Rio Grand Apathy

Throw off the shackles of the so-called ‘debate’ on climate change – environmental problems are real, and they are here to stay.

Forget about global warming for a second.  By the middle of the current century, human population will have grown to reach the 9,000,000,000 mark.  On a planet where starvation, drought and poverty are already remarkably prevalent, ‘unsustainable suddenly looks like quite a mild term of description.  Almost 800,000,000 people lack access to clean drinking water and many more serve annual victim to disease and famine.  Driven in part by such necessity, people are now working on a new policy mix in which ideas of ethics, ecology and economics are becoming increasingly inseparable.

Now reintroduce global warming.  Imagine the effects on global food supplies, for example, that even a 1 or 2 percent increase in global temperature might have.  Imagine if tropical diseases, suddenly released from their equatorial holding cells, were permitted to travel further afield, coming in time to afflict the affluent global north.  Perhaps then the apathy which greets the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), preparing to meet next week, might too be thrown off.  All of these issues are environmental.  They are all economic.  They leave all of us in the harmful state of uncertainty.

Several publications this week have led with the news that the Prime Minister is not scheduled to attend the summit.  In a land of relative affluence, the absence of Britain’s political leader arguably goes some length in representing the absence of the rest of us from this debate.  Our thoughts, it might be said, lie elsewhere.

Such indifference might be misplaced.    Running in tandem with the main conference are a host of other ‘Rio+20’ events (they began on the 4th of this month and will last until the 27th).  A look at this wider agenda reveals an insight into what kind of summit organisers have in mind.  Events, seminars and presentations include: World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities; Trade Union Assembly on Labour and Environment; Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development; Forum on Social Entrepreneurship and the New Economy; World Summit of Legislatures; World Summit on Green Tourism and Creative Economy; Indigenous Peoples Global Conference on Sustainable, Self-Determined Development; Gender, Water and Preparing for Climate Change: Implications for Food, Health and Human Rights…The list goes on and on.  It is, essentially, a meeting on progressivism.  If the ‘green economy’ signals the way forward, then the United Kingdom appears reluctant to embrace any such change.  Our absence from the main event betrays a contentedness to remain glued to convention.  So much for that hitherto illusive ‘voice on the world stage’…

That’s perhaps being unkind: a host of government ministers and officials are in attendance.  But let’s get away from the notion that modern human life remains incompatible with environmentalism.  Dealing with environmental problems and embracing change shouldn’t provoke apathy.  Such defeat – or misanthropy – is dangerous in its hopelessness.  [For some reason, Christopher Hitchens’ berating of Mother Teresa for glorifying poverty comes to mind here.]  In all but the last century of human existence, it has been the norm for the majority of people to live their entire lives in unbroken hardship.  However, since the industrial revolution gathered pace in the 19th century, this sad reality has slowly been reversed.  In a world where climate change threatens that position, work, obviously, remains to be done.  Enter the good people gathering in Rio.

In the afterword to his 1958 classic, The Affluent Society, the great Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith offers some sage advice for society going forward.  He writes: ‘I leave the reader with two pleas.  One is to resist the tendency of recent times, which is, as so often before, to find social doctrine that limits or rejects the social claims of the poor.  Instead let us put elimination of poverty in the affluent society strongly, even centrally, on the social and political agenda.  And let us protect our affluence from those who, in the name of defending it, would leave the planet only with its ashes.  The affluent society is not without its flaws.  But it is well worth saving from its own adverse or destructive tendencies’.

A global, sustainable, equitable increase in affluence – real affluence – would be one of the great human achievements.  Redressing the balance of this affluence (from the more wasteful consumer goods towards public goods), while paying particular respect to the environment that we depend on is an admirable place to start.  Certainly, after Kyoto and Copenhagen, the apathy we might feel towards another summit is understandable; but hopefully – just hopefully – the UNCSD might through up a surprise or two.  On a more trivially humane note, it’s nice to see global leaders agreeing to meet where finance, militarism or the search for unfettered economic growth aren’t the prime movers.

The battle between conventional wisdom and progressivism recommences in Rio de Janeiro, this Wednesday, June 20th.  You can follow the wider ‘Rio+20’ events on Twitter here: @EarthSummit2012 and the conference itself here: @UN_Rioplus20.

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  1. andywightman says:

    Thank you – very well articulated.

    1. Ross says:

      Very kind thanks Andy

  2. pmcrek says:

    Natural Selection in action, eventually an intelligent species will arise that aren’t a bunch of selfish arseholes.

  3. Earth Semmit says:

    Environmentalism is not best practised by pampered elite’s tame lackeys hot-footing it (by plane!) to some resort or other in the pursuit of fuzzy warm feelings and good PR; in the unlikely event they pay the least attention to the serious matters discussed, they’ll leave convinced that the future for them and their progeny as well as the superfluous proles now and expected arrivals is terminal.

    Apathy is the appropriate and correct human response perhaps, those revolting ‘concerned’ being the cast-offs and dregs, social pariahs as they’ve rejected the daily grind and materialism, the burgeoning billions more than anyone are in a position to see that life for them already hangs by a fine thread and that the tipping point is here, now and has engulfed us irredeemably. So much productive land barren or disused, misused for useless purposes, so much that is vanity and decoration, so much industry and energy, human guile is expended to useless purpose improving the lot of mankind not one jot and much that the end purpose of which is harm or loss to the many. In a world of finite resources, and exponentially increasing hungry mouths, in the least expected places increasingly.

    In this country I had thought we had learned that self-sufficiency in every possible respect but especially in feeding ourselves, was a key pre-requisite to robust independence, politically, economically and lack of subervience, on a nation state basis, a condition we have not enjoyed for oh I would say a couple of hundred years.

    It’s just too big for us mere humans to get our head round, this overshoot, give us false gods and circuses, tv, distractions and diversions. It isn’t apathy, it’s parts terror, a prolonged sulk and the guilt of an incorrigible wrong-doer as the noose tightens. I don’t think we ever had a choice not to wreck the planet, no indication that the earth, the life-support system that we depend on couldn’t self-heal seemingly innocuous but ultimately mortal assaults, self-inflicted; we inherited a mindset of instant gratification, the true costs deferred, uncompassed; the despoilers progress and progeny flourish up to a point, inheritors of the earth along with the earth itself, forming the funereal ashes of mankind.

    You can grow your own produce, feel good in finding how hard it would be to survive in the most elemental sense on your own efforts, but as the excreta hits the fan, societal breakdown will disposses you of your precious spuds and turnips if not your life and you’ll be eating the toxin-laden shrubbery and grass, unpalatable vermin, with the worst of the choiceless, feckless and imprudent, all the same.

    We’ve chosen our future in the past, and made the wrong choices at every turn.

    1. Ross says:

      Hi Earth Semmit, thanks for taking the time to read and comment, and sorry about the delay in responding.

      I don’t have much to say except that i admire your writing. We obviously had different conclusions there but i’d say that many people interested in environmentalism, particularly globally, would share, at least in part, a good deal of the sentiment. It’s hard not to be pessimistic or even act hypocritically when it comes to the environment.

      Would be interested to hear more on your 4th last paragraph…’In this country…’ & whether you’re tying green economy or environmentalism into independence?? something which i’m interested in but didn’t do above. I have the feeling you were just talking about autarky in Britain generally though and the change through globalisation.

      Thanks again

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