Hands off the human footprint!

We should expand our eco-footprint: read spiked’s climate manifesto.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

The Lima climate deal agreed this week, committing the nations of the world to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, has upset green-leaning observers and campaigners. They think it doesn’t go far enough. They want the world’s leaders to make a greater effort to shrink humanity’s so-called eco-footprint on the planet. spiked disagrees. We think the human footprint should be expanded, not wiped away. Read our climate manifesto with a difference, first published in 2009.

From Genesis to the Enlightenment, mankind was seen as the master of the planet. We have ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and every other living thing that moves on the Earth’, said the Bible. Let’s put ‘nature on the rack’ and ‘extract her secrets’, said Enlightenment thinkers. Now we’re described as a malignant tumour, a ‘serious planetary malady’, in the words of one leading green, and our achievements – industry, cities, skyscrapers – are disparaged as the ‘human footprint’. The goal of environmentalism is to shrink this ‘footprint’, speaking to a view of humans as ultimately destructive and of our breakthroughs as gigantic follies that must be decommissioned. No way. We have not poisoned the planet; we have humanised it. And far from being shrunk, our ‘footprint’ – our 5,000-year project of taming and transforming this wild ball of gas and water – must be expanded further.

Every human activity is now judged according to how much carbon it emits. Flying, working, eating, development and even reproducing – people’s decision to create new human life – are measured in ‘tonnes of CO2 emitted’. A baby is another 10 tonnes of carbon a year, we’re told; more fridges in China will add too much CO2 to the atmosphere, it is claimed. But human activity is not reducible to the number of toxins it allegedly creates. The carbon judgment on our daily activities has replaced God’s judgement – except where the God squad at least distinguished between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ activities, under the morality-lite, toxins-obsessed tyranny of original carbon sin, everything is potentially harmful. Stop carbon-calculating our lives, and let us celebrate people’s activities in human terms, recognising them as good, creative, explorative, industrious, or simply as making people happy.

Creating plenty – plenty of food, homes and things – was the overarching aim of most human societies. From the toiling Israelites’ vision of a ‘land of milk and honey’ to Socialists such as Sylvia Pankhurst’s dream of ‘a great production that will supply more than all the people can consume’, we recognised that plenty would make us more comfortable and more free, allowing us to spend less time toiling and more time talking, thinking, experimenting, living. Yet in the eco-era, thinkers demonise ‘plenty’ and celebrate ‘enoughism’, to use one green writer’s word: but whose idea of ‘enough’? Economic growth is denounced as polluting, and people’s desire for wealth is redefined as a mental illness: ‘affluenza’. The sin of gluttony has been rehabilitated in pseudo-scientific terms. We should insist that ‘growth is good’ – in fact, it’s essential if we are to satisfy people’s needs, and liberate their time and their minds so that they can realise their desires.

The only kind of development bigged up today is ‘sustainable development’. It sounds nice: development is a good thing, and who wants to do things in an unsustainable fashion? Yet the cult of sustainability, of pursuing only small-scale projects that can be sustained into the distant future without too much eco-stress, speaks to a lack of human daring. The idea is that we should only build and create things that can be held together or remade without much effort, and that we should never, ever think of overhauling society, of making industrious leaps forward, of discarding the homes, towns and vehicles we have now in favour of better versions. The demand to do only That Which Can Be Sustained is really a warning against rethinking, reimagining and remaking our world. It’s an intellectual straitjacket for progress. We should wriggle free from it.

Progressives once argued that unemployment, poverty and hunger were social problems susceptible to social solutions. Today the orthodoxy is that they are natural or demographic problems springing from humanity’s failure to respect Mother Nature’s limits. Nowhere is this clearer than in the rise of eco-Malthusianism and the notion that the planet is overpopulated by ‘too many mouths to feed’. Society’s failure to create a world fit for people, a world of plenty, is redefined as individuals’ failure to control their reckless fecundity and limit the number of new ‘resource-users’ (formerly known as ‘bundles of joy’). When problems were understood in social terms, the solution was seen as more debate and more progress; when problems are understood in natural terms, the solution is seen as curbs on people’s nature-transgressing behaviour and the use of eco-blackmail to curtail fecundity. Population growth is not the problem – the lack of social imagination is.

