Saturday, 24 October 2015

Sustainable Economy: A Minority Interest?

The news last week that some residents of a North London suburb are urging neighbours to refrain from using noisy gardening machinery prompted this thought: garden maintenance in such suburbs, as I have observed myself, is often contracted to professionals who, being paid by the hour, depend on mechanisation for their profit; residents pressing for a return to hand-operated equipment are on a hiding to nothing.

There is a tragi-comic ring to the story:  affluent householders finding something to complain about have been the staple of many a TV sitcom; but beneath the laughter lies a contradiction between the desire for economic growth and the attenuation of sound-pollution, a conflict between our interests as consumers and as producers. It’s a small story, writ large elsewhere.

The President of China was welcomed to the UK this week with all the ceremony and puffed-up pomp that the Government could muster. The ostentatious and highly visible cost of this colourful junket sits uneasily with the Government’s determination to reduce the welfare bill, thereby making some of the poorest in our society even poorer. But I suppose the Government needs someone to pay for the fancy-dress uniforms of the Household Cavalry. And its spectacular welcome is a thank-you to Xi Jinping for his promised investment - the Government needs China's money to supplement the few billions it can wring from its poorest citizens. What for? To finance public infrastructure such as energy generation, water supply and mass-transportation which, thanks to earlier privatisations, no longer serve the population at large so much as those who own the shares. The Government’s solution is that our nuclear power stations will be built, owned and operated by a foreign state which has generated its wealth by growing its economy regardless of collateral damage to the environment and its inhabitants – just as Britain did in the 19th Century. (And, by the way, guess where the profits will go.)

Of course any respectable regime would these days claim to be doing its best to protect the environment, despite the fact that eco-policies are most likely to be at odds with the platform on which political popularity depends – the promise of economic growth. Is it possible to balance the two? What about sustainable economic growth? Well, the obstacle to balance is greed. We all want to live a “comfortable” life, free of hunger and privation but, because there is no universally accepted definition of “comfortable”, the definition of sustainability tends to be stretched to suit.

Ever since we took up farming we have messed with nature and even some of our well-intended interventions in the environment have been misguided – as a study of Yellowstone National Park illustrates. When it was first designated, in 1872, tourists flocked there armed with rifles and almost completely eliminated the wildlife. Left only with scenery, it was, for a while, still considered by most to be the epitome of a wild and natural landscape. Eventually it was recognised that animals ought to be there and so a form of zoo was established to exhibit cuddly mammals. It took until 1995, however, to re-introduce the wolves that had originally been a key species in balancing the ecosystem. Now there is talk of another missing species, homo-sapiens - the aboriginal population evicted by the Europeans. By all accounts the aboriginal tribes lived a sustainable way of life, in harmony with their environment, but who nowadays would be “comfortable” with such an existence? Twenty nine years after humans left the Chernobyl exclusion zone it has been recorded that flora and fauna populations have recovered and now surpass levels prior to the disaster. The evidence suggests that if humans were to return they would prove more deadly to wildlife than radio-active contamination.

Far more money, apparently, is spent on medical research in the effort to prolong human life than is spent on the prevention of ecological degradation. In sport, this would be recognised as an “own goal”.

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