This Christmas, a Red-Green Split?
Europeans often talk about the Red-Green coalition, the coming together of socialists and environmentalists to save the world and its people from the rapacity of capitalists. Many conservative commentators dismiss the alliance as an illusion, arguing that the reds are green and vice versa. Yet it is a mistake to interpret the current close alliance as a congruity of interests. In the end, those who characterize themselves as progressives need to ask themselves whether they should be allies of those who oppose the idea of progress. The conflict is hidden, but it has the potential to split the alliance apart. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Careful observers will have noticed the hidden conflict being brought into the open in a recent opinion column by the environmentalist sage George Monbiot in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Britain's Guardian newspaper. His article, entitled "A weapon with wings," and subtitled, "The centenary of the Wright brothers' flight should be a day of international mourning," argued that airplanes were destroying the planet. And not just in the conventional sense that they are often used to drop bombs. No, George has a stronger objection: airplanes are environmentally damaging in and of themselves. He says, "Flying is our most effective means of wrecking the planet: every passenger on a return journey from Britain to Florida produces more carbon dioxide than the average motorist does in a year. Every time we fly, we help to kill someone."
Think about that for a minute. Although Monbiot uses class-war rhetoric when he claims that the airplane "more precisely than any other technology, represents the global ruling class," he is ignoring a truth that the true class warrior celebrates. Air travel in the United States alone increased 149 percent from 1979 to 1999. Only 1 out of every 5 Americans has never flown. The summer holiday in Greece or Spain, once the preserve of the rich, is now accepted almost as a right by working class Britons—and they don't use railroads to get there. In the developed world, at least, the airplane is no longer the preserve of the jet set. As with other technologies, one would expect this pattern to be repeated in the developing world as their economies strengthen. The class-war rhetoric won't wash here.
In fact, we can go further. What are the implications of Monbiot's argument? The first is that progress is almost always going to be detrimental to the environment. This is the logic of the Precautionary Principle, which Monbiot accepts. If it had been applied since the beginning of humanity, we would have no fire (indeed, some controversial recent research suggests that humanity's burning of wood caused global warming that averted an ice age some 8,000 years ago). The logic of Monbiot's precautionary position is the logic that has caused the effective pesticide DDT to be banned in most malarial countries. Environmentally-friendly solutions are much more kind to the mosquito and its parasite, with the result being vastly increased fatality rates. Dr. Wenceslaus Kilama, Chairman of Malaria Foundation International, calls the extra deaths equivalent to "loading up seven Boeing 747 airliners each day, then deliberately crashing them into Mt. Kilimanjaro." Now that would be a truly destructive use of aircraft.
This is hardly a progressive stance. Denying the advantages of technology to the world on the grounds of what amounts to little more than institutionalized doom-saying is not going to alleviate poverty or increase opportunity. The introduction of cheap, coal-fired power plants to the poorer areas of Africa would be revolutionary in several senses. By providing cheap power to homes, it would free women and children from the back-breaking, time-consuming work of collecting biomass to burn. Those women and children could use their free time to educate themselves and in turn harness the power of education to improve their status in life. In addition, life expectancy in Africa would surely increase as there would be fewer deaths from the effects of cooking fumes (one of the leading causes of death in the Third World), to say nothing of the increased ability to operate modern hospitals.
Yet these obvious advantages are ignored by environmentalists in favor of a precautionary approach, based on the unproven fear of catastrophic global warming. It is easy to see that red concern for the world's workers has been subsumed by the green's concern for the environment here.
There is a second direction the argument wants people to follow. Even Monbiot does not call for the destruction of all airplanes and a reversion to dugout canoes (themselves surely environmentally destructive) as a method of travel. One might wonder how anti-globalization protestors would get to WTO meetings without them. The answer to reducing the number of passengers, however, is quite simple. In the days of nationalization, British Rail had a simple formula to reduce the number of passengers using the service, so avoiding the need for expensive extra investment in the infrastructure. It put the prices up. This is an argument Monbiot and his colleagues accept in other areas. They are quite happy, for instance, to see carbon taxes or such schemes as the Kyoto Protocol imposed in order to increase the price of energy in developed nations.
Such taxes and rationing schemes are, of course, regressive. It will be the poorest in society who stop using air conditioning or running an extra car, and the poorest who die on hot days or lose their jobs as a result. This is hardly an egalitarian stance. The red-green answer is often to propose vast environmental welfare schemes whereby the poor are reimbursed for their increased expenditure; but in red terms, this is a poor way to redistribute wealth, for environmental rather than social benefit.
One of these days the reds will wake up and realize that they have been conned by the greens. Socialism is nothing if it is not about improving the conditions of the working class. The greens not only put their own concerns above that objective, but even resist the idea as environmentally damaging in itself. Although it is a criticism they usually level at capitalism, the more perceptive socialists should realize that the red-green alliance is unsustainable.