Environmental enslavement for middle-class comforts – Brendan O’Neill

Over the past week, a vast number of column inches, possibly even column kilometres, has been given over to mocking and mauling Julia Gillard’s carbon tax.

And yet probably the most obnoxious aspect of the tax – the way in which its success will depend on the failure of other nations – has not yet been taken to task. The real problem with the tax is that, like the politics of environmentalism more broadly, it will seek to assuage wealthy white people’s eco-guilt by implicitly encouraging brown people overseas to live comparatively simple, undemanding lives.

A key plank of the tax plan is to purchase carbon credit offsets from other countries. That is, Gillard’s dream of a 5 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 will be achieved, not by trimming those emissions in Australia itself, but by buying other people’s “cleanliness”, their low-carbon lifestyles, and using that to offset Australian people’s high-carbon lifestyles. In order to reach Gillard’s 2020 targets, Australia will need to cut 152 million tonnes of carbon emissions, and the plan is that 58 million tonnes will be cut in the domestic arena while the other 94 million tonnes will come from a mass buy-up of international carbon credit permits, worth around $4 billion.

In short, the way in which Gillard will ensure that Australians can continue living their fairly comfortable, all-mod-con lives is by paying other people not to live those kind of lives. That way, Aussies can kick back and relax, keep watching their plasma TVs and driving their 4x4s, safe in the knowledge that somewhere else, in Papua New Guinea, perhaps, or Kenya, people are making up for all these Oz emissions by eking out plain and simple and eco-friendly existences.

The international carbon-credit market is notoriously corrupt. As Julie Bishop of the Liberal Party pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald this week, the European law enforcement agency, EuroPol, has raided the offices of eco-businesses in Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Latvia, the Netherlands and Portugal as part of an investigation into “extensive defrauding” of the EU emissions trading system. One investigative journalist has written about the carbon-credit “cowboys” who turn up in under-developed countries such as Papua New Guinea and offer people money for the right to use their land in international carbon-trading agreements. That is, Papua New Guineans agree to continue living land-tied lives, and some middleman sells the carbon that this saves to a cigar-chomping fat cat who can then claim to have “offset” the emissions farted out by his limousine.

This is a form of eco-enslavement. By its very definition, carbon-credit trading requires that some nations do badly, that they fail to develop or grow in any real, meaningful industrial fashion, so that their lack of carbon-use can be purchased by the bigger, more developed nations. The success of carbon-credit trading effectively relies upon the failure, or at least the economic sluggishness and slowness, of other nations.

The colonialist nature of carbon-credit trading, the way in which it reproduces in PC terms the old imperialist divide between the white “haves” and the brown “have nots”, can be seen in some recent outrageous examples of wealthy Westerners buying the carbon savings of poor peasants. A few years ago it was revealed that British prime minister David Cameron and Prince Charles offset their carbon-use by paying money to a charity, Climate Care, which encourages Indian farmers to use foot-powered treadle pumps rather than machines to raise water for their crops. So Cameron can fly around the world and Charles can chill out in his vast and plush palaces with guilt-free consciences, on the basis that thousands of miles away Indians are bent over double, working by hand rather than using eco-unfriendly machinery. Their back-breaking labour allows prime ministers and princes to live luxuriously and guilt-free.

Other carbon-saving charities encourage Africans to use dung-powered biogas heaters, rather than electricity, and the carbon this saves is awarded to wealthy Western donors. African people literally go around picking up sh*t and burning it just so some eco-aware celeb or politician can visit the Bahamas without feeling bad about the ozone layer.

It seems pretty clear, as the British journalist Ross Clark has argued, that carbon-offsetting schemes implicitly demand that poorer nations stay in a state of under-development. “Carbon-offset schemes… only work if the recipients [in the Third World] continue to live in very basic conditions. Once they aspire to Western, fossil fuel-powered lifestyles, then the scheme is undone”, Clark argues.

The wealthy delegates to a G8 meeting a few years ago offset the carbon cost of their flights by donating to a charity that replaces the tin roofs of huts in a shantytown in Cape Town with a more insulating material, thus reducing the level of heat that escapes and protecting the environment. It sounds good, but as Clark pointed out: “The carbon emitted by delegates’ flights will only continue to be offset for as long as the occupants of the huts carry on living in shantytown conditions.” If they were to improve their lives, and replace their insulated shacks with “much more power-hungry bungalows”, then the carbon-offsetting scheme will have failed, said Clark.

So it is with Gillard’s carbon tax. For it to work, some people will have to continue living low-carbon or post-industrial or economically slow or under-developed lives. This eco-enslavement is not an aberration, a stain on the otherwise good name of environmentalism. Rather it represents the very essence of modern-day environmentalism, whose adherents are so concerned with easing their eco-burden, with assuaging the guilt that comes with having a good, middle-class lifestyle, that they are happy to encourage the Third World hordes to continue living in poverty. Sorry, I mean “in harmony with nature”.


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