The almost universal recognition of the potential disaster of climate change (that more benign-sounding euphemism for global warming) ascribes the causes to “humanity”. Human activity, mankind, man – these generalised entities have been the great reshapers of the planet and its fragile atmosphere. This dispersal of blame diffuses responsibility, and permits the culprits to embed themselves in the global population to escape the consequences of their actions.
It is not “humanity” which threatens to wreck the planet, but that section of it which has been so conspicuously advantaged by its depredations. This not a new thing, Thomas Carlyle, as early as 1829, in Signs of the Times, wrote “We war with rude nature; and by our resistless engines, always come off victorious and loaded with spoils.”
The use of nebulous terms which implicate all the peoples on earth, including those whose millennial modest cultures are a reproach to the rage of industrialism, also permits an easy passage into the question of what “we” are to do about it. An inclusive first person plural is always invoked when the world faces catastrophe. It is rarely in evidence when the “fruits” of wealth-creation are being distributed. We are all in this together. Both rich and poor are threatened. There is nowhere to hide from global warming. Every country must be “on board”, on the far from agreeable voyage to a future land of sustainable harmony.
The “we” – the bogus unity invoked by privilege – masks the reality, namely, that the poor are going to pay disproportionately to put right wrongs of which they have never been beneficiaries. Throughout the industrial era, the poor – known earlier under more pejorative aliases as natives, locals and subjects – have never been part of the generous all-embracing “we”, who are now called upon to face the effects of runaway greed, euphemistically described as “wealth-creation”. It is not as though the effects of exuberant industrialism were unknown: Wordsworth spoke of “such outrage done to nature as compels the indignant power to avenge her violated rights”. If poets had really been the unacknowledged legislators of the world that scientists have now become, much present-day anguish and hand wringing might have been avoided.
The fictitious unity of a whole world in a common endeavour to heal the abuse of the planet not only elides historic and contemporary injustices, but also prepares the ground for future ones.
There was never the slightest concern for the poor (the elided “them” in the appeal to universal humanity) when resources were seized and transferred from Africa, India, central and South America to feed an insatiable industrial system. China and India will be reluctant to enter into any agreement which makes them equal partners in addressing climate change: for it burdens them with shared responsibility, as though they had invented the industrial paradigm, and were the originators of a destructive globalism. That they have embraced it with such fervour is, of course another question, as indeed are the coercive pressures which compelled them to do so.
If the implications have been resisted by climate change deniers, this is because they understand the enormous significance this has for the maintenance of economic growth and the accelerating inequalities which come with it. The US FreedomWorks group states: “Global warming is not about sound science or saving the planet so much as it seeks more to cool economic activity … [It] obstructs the spread of entrepreneurial capitalism and will radically stunt economic growth”. It threatens the holy of holies – limitless economic expansion, that ideology born of the early industrial era, and assimilated uncritically by the heresy of a now vanquished communism. No longer constrained by the “internal” contradictions of capitalism, the proponents of business as usual see their cherished belief in the mystical capacity of wealth to cure all the ills it has caused now menaced by another bunch of subversives.
The tenderness of the rich countries for humanity is a substitute for acknowledging that they are the authors of the present global predicament, and that it behoves them to show the rest of the world how they propose to undo what they have wrought. Of late, there has been a great fondness for waging war against abstractions – on terror, on poverty, wars against “criminality” or “bullying” or “anti-social behaviour.” The new crusade against climate change, and its ghost-army of “humanity”, is cast in similar rhetoric; the surest guarantor that it will prove ineffective.
Rich and poor alike are caught up in the epic penitence of the planet in peril. Bangladesh will be drowned. Africa will be desiccated. Southern Europe will become uninhabitable. Hurricane Katrina will have been merely a prelude to the drowning of cities. It is one thing to invoke collective action, the common destiny of mankind, but quite another to ensure that the unequal do not bear an excessive share of the asperities required to confront the enormity facing the world. To impose sacrifice and renunciation on those who have nothing is consistent with the division of the spoils of the two centuries-long smash and grab raid on nature.
To efface the “footprint” of “mankind” upon the earth would require a contraction, or at least a different kind of economic activity, one which ensures a more modest use of, and more equitable distribution of, resources. This is the most frightening prospect the leaders of the rich world can imagine; even though it might guarantee a secure sufficiency to the hungry and wanting of earth and serve as cure for the excesses, addictions and violence of those who have more than enough.
This is indeed a pivotal moment. Decisions made now may well determine the fate of the earth and all its peoples. But to provide for the sustenance of the poor remains the most urgent priority. It is disingenuous to give way to lachrymose exaltations about the fate of humankind and our menaced habitat, while not addressing the cruelty of a world economy worth $60 trillion annually, which leaves hundreds of millions to expire in sight of global plenty, even while the rich look in vain for ever more expensive and marginal pleasures to augment their value-added discontents.