“Environmental Justice” – a Fiction

by | Nov 7, 2008

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.


  1. Alex Cull

    So let’s see… According to Oxfam: “…rich countries’ greenhouse-gas emissions are violating the human rights of people in developing countries.” I wonder if anyone at Oxfam is aware of a report this year by the Global Carbon Project which states that developing countries now account for 53% of the world’s man-made CO2. And that India is set to overtake Russia and become the third largest emitter (according to an AFP news report, back in September.)

    Maybe they exercised their imaginations so much, when devising Algoria, that they finally lost any semblance of contact with the real world.

  2. Stefan

    Thank you for this article.

    You really point out the simple self-contradictions in their thinking. They seem to believe that they are taking a highly moral stance, but because they are some sort of neo-romantics, they are blinkered to the basic need for health, technology, infrastructure, and prosperity.

    I’ve lived in African countries, and even as a Westerner in my nice expat neighborhood, it is plainly obvious that Africa’s development needs are critical and practical. Educated westerners who think village life is noble and good should move to one, and live there as the Africans do, and then Nature will teach them a thing or two about the environment.

    Oxfam is another charity I have to cross of my list for donations.

  3. Alex Cull

    Stefan, that’s a good point about the educated Westerners and their rosy ideas about life in a village with few amenities. Here in the UK, it will be interesting if any of the planned “eco-towns” are ever built. Not that any of them will be as basic as villages in Sudan or the Congo, but it will be fascinating to see how those people yearning for the carbon-neutral lifestyle will actually cope.

  4. geoff chambers

    When you started picking on Oxfam, I thought you were maybe being a bit harsh on an organisation which was fundamentally decent, if maybe misguided. So I checked their website.

    The home page has a section ‘Good ideas we love”. Stepping round “Can you recycle dog poo?” I clicked on “Gling’s the thing” – it’s about buying your gold and diamonds from ethical sources – I swear – and found an animated window of climate change slogans called “The power of Do”. I’d like to think Oxfam has fallen into the hands of an ad agency run by secret climate sceptics with a great sense of humour, but the rest of the site suggests otherwise.

    Under “campaign subjects”, Climate Change is listed ahead of Health, Education, Fair Trade and Arms control. The first two climate clips concerned an Indonesian painter and a sculptor in Mozambique – success stories in the Great Game of convincing children in the third world that we Westerners have the power to control their weather . Oxfam (plus the UN, G8, EU, old Uncle Obama and all) has taken on the role of the tribal shaman, so elegantly criticised over a century ago by Sir James Frazer in his study of primitive religious beliefs. At this point I gave up. Stefan talks (charitably) of crossing Oxfam off his list for donations. I feel like hounding them out of existence. But how?

  5. TDK

    My experience of working in Africa is that the vast majority of people desire to achieve western standards of living and that means health, income, ability to buy consumer goods, travel and so on. If they express any desire to sue the west for infringement of their “social justice” rights, it is because of western barriers to achieving this. So they would desire that the hypercritical west dismantle trade barriers and allow free trade.

    Now, I won’t overstate this. There is considerable disagreement amongst the people I met as to whether the faults of African leaders are the principle cause of African poverty or merely a contributory factor, and there is disagreement about whether the west is deliberately impoverishing Africa or is merely trying to balance competing interests to Africa’s expense.

    Nevertheless they do unite over the desire to escape poverty and achieve affluence, which brings me to an interesting essay question for our competitive minded lawyers and law students.

    put forward the strongest legal case possible to demonstrate that rich countries’ aid agencies are violating the human rights of people in developing countries through the pursuit of policies that are designed to impede development.

    Prize 100,000 air miles.

