Johann Hari: Don't be fooled: advanced and rational societies can commit environmental suicide

The way our economy is structured actually encourages environmental destruction
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The Independent Online

When Tony Blair flew to Washington on Monday to discuss the rapid changes to the earth's climate caused by man, it is a shame he could not make a pit-stop on Easter Island. True, it is several thousand miles out of the way, and the carbon emissions from the flight would have been a further act of ecological destruction - but Easter Island is the most vivid illustration of the stakes human beings face.

When Tony Blair flew to Washington on Monday to discuss the rapid changes to the earth's climate caused by man, it is a shame he could not make a pit-stop on Easter Island. True, it is several thousand miles out of the way, and the carbon emissions from the flight would have been a further act of ecological destruction - but Easter Island is the most vivid illustration of the stakes human beings face.

The grimacing statues of Easter Island have - over the past 2000 years - witnessed the purest example in history of human beings committing unwitting environmental suicide. The story is startlingly simple: the human settlers on the island - living in perfect isolation from the rest of the world - systematically destroyed their own habitat. In a burst of over-development, they cut down their forests much faster than they could grow back. The result? At first, the island was plunged into war as different groups scrambled to seize the remaining natural resources for themselves. They turned on their leaders and staged revolutions, enraged that they had been misled into such a disaster. They even toppled some of their famous statues, symbols of the despised former chiefs. And then - finally - they were left with nothing. They went slowly mad, committed mass cannibalism, and almost completely died out.

In his chilling new book Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, the Pulitzer-prize winning geographer, Jared Diamond, describes how some of the most advanced civilisations in history - like the Maya - committed ecocide without realising it. "What," he asks, "were Easter Islanders saying as they cut down the last tree on their island?" He dryly wonders if they said - as George Bush effectively does now - "Jobs not trees!", or "Technology will solve our problems; never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood." Perhaps they said, "We need more research, not scare-mongering! What are you, some kind of anti-Easter Island fanatic?"

It's a cute analogy, but the world of Bush and Blair is an infinity away from these pre-modern disasters, isn't it? I would like to think so - but, according to the world's leading climatologists, we must stop kidding ourselves. Ecocide has happened before to advanced, rational societies, and it can happen again. They warned yet again this week that we seem to be five minutes away from environmental midnight, and are now on-course for the most rapid increase in global temperatures since the last Ice Age.

And Easter Island is salient for another reason. When the Islanders' environment collapsed, they had nowhere to go; they were an isolated island cut off from the rest of the world. Now - for the first time - we have a global society where we are all dependent on each other. There are no alternative environments, no human settlements beyond the reach of the decisions we make. If our environment collapses, the human game is up. As Diamond puts it: "For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline." In this sense, we are all Easter Islanders now.

Of course, the ultimate fate of the islanders is only the most extreme possible end-game for global warming. (Even the Pentagon, however, has mapped out the possibility of this scenario unfolding globally in the 21st century, in a report leaked last year). More likely is that environmental damage - unless it is reversed now - will cause a drastic fall in living standards and rapid shifts in the way we live. It is a recipe to Make Poverty the Future.

Yet the Easter Islanders were not incomprehensibly mad. Like all societies that unknowingly commit collective suicide - from the Maya to Norse Greenlanders - they became afflicted with dozens of symptoms, each of which seemed understandable at the time. They might sound familiar. One is simple denial. They said: surely it can't be this bad? Doesn't it always work out in the end? Aren't we decent people? This mentality is common in Bush' s Republican Party, with swathes of oil cash and bogus research to reinforce it. Another problem is group-think: if everyone else is doing it, why shouldn't I? Why should I be the one who has to stop?

But the biggest common factor in past ecocides has been the pursuit of short-term "rational bad behaviour" arising from clashes of interests between people. For example, one logging company decides to destroy great chunks of the Amazon, on the grounds that if they don't, some other logging company will. It seems rational, but it places the transitory and fragmentary interests of the individual or group ahead of the long-term interests of us all. Destroying forests leads in the long-term to a hideously irrational outcome for the world at a time when we need all the carbon sinks we can find.

The way our economy is currently structured actually encourages this environmental destruction. Try finding out how to get from London to Edinburgh: you'll find that the most environmentally disastrous form of travel (flight) is the cheapest, while the least damaging (train) costs a fortune. This model is now spreading across the world.

So what can we do? Despair would be foolish, and a gift to the environmental vandals; the solutions are all around us. For example, the British government has announced that the G8 summit will be "carbon neutral": the 4000 tonnes of carbon dioxide released will be counterbalanced by the planting of trees in Africa that will absorb the same amount.

It's a smart gesture, but if the Prime Minister really wants to deal with climate change, he should introduce legislation to make all our air travel carbon neutral. It's simple: if you want to get a flight, you should also have to pay the cost of the carbon debt you are building up by paying for trees in Africa.

Some environmentalists call this "true cost economics": instead of only paying the market price, you also pay the environmental price for your actions. This would roughly double the cost of air travel. Yes, that would be a pain, but dealing with runaway climate change will cause far more grief.

It will take dozens of tough political decisions like this to fend off disaster, but whenever these ideas are put to the Prime Minister, he says they are morally attractive but "politically impossible." Can't he see this is a classic example of "rational bad behaviour"? The British government is currently making plans for a massive expansion of flight-paths and airports, and last year, this country's carbon emissions actually rose. We are still trapped in a destructive mindset, never mind the even-worse Americans. Recriminations against Bush aren't enough: we have been living beyond our environmental means for too long as well.

The long and winding road to Easter Island is far from inevitable; but every day we carry on polluting, we step further into the shadow of those dark granite statues.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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