Crisis is a chance to reconsider environment policy

We should use the banking crisis as an opportunity for a change of mind, says Paddy Woodworth

WHAT you environmentalists just don’t understand,” a born-again Christian explained to me amicably on a shuttle from Atlanta to Augusta a few years back, “is that there ain’t a thing we can do for this lil’ old fallen world until Jesus comes again.”

In the meantime, apparently, we can pillage the earth as much we like without worrying about the consequences. The whole place will be cleaned up in a flash by the Almighty, good-as-new, as a fitting backdrop to the Second Coming.

Whatever happened to the notion of Christian stewardship, I wondered, of looking after what we have been given? At least my new Southern friend had some rationale, however far-fetched it may seem to many of us, for refusing to take any responsibility for the damage we are doing to our home place.

Most of our political leaders would rather not look closely at the issue at all, because it would force them to reconsider the only economic model they recognise, consumer capitalism.

Blind faith, it seems, is not just a religious condition.

Last May, I wrote in this newspaper about the need for an international sustainability treaty. The argument in favour is straightforward: Good government should ensure that our current consumption of the Earth’s resources does not cripple the planet’s productivity for future generations.

Since then, the Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development has come and gone without a single binding agreement to curb our apparently limitless appetite to devour a limited world. Its passing mainly serves to remind us that serious action on the environmental front has dropped off the front page of international and national political agendas.

It’s understandable that the global banking crisis hogs the headlines. Massive job losses and crippling cuts to services and wages have a more immediate impact on most of us than catastrophes that seem distant from us in space and time.

It’s less understandable that the banking crisis is not yet making us reconsider our economic priorities. The roots of this crisis are very complex in detail, but very simple in essentials. It is based on an economic model that makes two assumptions: That human happiness consists in ever-increasing consumption, and that private vices — especially unbridled greed — lead to public good.

Things were not always like this, even in the heartland of consumer capitalism. A great Republican president of the US, Theodore Roosevelt, came up with good definition for sustainability ethics 60 years before that phrase was invented: “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased; and not impaired in value.”

That’s just common sense, and common decency: what farmer would not like to pass on more fertile fields than the ones he inherited? Another Republican president, Richard Nixon, responded to growing public environmental concerns in the 1970s by introducing a raft of quite radical legislation that significantly improved the nation’s environmental health.

But today’s Tea Party Republicans would read Roosevelt’s words as socialistic, anti-American hogwash, and they want to tear down every ecological safeguard Nixon introduced. President Obama, apparently a prisoner of this anti-science, know-nothing hysteria that grips so much US public opinion, refuses to back any significant international or national moves on climate change.

EU leaders generally pay more lip-service to environmental protection, but are so in thrall to the aggressive offensive by the financial markets — so much for democracy — that they can hardly focus at all on the much bigger crisis coming down the tracks.

It’s not as if the signs aren’t obvious and becoming more ominous all the time. There is increasing evidence that we are approaching a critical tipping points, where reversible environmental damage shifts gear into rapid and catastrophic changes.

No single extreme event can “prove” that this is happening. But surely a few weeks in which Ireland experiences possibly the wettest summer on record, the Greenland ice sheet doubles its annual melt area average in just four days, and disastrous wildfires spread across Spain ought to make us pay attention? Perhaps we need to look beyond Europe and America for leadership. Attached as they appear to be to the consumer capitalist growth model, countries such as China, Brazil, and South Africa have already embarked on large-scale programmes to restore vital natural capital resources such as soil, water, and biodiversity itself.

The secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, however, warns that the unlimited consumption growth model itself is the problem, and that the solution will require an entirely new way of looking at the world: “For most of the last century...we mined our way to growth. We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences. Those days are gone ... Over time, that model is a recipe for national disaster. It is a global suicide pact.”

We can’t say we haven’t been warned. For those who are not convinced that the Second Coming will miraculously restore health to our planet, isn’t it time to see the banking crisis as an opportunity to reconsider our relationships to the environment?


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