance, but this will not undermine its credibility, because no one cares. In setting up the quango, it set itself up to be embarrassed, but this embarrassment will not make any difference because only a small group of people believe that ‘sustainability’ actually means anything.