Europe and the Fate of the Earth – Part 6 of 7

November 7, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[This is an extended version of my keynote address for the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ event, which was held in Amsterdam between October 4 and 7 this year. The address was delivered on October 4 at the opening event. It will be posted here without footnotes, as a 7 part series. A fully annotated version will be posted later in the ‘Essays’ section of this site.]


For a century the West has held up its way of life as the standard of living to be aspired to by everybody. It was assumed that the whole planet would be a happy place if only everyone on it could share a Western lifestyle and participate in Western patterns of consumption. The United States has for decades offered this as a mantra of deliverance for the world at large.

But just for a moment let us consider what it would mean if this actually came about. Britain, for example, has 22 million households and 31 million cars. If India, with 247 million households were to move towards the same ratio of car ownership, then the country would have 345 million cars. If we add China to this picture, as well as Indonesia and the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America then we have a doubling or tripling of the one billion cars that are already on the road around the world. Just to look at the numbers is to know that the planet would asphyxiate long before this pattern of consumption could become ‘universal’.

What can be said about this trajectory except that it is powered by a dangerous delusion?

How then do we break free of this delusion? Where does the solution lie?

The United States is by far the world’s most powerful and important nation. It is also the nation that has contributed the most to our knowledge of climate change. Most of the leaders in this field of study are American; much of the research on the subject has been conducted in American institutions and the country probably has more environmental activists than any other. The government of the USA, at its highest levels, has been aware of these issues long before other parts of the world: President Jimmy Carter was speaking of it in the 1970s. What is more, the US has already begun to feel the effects of climate change: large parts of the country are now in a condition of permanent drought, forests are dying in the mountains and many regions have been hit by severe floods and catastrophic storms.

For all these reasons, the United States should, by right, be taking the lead in addressing climate change. But instead of an awakening, what we see in the United States is a determined, well-orchestrated effort to suppress public awareness of climate change. This effort presents a perfect example of how the feedback loop of carbon emissions amplifies and sustains itself at a political and cultural level. Over the last twenty years many factors  – corporate money, an economy founded on fossil fuels, a political system that is open to manipulation by lobbyists, a powerful industry of persuasion, an ethos of nationalist ‘exceptionalism’; a culture that glorifies profit-seeking and regards regulation with suspicion – have come together to form a tornado-like spiral that has effectively swept aside the country’s once-powerful environmental movement. At a time when the notions of the collective interest and the public good are more necessary than ever before, these values are increasingly imperiled in the world’s most important country.

Given these circumstances, is it possible, realistically, to imagine that the America of today might  elect a leader who would have the courage to tell the world that the era of continuous economic growth will have to end soon, one way or another – either at the behest of human beings or of the planet they inhabit?

The answer is self-evidently no.

Inasmuch as there is any plan for the future in the US, it would seem that some kind of silent consensus has been reached that the country will adopt a ‘lifeboat’ approach to climate change – that is to say it will seal its borders, prepare militarily, and tackle problems as they arise, trusting that its highly developed economy and infrastructure will see it through. As for the rest of the world it will be up to everyone to sink or swim according to their abilities.

As critics have pointed out, such a course will of course have genocidal effects, resulting in the death of great numbers of people around the globe. Nor will America’s own population be unaffected: a large part of the 47% of the population that Mitch Romney describes as ‘moochers’ will also find no place on the lifeboat.

Where else then are we to look for leadership on this issue? Could it perhaps come from newly-emergent nations like India, China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa? These countries certainly have much to lose in the sense that many of the people who are most vulnerable to climate change live in them. Yet to hope that they will take the lead on this issue is both unrealistic and unjust. The emergent powers are all striving to raise the living standards of their own people; they are all motivated, to a greater or lesser degree, by a desire to ‘catch up’ with the West, in all things, including carbon emissions. Even though two of them, China and India, are already among the world’s top three polluters, it is still true that at this point in time, their per capita contribution to the net stock of carbon in the atmosphere is small.

The rapid increase of emissions from these countries thus has a dual aspect: in one sense it represents a new level of intensification in the globe’s collective rush towards disaster. But in another sense it is also a challenge, a clear declaration that if there is to be any cutting back, if sacrifices are to be made, then they must come, in the first instance, from the West, which has gobbled up far more than its fair share of the world’s resources. In other words the emergent countries have taken the stand that history has absolved them of taking the lead in this matter: they are rather looking to be led – not by coercion, but by example.



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