Friday, 13 May 2016

Drastic times call for drastic measures

I read a horrifying newspaper article yesterday about a global warming tipping point: that several recording stations will never again dip below the 400 parts per million level of atmospheric CO2 and that whatever we do from this afternoon onwards, this isn't going to be changed.

I know, you're not horrified. You're bored. Or vaguely depressed. Or hungry. Whatever you are, you're not that bothered. Nor is anybody else, or anybody else that matters. Why? Because the climate's cycles are not comprehensible according to our own cycles, which tend to revolve around hanging washing out, working out whether to wear a vest, or getting elected in the next couple of years. Perhaps a few of us might worry slightly about our grandchildren, but faced with a problem this big, we'd rather assume that the cleverer next generation will make an app to fix it. It's complicated and invisible and quite frankly we can crank up the A/C or holiday somewhere else if that island has disappeared since you booked the flights.

Most people, locked in a room with some facts, would admit that climate change really is a problem, and that we (rich Westerners) are causing it. Even the ones with Range Rovers ('they're very safe for my kids' I hear them cry) might grin slightly guiltily and then mutter something about Chinese coal stations making any mitigation we might effect rather meaningless. Why are the Chinese (the world's biggest makers of solar power by the way) building coal power stations? To turn slave-produced raw materials into your iPhone.

So we know the science. We know the results. We know who's causing climate change: rich white people in the Northern Hemisphere (plus Australians). We know who's suffering first: poor brown people who haven't even had the luxury of the goods produced. We just don't have any way at all of persuading people that their behaviour is wreaking environmental destruction on the planet. We either don't care or we semi-consciously believe that a weekend break in Marbella after getting that sales report done is worth a medium-sized atoll in the Seychelles.

I have a solution. It's 'beatings'.

As an academic I'm ashamed to have to say this, but discussion, research, evidence: none of them has worked. We've spent long enough making the scientific case. Governments aren't interested because getting elected has never so far involved telling people that they're greedy bastards who need to adjust their selfish lifestyles: instead they fly off to glitzy conferences to sign vague memoranda of understanding that turn out to mean nothing, while they lobby to allow the car industry (for instance) to deliberately cheat the already lax laws in place. We need to get tough. Nobody can now claim that they don't know that a flight, an SUV or a piece of plastic tat represents an enormous amount of embodied energy whose burning involves the wilful destruction of some poor person's habitat. Yes, there's long-term work to be done to make our cities and infrastructures sustainable, but we don't have a long-term. We only have the short-term.

So we devise a tariff of beatings to accompany the price of these objects. Tax alone isn't enough: rich people see expense as a mark of privilege and luxury, and figures changing on a bank statement doesn't really impact them in the same way that an actual beating will. It's not as radical as what happens on Bethselamin, for example.

Imagine the scene. A flight from the UK lands at Sydney Airport. Awaiting the travellers is a chap with a clipboard. He is from the Solomon Islands, which have already sunk beneath the waves. (This is the other advantage of my plan: as land is lost or made uninhabitable, their inhabitants are employed to administer the Green Beatings, giving them an income and a sense of justice). He's pretty steamed. He liked life on the Solomons and feels that it's a bit unfair that his island disappeared so that Jordan Speith could swan around the world in a private jet to play golf. He goes through the list: miles travelled, purpose of visit, what class of cabin. Someone travelling in economy to be at the deathbed of a loved one gets off with a mild pummelling. The tourist gets a dead leg and some abrasions. The academic receives a Glasgow kiss and some nasty corduroy burns. The government minister gets kicked firmly and repeatedly in the shins. The KFC tax lawyer is introduced to Mr Bat and his friend Mr Knuckleduster. The arms dealer learns what it's like to be on the receiving end of her own products. Mr Speith learns just how many clubs can be carried inside a human caddy. The Daily Mail gossip writer is repeatedly run over by a group of immigrants (not for any environmental justice reasons, just because he deserves it). The beauty of this system is that it keeps free-marketeers happy. Nobody's interfering with freedom to travel or economic autonomy. We're just adding another element to the traveller's experience. It's simple, it's cheap and it's quick. You queue up, you take your beating and you go on your way, whether it's to take the salute for your Official Birthday or to bask on the beach, nursing your wounds and perhaps thinking about making a video-call next time or renting a narrowboat for your next holiday.

Aside from air travel, there are other simple ways to communicate what selfish and destructive pigs we are. As a pedestrian and cyclist I'm stunned by the number of SUVs on the road: massive, heavy, filthy vehicles with the power and solidity to drive up a mountain, used mostly to run over children outside schools. I propose that we start with a harmless black dye added to car exhaust so that we're visibly reminded that we are being deliberately poisoned by the car industry and those who choose to buy outsize and inefficient vehicles: perhaps shame at travelling round in a cloud of black smoke will make them think differently. After all, it was the Great Stink and the Pea-Soupers that persuaded British politicians to fix London's sewers and pass the Clean Air Acts.

If that doesn't work, we move to Phase 2: installing a jet that directly feeds exhaust gases into the cabins of motor vehicles. Plenty of people in SUVs do not give a damn for people outside their vehicle: let's see how they like experiencing road travel the way I have to on a bike. They might start lobbying for cleaner engines at that point. Finally, Phase 3 involves the supreme invocation of Libertarianism. Abolish all safety and luxury measures in motor vehicles. No more seat belts. No antilock brakes or roll cages. Engines that won't get you up to the speed limit. Gradually remove headlights, windscreens, heaters: the lot (and home air-conditioning is definitely banned: choosing to live somewhere requiring you to burn fuel to cool down air heated up by the reckless burning of fuel is pathologically insane). And abolish free access to the NHS if you crash. Before long, anyone who wants to travel privately is reduced to a glorified skateboard.

Extreme? Maybe. But I don't see anything else working at the moment. It might not be fun (except for the vengeful inhabitants of sunken lands) but life will be so much worse for your grandchildren if you don't shut up and take your beating now. I say all this, of course, more in sorrow than in anger. We've tried fixing things my way, and it hasn't worked.

So, who's with me?

(In the interests of openness: I've taken 13 flights in the past 7 years, multiple short ferry trips and haven't ever driven a car. I do have a huge vinyl collection ('"that's a paddlin") consume an awful lot of paper and have too many – though aging – electronic devices. I certainly wouldn't come out of the annual beatings assessment unscathed. I bought a duvet the other day which proclaimed 'British Wool' on the packaging. The very small print revealed that this British wool had been sent to China and back to become a duvet: unforgivable).

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