Tuesday 21 February 2006

Help, we're all going to die!

I’ve got some bad news for you: you’re going to die, probably in a thoroughly unpleasant way. I’m sorry if that’s spoilt your breakfast. If it’s any consolation, it’s the same for everyone, even the smart alecs who write columns in The Journal.

You’d think that would be bad enough. But apparently not. Ever since the first caveman crept into his neighbour’s cave, pretending to be a sabre-toothed tiger, we humans have taken a perverse delight in scaring the bejasus out of each other.

The Christian Apocalypse, medieval legends of dragons and goblins, Victorian ghost stories – all have had but one purpose, and it hasn’t been to give anyone a good night’s sleep.

Now we have the twenty-first century equivalent: the looming environmental catastrophe. The planet is overheating, the Arctic ice cap is melting, sea levels are rising and we’re all heading to hell in a handcart.

Well, as it happens, we’re nearly all going in that direction anyway. But is any of it actually true? There have been some lively letters in this paper from both sides of the debate, and I’m not technically qualified to judge between them. But I do know that the nature of the coming catastrophe has changed completely since I was at university, when we were doomed by the imminent exhaustion of world copper supplies (hence no more electricity) and a looming ice age.

As I sit here 30-odd years later, the power still seems to be flowing and there isn’t a large glacier forming atop Cheviot. Quite the reverse, in fact.

I have a touching faith in our ability to avert catastrophe through human ingenuity, particularly when the danger becomes imminent and indisputable, and helps to concentrate our minds.

At present, we are still looking on global warming much as our forbears regarded Nazism in the 1930s. Most of us recognise that it could be a threat, but we don’t actually want to do anything about it that might threaten our comfortable lives. We are, if you like, in the appeasement phase, just starting to move towards taking up arms.

Building wind farms is a classic case. They make it look like the Government is doing something, in a way that reminds me of nothing so much as the great campaign to recover cast iron at the start of the last war. Houses, schools and parks were deprived of their decorative railings, allegedly to be smelted into guns, tanks and battleships. Does anyone believe for a second that they were? But their disappearance let everyone know that the enemy was at the gate, as the industrialisation of some of our most beautiful landscapes is intended to do now.

The fact that wind farm enthusiasts are largely urban, and their opponents rural, no doubt adds an extra touch of spice for an administration that loses few opportunities to demonstrate that it not merely doesn’t understand the British countryside, but actively dislikes it.

Even to a cynic like me, it does seem unlikely that this planet can be industrialised to the degree that would provide first world living standards for all, without irreparably damaging its ecosystems. If that is the case, what should perhaps be giving us nightmares is how we can defend ourselves against the coming charges of unfairness and hypocrisy.

Here in Europe we’ve already destroyed our natural forests, wiped out our mega-fauna and plundered our fossil fuel reserves. In return, we’ve enjoyed 200 years of relative posterity based on industry and urbanisation. Who’s volunteering to be the missionary who explains to the populations of Asia, Africa and Amazonia that they simply cannot be allowed to do the same, in the interests of the Earth as a whole?

Remember that the people who are really in tune with the planet are the guys in New Guinea wearing the penis gourds and bringing down animals with blow-pipes, not any of us here. Even if we vote Green and drive a 2CV with a ‘Nuclear Power No Thanks’ sticker on the back.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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