  6. Patronising smoothie

    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

    Of course it is by such logic that buying 9 sickly organic fairtrade biscuits your fighting climate change and world hunger

    “Yum Yum Save the Planet”

  7. Patronising smoothie

    Having slept on it Oxfam really do seem patronising – it’s like that’s just how these ethnics like to live you know – trying to conserve scrape by life styles whilst adding a litter tray – progress evolution and improvement aren’t about stasis

    Your last post against Oxfam produced at least one emotional rant – like another poster I have worked for Oxfam in the past, but if you consider Oxfams policies (through which they hope to achieve stated aims) beyond criticism you are not true to those aims and I am sure, probably well meaningly enough, Oxfam really have lost the way

  8. talisker

    Like your last attack on Oxfam, this one shows an extraordinary level of ignorance (or more likely wilful misrepresentation) of what Oxfam actually does, as well as of the living conditions of the people it works with. Of course the organisation is not beyond criticism, any more than any other – but any meaningful criticism needs to be based on accurate representation of its work and policies. Yours isn’t.

    It’s hard to know where to start with a posting so rife with distortion and flawed logic, but let me pick up on one subject of which I have some close personal knowledge – sanitation in rural villages. I lived in such a village in southern Africa for over a year, for several months of that time in a house with the most basic of toilet arrangements – a bucket in a shed, emptied every week by an official shit collector (at least that was the idea – often he didn’t turn up, and who can blame him?). Some villagers didn’t even have access to this arrangement, but were obliged to use the surrounding fields.
    Eventually I moved into another house with a pit latrine – considerably less sophisticated than those Oxfam is now helping to provide, but nevertheless a vast improvement.

    Having seen it at close quarters, I have absolutely no romantic notion of the nobility of rural poverty, and nor, I should imagine, do any of the Oxfam volunteers around the world. The whole point of their work is to help people escape from such conditions, improve their incomes, avoid the many diseases associated with lack of sanitation, help provide people with access to education, etc.

    Do you seriously suppose that Oxfam or other similar agencies have some kind of ideological objection to people from rural communities attaining more than basic levels of sanitation, healthcare and education? The rather obvious point is that you have to start somewhere. How is a child who does not even have the means to become literate going to go on to higher levels of education? How likely is it that a child who suffers from malnutrition or who contracts a disease preventable by basic sanitation is going to be able to achieve his or her aspirations?

    If, by waving some wand, Oxfam could provide flushing toilets and advanced sewage disposal systems to all the 2.6 billion people without even basic sanitation, do you suppose it would not do so? In countries where water is a scarce resource and capital for such large-scale infrastructure projects even scarcer, this is simply not going to happen any time soon, and in the meantime thousands of people are dying each day from the lack of the sanitation systems of the sort that you find so pathetically beneath what people ought to expect.

    Oxfam is not attempting to dictate the aspirations of people in the communities it works with. But by helping to provide essential sanitation, healthcare, education, etc, it is substantially improving the chances of such people being able to achieve any aspirations they might have. Your entire argument is in fact based on a non sequitur of the crudest sort: the notion that because Oxfam seeks to help poor people gain access to basic facilities, it must therefore desire for people to have no more than these, that it wishes to ‘celebrate’ rural poverty or keep people ‘trapped’ in it. In your last attack on the organisation, you sought to back up this feeble non sequitur by reference to an unnamed report that you claimed stated this aim explicitly. As I showed, the report in question did nothing of the sort, and you have failed to come up with any further evidence to back up your assertion.

    I wonder if your observation that “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” is something you’ve picked up on your political science course? If so, I suggest that you ask for a refund, as it is utter nonsense. History is full of the struggles of small-scale farmers, from Europe to Latin America to Asia, to achieve rights over the land they work and its produce, with varying degrees of success. Your inability to recognise this is perhaps a reflection of the extent to which you feel the need to cling to Marxian ideology – even its most discredited elements (in this case, Marx’s contemptuous attitude to rural societies, which you attempted to deny so unconvincingly in our last exchange).

    In the unlikely event of you wishing to widen your reading on the subject beyond the sacred texts of Marxism, you might, for example, look at Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy or Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. As Moore says: “The process of modernisation begins with peasant revolutions that fail. It culminates during the twentieth century with peasant revolutions that succeed. No longer is it possible to take seriously the view that the peasant is an “object of history”, a form of life over which changes pass but which contributes nothing to the impetus of these changes.”

