Sunday 26 October 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

As most of you know, because I posted a passage from it recently, I just re-read The Master and Margarita. If I were to tell you the plot in a nutshell I would say that the novel is about a visit the Devil and his associates pay to good, old dear Moscow during the Stalin era. As soon as they arrive they wreak havoc. However, even faced with the destruction of their city, Muscovites still refuse to believe that it is the Devil at work.

The scenes of chaos, disbelief and naiveté that Bulagakov so well describes reminded me of the debate about climate change.

Green taxes, renewable energy, carbon pricing, you name it, I have heard it. I have learnt a whole new vocabulary in the last ten years or so that my attention has finally turned to the issue of the slow, but ultimately unstoppable, global warming of our planet. I confess to having felt indifferent before. Seventeen years ago I was still getting used to the idea of not just travelling to another country but also looking to spend the rest of my life there with the family I was just about to form. Under these circumstances I am sorry to say that polar bears and their plight were not at the top of my priorities.

They are now, though. Climate change is real and it is here. But rather than a straightforward issue climate change is a topic fraught with squabbling and bickering. This is a subject that has the word politics emblazoned across its chest both with a capital and lower case “p”.

The future?
The way I have come to think about the damage we are doing to our planet is the same way I have come to see smoking. Apologies if I have already used this example but it is perfect for a post like this. Imagine if someone lit up next to you and straight after having that cigarette they dropped dead. Would you ever touch a ciggie? Hell you would! Because you don’t want to die. Simple as that. In this case the danger is real, it is palpable but above all it is immediate. Of course, we all know that smoking does not cause instant death (we’re talking normal, over-the-counter cigarettes here). That is one of the reasons why people keep smoking. This is a habit that brings pleasure (yes, I know it’s not everyone’s idea of “pleasure” but it is for most smokers and after an initial tough rite of passage, what with all that coughing, it becomes normal) and which provides a social network of like-minded smokers. As we also know, twenty or thirty years down the line, bar the odd exception here and there (Uncle Jim was a chain smoker and lived to one-hundred and ten. Yes, he was a rarity, not the rule), you finally confront your lungs on that X-ray in that cold, impersonal GP’s room. You also have to confront the terrible news about the “c” word. If, on the other hand, you don’t end up with lung cancer, your health will equally suffer from all kinds of ailments. Either way, that first ciggie behind the bike shed in school has metamorphosed into a chronic disease.

Climate change is no different. Like smoking, we cannot see the immediate effects of our lifestyles on the planet and similarly by the time we realise the harm we have done, we will be facing the equivalent of an X-ray in a cold, impersonal GP’s room.

The reason why this issue has been on my mind of late is that there is a new book out by the Canadian author Naomi Klein. Now, full disclosure is called for here. I have been a fan of Naomi’s writing since I read No Logo about twelve or thirteen years ago. The way she laid bare the exploitation of sweatshop workers in Third World countries was an eye-opener for me. The Shock Doctrine, a thorough account of how free market capitalism cashes in on natural and man-made crises for its own gain, was another book I devoured avidly. This time Naomi turns her attention to the plight of our planet and brings us This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. I will surely buy this volume but for the first time I have the uneasy feeling that perhaps Ms Klein is slightly out of her depth. I’m not one of those people who judge a book by reviews. I like to read the work, analyse it and arrive at my conclusions, but in this instance I have paid a closer attention to what critics are saying and writing.

There are many reasons why I feel that Naomi has bitten more than she can chew this time. For the first time I feel that the solutions she offers might fall way too short of the real changes we need to make in order to stop the destruction of our planet. There are many challenges to Ms Klein's theories. I will address three of them only, otherwise this would make for a rather long post.

Partisan politics. We’ve come to a standoff in contemporary politics in which neither left nor right is willing to budge. This impasse has led to a cultural war of which climate change has become a high-profile casualty. This is not just in the developed First World, but also in state-run, capitalist China and Russia. Attitudes to climate change have become as toxic as abortion rights or social welfare. The difference is that whereas the latter two belong more to a domestic agenda, global warming affects us all.

It is not hard to see why the traditional left-vs right struggle has met a barrier in regards to climate change. Countries are not run by governments, but by corporations. They are the ones with the wherewithal to raise funds in order to support the type of candidate who will respond to their corporate interests. That leads me to the second reason.

We used to make things, now we import them. Or, we have them made elsewhere. For corporations to be financially viable and stay competitive they have to reduce their production costs and maximise profit. If that means closing a factory in the Midlands and relocating it to Indonesia, laying off in the process a thousand workers, so be it. We, consumers, on the other hand have stopped asking where our stuff comes from and accepted that it is our right to buy it. For a mobile phone to reach our local retailer, it first has to go from Eastern Congo (the coltan in its capacitors is dug there by miners who are amongst the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of victims who have died in the “conflict minerals” wars) to India or China or another sweatshop where it is assembled. Now, try convincing that bloke who has queued up for two days in a row in the pouring rain to be the first to get the latest (insert model here. I want no trouble with lawyers) that in a certain way he is responsible for global warming. That leads me to the third and final reason.

