The problem with the West’s environmental morality
Vinay Lal | 31 Jan, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY (OED) has chosen ‘climate emergency’ as the word of the year for 2019. The practice of choosing a word or phrase that through ‘usage evidence’ reflects ‘the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year’, and is likely to ‘have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance’, commenced in 2004. The Dictionary’s word of 2016 was simply chilling: ‘post-truth’. Donald J Trump had just been elected President of the US and whatever did not agree with him then—and consider the precipitous decline since, three years later—was already being branded as ‘fake news’. But the OED’s choice pointed to the fact, even if those who exercised this choice did not fully realise the implications of their decisionmaking, that we are living in near totalitarian times, even as more societies continue to display the necessary outward accoutrements of what is called ‘democracy’. Many have been the definitions that have been put forward to explain totalitarianism, a political ideology that necessitates the massive and total accumulation of power and a rigid intolerance for dissent, but the essence of it is a system where it becomes difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood.
‘Democratic totalitarianism’ might have been a better choice as the word or phrase of the year in 2019, but I suspect that it is likely to be a very good candidate in the years ahead. For the present, we are stuck with the OED’s ‘climate emergency’. It augurs something not less petrifying than ‘post-truth’: the prophets of doom, who have been warning of the deleterious effects of global warning, will be rejoicing. But first we have to get past the word ‘emergency’ which, as the lexicographers at the OED perforce know but seem loathe to acknowledge, is rather anodyne if not outright banal. Surely they must know, for instance, that emergency is used most often in apposition with ‘family’ and ‘medical’. The literate will recall that famous opening line from Anna Karenina: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Every family known to the present writer has been in some emergency or the other and many families are so dysfunctional that they are best described as being in a perpetual state of emergency. The more cynically minded commentator might quite reasonably even be inclined to view the bizarre institution of the family as indicative of why humankind itself appears as something of an emergency. As for ‘medical emergency’, the US furnishes ample evidence of why the word ‘emergency’ is abused as a matter of course. People land up in emergency rooms routinely since, at least in the US, the chances of being randomly shot at are rather high; but they also land up in the emergency room for no better reason than a coughing fit, mild leg pain or some other mundane or temporary disability which would scarcely even call for intervention in many other cultures.
One might have thought that ‘climate crisis’ was equally a candidate for the OED word or phrase of the year and it appears to have had more currency than ‘climate emergency’ the last few years. The statistical evidence from usage aside, the lexicographers, writers and editors who are called upon to choose from all the words that have been nominated for the honour might however have balked, and rightly so, at the word ‘crisis’. Talk of ‘crisis’ is endemic in modernity; there is always this or that crisis. It is not only that crisis jargon is often grating to the sensibility. The objection to it is more fundamental: as Walter Benjamin had observed, the thinking person is always in a state of crisis. What is there that would not call forth the sense of crisis in the person who feels powerless to prevent the everyday oppression of the poor, who has to watch in silent rage the murder and permissive deaths of dissenters and supposed enemies of the state, who is witness to rank misogyny at every turn, or who can only look upon in anguish at the ever increasing numbers of those around the world who are fleeing war, genocidal attacks, hunger or sheer economic misery? How can a thinking person not be in crisis considering that the misfortunes of a fictional character move a reader to tears but leave the same reader cold at the news of the neighbour’s death? The crisis is not always induced because one is constantly placed at an ethical crossroads—and there is (after Robert Frost) the road not taken: but thinking is demanding, painful and all the more difficult to bear in these shrill times given its solitary nature.