Serious debate about humanity and its future is continually curtailed. Anyone who questions the science or politics of global warming is written off as a ‘Flat Earther’, a phrase used by Gordon Brown, among others. Some label ‘climate change denial’ as a psychological disorder and claim these ‘evil words’ will literally bring about death and destruction. From Torquemada on, censors have always painted their enemies not only as wrong but as morally warped, and their utterances as a threat to the social fabric. The idea of ‘denial’, meanwhile, suggests there is an already established Truth that we must either Accept or Deny – no challenge to it can be tolerated. We should defend scepticism, not because climate sceptics always have something interesting to say, but because every breakthrough in history has sprung from at least a willingness to ask awkward, agitating questions about accepted truths.

In the past even Marxists sang the praises of capitalism’s tendency to internationalise production and trade. The ‘rapid improvement of all instruments of production, [and] the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation’, wrote Marx and Engels in 1848. Today we have ‘locavores’ – people who only eat food produced within 100 miles of where they live – and green lobby groups deploying the pseudo-science of ‘food miles’ to argue against the CO2-emitting import of foreign foodstuffs. Eco-miserabilists have even invented the category of ‘love miles’ to measure the pollution caused by importing Valentine’s Day flowers from Kenya. This is the resurrection of protectionism in green language, and is causing people in the Third World to lose their jobs and homes. We need more, and more meaningful, links between the North and the South, not fewer.

Whether we’re digging for coal or extracting uranium, man’s use of the Earth’s resources to create energy is frowned upon. We’re ‘destroying the planet’, apparently, by draining its fuels. Such panic over allegedly dwindling resources is not based on hard evidence that this stuff is running out, but on a conviction that we shouldn’t really be using it in the first place. Even our use of water is now problematised: green charities talk about our ‘water footprint’ and tell us to live ‘water-neutral lives’. This speaks to a new view of people as merely consumers rather than producers, destroyers rather than creators. The Earth has been relabelled a ‘warehouse of resources’ and our role is apparently to tiptoe through it and borrow only what we really, really need. We should see the creation of energy not as the problem but as the solution, allowing us to power industry, light up whole cities, and improve human existence. All kinds of energy can be explored – even wind and waves – just so long as the principle of expanding energy to meet our needs is accepted first.

Our leaders hold international climate summits in the hope of finding that sense of historic momentum that is sorely lacking in everyday politics. Unable to inspire voters with anything like a grand vision of a future Good Life, they instead play at ‘making history’, depicting themselves as the defenders of basic existence from the coming eco-Armageddon. Yet rather than resolving the crisis of political vision, such summits expose it: on one side our leaders express disappointment with we the public’s lack of ‘urgency and drive and animation’ about climate change, and on the other side everyday people sensibly switch off, seeing such summits as a waste of time and telling pollsters that they don’t think climate change is the biggest problem facing the world. Today’s democratic deficit, the gulf between the rulers and the ruled, will not be fixed by the displacement activity of pseudo-historic international conferences – we need openness, honesty and debate.

In the past many thought there was a white, hairy being in the clouds who was judging our behaviour. Today many believe that another white, hairy being – the polar bear – is a barometer of human hubris. Everything we do is measured according to its alleged impact on the ice floes, polar-bear habitats, and other natural phenomena. This represents the creation of a new, backward morality, one which seeks to control human behaviour and lower humanity’s horizons through mythical tales of our eco-destructiveness; the idea of limits, harm and polar-bear vulnerability are used to hector and cow the public. We need to rediscover a sense of human morality, of judging our behaviour in its own terms rather than the terms set by miserabilist misanthropes and cynically externalised as Concern For Polar Bears. When it comes to political decision-making, progress and development, only one question should ever be asked: will it or will it not benefit humankind?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.


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Topics Science & Tech


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