Friday 2 June 2006

Save the planet, don’t see the world?

spiked seminar, London, 23 May 2006

This debate made me realise exactly why environmentalism is such a frontline issue. And for me, winning the argument against environementalist politics is important not just because cheaper, more efficient transport systems are the mark of a civilised, developed society, where people enjoy what Brendan O’Neill in his opening comments called the ‘tangible freedom’ of flying.

What this spiked-organised face-off between those who support more, better and cheaper travel options and those who want us to restrict our movement made clear is the paradigm shift in attitudes to how we shape society and politics today. What it showed is that for many people who see themselves as politically radical, often thinking of themselves as anti-capitalist and on the side of making a better, more equal world, the idea of social justice has become fatally uncoupled from the idea of progress. From this perspective, the way we make the world better is to stand still - a political stance in the most literal sense.

Tony Juniper, executive director of Friends of the Earth, knows, as you would expect, his stuff. His introduction was an impressive reeling off of facts and figures laying out the climate change scenario, the effects of carbon emissions and the impact of increased air travel, these facts and figures mounting up to make what seems like an irrefutable case for a ‘geophysical reality’ where we have to chose, in Juniper’s words, between cooking and flying.

Juniper’s ‘geophysical reality’ was, however, convincingly refuted. From the floor, spiked science writer Joe Kaplinsky questioned the inevitable geophysical ‘helpless-in-the-face-of-gravity’ assertions made by the Friends of the Earth director. In response to Juniper’s fact that 150,000 deaths a year can be attributed to global warming because a rise in temperature has been accompanied by a rise in malaria, particularly in developing countries, Kaplinsky noted that this was less geophysical reality and more socio-economic failure. Deaths from malaria are quite simply a result of our failure to eradicate malaria in developing countries. Similarly with the assertion that 20,000 deaths in recent European heat waves were directly attributable to ‘human induced global warming’, Kaplinsky pointed out that this assertion rides roughshod over sociological realities, such as many of the victims being old people who lived alone, who were poor and did not have modern air-conditioning.

Progress was under attack from Juniper’s fellow travel sceptic on the panel, John Adams, professor of geography at University College London. It was Adams’ contribution that I found the most perplexing and paradoxical, but which was also right at the heart of the social justice/progress dichotomy. Adams’ theory is that we are all just too mobile and that we all just have too much and want too much. Admonishing us to think what sort of world we would live in where everyone’s wish was granted, Adams believes there comes a point on the graph mapping the history of increased mobility and increased progress where progress ‘acquires a question mark’. After this point, constantly progressing societies, so Adams’ argued, become more anonymous, more fearful, less convivial, less democratic and less child-friendly. The more progressive/less child-friendly equation does beg the question as to how ‘child friendly’ societies are who cannot offer their children the basic hope of life, the average life expectancy of some developing countries being in the mid-thirties, half that of many progressive, ‘less child-friendly’ developed nations.

spiked’s deputy editor, Brendan O’Neill, a panel member outspoken in his support for cheap air travel, gave short shrift to the tipping point argument. This view of the world as something held in delicate balance, as a pie that needs to be carefully sliced up between more and more of us, makes the mistake of seeing the world as a fixed entity, argued O’Neill, instead of something that ‘we make and shape’.

The real tipping point for some seemed to be being called a ‘snob’. Tony Juniper vehemently denied O’Neill’s suggestion that much of the antipathy towards cheap air travel is served up with a ‘generous side order of snobbery’. But O’Neill’s point came home to roost when the author Christian Wolmer asked a hypothetical and loaded question from the floor: if there was any question at all that young men flying to Prague for stag night piss-ups could damage human life via fuel emissions and their effects on climate change, how could we morally justify this and not tax aviation fuel? The consequent guffawing from the floor at the suggestion by Pete Smith, a lecturer in travel and tourism at St Mary’s College, that what is neglected in such a question is the social aspects of travel, particularly the social interaction and engagement such trips involve, was the sneering of collective snobbery, with Wolmer as jeer-leader heckling with taunts of ‘lap-dancing’. Unfortunately Wolmer didn’t stick around long enough to hear O’Neill’s reply that stag nights are just not a moral issue but should be seen for what they are: ‘a holiday, getting away from the strictures of everyday life’.

Wolmer’s and others’ disdain for the lap-dancing masses is often presented as a concern for the virtuous poor of the world. But the drama of claiming to speak for the voiceless of Africa and other developing world countries was pulled apart from the floor by spiked‘s editor Mick Hume. His take-no-prisoners contribution argued that the ‘I am here to speak for the masses of Africa’ argument that had come from several environmentalists in the audience amounted to ‘hiding behind the wretched of the earth’ in order to give yourself ‘a blank cheque to argue whatever you like’.

It was left to Pete Smith in his closing comments to lay down a challenge that put its finger on the anti-progressive heart of the argument against cheap air travel. Smith put a ‘serious proposition’ to the Friends of the Earth executive director, picking up on Tony Juniper’s comment that far from being against travel and movement he would support other modes of transport such as rail, and had in fact traveled through Spain by train. Smith, apparently extending the proverbial olive branch, said that if Friends of the Earth were serious about campaigning for an improved rail system with more trains, more lines and more transport choices for everyone, that he would join them in that campaign. However, he remained sceptical about the Friends of Earth’s commitment to large scale improvement of transport infrastructure: on their website they bemoan the fact that the government is spending too much money on ‘mega-scale’ rail projects.


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