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UK renewables are also crucial indirect investment in the developing world

December 17, 2010

Under a Guardian item about Chris Huhne’s plans for the UK energy infrastructure, there were predictable comments from the usual suspects, but one did strike me as telling because there was an implicit callousness about it that I found distasteful. It is where people claim to care about one demographic – the elderly for example – but only in the country they live in. Care of the elderly in Somalia or Tibet doesn’t appear to matter so much. And why should it?

It’s actually quite hard to argue for humanism – I find it is, anyway – because if you don’t have a sense of empathy, of shared experience, then I have no idea how to inculcate it (I think of myself as a humanist and egalitarian rather than a socialist). I suspect too many people care very little about poverty elsewhere, about the vicissitudes of life on or below the poverty line. I’m quite cynical about Comic Relief, because that gives the public the easy option: “I bought the trinket, coughed up a fiver on my credit card on the night, and now my guilt is assuaged and I don’t have to think about poor people any more – at least not for another year”. This is a very market-inspired version of humanism, I find – consumer satisfaction gained from the ‘moral’ purchase. It’s rather like Christmas: good will towards all men, but just for one day a year. For the rest of the time, fuck the lot of them! I wonder if we couldn’t come up with a better approach to good will, and to the developing world?

Behind this line of reasoning, and the topic that inspired it, is the notion of indirect subsidies. In this case, it is by speedy adoption of renewable energy – more costly energy – that we effectively subsidise the developing nations. So while there is a social issue in respect of disproportionate burdens on sectors of our society, it is also the case that we are, as a nation, wealthy enough overall to address these issues, and this is how I responded to the poster whose remarks I took issue with – starting with the quote I found so thoughtless and parochial:

And of course the poorest [in the UK] will be hardest hit by the price increases, I wonder how many elderly and disabled will die because of the price increases? They do not figure in the number put about by the climate change cranks.

I tell you what figures in the numbers put about by this climate change crank: the number of elderly, young, disabled, abled and every other social grouping in the developing countries who are already dying, and whose premature deaths have cast a shadow over my generation (and many more before them).

This debate, and what propels my part in it, is a sense that it cannot be right for people in my country to be worrying about the cost of charging their iPods when there are people suffering abject poverty, ill-health and malnutrition. When their lives are governed by clerics and fundamentalists, when women are treated like chattels to be traded, bonded and stoned or whipped when they demur or transgress. Poverty and ignorance (and terrorism) go hand in hand, and it is my perspective that we in the west must give up some of the riches we enjoy – the luxuries and the concomitant waste – so that others may improve their lot. (That our lot is improved by being hated a bit less may also figure in this calculation).

It is also a key element in a strategy to address population growth. The only solution that doesn’t involve totalitarian legislation is economic growth and the education it funds. If we want to do something about slowing population growth, we have to stimulate the economies of developing countries, not saddle them with climate change and energy costs that actually prevent or diminish their capacity to level the playing field, build infrastructure, improve education and get birth rates down.

So our energy prices will go up, and by donating some of our CO2 output to the developing world, they can use the cheap fossil fuel energy we must give up. The net damage to the environment remains the same, but the beneficiaries are those who need most to improve their situation. And there is no reason at all that the old or poor should suffer: it is simply that in this complex calculation, I will have to pay a little more – as will you – in order to ensure that pensions, and energy costs, are sensibly linked so the former can cope with the latter.

This scheme is plainly the redistribution of wealth, of course, and although my reasoning will be ignored in the rush to condemn me and my cause, I will say that until it became clear to me that there wasn’t enough energy left, resources left, time left, for the poor to enjoy some of the benefits that trade and technology can undoubtedly confer over time, I thought the markets could eventually level the playing field. Now I understand that the markets cannot confer on the developing world the goods, the jobs, the raw materials and the infrastructure necessary for their improvement, because we don’t have them to give, sell or otherwise supply. It’s really as simple as that: we just don’t have enough stuff for everyone to live like an American.

Despite this obvious shortfall in everything, free-marketeers are still touting economic equality on the back of relentless market expansion. Such promises by the libertarians are seen by the developing world for what they are – empty, shallow rhetoric whose real purpose is to maintain the status quo as long as possible, because for most politicians in the west, placating their domestic constituency is more important than contributing leadership to the process of making the world a better place for all of us, not just the minority.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 18, 2010 2:51 pm

    Charity begins at home. That is the expression I hear so often as an excuse against overseas aid and giving to overseas charities. It is used to justify the expression of care for one demographic as you suggest. I have notice that in the last few years the regular Telethons like Children in need and Comic relief expressly state that donations will also be used for UK projects, not just overseas. I suspect they believe that without this, donations would be less.

    What I have also noticed is that there have been comparisons with the additional costs involved with renewables and the implication that their adoption will cause deaths of more old and poor who wont be able to afford to heat their homes. I have even seen Steve Goddards blog suggest that climate protesters who want coal fired power stations shut want us to freeze.

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