25 June, 2009

Should We Be Fair?

Everyone in the world is being affected by global warming.  Islanders.  There's a whole island off the PNG coast whose people have had to relocate to the mainland, where they are resented and being harassed by the local people.  Just recently a 3yo girl was killed over that particular little disaster.  Other islands are not far off or in the process of relocating to higher ground. Drought and famine stricken.  There are water wars in India, farmers unable to grow crops in Asia, and countless similar events unfolding on the African continent.  Australia is slowly succumbing to a steadily worsening drought.

Mind you, it's not all doom and gloom.  With less than twenty percent of the world considered affluent, most of the world's water use  going into making the foods, goods, and luxuries that this percentage uses, they have consistently good lifestyles, fine foods, plenty of meat, and a wealth of manufactured goods.  They live in houses built with resources (cement, steel, aluminium) which the other 80% of the world are sorely missing even though they may be a major source.

Everyone is suffering ill effects for the benefit of the few, but the few are better insulated from those effects and therefore aren't likely to rate the effects of global warming in the same way as those islanders or famine and drought affected people.

So when there's a call for the affluent to compensate the people who are being affected, I feel all sorts of itchiness and conflict. I'm conflicted, because while I'm a member of the affluent percentage, I'm not really affluent and can ill afford to spend much of my resources on someone else.  Yet that just shows how much more desperately the less fortunate person needs those resources than I do.  If I was conspicuously eating only the finest beef and vegetables flown in from their native country/region on a daily basis, I'd have no hesitation switching to local foods and sending some of my monetary resources to someone in Africa.

But I'm not doing that.  I'm living a pretty modest life by Western standards, and in fact growing some of my own food, using local farmers' markets, and eating low footprint meats and vegetables where possible.  And even if I magically became more affluent and got more money resources, I'd be a bit worried about sending my money to the eight people I owe.

Because, the regions those eight people live in are chock-full of people who would, one way or another, extort steal and obtain the aid I'm sending and abuse it to make themselves as affluent as myself, and therefore my compensation would be wasted.  There would be one marginally more affluent person, and eight people who are now being exploited by two.

Even if my compensation reached those people, even if I was 100% committed to the ideal and sending them 80% of my resources so that we each ended up with a fair share, there's still the exploitation problem - suddenly finding themselves fabulously wealthy by their standards, my eight villagers would be looking for places to spend their new-found wealth.  And finding all the scam and junk in the world ready to absorb their money, leading to some Chinese company exploiting them in a more subtle way but with the same result.

Some people would like you to think that if we all reduce our standard of living, eventually the world's inequities will even out and we'll all have an acceptable standard.  But think about this.  Would you work for $1000 a week, send $800 of that away, and still be able to survive?  Could you live and hold down your job, do the shopping, and get to appointments if you could only drive your car for 1/11th of the number of trips you currently use it for?  Are you prepared to move into your kitchen and dining room and ship the rest of your house to Uganda?

And of course, the 80% you've sent to those other people, will it help them or be stolen or otherwise mis-used?

There's another faction.  On a more sinister note, these are the people who are secretly stockpiling guns among their survival stores, and are already deciding which 32 people they will exterminate to make way for their family...  Less radical members of this faction believe that the Earth has a closed-loop feedback system, and if the problem is caused by too many humans, well then...  pretty soon there will be a bit of a cataclysm or two, and then things will balance out by themselves...

But that ignores the function of that "extra" population - while it could (by someone braver than myself!) be argued that a lot of that extra population contributes nothing but more burden on scarce resources, most of the world's population is involved in garnering the resources we use and turning them into the everyday things we take for granted.  So unless the miraculously-saved "Chosen Ones" are prepared to take on eight other people's work, the standard of living will drop for them. This faction also believes that as we exploit particular resources, there will be effects, often catastrophic, which will work to remove population.  Things like rivercourses drying up due to damming and irrigation schemes are one such direct mechanism.

The more gentle hippie way, of demanding less resources, being satisfied with what nature provides without ripping more out of the earth, sharing resources and work - this is yet another faction.  You can think of this as a small reduction in the standard of living for the elite for the benefit of everyone, and if this is done willingly, then it is a Good Thing for the world, but will still not re-balance things as far as is needed.  I'm already being a good hippie in that I recycle what I can, prefer local to import, deliberately use less and make it stretch further, and try and think of the consequences of my consumption.  I can tell you that it results in a less than ideal lifestyle, but still is far better than the lives of my eight less fortunate extended family.

Personally I believe that the answer lies in the synergy of all the above.  As food and water become scarce, there will be wars and skirmishes which will go down in our history books as one of the bloodiest and most callous times ever recorded.  "Natural" disasters triggered by global warming and exploitation of resources will leave millions, if not billions, dead or dying.  The people who take their cues early and learn to get by on a bit less in order to lessen the impact, will be slightly ahead of the curve and more likely to be equipped to survive.  

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