The voice of young liberal democrats


Why Ethics Alone Can’t Save The World by londonliberal
December 10, 2007, 10:14 am
Filed under: Economy, Liberal Democrats, Uncategorized

Green is the new black. Any government that wants to get re-elected and any political party that wants to usurp them is putting the environment at the core of their rhetoric and political campaigns lest they find themselves in a perpetual political wilderness. This is of course as far as it goes. The government commits itself to drastically reducing carbon emissions at Kyoto only to see them rise; David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives, rides his bike to work only to have his car follow him; whilst the Lib Dems, despite consistently saying the right things on the subject, are unlikely to find themselves challenged to put them into practice any time soon.

Why is this the case though? The electorate can spot hypocrisy when they see it and they don’t settle for rhetoric without action when it comes to issues like the economy and terrorism. Hence successive governments introduce whatever measures are necessary to address them whether this means taking on powerful trade unions or moving to jail people without charge for six weeks. Quite simply, the answer is that as high as the environment may poll on any survey of voter priorities, few people are prepared to make the sacrifices entailed by a committment to save the environment. Few people are willing to sort their rubbish into recyclables and non-recyclables or to forgo their plastic bags and bottled water. Even fewer are willing to sacrifice their cheap flights abroad. This of course is no revelation. It is taken as a given that the only way to force the government to put its money where its mouth is is to launch a grassroots movement and turn Britain Green from the bottom upwards.

So, activists, concerned citizens and even a few well meaning politicians set about winning people’s hearts and minds and exploiting the sensitive ethical dillemnas that are intrinsically, although by no means exclusively, linked to the problems of climate change. These include the perils of buying cheap goods highlighted not just for the damage their importation does to the environment but also for the manner in which they are manufactured. Thus, clothes from Primark are condemned for the carbon footprint they leave after being shipped from abroad whilst perpetuating child labour in the Far East. Plastic bags are reviled not just because they take centuries to decompose but also because of the pictures of small animals dying in their droves after ingesting them.

People who show little regard or knowledge of these problems are often held in such contempt -especially by many members of the party to which I belong, the Liberal Democrats- that their actions appear both incomprehensible and unjustifiable. They find it unfathomable that anyone could hold any higher priority than the safety of the planet; that anyone would even think twice about paying more for their clothes and their food if it meant minimising their carbon footprint and putting the sponsors of child labour out of busniness at the same time.

I am always instinctively wary of such people who look down on others and say things like: “I can’t understand why they would do this”. In a single sentence, they dismiss the circumstances of such an individual and emphasise how they would never do the same, subtly concluding that the only variable factor must be that they are just a better person. Add to this that many of those leading these ‘grassroots’ movements come from privileged backgrounds where the costs of food and clothing don’t need to be carefully considered, and indeed weighed up against each other, and the picture becomes clearer. Consider further the fact that those who currently benefit the most from cheap clothing, food and air travel would suffer the most from restrictions on these things whilst their richer counterparts would barely even feel a tickle let alone a pinch and the challenge of forging a coherent plan of action becomes greater still.

Celebrities are frequently the worst offenders when it comes to this, not to say that a political opinion should be disregarded just because it comes from Hollywood. That said, I can’t help but raise an eyebrow at pop stars who fly thousands of miles to hold concerts aimed at raising awareness of Global Warming. Others lecture the masses on the perils of climate change, stopping only to sip from their plastic bottles of water shipped directly to them from the far reaches of the earth. Similarly, even for those whose actions are consistent with their actions, no good deed goes unpunished. In the mid 1990s, according to UNICEF, a boycott of Nepalese carpets hand made by child labourers led their employers to go bust and fire all their workers. Consequently, over 5,000 Nepalese girls went from being child labourers to being child prostitutes.

Another obstacle to concerted action to tackle Climate Change in the UK is the overwhelming sense of futility felt across our small country, that without the co-operation of the biggest pollutors, namely the U.S and China, anything we do is rather inconsequential. This fatalism is not wholly unreasonable either. The biggest pollutors in the world are the most reluctant to do anything about it with the Bush administration only just beginning to concede that global warming may just be a problem after all. In addition, all things being equal even if the UK was to go carbon neutral overnight, any benefits to the environment would be quickly offset by China and India.

