Thursday, 20 August 2009

Why Should I Care?

You may be a sceptic or a true non-believer but let's assume for the moment that climate change is happening and that due to human intervention things are not going too well for the future for Planet Earth. The question is: should we modify or change our behaviour accordingly?

I read a letter in New Scientist from a Tom Dixon of Bristol in the UK. It was concise and well written - his answer was basically, why should he sacrifice his lifestyle for the good of the future when he has only a small window of time in which to live? In short, why should he care? And for the record, he doesn't.

It's an interesting point as I am a believer that in the brief history in time that man has lived on this Earth, we have impacted the environment in an extraordinary and unprecedented way. I am sure in my own mind that since the dawn of industrialisation we have done things to our environment which have profound and long-lasting effects on the Earth and particularly its atmosphere. I also believe that it is likely that we are actively shortening the potential opportunity for life, as we know it, to endure on Earth.

An asteroid may hit tomorrow. Super volcanoes may erupt in California and lay a black cloud over this earth for a century. The poles may swap ends. Something natural will occur to wipe us out anyway or change the environment we live in so profoundly that we will not survive. Or the incredible 'balancing act' that is nature is going through one of her long cycles and will 'right herself' again and the effect that humans have within it will be but a pimple on a gorilla's backside.
Both assessments could be true. One argues that we should look at how we live as it is humans who are having some kind of effect on the Earth while the other argues - hey, that's nature so make the most of what you can while it all lasts.

To have a concerted effort to change the way in which humans live would be a monumental task and it also pre-supposes that everybody agrees with the changes, thinks there is a problem and feels any kind of conscience that implores them to join in. This assumed 'Brotherhood of Man' may well not exist and it will be very hard to get widescale support to drive any such large-scale 'Green' policies to be implemented effectively to make the changes we think will help.

One thing that cannot be argued with is that we are depleting the earth's resources very quickly. Fossil fuels, on today's estimates, will last less than a few decades. There are no really good alternatives on offer - wind energy harnessing is both unsightly and equally damaging to the environment as well as not yielding enough energy to suit our needs. Nuclear energy has been descaled and now contributes less than 20% of the electricity to the National Grid. Solar energy is seen as the domain of cranks who deface their homes for no real gain.

Yet so much of our time, effort and brain power goes into sustaining or bettering our lifestyle in the present at a time when wealth in the developed world is at it a new height - and after a minor technical blip, will be back on course to grow. Profit and growth comes from exploiting the needs of the people now - having long term 'Green' strategies will inevitably mean that profit opportunities decrease and economic growth is limited, even negative. Many economists believe that you can sustain economic growth and have 'Green' policies but I am as sceptical about that as most climate change denyers.

Of this 'Brotherhood of Man' that Tom Dixon talks of which he asserts does not exist, you do not have to look far to see stark evidence of what he means. As the gobal financial crisis unfolded, it was pretty much every man for himself despite talk of concerted global action. Countries pumped varying amounts of money back into a system they understood as much about as they do nature itself and hoped for the best while other countries focused their cash on specific things that they estimated would help sustain them through the crisis. The results have been obvious - those who invested less in the global money system and more on their internal economy, have survived this crisis better. Look after yourself and things will get back to normal in a while.

When 9/11 occurred, almost without thought of the enormous financial, environmental and human impact the West engaged in two major wars which it still fights, eight years later. People will argue the reasons for the war but one obvious comment about Iraq was control of the region which supplies the most oil globally at a time when China is about to overtake the United States as the largest consumer of fossil fuels. It was 'aggressive' protectionism as Iraq's ability to wage war on anyone other than its own people had all but ended. Conflicts arise because countries believe their interests are compromised - there is no collective consciousness when it comes to seeing your lifestyle or freedom being threatened.

And as the developed world clamoured to pile trillions of dollars into sustaining its way of life into a system that had nearly ruined it, the developing and undeveloped worlds sat there and looked on incredulously as a mere fraction of all that wealth might have helped feed its starving inhabitants.