    As to your discussion of climate justice – well, whatever the merits of the concept, your treatment of it would be pretty thin even for a GCSE-level civics essay. The phrase ‘climate justice’ does not assume climate to be a conscious agent, any more than a phrase such as ‘food justice’ or ‘land justice’ assumes food or land to be agents of the same order as a human being. What it does assume is that the decisions made by people and their governments can affect the way that the climate develops, with results that impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

    (Incidentally, you also have a very limited understanding of the concept of liability if you think that this depends on intentionality. As any lawyer will tell you, it can also be based on neglect – particularly wilful neglect.)

    Despite this, I’m doubtful whether a case such as Oxfam is inviting people to make could in fact be successfully prosecuted, and it’s far from clear to me whether they actually intend to do so. It would appear that this is more an exercise in attracting people’s attention to the question of human agency and responsibility in relation to climate change, whether or not liability could be proved in a legal sense. And that, I think, is why you object to it so much.

    You are simply not prepared to accept that there is a causal link between human activity and climate change, as you explicitly state here: “It is impossible to substantiate the claim that any climate event or change is the consequence of anthropogenic climate change.” This is a characteristically slippery and circuitous statement. As you well know, very few, if any, climate scientists would be prepared to say that any single event is the result of anthropogenic change (and it’s partly for that reason that I think a legal case would be problematic). But the vast majority of such scientists are convinced that ongoing trends and changes, such as the rapid melting of glaciers that we are currently witnessing, are indeed the result of warming due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

    Of course, the whole point of your blog is to cast doubt on the strong evidence on which this view is based, or, failing that, on the motivations of individuals and organisations who are prompted to act seriously upon it.

  9. Editors

    Talisker forgets to defend the maxim ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’ against the criticism that it is being poor – not the climate – which is the problem.

    We can end poverty. We can’t promise that mitigation of climate change will make life better for anyone. As we have shown to Talisker many times, there is no evidence that anthropogenic climate change can be attributed to any case of poverty, or of poverty worsening because of it.

    He says that ‘you’ve got to start somewhere’. We don’t think that pits full of shit are starting anywhere.

    The first sewers were built in ancient Rome, nearly 3000 years ago. To say that sewers are not immediately possible in 2008, in the developing world is patronising beyond belief. Here in the UK, sewage systems and piped water have been around for long enough that we can take it for granted. A ‘basic lifestyle’ in the UK would consist of, at least, running water, electricity, and so on. Why should ‘basic lifestyles’ consist of something else, elsewhere? We would not put up with communal toilets beside open pits of festering excrement. Why should that be the ambition of an organisation which claims to be concerned with human development?

    Talisker asks us,

    ‘Do you seriously suppose that Oxfam or other similar agencies have some kind of ideological objection to people from rural communities attaining more than basic levels of sanitation, healthcare and education?’

    It is indeed the conclusion we are coming to after examining Oxfam’s reframing of its understanding of development in environmental terms. It suggests that Oxfam has a naturalised its understanding of social, economic and political processes – people are subjects of the environment in this framework, or rather ought to be. This is political, ideological, and necessarily it stands in the way of material progress. It turns development into a zero-sum game, in which finite resources are inequitably distributed, reducing one half of the world to helpless victims, and the other into culprits who must make a gift to the victims of ‘human rights’ and ‘justice’ prior to establishing itself (Oxfam) as the mediator in the political process. This cements Oxfam’s role. As we have pointed out before, if there are no victims, there is no Oxfam. More to follow in the next post, you will be delighted to hear.

    We are surprised that you even ask the question. Virtually the entire environmental movement constantly tells us we must make do with less. It tells us that we should have composting toilets, and that centralised power generation is bad, roads are bad, factories are bad, and that we should be self-sufficient. It is framed in terms of necessity, but however true that necessity is (according the ‘science’) its consequences are inevitably political. It calls for the reorganisation of society like never before. It is ideological. If it isn’t ideological, what is it?

