February 14, 2012 Leave a comment
For the most part both newspapers and the blogosphere spend their time arguing small, specific questions, as is good and proper. But now and then you read a headline that seems to ask one of The Big Questions. Rarely, though, does the piece that follows offer a convincing answer. A notable exception appears on the Guardian website (and possibly also in the paper, I don’t know) today, where George Monbiot asks: Is protecting the environment incompatible with social justice?
This is, obviously, an important question. Indeed, it’s really the essential question facing mankind in the 21st century: can we, against the odds, finish the job of raising all of humanity to a decent standard of living while simultaneously slashing carbon emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change?
The answer is often assumed to be ‘no’. Monbiot refers to right-wingers who suddenly become champions of the world’s poor when it gives them an excuse to criticise green policies. (Exhibit A.) But greens, too, often express ambivalence about development. The stereotypical traditionalist green view, with its love of home-grown food, reuse of manufactured items and a general rejection of materialism, essentially amounts to a call for rich countries to return to a pre-development lifestyle. Conversations about climate change talk (quite understandably) about China and India’s rapid economic growth as an ecological catastrophe in the making – never mind the fact that it’s lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
There’s a real problem here – in terms of China and India’s rising carbon emissions, in terms of overpopulation, and so on. But as Monbiot – quoting from a new Oxfam discussion paper – goes on to explain, meeting the basic needs of the world’s poor actually carries with it a very small environmental cost:
providing enough food for the 13% of the world’s people who suffer from hunger means raising world supplies by just 1%.
Providing electricity to the 19% of people who currently have none would raise global carbon emissions by just 1%.
Bringing everyone above the global absolute poverty line ($1.25 a day) would need just 0.2% of global income.
Of course, it’s not quite this simple. Raising up the extremely poor is not the same process as increasing the size of the world’s middle class, but it also can’t be totally separated from that process. Bitterly poor subsistence farmers in Africa, given access to decent roads and education and healthcare, will gradually rise into the middle class and consume more. Given electricity, they’ll gradually drive the need for more power stations. So there’s not not a problem here.
But as Monbiot goes on to argue, to potential consumption of the world’s poor is nothing in comparison to the actual consumption of the world’s rich. (That’s us.)
it is not the needs of the poor that threaten the biosphere, but the demands of the rich. Raworth points out that half the world’s carbon emissions are produced by just 11% of its people, while, with grim symmetry, 50% of the world’s people produce just 11% of its emissions. Animal feed used in the EU alone, which accounts for just 7% of the world’s people, uses up 33% of the planet’s sustainable nitrogen budget. “Excessive resource use by the world’s richest 10% of consumers,” [Oxfam] notes, “crowds out much-needed resource use by billions of other people.”
No-one knows by what proportion the carbon emissions of the world’s poorer few billion people will increase this century, and therefore, by exactly what proportion the richer billion will need to decrease to meet global emissions reduction targets.
But we in the global North are already vastly over-consuming; we have to make steep reductions, whatever happens. To focus on the environmental risks of raising up the poor is not only morally abhorrent, but it’s to run around trying to swat a fly when there’s an angry bear in the room.
But let’s flip that round and put it another, more optimistic way: we can end extreme poverty, worldwide, without significantly increasing the likelihood of (or extent of) catastrophic climate change. The best-case scenario for 2100 – a world that’s no more than 2°C hotter than now, with atmospheric carbon stabilised, global population stabilised, and extreme poverty a thing of the past – is possible. So there, something cheerful to think about when you’re chewing over your locally-sourced, organic Valentine’s Day dinner.