The western environmental movement must stop dictating to the developing world and recognise its own complicity in the climate disaster
Recently, my social media timeline has been blowing up with people fawning over David Attenborough and his new documentary, Planet Earth II. I wish someone would produce a version of this huge project containing all of the beautiful shots of the world we live in, but dubbed over with commentary from someone else. Attenborough represents the misleading and colonial rhetoric that plagues much of western environmentalism.
The iconic British broadcaster is known to have reduced the complex political and colonial intricacies of the Ethiopian famine to the assertion that, “there’s too many people there”, while ignoring the fact that your average Ethiopian consumes a minuscule fraction of what is consumed by the average BBC One viewer. “We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia, that’s what’s happening. Too many people there,” David Attenborough claimed in an interview with the Telegraph. “They can’t support themselves – and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case.”
Humans survived on earth for 200,000 years before the industrial revolution. Specific people in specific places are fueling our changing climate, mass extinction and the degradation of the planet. These simplistic and Kissinger-like white western narratives of depopulating the third world, coming from someone whose average viewer consumes more carbon than a small Ethiopian village, don’t help.
Attenborough ignores a large range of exploitative and colonial relationships that lead to these situations. For instance, the Ethiopians he refers to could support themselves if the EU wasn’t stealing their coffee profits with the Common Agricultural Policy. The line is thin between making key development information accessible and brushing over uncomfortable truths, but shifting the cause of famine on Ethiopians is reminiscent of Churchill’s colonial language when he said: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.” The Bengal Famine wasn’t, of course, their own fault. It was Churchill who stole their grain and refused to channel food aid from the various countries which offered it.
Old Dave, alongside fellow white saviour environmentalist Jane Goodall, is a patron of the charity, Population Matters – formerly the Optimum Population Trust. This charity has claimed that the best response to the refugee crisis is for neighbouring countries to support all refugees. And guess what – the overall global population won’t change whether the refugees head to Lebanon or Britain. Despite this, the charity asserts that Britain should accept no refugees from Syria. Zero. Perhaps it should be renamed ‘Britain’s (White) Population Matters’.
Yes, it turns out that when you claim that sending food aid to Ethiopia is “barmy”, yet enjoy a high-carbon, beef-laden diet (Old Dave is not even a vegetarian since we “evolved as omnivores”), as well as accepting a knighthood from a woman whose carbon emissions probably exceed that of some small countries, you are being a hypocrite. The same goes for when you don’t critique your British compatriots, who watch your documentaries on the British Broadcasting Corporation, using energy that relies on the developing world. David Attenborough is most certainly not using his position wisely.
The focus on population growth is one particularly egregious example of hypocrisy. Women in Mali give birth to, on average, six children each, while American women average at about two. But a typical American family will still produce an astonishing 136 times more carbon than a family in Mali. The British families likely to be sitting in their conservatories comfortably watching nature documentaries on BBC One are not quite as carbon gluttonous as your average American family, but they are not far behind. The population rhetoric claims that the birth rates among poor black and brown women in poor black and brown countries are primarily responsible for the changing climate – people who will undoubtedly be the worst hit by the environmental catastrophe. Ultimately, this is a diversionary tactic to distract from the real culprits: rich white westerners, and the Chinese companies working overtime and burning coal to produce mountains of useless plastic products for these rich white westerners.
The cracks in the predominantly white environmentalist movement are beginning to show. Leonardo DiCaprio’s recent documentary on climate change, Before the Flood, in which he travels to various countries to lecture people on their environmental habits, is one example. About 35 minutes into the documentary, Sunita Narain of India’s Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, shows DiCaprio that what is really needed for climate progress is for the big emitters, including America, to reduce the extravagance of their lifestyles. “Please don’t take this amiss,” she tells him, “but your consumption is really going to put a hole in the planet.” DiCaprio is momentarily defensive before accepting his complicity. There was a glint of guilt in his eye. He was probably thinking about his yacht.
I recently debated the issue of western-led climate movements at the Oxford Union, under the motion that developed countries should impose environmental policies on the developing world. I argued that they should not. The developing world has a long history of imposition from the so-called developed world which, ironically, is comprised of those countries most in need of reforming their environmental policy. This is especially salient given the UK’s recent abolishment of its environmental agency and the election of a US president who believes that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. Sadly, the west has never asked permission for any type of imposition in the past, whether in the form of direct colonial rule, through regime change, or by way of the infamous structural adjustment loans of the ‘80s. One in three light bulbs in France is powered with uranium from Niger, while the vast majority of Niger’s population lives in rural or urban poverty with no access to electricity. This implies that France continues to have influence over the domestic politics of Niger.
Our leaders here in Britain are equally complicit. After the Oxford Union conference, I was invited to a drinks reception where I found myself (to my shame) arguing with Conservative MP Peter Lilley. He flat-out admitted that the reason the UK does business with an “Islamic monarchical dictatorship like Saudi Arabia” is “because they give us oil”. These are not the people I want determining the environmental future of the planet.
The left in the so-called “developed world” must also reflect and understand its positionality and complicity in the coming climate disaster. Shifting the blame onto the developing world and ignoring the root of the problem, as many national treasures seem to wish to do, will not help in saving humanity. What is needed is a concerted acknowledgement that progress in environmental protectionism and conservation comes not from the Western Academy or western activism, but from indigenous peoples and people of colour (we’ve seen this most recently with the Dakota Access Pipeline).
The commodification and westernisation of environmental discourse is a real threat. For the sake of truth and for the sake of the planet, we must not forget our complicity and not ignore the contributions of those who are already sidelined.
Image from: http://bit.ly/2fzRbbQ