Sunday, December 20, 2009

Which historical wrong gives you the right?

One bone of contention that bedevils any talks on climate, such as those currently on at Copenhagen is that the ‘developed countries’ must bear the brunt of responsibility for climate change. This is through fundamental restructuring of production and enterprise, everyday living and general progress in these nations, the ones who are well off. The developed countries of the world, Old Europe and New America have reaped the benefits of industrialization for the past two hundred years, most of it through the over-generous use of the finite resources of the planet. In doing so they have polluted the atmosphere, not only locally but globally, raising temperatures, and have brought the natural resources of our planet to the edge of depletion. All this is substantially true, but to make a whipping boy of industrialized countries by positioning themselves as victims, the ‘developing countries’ make poor, untenable arguments. These countries and indeed those of the ‘underdeveloped world’ want to have it both ways- make the big boys pay for the sins of the past and continue their own present substantially polluting ways because they ‘need to develop’ to come on par with the rest/best.

I think it is this misguided sense of victimhood, this subaltern posing that will bring useful action on climate change to an inevitable halt. The sense of historical wrong that the Other World is ballyhooing has a whiff of hypocrisy about it. For which are the historical wrongs that give those present a right to redress? That the sins of the fathers committed in the name of development are the sins of the sons and need immediately to be countered, whereas the sins of the fathers committed in the name of racism, religious intolerance and ethnic fundamentalism should be let go in the name of reconciliation and the need to ‘move beyond’? Can one assert that one wrong is tenable while the other is not? Take your pick. Every historical wrong, from the Jews being dispossessed by the Romans to the depredations caused by every former coloniser on every former colony, from the temple breakers of the early 1100s India to those crusaders who sacked Constantinople rather than continue their own religious jihad on Jerusalem can be called upon once again and through their descendants be made to pay for the wrongs of the past. Why then should the descendants of those who created, nurtured and ultimately prospered because of the Industrial Revolution now have to pick up the tab? Even more so, it is a wilful under-appreciation of the fact that industrial progress has, whether those crying wolf like it or not, raised the standard of living of peoples everywhere, which in turn has allowed even the erstwhile dispossessed to reclaim their rights and dignity, right up to the point where they can make these one-sided claims.

It is time primarily to put one’s own house in order. In terms of the environment, the price to pay will be high. The changes to shift to a more sustainable way of being are paradigmatic in most cases and painful for those accustomed to the comforts of a lifestyle fuelled by using natural resources and pollution as most of the developing countries, China, India, Brazil and those of the Middle and Far East already are. They strip-mine, dump sewage into fresh-water, mass produce vehicles of mass pollution and pat themselves for their progressive ways. Such countries have no business posing as victims so that they can continue their exploitative ways ‘for some more time’ so that they can come up on economic par with the First World. In the case of a ticking bomb scenario, as climate change very much is, each country should put their nose to the grindstone and find their own ways and means to convert to more sustainable ways of living. Laying down conditions, buying time, and creating ‘first you, then us’ arguments will only make things worse, and things such are they are, bring in no cheer at all.

To that extent the Government of India should be lauded for making targets for emission cuts by themselves, without waiting for agreements on climate such as those being attempted at Copenhagen. This is by no means enough, but should show the rest of the world that unilateral attempts to alleviate the ill effects of climate change should be the precursor to coming together at the negotiating table. All strategists are aware of the management game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. When this game is played iteratively, the best way forward is ‘Do Good First’. The phenomenon of conditional reciprocity that all the developing and undeveloped countries are waiting for shows them up in a poor light. No matter how under-resourced you are, you can change and you should. Remember if you have nothing, or not much at all, you are not contributing overmuch to the problem. That does not give you the right to become an exploiter,  just because your neighbours or former rulers have been.

Strategy begins at home.

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