Our lifestyles. They are hard to change because many of us have worked hard for them. And I will tell you what, reader, or maybe you will be the one telling me this, we will be loath to lose the standards to which we feel entitled. We work our fingers to the bones, some of you might even work unsocial hours. That telly from Japan (assembled all over the world), that new Mini (c’mon, it’s not a bleeming gas-guzzling SUV, is it?), the long-haul holiday to Australia (the first time you've taken a vacation abroad for five years). It’s my/your sweat in those choices, you might say to me. To which I will nod in agreement. This seems to be, based on the reviews I’ve read so far, the part of Naomi’s argument where she falters somewhat. It’s less difficult to rally support behind the plight of sweatshop workers or tsunami survivors. The cause is not just, but it is also distant. It is a whole different ball game when the issue is so close to home. To the point where we might be forced to change our lifestyles completely. That is why one of the solutions she offers, a network of activists organising mass action at summits and taking to the streets, will work short- or even mid-term. Long-term? Not a chance. It is also worth mentioning that what complicates this situation even more is that we also have populations in developing countries attempting to emulate the “western way of life” with devastating effects to their economies. Not only do they fall prey more easily to unscrupulous (western) investors, but also their governments are more prone to corruption.

Those of you who have been visiting my blog for a long time probably know that I am an optimist by nature. When it comes to climate change, however, I find a dark cloud looming over the horizon. This dark cloud is similar to the one in the last chapter of The Master and Margarita that presages a storm that threatens to destroy Moscow. Let us hope that for once fiction stays fiction.

© 2014

Next Post: “Living in a Multicultural World”, to be published on Wednesday 29th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Lots of food for thought, thank you!

    I love The Master and Margarita and visited the Mikhail Bulgakov house in Kiev. It survived the Soviet era, and is now open to the public.

  2. i think that it will take a disaster of mega proportions for us to really believe in climate change...and that there is anything we can do about it...we live in denial because the changes it would take, would hurt...and pinch our lifestyle tremendously....

  3. Creo que todavía no somos lo suficiente sensibles para ver las consecuencias del cambio climático.
    Cuando oí por primera vez que una bolsa de plástico lleva 100 años a degradarse, me quedó muy claro y comprendí lo importante que es ser ecológicos.
    Un feliz domingo.

  4. Yep, people have a hood over their head and refuse to believe in it, but then on the flip side there are idiots that are only in it for the money it can make them and making it seem like it is no big deal. Then you got some blaming everything on global warming, making it a broad term. It will take something huge for people to wake up and then it would be too late.

  5. Both of my parents smoked, but it never appealed to me so I have never smoked in my life (anything, including marijuana).

  6. Truth can certainly be stranger than fiction and in many cases, mimic it amazingly well. It's a scary time in many ways. We're such a destructive civilization.

  7. Not being a believer in one-world government, which, fundamentally, amounts to dictatorship and de facto slavery, my own belief is that nothing could ever be done to significantly affect climate change. That is first. Second, I do believe Nature rules the planet, not mankind, and the climate will change gradually and eventually no matter what puny man tries to do about it. Witness the glacial ages; witness continental drift; witness the flip-flop of the magnetic poles.

    Time equals movement and, therefore, change. The planet itself is in constant motion and, therefore, in constant change in many respects. Frankly, I would be more worried about being hit by a meteorite than about climate change, and I have no control over either.

    If some people are insistent on having a cause célèbre to hang their hats on, I would rather it be over-population of the planet. Mankind may devise ways to feed an over-crowded world, but income redistribution and other social-engineering artificialities will not prevent the storming of the Bastille once again at some point in time. There might be enough food to go around, but the worldwide economy is on the road to stagnation. That equals big-time trouble.

    You make an interesting argument, Cil, but I think you are playing too deep in left field on this issue. Maybe, move into the infield for an inning or two.

  8. I am astonished by the head-in-the-sand position of those who question the role of men and women in climate change. We'd love to think the whims of climate were nothing but arbitrary changes in wind direction. Yet the science is clear.

    And how to deal with it - I agree, the left-right political split serves only to entrench opinions rather than reach a sensible dialogue that might bring progress.

  9. I will have to remember your what if on someone lighting up and dropping dead. I'll be able to use that with someone I work with.