    Talisker is confused about our claim that “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”

    This isn’t true he says, citing the historic struggles of small scale farmers of times gone by, ‘with varying degrees of success’. But it would be truer to say less varying degrees of failure. The Tolpuddle Martyrs, for example. Or the Diggers. It is a theme of Talisker’s silly comments to criticise us for some secret Marxism, which is somehow interchangeable with Stalinism and Maoism. In his recent post in which Talisker defended Oxfam’s celebration of rural poverty, for example, he cited the Kulaks. So, he ought to know then, that peasants start off from a poor footing in struggles with state bureaucracy, and rarely win. But there’s no need to take our word for it, we quoted Oxfam’s Kate Raworth, who said, ‘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’. If poor people don’t lack the material means to organise themselves, then why would Oxfam’s campaign be necessary? Talisker appears to suffer from an inability to understand the logic of the argument he is defending, let alone criticism of it. He can call it Marxism if he likes, but the observation that economic development is a condition for political development is a view Marx shared with Weber and Adam Smith, amongst many, many others. It is only in the dank recesses of what passes for relativistic ‘thought’ can political rights emerge from societies characterised by ‘basic lifestyles’.

    More to the point, Talisker believes that “people whose lives are consumed by small scale agriculture” do not “lack the material means to organise themselves to demand and to create justice and rights”, but that they are so stupid that they need Oxfam to turn up to tell them to build pits for their shit. If this isn’t a contradiction, what is?

    He goes on… “the decisions made by people and their governments can affect the way that the climate develops, with results that impact on people’s lives and livelihoods”, this seemingly to defend Oxfam’s conception of ‘climate justice’ in the face of our criticism. As we have pointed out, the ‘decisions made by people and their governments’ which affect people in the developing world are principally economic. We can see how economic decisions in the West (e.g. agricultural subsidies – especially to create surplus which is given as aid) go on to “impact on people’s lives and livelihoods” in the developing world. Meanwhile, we cannot see how climate has changed, and the ‘evidence’ which Oxfam offers to support its case is paper thin, as we showed in the post on Bangladesh.

    We have neglected to consider the legal concept of liability, Talisker reminds us. This point is irrelevant. As we pointed out, the ‘crime’ is not dependent on the action of the perpetrator of an act, but on the status of the victim. Under this logic, an act which is benign could cause harm. If negligence is the factor which determines the culpability of the developed world, then prosecuting the developed world for its ‘climate negligence’ makes about as much sense as only prosecuting the perpetrator of a violent robbery for failing to call an ambulance for his victim.

    Talisker says that he believes that our problem with Oxfam is merely that it is highlighting the global warming case. But our criticism of Oxfam and environmentalism in general is the damage it is causing to the understanding of development. He says “You are simply not prepared to accept that there is a causal link between human activity and climate change” but we have never ‘denied’ that there is a ‘link’. He goes on “the vast majority of such scientists are convinced that ongoing trends and changes, such as the rapid melting of glaciers that we are currently witnessing, are indeed the result of warming due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions”. Aside from the fact that Talisker cannot show what ‘the vast majority of such scientists’ actually amounts to, nor what it can be compared to, we have never doubted that it is possible. What we have said, many many times, is that glaciers melting (in fact, many are growing for the first time in many years) is not equivalent to the problems experienced by people in the developing world. That is to say that their problems are not environmental. As Mike Hulme, Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, and erstwhile Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, put it,

    To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science. Is any amount of climate change catastrophic? Catastrophic for whom, for where, and by when? What index is being used to measure the catastrophe

    If we look at the ‘for whom’, ‘where’ and ‘by when’, we see that the principal problems are poverty, inequality, and lack of development. Changing the weather, or rather changing behaviour with the intention of stopping the changing of the weather will not make those conditions any better.