Even as the grounds for thinking of why a ‘climate emergency’ is called for seem unimpeachably clear, why is it that we should have some misgivings about the use of this phrase? The world has often been inclined to follow the example set by Americans, who have a penchant for putting everything on a war footing and cannot resist the military metaphor
What, then, are we to make of the ‘climate emergency’ which the most authoritative dictionary of the world’s most global—though not most widely spoken—language has pronounced is upon us and is perhaps poised to bring untold suffering on millions and more likely billions of people in the very near future? What is the overwhelming and unassailable evidence that humanity is at the brink of a catastrophe? Global emissions increased eighteenfold from around 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 1900 to 36 billion tonnes in 2015, and after stabilizing in 2015-2017, they have risen again. The four warmest years on record are the four previous years, from 2015 to 2018. The sea level not only continues to rise, but has risen at a much faster pace than anticipated by scientists in recent years. In 2019 alone, Greenland suffered net ice loss of 350 billion tonnes, about 20 per cent more than the average of the last several years, while the Himalayas, which are home to the world’s third largest deposit of ice and snow in the world after the Antarctica and the Arctic, have suffered a loss of 25 per cent of glacial ice in the last 40 years. As a consequence, the rise in the global sea level is just about one-fifth of an inch every year. The likelihood is that within two generations, some places—the Maldives, Houston, Dhaka, to name only three likely candidates—may go under water. The very thought that global metropolises with staggeringly large populations, such as Jakarta, Manila and Bangkok, could be submerged seems outlandish. Add another generation and, as the climate change debunkers would say, a dose of sentimentality and it is very likely that the glaciers will merit mention in textbooks as something akin to rare endangered species.
THE PERIODIC REPORTS of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body charged with assessing the science related to climate change, and the World Meteorological Organization, a specialised agency of the UN which monitors changes in weather and clime and assesses the behaviour of the earth’s atmosphere, have charted the impending disaster in increasingly ominous language. Extreme climate events, far in excess of the occasional hurricane or drought that made it to the world news 20 years ago, have been aplenty: raging fires in Australia and the US; record flooding in Europe, Africa and Kerala; droughts in Argentina, Uruguay and Afghanistan; and heat waves in London, Paris and, to add a new gloss to the idea of the surreal, Greenland. The scenes of devastation are writ large in the language of apocalypse. The dire predictions from merely five years ago now seem considerably understated, and the UN Secretary-General António Guterres made something of a concerted effort not to appear alarmist when, just two months ago on the eve of the UN’s annual climate conference, he declared that “climate-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent, more deadly, more destructive, with growing human and financial costs.” But is such language calculated to stir the attention, let alone passions, of those caught up in wars, fleeing persecution, fighting drug addiction, enfeebled by deadly diseases or struggling to find food? Are the mortal dangers of climate change in the future, even the imminent future, likely to trouble those who face death, destitution and pestilence in the here and now?
Yet, even as the grounds for thinking of why a ‘climate emergency’ is called for seem unimpeachably clear, why is it that we should have some misgivings about the use of this phrase? The world has often been inclined to follow the example set by Americans, who have a penchant for putting everything on a war footing and cannot resist the military metaphor. When there’s an emergency—innocents taken hostage or, as in the movies, a plot to poison a city’s water supply or wipe out a people by waging a biological attack—Americans come out with guns blazing. The world has seen the ‘war on drugs’ played out first in American cities, now in a great many places around the world. It was largely unsuccessful when first initiated in the US and has, in its most recent incarnation in the Philippines, led to wholly indiscriminate and large-scale mafia-style killings by the armed forces of the state, usually of ordinary civilians. Then came the emergency in the wake of the September 11, 2001 bombings and suddenly the world awoke to the ‘war on terror’—a colossal failure. It’s not merely that victory in these wars, whatever that may mean, is unachievable: what would it mean for the noun ‘terror’ to disappear from the English language, I wonder. Were the framers of the idea of the ‘war on terror’, whose war of terror has chalked up all kinds of ‘collateral damage’, even familiar with the work that a preposition does in the English language? We are at the stage where we are now called upon to wage a war both upon the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs’.
The ‘climate emergency’, let us put it this way, is nothing but the call to wage a ‘war on climate change’, and it has every prospect of producing the same dismal outcomes. But the idea of ‘climate emergency’ is yet more ominous than the emergencies to which I have adverted and it is potentially fraught with genocidal implications, and not only because there is likely no place in the world which is immune from climate change. When we consider who the victims of the ‘war on drugs’ and the ‘war on terror’ have been, ‘climate emergency’ begins to emit the stench that arises when the wealthy purport to act in the name of humanity. The world’s largest per capita carbon dioxide emitters are the major oil-producing countries, mainly in West Asia: Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Brunei, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But these countries have very small populations and their total emissions are a fraction of the total emissions of countries such as the US, China, India and Japan. Through most of the 19th century, the UK had the lion’s share of the world’s CO2 emissions, as much as nearly 50 per cent at the time of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The second half of the 19th would begin to see the emergence of Germany as an imperial power and, even more pointedly, the westward expansion and industrialisation of the US. By 1887, Britain accounted for about 30 per cent of the global CO2 emissions, and the US and Germany 28.54 per cent and 15.82 per cent, respectively. Just three years later, the US had assumed its position as the world’s leading emitter of CO2, accounting for almost 31 per cent of the world’s total just as Britain’s share would decline to 27.18 per cent, and for well over a century the US would remain the world’s largest emitter of CO2.
