Jonathan Brun

Global warming just isn’t that important

With the hyper-active behaviour surrounding Copenhagen this year, climate-gate, and the failed climate change bills in the US and Australia; it might be time to take some perspective on our situation as a species and global warming as a problem. We are destroying the planet, but not in the way you might think. Global warming is a serious issue that threatens countries and people, but it is a superficial, easy to solve and a fundamentally materialistic problem.

Global warming is caused by the overconsumption of fossil fuels, used for the transportation and production of goods and services. Therefore, the solution is quite simple – reduce our use of fossil fuels. Global warming is a secondary level problem. When you steal an item off a store shelf, you are directly committing an immoral act and harming another person. When you burn a barrel of oil, you are indirectly harming people, but the indirectness reduces the level of immorality you might feel. Global warming is a secondary issue, it is therefore not as significant on the moral scale of crimes.

Global warming and other environmental issues are external to ourselves, while they might affect us and be our fault, they are manifestations of our failure as a society, not the actual problem.

In fact, there are much more pressing issues to solve.  In 2010, there are over 26 million slaves in the world, nine hundred thousand women are raped every year, over six million people are behind bars, and over 200 million children are abused while working every year. To these people, pollution, global warming and other middle class issues could not be more remote. Slavery, inequality, and poverty are fundamental problems of society – pollution is a consequence.  A doctor always strives to treat the source of a sickness, not simply mask the symptoms. We need to attack the root of the problem.

To tackle global warming, we must fist address the underlying issues that plague our society. Not only  is it morally urgent to address human suffering, it is also beneficial to the overall improvement of the environment. Let me be perfectly clear, you cannot put a price on human suffering and life and you can therefore not equate carbon reductions with a child slave. Priorities matter. Therefore, it follows that we should first address the issues with the greatest moral weight and and largest potential dividend.

Some will say that we need to tackle all these items – global warming, women’s rights, slavery, etc. But resources are finite and even more limited is the ability to keep the public engaged on an issue. As an example, contrast the fundraising results during large natural catastrophes such as the Haiti earthquake or Asian Tsunami with the average fundraising efforts. It therefore follows that we should focus on the items that have the largest moral potential first. I cannot conscientiously ask for money for carbon credits when our fellow humans are in such misery. The problems of inequality and injustice go to the root of civilization and the way we treat each other. They are therefore much more difficult to resolve than secondary level issues such as climate change.

Not only are the victims of our crimes within reach of our help, the perpetrators are also  within our sphere of influence. We choose not to act because it is fundamentally a reflection on ourselves. The diamonds on your wife’s hand may be tainted, the clothes on your children may have been made by another child, and your cellphone contains coltan dug by slaves in eastern D.R. Congo whose mothers were likely repeatedly raped. By recognizing the failure of mankind, we inevitably confront our own failure to change.

To truly effect change we must change ourselves, we must ask ourselves, “What am I doing on a daily basis that may be making the world worse, not better”. Find one thing, and change that. Day in and day out, if done on a global scale, we could begin to change things in a fundamental way. It is far too easy to point the finger and say, not my fault!

Pollution is easy to externalize. The poor countries claim the west created the mess, the developed countries point at the coal factories in China, and individuals blame corporations. While we recognize we are all part of the problem, none of us think we are at the root of the problem. By focusing our media attention on global warming, we are actually making ourselves feel better, which is exactly what global warming advocates are doing. Green people, myself included, too often go to bed saying, “Yes, climate change is a big problem, but it is not my problem, I drive a Prius”. Global warming just isn’t that important when placed against other issues. All of these issues are intertwined, but we must focus on those with the largest moral payback and which lie at the root of our ills?

In my opinion, not a penny should be spent on climate change programs while children die of hunger, women are raped and slaves toil away around the world. The money proposed for climate change initiatives could have far more moral impact if it were employed to reduce poverty, improve medicine, increase the equality of women, and strengthen democratic institutions. The problems I propose to address first are so massive it may mean we never solve climate change. But do we deserve to solve environmental problems if we cannot address our most fundamental societal failures?

Published on August 11, 2010

Part I – Growing Wealth, Growing Inequities

It is undeniable that the economy is developing rapidly and that many peoples incomes have dramatically increased in recent years. However, the truth remains that the vast majority of the population are as poor as ever. But, the lives of an important part of Chinese society have dramatically improved in recent years. Yet, outside the wealthy areas of Beijing, infrastructure is years behind. Venture 10 minutes away from the wealthiest part of Beijing (Chaoyang Business District) and toilets remain outhouses, water is not sanitary, electricity lines are carelessly strewn, dirt floors abound, garbage strewn about, little heating and poorly constructed housing. The gap between western cities and Chinese cities is so large it is hard to describe and the fact that China is so populous only adds to the burden of raising the basic standards of living. Traveling in smaller Chinese towns re-emphasizes the situation. We can see a Porsche Cayenne (125000$ car) parked next to a beggar who lives on 1$ a day. Many people, namely the Chinese Authorities, industrialists and the new middle class claim these are the necessary and temporary inequities required to develop the country. Just as we saw during the industrial revolution in the West, inequities go hand in hand with rapid growth. While inequity is unlikely necessary, it may well be inevitable.

