Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Environmentalism, war and diet coke

Unrestricted development and pollution are the best known ways of destroying the environment. However, war is also a major contributing factor that has, at least to a degree, been ignored in the debate so far. War wipes out lives and livelihoods through destroying farmland, resources, and environments necessary to sustain life, such as food, forests and water sources.

Conflicts over resources not only spur wars on but also lead to the plundering of other resources to fund the war machine. Then, immediately after wars, countries can be so desperate to rebuild their economies that they sanction unchecked development and the wanton mining of natural resources.

There are also the direct impacts of war. The first Gulf War resulted in an estimated 11-million barrels of oil being intentionally released into the Arabian Gulf. This destroyed coral reefs and more than 15 000 birds, besides other forms of marine life, and habitats. Did you know that, in Vietnam, biodiversity is still recovering from the use of Agent Orange over 30 years ago?

Even more disturbing is that it is also now clear that global warming will create further wars, leading to a vicious circle of environmental destruction. Two of the European Union's senior policy advisers, Javier Solana and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, outlined warnings to this effect in a recent policy paper. In the document, they warn of mass migration and north-south conflicts as perceived injustice between those causing global warming and those affected increase, as well as wars over competition for water, energy and other natural resources.

An 'optimistic' view is that climate change will not cause such instabilities but be a 'multiplier, that is, it will make bad situations worse, such as destabilising unstable States and fuelling existing conflicts, leading to local and global insecurity. What is scary is that this process is already under way. According to Solana and Ferrero-Waldner, every humanitarian crisis the United Nations dealt with in 2007 was connected to climate change in some way.

This paints a depressing picture. It makes you wonder why we have been in a state of denial about the environment for so long.

One reason for this, argues George Marshall, on his blog, 'Climate Change Denial', is that environmental issues are painted as global and feel beyond reach. I guess even talking about war and its link to environmental catastrophe has this effect. It calls on us all to stop wars, but this can have the opposite effect. That is, ordinary citizens feel powerless to stop war and so do not worry about its worldwide impact.

Marshall feels we need to drop language like 'save the planet' because it allows us to create distance between ourselves and difficult issues. 'Save the planet' means we talk of 'climate', not 'weather'; polar bears, not hedgehogs; African children, not our own, writes Marshall. 'The planet' locates the problem miles away from your community and somewhere in the solar system, and ‘save' speaks to abstinence and sacrifice. As humans, we naturally shy away from them.

As an antidote to this, Marshall feels we should replace phrases like 'low carbon emissions' with 'light living' and other positive messages, such as 'Live light because it will make you feel complete and free'.

Marshall acknowledges that this sounds like ad-speak (and a Diet Coke ad, in my opinion), but he feels it is a lot better than stock phrases like ‘save the planet', and will result in more people taking action.

I agree with Marshall that positive messages and localising the impact of environmental damage are needed. There is something off-putting about tired slogans like ‘save the rhino' or whatever celebrity animal has hit the endangered list in the last six months. However, my worry is that human denial is even more resistant than Marshall thinks. There is a tendency to only react when a tsunami rushes through your own backyard, and then it is too late.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 28 May 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.