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That Deadly ‘We’, or: Where’s the Class War when you need it?


That Deadly ‘We’, or: Where’s the Class War when you need it?
 
I have noticed that not only the usual liberal and right-wing pundits but many environmentalists and progressives in Australia and elsewhere tend to automatically use the third person plural pronoun when discussing national and international issues. ‘We’ have to get out of Afghanistan, for example, not the troops sent by the Australian or US government. Another version of this is to use the abstraction ‘Australia’ or ‘the US’ (‘Australia/the US’ should send more/less/no troops…’) as if some mystic entity called Australia or the US actually walked around on two legs and could make decisions over life and death.
 
So what’s the problem with that, aren’t they just linguistic shortcuts? No they’re not. The problem is that the ‘we’, the implied ‘one nation’, always has the automatic effect of surreptitiously identifying the common people, the order-takers, with the powerful in business and government, the actual order-givers. This particular ‘we’ thus implies equal responsibility for an issue although some in the one nation are powerful and rich and make or influence the key investment decisions, while most are powerless and some are poor.
 
It is the powerful who most frequently use and benefit from the ‘we’ and ‘Australia/the US’ because it seems to legitimise their own decisions. Naïve progressives like the Australian Greens leader Bob Brown, a strong nationalist and populist, also frequently use it. When the powerless order-takers blindly use the ‘we’ – instead of using the factual ‘they’ – they are consciously or unconsciously identifying with the powerful order-givers and thus legitimising and cementing their power. From the abstract perspective of the planet, ‘we’ may indeed all be in ‘one (human) boat’, but we all know there’s a huge difference between the upper deck and steerage and ‘we’ are certainly not steering this huge vessel of industrial capitalism at all.
 
Thus it is also said, quite correctly up to a point,  that ‘we’ have to reduce our carbon emissions and general impact on the environment. The average Australian ecological footprint, for example, is one of the highest in the world and completely unsustainable. It is more than double the current global average and very many times the average of developing nations. As a nation, Australians are thus consuming many times their ‘fair earth share’ (usually measured as the amount of direct and indirect land-use and/or carbon emissions sustainably available per person at current global population levels if these amounts were divided up equally). This is a global injustice that shall be addressed sooner or later, in one way or the other, voluntarily or involuntarily.
 
However, we should remember that these national footprints are roughly estimated averages. Averages always mask huge discrepancies in actual individual and class footprints. In always using the nationalist ‘we’ in debates about reducing ecological footprints, environmentalists help obfuscate the class realities of consumption. It is well known that rich Sydney suburbs like Mosman or Woollahra have about double the average national eco-footprints and very much higher eco-footprints than poorer suburbs despite the usual middle-class environmentalist focus on the plasma TVs and McMansions of western Sydney or overpopulation. (I have yet to hear many environmentalists express equal disdain for their own frequent-flying holiday habits).
 
We can even get quite specific here. What’s a plasma TV and even a few cars compared to, say, just one Australian billionaire James Packer’s multi-storeyed harbour-side mansion and his transport fleet? He has a jet the size of a commercial airliner, an Aston Martin and various Range Rovers, a 12 seat Sikorsky helicopter used to ferry his wife and kids to visit grandparents in the country, a super-yacht and a luxury cruise ship which takes 500,000 litres of fuel to fill its tanks. To cross the continent for a few days winter holidays in the tropics by jet and super-yacht costs Packer a mere $500,000 in annual fuel bills.[1] (Many of the super yachts of the mega-rich can consume between 750 and 3,400 litres of fuel per hour.)
 
Multiply all that by the similar lifestyles of all the other Australian billionaires, CEOs and Mosman-Woollahra-Toorak coupon clippers (as well as many senior bureaucrats and politicians), and you’ll get quite an eco-footprint very many times the already unsustainable national average. Internationally, we might recall that there were about 800 billionaires in 2005 (up from 140 twenty years earlier), and that the income of just the world’s richest 500 people exceeded that of the world’s half billion poorest.
 
As for population growth and climate change, perhaps a few figures may help focus minds on the real correlations.[2] For a start, about a billion people, a sixth of the world’s population whose growth rate is likely to be the highest, are so poor that they produce no significant emissions at all. Over-industrialised countries like the US and Australia have at least twenty times more carbon emissions per capita than least developed countries. About two thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions have come just from the US and Western Europe while a whole continent of 840 million people like Africa has accounted for less than 3 % of these emissions since 1900.[3] Even there, just the gas flaring by multinationals exporting oil from Nigeria to industrial countries has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa combined. Between 1980 and 2005 the latter area produced 18.5% of global population growth but only 2.4% of growth in CO2 emissions, while North America’s population increased by only 4% but produced 14% of the extra emissions. In general, while there is a very weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there is a very strong correlation between global warming and wealth.
 
Thus to focus on population growth as one of the main drivers of climate chaos rather than the excesses and inequitable overconsumption of the rich (like James Lovelock or Sir David Attenborough and other environmentalists) is thus both factually incorrect and a paternalistic and blatantly ideological diversionary tactic. As Guardian journalist George Monbiot notes:
 
I haven’t been able to find any campaign whose sole purpose is to address the impacts of the very rich. […] So where are the movements protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems? Where is the direct action against the super-yachts and private jets? Where’s the Class War when you need it? [4]
 
In sum, as Le Monde journalist Hervé Kempf has also noted, ‘the rich are destroying the earth’, and the rich, from the point of view of the planet, are predominantly both the top power elites and hyper-rich and the roughly 500 million people, like myself and most of my readers, who make up the over-consuming global middle class.[5]
 
Of course, even such exorbitant luxury and obscene fossil fuel wastage by the rich and powerful is, in the end, not the core issue in terms of ecocide and climate chaos. The core issue is one of power and decision making. The core issue is the whole energy-intensive industrial system itself which their own investment and political decisions have created and maintained for centuries for their own profit and power maintenance and at the expense of planet and people. The core issue is their power to continue making those profit-oriented decisions and our own lack of willingness to name, delegitimize, confront and democratically dismantle that power for the well-being of all people and the planet. In Kempf’s words:
 
We must […] understand that the ecological crisis and the social crisis are two faces of the same disaster. And this disaster is implemented by a system of power that has no other objective than to maintain the privileges of the ruling classes.[6]
 
That deadly ‘we’ so many use in conversation and discussions would align us fairly and squarely with those ruling classes. It’s definitely what they want. Is it what ‘we’ want?
 
 



[1] ‘Pastimes paid for by the planet’, SMH 12-13/6/2010, p. 20.
[2] Most of the figures in this paragraph taken from George Monbiot, ‘The poor will not destroy the planet’, The Guardian Weekly, 9/10/09, p. 19.
[3] A. Revkin, ‘Poor left in lurch if world overheats’, AFP/NYT/SMH 2/4/09, p. 9.
[4] Monbiot, op.cit.
[5] H. Kempf, How the Rich are Destroying the Earth, p. 74.
[6] Ibid., p. 25.

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