Just Who the Hell are We Kidding?

I was reading this Treehugger article yesterday:-

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/07/would-simply-slowing-down-travel-shipping-help-kick-oil-habit.php

and it occurred to me just how much in denial we are, even people who think about ‘green’ issues. Even though we know the severity of the problems facing us as a species – climate change, ocean acidification, peak oil, the impending food crisis which is driven by all of these and an expanding population – we in the historically rich West are still trying desperately to cling onto the notion that we are in some way special and are allowed the use of a disproportionately larger share of resources than everyone else, because we are privileged by birth and have a right to these extra things.

It has been suggested that a sustainable average carbon footprint for a world citizen, which would minimise the damage from climate change and allow the poor nations of the world access to energy resources to lift themselves out of poverty is around 2 tonnes of carbon annually:-

http://timeforchange.org/global-warming/carbon-footprint

The world average carbon footprint is currently around 4 tonnes annually. The average carbon footprint for industrialised nations is around 11 tonnes annually. The average carbon footprint for a citizen of the USA is 19 tonnes per person per year, and for a UK citizen 9.4 tonnes per year.

So currently the world average carbon footprint is double what it needs to be. Now in order for the current average figure to fall, it is obvious that somebody needs to cut their energy use.

Only a psychopath would suggest that it should be the poor nations of the world who should cut their energy use – in fact, we should really allow for people who currently emit less than 2 tonnes of carbon to use more energy to raise their standard of living, and have resources to help them adapt to climate change, as it is largely the poor nations of the world who are most threatened by the effects of climate change.

So it therefore follows that it is we, the rich citizens of the world, who need to cut our energy use, so that the poorer countries can have access to more resources, lift themselves from poverty and limit their suffering under increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.

The Treehugger article refers to ‘survivalists and neo-Luddite hippies’ as people who have traditionally concerned themselves with the converging crises in the world, as well as the military who see the threat, and suggests that we also should be concerned. But the article then goes into a kind of negotiating mode which seeks to preserve our way of life first and foremost, whilst at the same time urging us to at least consider some concessions to sustainability. We should think about longer stays when we fly long-haul, or at least flying less often. But if we can’t manage this, it is suggested, then no matter really, as not everyone is able to make these choices in the hectic schedule of their rich first-world lifestyles.

I really wonder about this.

If we take as read that people who emit less than 2 tonnes of carbon annually are likely to be living in poverty, and should have the right to use more energy to lift their standard of living, it therefore follows that the current world average carbon footprint will rise, unless people with a large carbon footprint cut theirs by an equal amount. So just to stay still, we rich world people need to be cutting our energy use.

But staying still isn’t good enough – the world average carbon footprint needs to halve to 2 tonnes to be sustainable and fair. And it is relatively few of us who use an extremely disproportionately large share of the planet’s resources. So this really does mean we have to get cutting.

The issue of international tourism is a real bugbear for me. The Treehugger article extols the virtues of being able to see vistas, eating food in the country where it originated and broadening one’s experience of the world – which is all well and good, for those who can afford it. But 95% of the world’s population have never even been on an aeroplane. And unless we are suggesting that those 95% of people are inevitably and irretrievably spiritually stunted because of it – an obviously ridiculous and patronising suggestion which belittles the power of the human mind, making it reliant on mechanical transport for growth – it therefore follows that air tourism is a pure luxury, an activity undertaken by a tiny wealthy elite who seek to justify it to themselves in terms of spiritual development in order to avoid confronting the unavoidable fact that actually, in a crisis, it is completely unnecessary and utterly dispensable.

At present, the cost of air tourism is around 3% of the world’s total annual carbon emissions. However, that 3% of emissions is generated by a mere 5% of the world’s population – a 5% which currently enjoys energy use emitting an average of 11 tonnes of carbon annually. And this average, for industrialised nations, is actually made higher by the small minority of the population even of developed countries who use air travel. So that 3% of emissions is on top of and in excess of the highest rates of energy use in the world by this very same elite already.

Tourism itself is not environmentally or economically benign. As well as the environmental damage from its contribution to climate change and ocean acidification, there is more localised environmental damage in the destination countries. Whilst European cities are geared up for high-consumption tourism, many poorer countries are not, and in the scramble for tourist dollars, the local populace ends up suffering – from shortages of wood fuel and unsustainable logging in Nepal to water shortages in Indian villages due to aquifers being drained to supply hotels which are luxurious by local standards, but simply what is expected by Western tourists. And increasing the dependence of what were once basically sustainable economies on tourist dollars which are in turn dependent on cheap air travel, at the expense of the long-term integrity of local ecosystems, is not helping people in the long term. Tourist dollars help to prop up corrupt political regimes such as that in the Maldives, whilst local people are exploited and local islands out of sight of the tourist destinations are used as dumping grounds for tons of unprocessed rubbish.

When we are booking our foreign holidays, we may say to ourselves, well, we are ordinary working people, we are not rich and do not live in a palace, so what’s the harm? But in reality, our levels of energy consumption compared to most people in the world absolutely do make us rich beyond the wildest dreams of large swathes of the global population. And in fact, as large communal living spaces, palaces are potentially a more energy efficient mode of living than individual dwellings. If more people lived in palaces, it could be a good thing.

We in the first world really need to get the scale of the challenge into perspective. That return flight from the USA to Europe will emit 3 or 4 tonnes of carbon. And those fossil fuel resources are then gone, they can’t be used by someone elsewhere in the world to lift themselves out of poverty. If we pull out all the stops in the rest of our life, go vegetarian, install solar panels and recycle everything, we might only cut our carbon footprint by that exact same amount. Standing still and denying irreplaceable resources to people struggling in poverty is NOT ‘being green’.

So I would implore the reader: climate change and its related crises are not a game. The planetary atmospheric system is increasingly playing hardball with us, and what we do today will come back tomorrow tenfold to bite us. Billions of people could die from starvation and drought. Ecosystems which took hundreds of millions of years to evolve and develop a delicate homeostasis could collapse. Whole species could – wait, change that – are becoming extinct. Nature has no concept or consideration that it is reasonable for rich Westerners to have holidays in the sun, and does not make any allowance for it; that is a consideration which we afford ourselves, and fortunately for us it is others who have to make the necessary sacrifices in order to accommodate us.

There is another option: don’t fly. Be proud to take your place standing side by side in solidarity with the 95% of people who will never experience this highly polluting privilege. There is no shame in it. Even if you can’t avoid flying in the course of your work or to see family, when it comes to holidays you have a choice. And it will only be exercising that choice which as rich Westerners is ours only, that the difference will be made.

The responsibility to act lies with us, and only us, the citizens of the rich world. And if we do not, we are condemning the poor of the world and the habitability of our one and only home planet for the sake of a holiday in the sun.

Exploitation of the poor by the rich has been the rule for so much of human history – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

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2 Comments

  1. lepotager said,

    July 31, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Fantastic article Andy – really good points. We’re trying to do our bit by conspicuously not flying, but that is only the start.


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