    Talisker finishes by saying that our intention is “to cast doubt on the strong evidence on which this view is based”. This is bullshit. The focus of this blog is the use of climate science in politics. We don’t ‘do’ the ‘science’ very often because, as we have said often enough, environmentalism is a political phenomenon, and it needs to be understood politically. We do compare the words of political arguments for action on climate change to the science they are ‘based on’, and frequently find that there is a great disparity between them – Oxfam’s reports are particularly bad, as we have shown, and will continue to show. Lastly, we are attempting to show “the motivations of individuals and organisations who are prompted to act seriously upon it”. Talisker seems to believe these ideas are above criticism, and that we are not entitled to subject their claims to scrutiny.

  10. Stefano Mori

    talisker wrote:
    this is more an exercise in attracting people’s attention to the question of human agency and responsibility

    OK, talisker, I want to say this directly to you: You can’t change people.

    Here’s what I mean. We know that some individuals have very little empathy. Maybe it’s a physiological problem, or maybe their parenting. Lacking empathy these individuals will be prone to violent acts. However, they might nevertheless be restrained from committing them out of fear of being caught and punished. Note what is happening: the law is enforcing a behavioral change, but the individuals themselves have NOT been changed. Old criminals become more peaceful because the know they can no longer win a fight, even though they still have the desire to do so. They did not learn empathy.

    A certain amount of change is possible in normal life with parenting, education, schooling, and so on. However, nobody really understands why two kids from the same family will turn out so different. Different kids in the same school attending the same class with the same experiences will perform very differently. Some will thrive whilst others drop out. I’m just trying to get this point across, if the environmental movement wants to tackle climate change by educating us into becoming more sensitive individuals, IT WILL FAIL.

    Oxfam sends out a message, in the form of an exercise, to get people to pay attention and start thinking about connected responsibility. Did anyone get the message?? You had to come along and explain what it was supposed to be about, and how we all misunderstood it. Well find me someone who isn’t an environmentalist who was changed by this message from Oxfam. And I mean changed positively, like they started thinking about the environment and wanting to help, I don’t mean changed negatively as in they thought Oxfam has lost the plot and are further evidence that environmentalists are delusional.

    I would say that the part where the environmental movement is “being delusional” is their mistaken belief that they can change people. The belief that we just need to educate people, just help them with the right message, get them to feel a desire in their hearts to care for the environment. Wouldn’t the world be a much better place for that? Well sure. Can you make people that way? Nope.

    Have you perhaps asked yourself, why are you an environmentalist and someone else isn’t? What motivated you to work for Oxfam, and why is it that other people aren’t? Can you describe the specific things that made you that way and which would make someone else that way too? These are all unknown. We just don’t know how to “grow people better”. And yet as a whole humanity does move forward; it happens in its own way and it takes a long time. If you want everyone to care about the environment, to feel their responsibility for what is happening on the other side of the world, feel it so deeply that they will make meaningful changes to their lifestyle, then keep preaching… and wait 100 years. That’s how old the Women’s Suffragettes are, and yet we still don’t have real equality. Social change is slow, it takes a long time, it is like very slow deep currents.

    So this exercise in “attracting people’s attention to the question of human agency and responsibility”… it attracted attention. But has anyone changed and come to feel meaningful care? As an exercise the idea only makes sense to the people who already feel the care and responsibility. The exercise was dreamt up by people who feel the care and responsibility. Anyone else? To anyone else it just sounds ludicrous.

  11. Editors


    Talisker (rather like Oxfam) is only interested in the concept of human agency to the extent that it allows him to make the perpetrators of ‘climate crime’ feel guilty, or otherwise criminally responsible. Notice how they do not credit the poor with the faculty of agency; they (the poor) can’t even work out how to build a pit, in Oxfam’s view. It is as if it never occurred to them. Hence, they talk about ‘basic lifestyles’, and ‘reducing poverty’, and use their substantial resources to influence the development agenda away from ‘unsustainable’ projects. Yet if you asked people ‘would you like running water and sewage systems, and electrified homes, or would you prefer treadle-pumps and a goat’, they’d almost certainly opt for the former. “They’re just trying to help”, Talisker might answer. But limiting the development agenda to the ‘basics’ precludes the kind of development that the people who Oxfam say they want to help have a much more sophisticated understanding of than Oxfam give them credit for.

