Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Rosia Montana: Consumerism and its Disconnects

Since the 1980s, humanity’s ecological footprint has exceeded global bio-capacity. That is to say we are ‘spending’ nature’s capital faster than it can be re-generated. The average Briton consumes the produce of about 6 global hectares. The average Romanian consumes about 3 hectares’ worth. And the whole tendency of our world-view is to strive to raise both those figures, though we know now for certain that this would be at the expense of a biosphere which can not go on ‘bank-rolling’ our greed indefinitely. The solution will certainly involve a re-think from first principles. It will also, and already does, involve action.

George Monbiot’s career as a scholar and journalist reads like a sequence of action / adventure movies, each more astonishing than the last. He now writes a column for the Guardian and runs a useful web-site ( Starting as a producer of natural history films for the BBC, he grew wary of the ‘consensus reality’ which he found ever more pervasive in the corporate media. As an investigative reporter, he has described the murders, evictions and vandalism carried on in the name of the mahogany-trade in the Brazilian rainforests. Two years after publication, with the help of a campaign run by Friends of the Earth and Survival International, British imports of mahogany had fallen by 60%. He has lived with indigenous peoples of Indonesia and chronicled their persecution by the government, anxious to clear them from ancestral lands so as to give logging companies better access. He has written about land-rights issues in north-western Kenya.

He is the best known British example of an activist who opposes globalisation as it is exploited by, for example, mining companies, with a globalisation which might work for, say, human beings.

His critique of corporate globalisation and its effect on people and the environment has taken many different forms. Like most serious thinkers in recent years, he has turned his attention to climate change as the evidence for it became incontrovertible. Last autumn he published Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning< (Allen Lane, 2006) in which he sets out a detailed programme of reforms whereby carbon emissions from the United Kingdom could be cut by 90% between now and 2030.

Each chapter of the book is headed with a quotation from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. It is Monbiot’s contention that our use of fossil fuels bears a close resemblance to the pact between that famous doctor and the Devil’s servant, Mephistopheles. In return for twenty-four years of living ‘in all voluptuousness’, in return for twenty-four years of omnipotence, Faust will, at the end of this time, hand over his soul to the Devil. The deal is signed in blood.

What climate change is ‘telling’ us, on this analogy, is that our ‘twenty-four years’ are drawing to a close. A 90% cut in carbon emissions would be Britain’s proportionate contribution to the cuts which are necessary everywhere to prevent global temperatures rising by 1.4°C between now and 2030 – that is to say, 2°C above pre-industrial levels. 1.4°C is, according to the most recent science, the projected rise if we continue as at present. Climate specialists agree that 2°C above pre-industrial levels represents the upper limit of ‘safe warming.’ Beyond that, the biosphere would begin to deteriorate unmanageably. The book makes detailed suggestions for how we might build, insulate and heat our homes, meet our electricity needs, re-arrange our transport infrastructure, do our shopping and introduce carbon rationing. It envisages a willingness on the part of governments to start actively managing this crisis.

He claims that, translated into government policies, his programme would leave our present standard of living much as it is. Suspicious of mystical solutions to the crisis, Monbiot is a formidable statistician and an Oxford-trained biologist. His Guardian column has become an essential channel of communication between the scientific community and the general public. A bracing prose-style helps him on his way.

As with Lovelock, his emphasis is on realistic proposals and the fine scientific detail: ‘the dissemination of hard fact is the place to begin’. Nuclear power, however, and the laissez-faire policies of Mrs Thatcher – a legacy carried on faithfully by Mr Blair – seem to Monbiot more a part of the problem than of the solution. Given the scale of what must be achieved and the speed which is now necessary, he sees a more active role by government as essential and new nuclear power stations as both unnecessary and dangerous. More efficient use of energy from cleaner sources is his recommendation, and that of most well-informed environmentalists.

There are some small signs that these thinkers represent a constituency that can no longer be ignored. Congestion on British roads has now reached such proportions that the government will introduce ‘road charges’ to reduce excessive car use. A ‘congestion charge’ in central London has worked well to reduce the amount of traffic in the capital. These measures are unpopular, because, as we’ve seen elsewhere, Chevrolet’s version of liberty is very skilfully marketed. But the government has recently indicated that it will press ahead with such schemes regardless.

Large companies have also recognised the ‘atmospheric change’. BP, once the acronym for British Petroleum, now stands for ‘Beyond Petroleum’ and markets itself as an ‘energy company’ both concerned about climate change and actively engaged in finding solutions to it. Supermarkets are dependent on supply-networks which involve transporting goods over enormous distances, and then presenting them to the public in gigantic refrigerators with no doors on them. This waste of energy has come in for a good deal of criticism and the supermarkets have been forced to respond. Tesco has recently announced that it will aim to halve the energy-consumption of its stores by 2010 against a base-line of 2000. Marks and Spencer are to manufacture their synthetic fabrics using recycled plastic bottles.

Even if they mean it this does not even begin to address the seriousness or the scale of what needs to change over the next two and half decades. Air travel uses roughly eight times the amount of fuel per person per mile as trains do. Richard Branson, chief executive of the Virgin Atlantic airline, has responded to public concerns by offering a $25 million prize for the best method of extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The prize will be judged by, amongst others, James Lovelock. Branson will also invest $3 billion in developing clean technologies over the next decade.

This is of course to the good. But it will have other more questionable effects too and they are intentional. If the big companies and the experts are already working on the problem, then of course we can go on doing and buying and flying just as we like. In fact, the vast bulk of BP’s business remains in oil and will do so for the foreseeable future. Any new technologies to reduce the environmental impact of flying, for example, would take decades to feed through to a new range of aircraft.

Since we do not have ‘decades’, the promise to develop such aircraft gives a falsely reassuring impression of a problem that is being fixed. After meticulously examining the science, the one aspect of our present life-styles which George Monbiot could not re-configure so as to render it harmless was our ever more serious addiction to flying. Cutting car congestion while building new airports to accommodate the massive projected increase in air travel – the policy of the present government – is a classic case of environmental disconnect.

None of the thinkers I’ve profiled here ‘wanted’ to arrive at their sombre conclusions. They are, each in his or her own way, scrupulous and dedicated intellectuals. I hope I have demonstrated that environmentalist activism has every reason to be taken seriously – by scientists, philosophers, historians, journalists, by thinking people everywhere. Whether it is the Poles protesting against the road being cut through the wetlands of the Rospuda Valley, or the Romanians in Rosia Montana, or the British lobbying for marine reserves. There is nothing patronising or technophobe or crypto-Stalinist about it. And if Europe is ever to be joined up meaningfully it will be through our combined intelligence and foresight, not through shameful complicity in an ideology of myopic greed.

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