Monday, 2 July 2007

Equality and Proportionality

I've been watching Save Planet Earth on the BBC these last couple of nights. It's nice to get the chance to see intelligent programming about the environment that doesn't mention carbon footprints and emission trading (yawn). Instead, the series has focused on plain, old-fashioned conservation: protecting endangered species from disappearing.

It has concentrated to a large extent on what is, to me, the key issue regarding conversation - namely the importance of balancing the progress of the developing world with the safety of animal populations in those areas. The programmes have been very careful to highlight the importance of incorporating the needs and desires of local people into conservation efforts; hence tonight's episode (on the Ethiopian Wolf) devoted some minutes to investigating how environmentalists in Southern Ethiopia concentrate much of their efforts on educating people in sustainable farming and development.

I'm all for supporting such projects, but whenever I hear about them I'm always reminded of the apparently inescapable hypocrisy of the West - the different standards we set for developing countries and ourselves. We've seen it most recently from the attitude towards China's rising carbon emissions; people worry and fret that "two coal power stations open in China every week" - the implication being that China is the real threat regarding climate change and the rest of us need not bother doing anything about it - forgetting that, per capita, Western countries produce vastly more Carbon than China. But we also see it in the conservation movement. Western countries have been singularly poor at conserving their animal populations - wolves, bears and wild boar were hunted to extinction over a few hundred years in Britain, for example - and yet we're the keenest to force other people in the world to inhibit their own development in order to protect other animal species.

I'm sure that it can be argued that we, in the West, having effectively destroyed our countries as natural "wilderness" environments, are now in a good position to persuade people in the developing world not to make the same mistakes that we have. But I'm not so sure. That position, I think, would require a genuine recalcitrance on our part which doesn't actually seem to be there. (It might be demonstrated by a greater willingness to reopen areas to wilderness.) As it stands, our position is essentially that people in developing countries should make sacrifices for the environment that we never made during our development, and which we are still largely unwilling to make. Do as we say, in other words, not as we do. I hardly need point out how inadequate that is.

It reminds me of a statement I read recently made by a Chinese representative to the Human Rights Committee in 1997, in defence of his country's human rights record. "The developed Western countries," he said, "have the unshirkable responsibility for the human rights problems the world faces come 1.3 billion people are living in poverty? Does it have nothing to do with the aggression, exploitation and plundering by the colonialists of the past? Isn't it the consequence of the irrational international economic order established by the developed countries?" One is tempted to note that much the same argument can be applied to environmental issues: the West is largely responsible for the damage that humans have done to the natural world, and yet we are mostly happy to foist future responsibility, and blame for current problems, onto the Third World. Why, when we abused our own environments during our industrial development, do we expect other countries to do the opposite?

That doesn't mean that efforts don't need to be made on the part of developing countries to protect their natural places (nor to protect the human rights of their citizens); it just means that those efforts should be concurrent with equal and proportionate efforts on our part, too. Otherwise our hand-wringing and moralising is worse than meaningless.


zero_zero_one said...

I suppose one of the big arguments is one that parents use with their children, "I don't want you to make the same mistakes that I did," but at the same time that lacks a lot of the punch here when so often the focus is on making other countries change or restricting other countries growth while we continue to do more or less whatever we want.

There is no easy solution, but just because a solution is not easy does not mean that we should not tackle the problem. I think that society in general has just become discouraged in general with conservation and environmental problems because they seem so insurmountable and best left for "when the technology is perfected," as if that will be the final magic cure-all for the planet's woes.

mattiecore said...

" if that will be the final magic cure-all for the planet's woes. "

Wait...are you trying to say that technology won't be the cure-all? Damn, there goes my conservation plan.