The dilemma of environmental politics

Green economics0

This aim is the result of broad consensus between scientists and historians that civilisations fail when population outstrips resource allocation. In other words, Malthus was ultimately right, and that the First World has avoided the inevitable by robbing the rest of the planet for five hundred years.


Now that we have a global economy and are depleting the world’s fisheries and forests, the inevitability of Malthus observations are coming home to roost.

Most importantly, the experience of past civilisations – documented in books like Jared Diamond’s Collapse – is that if we start robbing Peter to pay Paul, all that we do is ensure that Peter starves to death more slowly than Paul. Cities rely on the surrounding countryside to provide, food water and energy. Once that countryside collapses the city soon follows.

Hidden in this analysis is that the Millenium Development Goals themselves are flawed. They are a compromise that was hammered out between the 150 or so nations at the table. They maintain an economic disparity in which the richest countries on average are ten times wealthier than the average of the poorer countries. They are based on the assumption that half a billion people suffering from hunger each year is an improvement on one billion people. These are reasonable compromises on a fixed term set of goals, but hardly a global solution for humanity.

In general, politicians cannot afford to agree with historians and scientists because they must appeal to their electorate. Voters (or subjects) will inevitably vote selfishly. That is they will identify with Paul and not only rob Peter, but banish him to the outer darkness, even though that only delays the inevitable. The rich depend on the poor to supply their riches, even if they do not recognise that historical and mathematical fact. The majority of voters in the city do not want to eat less, drink recycled sewage, or grow their own food just to maintain a sustainable rural agricultural base, even if that is the only way to ensure that their grandchildren will be able to enjoy similar affluence to themselves.

To put it more bluntly, the current crop of Climate change and resource shortage deniers are simply saying to voters, grab what you can now and let the world’s poor, future generations and the plants and animals of the world sort themselves out. It is unreasonable for us to give up our affluence because other people might suffer. They can blame the death of billions of the world’s poor on the vagaries of climate and as self-serving evidence that God has chosen them to survive while the wicked succumb to flood, starvation, pestilence and death.

Environmental political movements, then, face a difficult dilemma. Politicians win elections by giving hope to the electorate. Given the choice between voting for energy descent and economic stability and environmental sustainability on one hand or personal affluence at the expense of some non-present other, the electorate is generally going to go for the here and now.

Younger Greens supporters fully embrace the principles of a sustainable and fair future, but are largely unaware of the real impositions that this will make on their lifestyle. Greens movements have shied away from a fully realistic account of the cost to wealthy countries of a sustainable future because the accounting is so stark. Instead we insist on regulating our mining and manufacturing and calling for transparent labelling practices as if we are going to stop the killing machine through shopping apps on our smart phones.


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