In sum, only a far-reaching, legally binding multi-lateral effort would prevent the efforts of the most dedicated activists from going to waste, protect the most vulnerable from the fallout and justify the most hefty sacrifices. So, I urge my fellow Lib Dems to forgive me when I say: don’t blame individuals, especially those who struggle enough with the everyday circumstances of life, for the failures of government. As for the government, although they have the power and indeed the duty to tackle climate change, they are not omnipotent and have re-election and international power politics to contend with. Furthermore, as pressing as climate change is, it is not as immediate a threat as an asteroid or a tsunami even if it is of far greater proportions. Rather, to paraphrase that great source of modern political wisdom, ‘The West Wing’, only two things can force a government’s hand: politics and money.

History shows that economics is indeed the key to energy efficiency, particularly in the United States. Currently one of the most woeful polluters in the world in spite of the growing acceptance that climate change is a man-made phenomenon which requires urgent solutions, in the eight years between 1973 and 1981, when Climate Change was not the serious consideration it has now become, energy consuption per unit of GNP actually declined by 18%. This was achieved thanks mainly to President Jimmy Carter’s reforms such as creating the first cabinet level Department of Energy which oversaw a centrally co-ordinated shift from oil to alternative energy; amendments to the Clean Air Act which forced auto-makers to improve the energy efficiency of cars across the country; extra layers of insulation built into new houses to cut gas bills and tax breaks for people using solar power to meet their energy needs. What prompted such sweeping reforms? A severe oil crisis and the prospect of an immediate economic catastrophe as a result.

Now, it is familiar tensions prompting another push towards energy efficiency in the United States whilst carbon emissions trading, an initiative pioneered by the European Union, is offering a cash incentive for companies to take action. These markets, like any markets however, require greater regulation to ensure their aims are actually achieved – a critical article in the Economist some time ago highlighted how lapses in regulation of markets such as the Chicago Climate Exchange have led to the undermining of its environmental credentials as loggers plundering the Amazon rainforest get rich off the scheme by using ethanol powered trucks. Nonetheless, the benefits are there to be reaped.

So, whilst well meaning people may say that ethics are the key to recycling, at the end of the day it’s money that makes the world go round. In time, money can make the world go green too.

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3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Maybe people do not like being lectured. The popularity of Jeremy Clarkson proves how easy it is to be popular and speak out against being Green.
But is the answer to stop? Let people continue to be wasteful and destroy the planet?
If you have a better alternative to “lecturing”, then tell us what it is. As far as I am aware, the only alternative is to do nothing.
Maybe it is human nature that we will destroy ourselves. If that is what you think, then say so.
The reality is that the EU, the US, China and India contribute to 70% of global warming.
The energy intesive lifestyles we lead today are simply not sustainable. If we are not going to change the way we live – and maybe we won’t – then we will suffer the terrible consequences.

Comment by Geoffrey Payne

This is an excellent post, and is along the lines I have long been arguing

To Geoffrey I would say this. By all means continue to lecture, but don’t consider lecturing to be political action. Environmentalism is overly infected with lifestylism way out of proportion to the good that it does.

We don’t respond to problems with crime, health or education with demands that we should all volunteer to help out more in the police stations, hospitals and schools.

Lifestylism was understandable when next to nobody was interested in political action. But it was a kind of giving up. We should give up the giving up.

Comment by Joe Otten

Great post, but I would disagree that people can spot hypocrisy and demand action on terrorism and the economy. The only demand that people are seen to be doing something, even if it does nothing. This fits in entirely why people dont mind that Cameron has his car follow him on his bicycle. Imprisoning people for six weeks without trial will not stop terrorism, it might even encourage it, and yet people support it because it looks tough. Similarly with the economy, people are impressed with the strong pound, simply it seems because if something is strong, it must be good. Never mind that British industry has been all but obliterated by the persistently high level of the pound and by staying out of the EMU.

Comment by georgeinwashington




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