    So we’re not sure about your argument that ‘you can’t change people’. We think you can, otherwise, what would be the point of debate? I think you recognise this later on where you say that Oxfam will only change minds with this campaign, negatively.

    Furthermore, we ought to credit people who turn out to be environmentalists with having arrived at a decision through some kind of rational process – otherwise there would be no point in discussing things with them. Even if they’re got there through mistakes (as far as we are concerned) such as placing confidence in the reports of ‘the vast majority of climate scientists’, we ought to recognise that this is ‘rational’ insofar as it is a claim which could be scrutinised. The fact that it isn’t scrutinised is something we can criticise the environmental movement (and the political process and media) for, but not really individuals. The question we are interested in is less ‘why do individuals become environmentalists’ and more ‘why is environmentalism so influential’. In our view, that has less to do with individuals being convinced of the necessity of environmentalism, and more to do with it being a framework which is convenient to the establishment – in the widest sense of the word ‘establishment’. E.g. NGOs, governments, states, the media, supra-national organisations such as the UN and EU, and political movements. What other substance do they have to organise themselves with? More to the point, ‘human agency’ itself is a problem for them.

  12. talisker

    As I stated clearly, I do not believe Oxfam to be beyond criticism. But criticism that is based on a mendacious picture of an organisation’s activities and objectives is simply worthless.

    You say: “We don’t think that pits full of shit are starting anywhere.” I’ve already pointed out the obvious reasons why improving basic sanitation is in fact an excellent place to start (not to finish) improving people’s life chances. But you clearly haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about here. You say “We would not put up with communal toilets beside open pits of festering excrement. Why should that be the ambition of an organisation which claims to be concerned with human development?” The toilets that Oxfam is helping to install are mostly in places such as schools, clinics and refugee camps and are not “open pits of festering excrement”. They are sealed, and hence vastly more sanitary than the arrangements they replace. They also offer privacy to their users, which is another important improvement, especially when you consider that in Africa and other parts of the world many girls are deterred from attending school because they can find no safe, secure place to retire to when having periods.

    Where it is possible to introduce flushing or pour/flush toilets without danger of polluting sources of drinking water, Oxfam and other NGOs will typically do this, with many teams of hydraulic engineers working to improve water supplies to poor communities. The priority is to ensure clean supplies of drinking water, because contaminated water is by far the biggest cause of preventable disease and death in such communities.

    If, however, you have privileged access to some master plan that will enable flush toilets and advanced sewage-disposal systems to magically materialise in all the world’s poor communities “immediately”, then I’m sure we’d all would be most grateful to be let in on the details.

    You say I think people in poor rural communities are “so stupid that they need Oxfam to turn up to tell them to build pits for their shit”. On the contrary, my experience of living and working in such a community has shown me that such people are just as capable of practical, intellectual and economic achievement as anybody – but that they lack opportunities and capital resources to develop these abilities. An organisation like Oxfam can help supply such opportunities and capital resources. In the case of sanitation, for example, Oxfam can supply the capital needed to hire mechanical diggers to dig deep holes in rocky ground, which would otherwise be extremely difficult given the resources available. It can supply the hydraulic engineering expertise to locate and tap into previously unavailable sources of safe drinking water. It can train local people in the skills needed to do the same and to maintain such systems. To offer such help is neither trivial nor patronising.

    And, by the way, to say that such transfer of capital and skills is desirable is not at all the same as saying that the world’s rural poor are incapable of organising and struggling for economic and political rights on their own part. To make it absolutely clear: they are well capable of this, through organisations such as the many agricultural workers’ unions that exist worldwide – and also of seeing how alliances with and support from international organisations such as Oxfam, Amnesty International and the ILO can be beneficial to their cause. Expert advice on issues such as human rights law is one form that such support can take – and again, it is neither trivial nor patronising to offer such support.

