Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Stern Review

Whether we have Sir Nicholas Stern to thank for his report on the economics of climate change, or the former next president of the US for his film – I don’t know, but lately, environmental matters have reared up in the news like never before. Everyone is either keen to do something to reverse the impending meltdown, or to be seen to be doing something: which is not quite the same thing. Certainly it’s encouraging to see that ways are being sought to bridge the gulf dividing environmental concerns and economic interests. The Stern review makes clear that turning the TV off standby; paying more for long-haul flights or even depriving Arnie of his 8 gas-guzzling Humvees isn’t going to solve the problem. Sir Nicholas, who regards climate change as the biggest market failure in history, believes that we need “a carbon price, technology policy and the removal of barriers to international change.”

This is stunningly good news. Levying a tax on carbon will ensure that environmental costs are translated into financial costs and passed on to the consumer. But surely, the most equitable form of taxation would be a tax on all forms of non-renewable energy- not just carbon-releasing fossil fuel. How about if we were to scrap income tax, VAT, capital gains, car tax – the lot, and slap one big fat tax on all environmentally unsustainable forms of energy - which would include nuclear (fission), hydroelectric energy and, most importantly, food. Given that the average beef burger takes about a hectare of land to produce, the human food trough really ought to be an important consideration in the climate debate. Anyhow - a carbon tax would be a good start.

While the idea that we have the power to regulate, bully, and cajole our way out of environmental disaster with fiscal insentives is encouraging, it lets us off the hook a little too easily by allowing us to believe that we can buy our way out of the problem, thereby evading the full extent of the problem and its underlying causes.

As Jonathan Freedland points out in the Guardian, “governments are limited in what they can do because they no longer control the key economic levers”. Industrial commercial interests are in direct conflict with energy conservation and sustainability. The wholesale take-up of capitalism (which now seems to be synonymous with democracy) condemns us to rampant consumerism. Buying stuff is what we do – conversely; refusing to consume would have a detrimental effect on the quality of modern life. Which of us, for example, would forego re-charging our mobile phone or MP3 player (let alone turn down the central heating or restrict our diet) merely to conserve energy? Such notions are anathema, unthinkable, anti-social even.

The problem is exacerbated by the ubiquitous assumption that industrialisation – or development as it is now called – is necessarily good, useful and inevitable. According to Catton’s Overshoot’,

“…to industrialise the poor will further harm the planet. Because industrial production requires the exploitation of resources, the wealth of one group is always based on the impoverishment of another’s landbase, meaning that on a finite planet, the creation of one person’s(fiscal) wealth always comes at the cost of many others’ poverty.”

Development – which necessitates consumption and therefore destruction – is intrinsically unsustainable. Or, to put it another way: there’s no such thing as sustainable development. Such views are no longer the sole preserve of environmentalists either: Joseph Stiglitz, the acclaimed Nobel Prize-winning economist [at the World Bank and, before that, the White House] – who now fears a backlash against globalisation, makes similar claims and recommendations in his book ‘Making Globalisation Work’.

Catton, among others, conjures up the concept of ghost slaves as a way of Illustrating excessive energy consumption. Each ghost slave represents the energy the average human spends in one day (2-3000 kCal).

“Within two eventful centuries of the time when James Watt started us substituting fossil energy for muscle power, per capita energy use in the United States reached a level equivalent to eighty or so ghost slaves for each citizen…Without reducing population or per capita energy consumption, modern man would require an increase in contemporary carrying capacity equivalent to ten earths.”

He continues with this awe-inspiring comparison:

“The energy expended in two decades by a vast labor force of Egyptians stacking up some 2,300,000 blocks of stone (each weighing about two and a half tons) to form the Great Pyramid of Cheops was less than the energy released in a few minutes by three stages of a Saturn V rocket propelling men toward the moon.”

We shouldn't be fooled into misplacing our trust in the comforting economic palliative of market forces while the overwhelming destructiveness of global commercialisation throttles the life out of the planet.

2 Comments:

Blogger Guthry Trojan said...

...and go to MyFootprint.org to assess your personal contribution to the eradication of life as we know it.

Thursday, November 23, 2006 5:27:00 pm  
Blogger Guthry Trojan said...

and here's a rather pertinent letter that appeared in the Guardian recently. Apologies to Ms March and the Guardian for copying the large part of it here, but I can find no link.

Faced with the prospect of environmental catastrophe, we still want to keep our cake and eat it. We’re all caught in variations of the Branson paradox: using a fortune earned from running an airline to fight climate change. That‘s not even a paradox – it’s cognitive dissonance so deep that its’ s schizoid. Like plugging the dyke with one hand and simultaneously drilling a hole with the other.

There is no point in throwing money at the symptoms while the disease goes unchecked. That’s just displacing the problem. And the problem, the disease, the addiction is a western lifestyle that is complicit with an economic system whose one yardstick is profit.

The only solution to climate change is for each and every one of us to radically realign all aspects of our lives – how we eat, travel, dress, clean, shit, build, study, create, work and play - with ecological truth. It’s no longer a question of what the ego wants or the bank balance enables; the only criterion is what the Earth most adamantly requires of us. We have to be as accountable to all species of all life, present and future, as we currently are to our bank managers.

One thing that means is that we have to redefine love so that it’s accountable across time and space. If my annual sustainable carbon quota is 0.4 tonnes and each passenger on a flight from Sydney to London emits 0.9 tonnes, how can it be loving to fly to Europe to spend Christmas with my family?


Annie March West Hobart, Tasmania

Tuesday, December 19, 2006 11:43:00 pm  

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