At the end of the war, with Germany and Japan in ruins, and Britain triumphant in spirit but gravely hobbled by the decimation of its cities, the US lorded it over the world in a manner unprecedented in history. That the US was at this time the juggernaut of the world’s industrial production may be gauged by the unusual fact that it was singlehandedly responsible for 54.35 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions. It would have been poised, if the data from 1900-1945 is taken into consideration, to account for as much by the late 1920s had not the Great Depression shuttered down many manufacturing units and led to a substantial decline in household consumption levels. It would not be until 2006 that China’s emissions would exceed those of the US, and today China’s emissions are double those of the US; however, viewed in relation to per capita, China is still responsible for less than half of the CO2 emissions of the US. Meanwhile, even if for the once colonised subjects of the Global South nostalgia for Europe is not a whit too easy, the declining per capita emissions in countries such as France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, in some cases to a very significant degree, suggest that nations are not always self-aggrandising but may even veer towards responsibility.
VIEWED IN TOTALITY, and over a long-term historical perspective, the one and only inescapable conclusion is that the US remains, by far, the worst polluter in the world. Some 400 billion tonnes of CO2 had been released into the atmosphere between 1751 and 2017, and the US accounted for 25 per cent of these emissions. It is no longer the manufacturing Goliath of the world, but its 340 million residents, constituting some 5 per cent of the world’s population, consume a quarter of the world’s energy. The average American consumes as much energy as 13 Chinese, 31 Indians or 128 Bangladeshis. Its levels of consumption are, in a word, obscene; and to the extent that the ‘American Dream’ has become everyone’s dream, the obscenity of consumption is the regnant pornography of our times. The rest of the world has for decades watched America consume; and Indians, Chinese, Nigerians, Egyptians, Indonesians and others want nothing more than to consume much like Americans—and their country cousins, Canadians and Australians. They want not only cars, refrigerators and flat-screen TVs, but meat on the table, the chimera of choice, the luxury of luxury goods.
Is it a coincidence, then, that the Oxford English Dictionary and the Western world have awoken to what is now being described as a ‘climate emergency’ at precisely the time that countries of the Global South, and in particular China, have lifted many of their people into the middle class? China and India alone account for 34 per cent of the global emissions, also proportionate (taken together) to their share of the world population. The per capita CO2 emissions of an Indian, at 1.84 tonnes, is still a fraction of the per capita CO2 emissions of an American, which stand at 16.24 tonnes. We may anticipate that the per capita emissions in both China and India, as well as in all the countries of the Global South, will in the ordinary course of affairs continue to grow—and perhaps exponentially, if the ambitious plans in nearly every country to diminish poverty and bring people into the middle class, which is nothing but a consuming class, whatever its historical role in the countries of Western Europe in effecting a fundamental social transformation in the 19th century, come to fruition.
The rest of the world has for decades watched America consume; and Indians, Chinese, Nigerians, Egyptians, Indonesians and others want nothing more than to consume much like Americans. They want not only cars, refrigerators and flat-screen TVs, but meat on the table, the chimera of choice, the luxury of luxury goods
When an emergency is declared, some constituency is asked to bear the price. There is every reason to suspect that, in keeping with the traditions of the last 500 years when the age of European expansion and the plundering of the world commenced, it is the countries of the Global South that will be burdened with the task of alleviating the ‘climate emergency’. Every sane person is bound to admit that climate change is an issue of planetary proportions and this is as decisive a time as ever to repudiate a nationalist outlook. Nevertheless, the history of racism, privilege, greed and self-aggrandisement in the West, to which we may now add the art of killing by kindness, overwhelming the world with philanthropy and the chicanery which has led to new forms of intervention dressed up as ‘responsibility to protect’ and ‘the international community’, all suggest that colonialism will be given a new shelf life. There is certainly a science to climate change, but the Global South should be mindful of the fact that the West has a noxious history of rendering science into the handmaiden of a self-serving politics. There is more than one kind of emergency behind ‘climate emergency’.