    Your point about climate and the environment being political issues will hardly come as news to anyone with even a passing interest in these subjects. Of courser they are political, and it is the environmental movement that has placed them squarely on the political agenda. But they are political issues on which scientific evidence has a crucially important bearing. Mike Hulme’s remarks about overuse of the language of catastrophe are interesting, and to an extent I’d agree with him. What you neglect to tell us (and why would you?) is that the reason Hulme is worried about overuse of such language is precisely because he thinks that if it creates the impression that we are all inexorably doomed, this may undermine willingness to change our behaviour. In the same piece, he writes: “I believe climate change is real, must be faced and action taken. But the discourse of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society onto a negative, depressive and reactionary trajectory.”

    For another interesting piece by Hulme, in which he explores the social and political perspectives to climate change in far more depth and subtlety than anything I have seen on this blog, see his recent article for Open Democracy, at http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/amid-the-financial-storm-redirecting-climate-change

    The success or otherwise of rurally based social and political movements over the centuries is a huge subject, but it is hard to see how anyone could deny the key role of the peasantry in (say) the Chinese revolution of 1949.

    Finally, on a much smaller point of historical accuracy, you are wrong to say that the first sewage systems were in ancient Rome. In fact they were in cities of the Indus Valley about a thousand years before Rome emerged as a civilisation – see http://www.sewerhistory.org/grfx/wh_region/indus1.htm. Like the later Roman system, these were essentially covered channels that discharged untreated waste into a river. But historical accuracy is obviously of scant interest to political – ahem –“scientists”.

    Stefano – I hope you’re wrong about the futility of such debates as I’ve conducted here. Unfortunately, I suspect you are right, not because people like the Editors are evil or even because they are stupid, but because their adherence to a half-baked ideology blinds them to most obvious of facts and the most gaping logical holes in their arguments. It’s a bit like trying to persuade David Irving that the holocaust actually happened, or trying to convince a 9-11 “truther” that the World Trade Centre was not in fact blown up by the CIA. Entertaining for a while, but ultimately dispiriting. Life is too short and there is too much else to do.

    So I’m going to leave the Editors of Climate Resistance to carry on their campaign of sneering and jeering for the benefit of their small but appreciative audience of the paranoid and the easily gullible. I’m sure they won’t miss me.

  13. Editors

    If, as Talisker argues, the thing preventing the development of proper infrastructure in the developing world is the lack of political opportunities and capital (rather than intellectual), why is Oxfam making the case the the problem is climatic?

    Talisker is leaving the discussion because he knows his argument is not robust. His own sneering and jeering is exhausted.

    Good bye Talisker.

  14. Luke Warmer

    Editors –

    I’m small but appreciative.

    Shame Talisker doesn’t get Bill Easterly’s stuff either.

    Perhaps we could run a competition in parallel with Oxfam’s:

    the plaintiff is the poor

    the defendant(s) are the duplicated, top heavy, unfocused and misdirected aid agencies who spend so much on advertising, lobbying and campaigning and who now threaten their own existence by trying too hard to shoe-horn climate change into the equation.

    Actually, donors could also be on the plaintiff’s side.

  15. Stefano Mori

    Talisker, thanks for your rendition of the kind of work that Oxfam does in Africa. That’s the work I thought Oxfam was famous for, and for which it is deservedly well regarded.

    I skimmed over the article you linked to, and I’d like to comment on this part:

    “The latter suggests that no substantial progress on climate-change goals will be secured without confronting the prevailing “extrinsic” values (material goods, financial success, image) by which society largely operates, and replacing them with “intrinsic” values (personal growth, emotional intimacy, community involvement). ”

    I’m not sure if you are aware, but there is a field called developmental psychology, where researchers investigate people’s values. Various developmental psychologists over the years have come up with a number of models of people’s values, and also of other things like their self sense, their core worldview, their cognitive stage, and so on.

    It is very interesting because the paragraph from the article you linked, talks about the need to move from one set of values (extrinsic), to another set of values (intrinsic).

