Sadly, George Monbiot has gone off on one again. Decrying the fact that we neoliberals in the Anglo Saxon capitalist style world don’t feel guilty enough about despoiling Gaia. The poor in other places, being as they are not Anglo Saxon and also sanctified by their being poor, care a lot more.
We are sinners as a result.
The problem with this is that what matters rather more than how guilty any of us might feel is what we actually do.
For years we’ve been told that people cannot afford to care about the natural world until they become rich; that only economic growth can save the biosphere, that civilisation marches towards enlightenment about our impacts on the living planet. The results suggest the opposite. As you can see from the following graph, the people consulted in poorer countries feel, on average, much guiltier about their impacts on the natural world than people in rich countries, even though those impacts tend to be smaller. Of the nations surveyed, the people of Germany, the US, Australia and Britain feel the least consumer guilt; the people of India, China, Mexico and Brazil the most. The more we consume, the less we feel. And maybe that doesn’t just apply to guilt. Perhaps that’s the point of our otherwise-pointless hyperconsumption: it smothers feeling. It might also be the effect of the constant bombardment of advertising and marketing. They seek to replace our attachments to people and place with attachments to objects: attachments which the next round of advertising then breaks in the hope of attaching us to a different set of objects. The richer we are and the more we consume, the more self-centred and careless of the lives of others we appear to become. Even if you somehow put aside the direct, physical impacts of rising consumption, it’s hard to understand how anyone could imagine that economic growth is a formula for protecting the planet.
The problems with all of this are myriad. For a start, the impact of the poor upon the environment is much greater than that of we rich. The Amazon isn’t being cut down to grow beef for McDonald’s, it’s being burnt down by poor peasants so they can grow runty corn for a year or two until the soil is exhausted. And the proof that we richer people do care more about the environment is all around us. Britain is cleaner than it has been for 500 years as a result of our increased wealth.
We might change out minds a little bit about this if we are to talk of climate change: for it is true that emissions from people living in the rich world are higher than of those living in the poor. But do also note what is happening: we rich world people are putting in place the expensive plans required to lower those emissions. Feed in tariffs, cap and trade, carbon taxes: whether you want to “take climate change seriously” or not is entirely up to you. But there’s absolutely no doubt that it is us in the places that apparently don’t care about it that are actually doing things about it.
Which brings us to the much more important basic point. The 20th century rather tells us that what people think about things, their guilt at the state of the world, is less important than their actions. Many communists and socialists really did believe that communism and socialism would be better for human beings than the terrors of capitalism and free markets. But their motives pale beside their actual works, slaughtering a hundred million and more in assuaging their guilt.
Actions George, not motives.