These problems are said to be of concern to the Chinese Government, but in reality, little has been done. There have been increasing demonstrations and unrest by countryside peasants against the governments seizure of farm-land for development and the careless regard for the environment and the safety of the poor (see IHT July 31, 2005). Small towns near steel or chemical plants are so polluted that I have difficulty imagining the health of the children growing up there come 20 years. On a personal note, poor people regularly ask me how much money I spend per day, how much my rent is and how much I earn. This is never a comfortable subject and I usually blatantly lie to them, telling them I spend about 30RMB (8 RMB = 1 US$) per day, in reality it is about 170RMB per day if you include rent and all that other stuff. While this sum is really not that much compared to the west, or to wealthy people in Beijing, it is enormous when compared to a peasant construction worker who earns 800 RMB per month at most. How can this be rectified? How can the differences be brought in line with those in found in western countries? Considering the size of the population, the difference in education, the corruption, and the attitude of the Chinese elite: I have no idea. Not the slightest. So lets turn to another aspect of this exploding society.

On an international level, China has the world by the balls. It is not in China’s interest to see the United States, and by extension the world’s, economy falter, but they could do it at the flick of a switch. They control so much American Treasury Bonds that selling 10% of them would send the US into a serious downturn (see August edition of The Economist). Most people associate China’s growth to the opening of its financial markets and the introduction of free market practices. This remains true in part, but overlooks the meat and bones. China’s policy is to develop large institutions as state controlled companies and allow them to breed smaller companies, which are not controlled directly by the government. This is contrast to India’s policy of allowing private companies to dominate sectors such as health, water, roads and to place the responsibility of development on them, and not the government. Indias’s growth is significantly less and anyone who has traveled there will agree that as poor as rural China is, India is much worse. As said by someone else, “The truth is, Chinese markets are as free as my kids: they can do whatever they want unless I say they can’t.” China will continue to grow and some rules will be loosened, while others will be tightened. Considering the number of half-finished and half-full apartment buildings in Beijing I cannot say that I am completely at ease with the situation here.

Corruption is still rampant and there are serious issues regarding the availability of cheap money from Banks. Laws regarding the banking system have been introduced and borrowing seems to be slowing down, along with the excessive real estate development in large cities. The steel industry, which is the driving force behind the entire economy, is expanding as fast as humanly possible, and sometimes faster. There are however obvious limitations: Raw Materials. As in the rest of Chinese society, the next big issue will be the availability of resources. Chinese plants, for the most part, are using poor quality coke, lime, and ore (basic ingredients for steel) as they are the only types available for a reasonable price. Which brings about another issue, a lot of what is done by Chinese is done fast and on the cheap.

Beijing’s lack of any type of urban planning has created a city, which is a hodgepodge of new glass towers, communist cement blocks, low poor housing, and every style of condominium known to mankind. The new buildings are going up so fast that they purchase mass-produced, low quality material that will not last long. I am not saying that all the buildings need to be made of marble and gold, but the disregard for quality is somewhat alarming. The engineering of the buildings is sound and I have yet to hear of any failures, but when you touch the appliances, the lamps, the desks, you just feel the cheapness. There are high quality products available here for very cheap prices in relation to the west. Heavy furniture, statues, and other household things are available for a bit more than the generic items that are usually used. The buildings that are built often cut corners and without coming across as more Eurocentric than I already am, Chinese architecture is bad and they generally Chinese people do not have that much taste (see next article). The rapid development of a city has traditionally created beautiful cities with some form of uniform style (i.e. Paris and New York), but Beijing has not forced constructors to follow any particular style. While there are many buildings that are interesting on their own as modern artwork and marvelous feats of engineering, the city lacks any sort of unifying style. Even the most high end buildings use poor interior architecture and cut corners.

As usual I use the steal industry as a general indicator and concrete example: the general motto for most Chinese steel plants is to push tonnage (or quantity) and not quality. Some plants, with lots of capital (namely Baosteel) buck this trend and follow western plant practices who have shifted to higher end steels, which are stronger, last longer and cost more. China has been better organized in the modernization of a society than any other large country in history, but there are still many short-comings. Of course, keeping a reign on 1.3 billion people who are hard working, creative, ambitious and biting at the bit is not easily accomplished. China is succeeding where many have failed, but they are no were near the finish line. Western living standards will not reach most of the population, in my opinion for at least another 30-40 years, if at all.

Much of Chinese historical artifacts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (some estimate as much as 90 %), but China is losing more than just buildings and statues now; they are losing the intangible culture that makes a nation a civilization.

My next short article will be on the encroachment and enthusiasm that Western culture is making here. What is your culture when almost everything you use and do is centered o
n western technology and corporations?

Published on July 25, 2005