    In the various models, there are not just two values like extrinsic and intrinsic, but there are five or even eight depending on which researcher you talk to. And both of the ones I know about include very similar corresponding descriptions of what is above being called extrinsic and intrinsic. In the model of Spiral Dynamics, extrinsic is called orange and intrinsic is called green. And as it happens in that model, green is indeed the stage that appears after orange. They interview people, find they register orange. Ten years later they re-interview, and find now some of the people who previously registered orange, now register green. But the shift isn’t observed in the other direction, which implies that there is a developmental sequence. Usually people shift in response to problems that cannot be solved at the previous level.

    There are other levels as well (purple, red, blue) but those exist even prior to orange. Orange is the average level at which most of the West is currently centered, but a fair percentage, maybe 20%, have already shifting to green, with its intrinsic concern for personal growth and community.

    Since I became aware of these models, it has often occurred to me that what the environmental movement is really trying to do, is to get people with orange values to shift to having green values. The “environmental justice” idea is kinds typical of such efforts. And that is I think the reason why so many people accuse environmentalism of being a “religion”, because in general we associate religion with morality, and green’s morality–its valuing of personal growth for its own sake and for the greater good of the planet–is a moral injunction demanding action. So it sounds religious, but its not about God, but it is about morality, about adopting a new set of values, green values.

    So it is very interesting that you’ve quoted from an article that is explicit about these two stages of values.

    As much as it is true that people do shift to green when they begin to feel an emptiness with modern luxuries, and start to long for connection, for self-insight, for more care–as much as this movement has been happening, and 20% are already now green…. here is why I said to you that you cannot change people: the researchers working on those models of values, find in general that it takes a minimum of 5 to 10 years for a person to shift from one value stage to the next. And that is if they are trying.

    Editors, yes rational argument has its function, and you can certainly discuss issues in a technical and logical way. Like, why is the computer broken? I think it is the motherboard, but you say no, the light came on so I think it is the hard drive, and so on. These are simple questions about knowledge and application. But have you even noticed when you are locked in a debate with someone–say your opponent had 10 rational points, and you demolished each point one by one. Say it is a values laden issue like abortion. Do you find that your opponent, having had all his points demolished, and having nothing left to rebut your points with, concedes that you are right? Or do they still stick to their values and still proclaim, “no it is wrong!” even though they have no words or points left to back it up? What you have just encountered is a clash of values, and that you cannot change. If you are really clashing over values, go away, wait 10 years, and then see if they have changed.

    Talisker, as I say, the environmental movement is correct that to truly address the problem, we need people to have green/intrinsic values. (it is also arguable whether green is enough, or whether you have to go a stage further–green has its issues you know).

    When 80% of people are green, you can stand up and say that the environment is more important than the economy, and you will get 80% agreement!! You can stand up and say that polluters are criminals who should be made to pay and you will get a standing ovation! Everyone will vote for that!

    But most people in the world are not green/intrinsic. And you can’t make them become that.

    See the thing is, we don’t actually know what it is that makes a person shift their values from blue to orange to green to yellow. Many people in life stay blue their whole lives–very nationalistic, very respectful of hierarchies and authorities, very patriotic. Some people will stay orange all their lives–extrinsic material gains. Why do some change and others don’t? No idea. It is a mystery. It is unknown.

    And there is a point which the people who study these values make, and that is this: people have a right to be who they are.

    It is not Oxfam’s job or the IPCC’s job or the job of Greenpeace to change people.

  16. geoff chambers

    Thanks to Talisker for sparking off Stefano’s very interesting exposition of developmental psychology. I’m sorry he’s gone, since, until the parting shots comparing you to David Irving, he had some interesting things to say. He obviously believes that Oxfam is, or should be, about agronomy and hydraulic engineering, and not daft marketing ploys, which you would surely agree with.
    You say his argument wasn’t robust. I know the word has a special meaning in statistics and computer science, but that wasn’t what he was doing. My dictionary defines “robust” as “vigorous … not given to nor confused by subtleties.” Give him credit for that, at least.


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