When it comes to understanding human nature rather than nature itself, we are still basically animals for all our intelligence. Survival of the fittest is the underlying culture and for all our altruistic ideals and thoughts, in reality there are very few of those who extoll them who are prepared to really sacrifice their way of life to ensure that everybody benefits. Indeed, from a political viewpoint even those with a scocialist ideal believe there is no issue in having people incredibly wealthy while others suffer. They have no issue with the exploitation of the less fortunate when it becomes personal but their ideas and ideals win votes and give them power because 'spin' is just plain old marketing when you analyse it and has little to do with real values and ways of life.

Yesterday, between meetings, I took a trip on a boat around the harbour in Hamburg and saw the vast empty dry docks of one of the former largest shipbuilders in the world. One new boat was being built of any consequence - it was 170m in length, had its own submarine and cost to date around €500m to build. It was a private yacht, commissioned by one man, who already has one of the largest private yachts in the world plus his own football club in the Premier League. There is incredible wealth in the hands of an incredibly small percentage of the population of the world while billions are below the poverty line, are mired in disease and can't feed themselves. And we just went out and saved them by propping up a financial system that rewards exploitation and penalises those that stop growing to look after others.

In the US some 47m people cannot afford medical care at all. The President is having to tour his country to persuade people it would be a nice idea to somehow provide for them when the same people are happy to pump $billions into sustaining a foreign policy that has made the US look like the world's school bully rather than the prefect.

I could go on but frankly when we live in a world where the impact of non-delivery of the latest iPod will have a more dramatic effect than more food to starving Africa, then you know that Tom Dixon in Bristol is right. 'The Brotherhood of Man' is no more than a former Eurovision pop group - a totally dreadful concept at that.

I could ask Tom Dixon and his followers why do we change anything? He did not invent the IPod yet he has one. He would not be pleased if he used a toilet where the previous users soiled the seat and did not clean up after them. He would not be pleased if there were no laws in this country stopping people just walking up and taking your possessions whenever that person feels like it. He would not be best pleased if Sky Sports was not made available to homes in the UK because Rupert Murdoch suddenly thought only Australians were worthy of it. He would not be happy if when run over by a car and he lies bleeding in the gutter that an ambulance is not available to help him.

All these things actually come from a collective drive to make the place in which we live a better place - without them our lives would not be the same and we would be worse off. Taming the Wild West was necessary for everyone to get a fair crack of the whip but Jesse James might have disagreed.

So what of the future? Do people like Tom Dixon not have children? Maybe not - if so, there is no point in providing education for them as well as nuturing them and giving them rules and culture if we do not believe that we have a role to play in the future. What is the point of doing all that and even providing them a legacy in a Will if we really do not care? The fact is that we actually do care. As animals, our biggest instinct beyond survival is to procreate new life. In fact, just about everything in nature prepares current life to create new life. Nature understands that our time in this world is very short and so it has set itself up as a long-term survival mechanism and each unit of life has a function to create new life while it lives.

Tom Dixon is not right - humans have enough intelligence to know that we can change our ways and it will have an effect on the chances of survival of our offspring. We can change the conditions in which we live today to make a future for our next generations - our own descendants.

In fact, as any good parent, it is our responsibility to do so as we owe our children the same chance to live as we got, if not more.

Would it kill us if we did not get the latest iPod every year or more of our fantastic brain power which goes into to designing ever greater and more complex risks in the financial market were channelled into finding the cure for cancer? Would it kill us or him if Roman Abramovich did not have so much money that he can commission the biggest private yacht in this world and the money were sent to Africa to help feed people? Would it kill us to have less lights on at night, less electrical devices in general, slower but more efficient cars, to not have electric advertising hordings in Times Square or Piccadilly Circus or Virtual Reality?

It probably wouldn't kill us. But it may kill our children if we don't do something about it.

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