  10. Our climate is likely to undergo certain cyclical changes naturally, but the majority of scientists who have been studying the issue at depth agree that WE bear some responsibility for the current rapid temperature increase. A book I read recently, which was written by a scientist who has been conducting studies in Antarctica for decades, provides definitive data on the massive ice melts, and the subsequent effect on the ecosystem there. Politicians and world leaders who fail to take the situation seriously, based on the fact that they "aren't scientists" should start paying more attention to the people who ARE scientists. Governments pay panels of scientists to conduct research and provide facts, and then blithely choose to dismiss those facts.

  11. Thanks for your comemnts. My twopence now.

    Even if we allow for Mother Nature's wisdom to sort out things the "natural" way, we humans are responsible for many of the acts that are commited against it. That's not wishful thinking, it is a reality. Chernobyl and the oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico bear me out. Climate change is not about a government or governments, or dictatorships. It is, I believe and I completely agree with Naomi Klein on this, about an economic system that is not as effective and efficient as we thought it to be before. The problem is that in the absence of a viable socioeconomic system that could cushion the devastating effects of climate change (even overturn them), we are bent on carrying on in the same vein, no matter what. I don't think that to think that way is thinking like a communist, or "red" (do they still exist?). My argument is that Ms Klein - and this is all based on the interviews she's given and the reviews I've read. It will be different when I read the book - has left out a whole lot of factors that conspire against her desired mode of activism. We live in an era where a group of individuals are in the same room and yet they are miles apart from each other. We are becoming not just more distant from each other, but also from our environment. Add to this a short attention span and even a disaster of mega proportions won't change our mindset. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was massive, so was Chernobyl. We're talking nuclear energy, wildlife that will disappear.

    Thanks for your comments. I'm glad my post has triggered so many different responses.

    Greetings from London.

  12. Your cigarette analogy is very accurate. Honestly, it's the same with our bodies. If we saw the immediate effect that candy bar or bag of fries had on our bodies, we'd be less likely to eat it. But it's slow and subtle, just like our destruction of the environment. I try to do my part by recycling and reducing the amount of waste I create, but I'm only one person.

  13. Global warming's causes are indisputably due primarily to human activity. Decisions we make every day can add or subtract to the problem, and politics...oh boy...they haven't helped matters. I'm glad that you are writing about this; it is important and everybody should be concerned.

  14. What Kerry said. Verbatim. We are the disaster we see looming in this world. Thank you for a most provocative post.

  15. Like you, climate change never used to enter my head...but now, it is a constant concern of mine.
    In spite of (or possibly because of) being a constant passive smoker when I was growing up, I have never smoked.
    When, at 15, I was teetering on the brink of temptation, our biology teacher brought a cross segment of a smoker's lung into the lab and left it there on display. I will never forget the horrific sight! It was totally congested with treacle-like black tar...
    It is the same with climate change...if we could see the results of our actions, then we'd think much more carefully about our careless destruction of our environment.
    These days, I am much more careful...I recycle everything I can, I never litter, I turn off lights and other electrical items when I am not in the room etc.
    But I am just one person...

  16. I do everything they ask of us in the way of recycling, non-smoking, making savings within the home, but it's not enough, is it? The damage has already been done!

  17. strange song. :) It was liek two different ones when the piano came in.

  18. What a funny coincidence. I have been communicating with Naomi Klein's agent for over the last two months to get her to come speak to our college about academic freedom. The Shock Doctrine touched on that but I think you're right, the latest book might be too out of her element. I also agree about global warming, it does not look good for us at all..

  19. Hey Cubano--I thought I had commented on this, but I think I was too discouraged! I think the cigarette metaphor is very good. It is so difficult for people to change when they don't want to! Energy consumption is a kind of habit.

    I have not read No Logo and the others. My only thought is that people are not paying the true cost of their consumption in that they do not pay the costs of their waste and destruction. But it will take a lot of political will to impose such costs. Thanks for your thoughtfulness. k.

  20. Hey Cubano--I thought I had commented on this, but I think I was too discouraged! I think the cigarette metaphor is very good. It is so difficult for people to change when they don't want to! Energy consumption is a kind of habit.

    I have not read No Logo and the others. My only thought is that people are not paying the true cost of their consumption in that they do not pay the costs of their waste and destruction. But it will take a lot of political will to impose such costs. Thanks for your thoughtfulness. k.

  21. Good analogy between smoking and climate change. I was a research assistant on integrating data on climate change between different nations during the early 90s. It was scary seeing the threat and even scarier having few people believe it was a real problem. What small satisfaction I have in being right is overshadowed by this dark cloud that you identified. The world is going to change but I hope that the poorer countries that contributed the least to the problem won't be stuck paying the highest costs. Good to see you encouraging discussion and awareness of the issue.



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