Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur who owns the Virgin group of companies, today announced a $25 million dollar prize for an invention that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. What a waste of time. $25 million can't help the environment, neither can $25 billion or $25 trillion. It's a catastrophic misunderstanding of the problem. Politicians and entrepreneurs alike tend to reduce every problem to monetary considerations. Of course money is important but human behaviour follows its own rules, a fact thousands of years of our history amply underlines.
We are selfish
Just look at the US as a prime example of an advanced society in love with itself and in love with its way of life. It is arguably the most technologically advanced society in the world and what is the result? The invasion and destabilisation of fragile countries to get more fuel to run more cars to create more carbon dioxide to destroy our world. And that's the most 'advanced' country. What about other countries more desperate, whose people have far less to lose?
Let me be clear, I'm not blaming any particular country, I'm only using the US as a prime example. Here in the UK we're just as bad, although as we don't have as much influence so we don't cause quite as much damage. The problem is the same in every country because human nature is the same across the world. Give people a chance and they'll take all they can get.
Ultimately people quite naturally want to protect their own way of life. We have got used to travelling around in cars, eating foods flown from the other side of the world and living lives of which our ancestors could only have dreamed. Yes, we nod towards environmentalism by recycling the odd empty wine bottle or newspaper, or turning off the lights when we leave a room, but how much difference does this really make?
This problem isn't new. As Jared Diamond points out in his recent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, humans have been destroying their environment and paying the consequences for millennia.
- The inhabitants of Easter Island were reduced to cannibalism after depleting all their natural resources. They chopped down all their trees and ate all the birds and finally had to eat each other in a desperate struggle for survival.
- Cannibalism was rife at the end for the inhabitants of Mangareva, another society that destroyed its own natural resources.
- The Vikings in Greenland failed to learn from the native Inuit, destroyed their environment leading to their own extinction.
That was then, this is now
The examples go on and on. But surely, you say, these people weren't technologically advanced, they didn't have the tools we have now: container ships, airlines and satellites encircling the globe, they were living in precarious places in the world, where natural resources were scarce. While the tools of these societies might have been different, the people operating the tools were working from roughly the same set of premises as we are today: first survive, then make life comfortable, then make it more comfortable, then repeat and reproduce.
Think how much more damage our tools can do to the environment than theirs could. If humans can make an island uninhabitable with rudimentary iron age technology, think what we can do with all our mighty machines. We have the power in our hands to make the Easter Islanders, Mangarevans and Norse Greenlanders look like tiny blips on the radar of self-destruction. Where once we worried about our world going up in a mushroom-shaped cloud, our species now faces the prospect of a more extended demise at the end of which may lie cannibalism.
Is the destruction of our environment an insoluble problem? Will we ever learn the lessons of history? Can we really accept the measures that might be necessary to save the world? If there is one thing that politicians have discovered in the 20th century it's that fear motivates people. If people can be put in a state of fear, their behaviour can be changed. A fearful populace will support measures that once seemed unimaginable. But fear is no good if it's hovering at some distant point in the future, as does environmental collapse. Someone needs to be holding a weapon in your face now, the adrenaline has to be flowing.
Branson talks about how he wants a future for his children and his children's children. This is useless rhetoric. Of course you'll protect your own children, but it's not your own children at the centre of the debate, it's everyone else's children. What will you do to save them?
In reality Branson's $25 million is just another empty gesture everyone will have forgotten about tomorrow when they climb back into their cars to go to work to earn the money to afford the trinkets of a modern consumer society, like a Virgin mobile phone, or a Virgin Atlantic airline trip.
Hope through fear
Governments, societies, individuals; we all need to understand the problem is fundamentally human. If we can understand this then we have a chance of making the necessary changes. Nothing can save us but a revolution in our thinking. That revolution can only come from fear. Fear that we won't survive.
Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. London: Penguin.