Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Copenhagen: The irresponsibility of world leaders

So much for dubbing Copenhagen Hopenhagen at the recent UN world climate change conference — judging by the lukewarm “accord” that was finally “accepted”, the hope was disappointed. Just how serious this failure to arrive at a strong, international, legally binding agreement really is, is difficult to over-emphasise.

What it demonstrates is the accuracy of the lesson that Foucault teaches one as far as power is concerned, namely that ethics always comes too late for power. The world leaders who assembled there, were evidently more interested in securing and maintaining their own political positions (especially in relation to the big corporations on whom they depend for various kinds of funding) than to take a firm stance on the urgency of curbing greenhouse gas emissions (let alone other pollutant sources of environmental degradation), in this way paving the way for a catastrophic rise in planetary temperatures above the level that scientists regard as being the “safe limit”.

In the process, they have failed the people of this planet, despite the fact that, in tandem with the conference, there were so many protests and organised, networked attempts to persuade these so-called leaders of the world’s nations — especially the so-called “superpowers” — to do the responsible thing, that they could not possibly have failed to notice.

The saddening thing implicit in the agreement that was reached, is that political leaders are still more interested in the economic status quo than in the unavoidable truth staring many people in the face, that the very fate of the planet is in the balance. What else can one infer from the weak, un-enforceable stipulation in the agreement, that there be only a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, instead of the desirable 80%, as previously posited by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2007 assessment report, and discarding the previously mooted mid-term emission-reduction goals altogether? Or from the fact that there was a lot of emphasis on the funds to be given to developing nations for helping them cope with the effects of climate change?

This sounds too much like throwing money at the symptom (to assuage those developing — including African — nations that stand to suffer most under the impact of changing climatic conditions) rather than using it for the urgent development of fundamentally different, environmentally friendly technology and an alternative kind of agriculture, that does not use more kilojoules of energy for the production of food than there is in the food itself. (This is one of the astonishing facts that is presented in the film, A Farm for the Future.)

Besides, what would economic “growth” matter when climatic conditions have changed so much that “normal” economic activities have themselves become problematic? And what does the human economy matter when the encompassing planetary “economy” — in the sense of the earth’s macro-ecology, which includes human economies as subsystems — is thrown severely out of kilter? World leaders — especially Barack Obama of the United States — should take note of what American Thomas Princen, one of the leading ecological thinkers in the world, says about what he calls “The logic of sufficiency”, something he advocates as an alternative to the logic of (unnecessary) “growth”, and which could potentially offer a remedy to the economic excesses which are largely responsible for the ongoing ecological degradation on the planet.

To illustrate what he has in mind, Princen focuses on several exemplary instances of groups of people who practice “the logic of sufficiency”, including a logging company and the people living on the Toronto Islands, who have steadfastly refused — despite being regarded as a bunch of loonies by people on the mainland — to allow consumerism to take root on the islands, preferring a life of “slowness” and fulfilling social interaction to the acceleration of time which is inseparable from a consumer lifestyle. These people have preferred to live according to basic needs that are not dictated by the economic logic of superfluous growth, with its manufacturing of artificial needs, such as always having to own the latest cellphone or car. Needless to say, if this way of living were to be more widely adopted, it would have a noticeable effect on the de-acceleration of ecological degradation.

The aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans, which has still not recovered — economically, socially, educationally — from the hyper storm’s devastating effects, is a salutary reminder of the kind of weather-conditions we are likely to face far more frequently if every country in the world (especially the developed economies) does not implement enforceable (economic) legislation in the near future to cut down carbon emissions drastically. Besides, the human species, being an inventive lot, legislation of this kind is bound to stimulate such inventiveness for the construction of alternative means of production (as it already has, judging by the series of environmentally friendly inventions featured in Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment issues).

Katrina has been described as a super-storm which exceeded the properties of most hurricanes of its kind, but one does not have to go that far afield to discern the emergence of abnormal meteorological phenomena. Already there are symptomatic indications of a change in weather-patterns and conditions locally, too. During the storm that hit Port Elizabeth a few months ago, causing widespread destruction — including major damage to the yachts anchored in the harbour — winds of up to 180km/h were recorded, according to a yachting friend of mine. This is highly unusual for Port Elizabeth, to say the least.

Unfortunately, even if the Copenhagen conference had resulted in a much stronger, legally binding accord, there would still have been no guarantee that all countries would have tried to abide by it. The notorious refusal of the United States under George Bush to honour (or even become a signatory to) the Kyoto Protocol demonstrates what I mentioned at the outset, namely that power always has priority over ethics — if a person, or a nation, is powerful enough to cock a snoot at the rest of the world and get away with it, what is there to stop it?

Hence, I would argue that it is not internationally “binding” agreements that one should be looking for. What is devoutly to be wished for, is a calibre of leader(s) who would show the kind of leadership that would put the earth’s interests first, for a change, because this is the only thing that would put the interests of the earth’s creatures first, too, including those of humans.