Global warming means that flying across the Atlantic is now as unacceptable as child abuse

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 29th July 1999.

The global meltdown has begun. Long predicted and long denied, the effects of climate change are arriving faster than even the gloomiest prophets expected.

This week we learnt that the Arctic ecosystem is collapsing. The ice is melting, wiping out the feeding grounds of whales and walruses. Polar bear and seal populations appear to have halved. Three weeks ago, marine biologists reported that almost all the world’s coral reefs could be dead by the end of the coming century. Last year scientists found that between 70 and 90 per cent of the reefs they surveyed in the Indian Ocean had already expired, largely as a result of increasing water temperatures.

One month ago, the Red Cross reported that natural disasters uprooted more people in 1998 than all the wars and conflicts on earth combined. Climate change, it warned, is about to precipitate a series of “super-disasters”, a “new scale of catastrophe”. The demographer Dr Norman Myers calculates that 25 million people have already been displaced by environmental change, and this will rise to 200 million within 50 years. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine reports that nine of the ten most dangerous diseases carried by insects and other vectors are likely to spread as a result of global warming. The British Government’s chief scientist has warned that climate change could cause the Gulf Stream to grind to a halt.

It is almost superfluous to note that the Observer’s report on the disintegration of the Arctic ecosystem this Sunday was sandwiched between adverts for three-litre cars, or that the paper’s travel section enthused that space tourism (the most fuel-hungry of all possible human activities) will begin in 2002. What is it about this crisis, what is it about ourselves, that makes us wholly incapable of responding?

Climate change is perhaps the gravest calamity our species has ever encountered. Its impact dwarfs that of any war, any plague, any famine we have confronted so far. It makes genocide and ethnic cleansing look like sideshows at the circus of human suffering. A car is now more dangerous than a gun; flying across the Atlantic is as unacceptable, in terms of its impact on human well-being, as child abuse. The rich are at play in the world’s killing fields.

And yet, far from addressing this catastrophe, we curse or mock anyone who draws attention to it. John Prescott’s efforts to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels are undermined by other departments at every opportunity. The US Vice-President Al Gore, once a robust advocate of drastic action, has been laughed and bullied into servile ineptitude. More goods and services, according to the Worldwatch Institute, have been consumed since 1950 than in all the rest of human history, but whenever this dreadful wheel of misfortune begins to slow down, governments rush to give it another push, changing the fiscal environment to persuade us to consume still more.

A few weeks ago I took part in a radio debate at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. The SMMT staff in the audience could just about cope with a discussion about congestion and local pollution, but when I raised the issue of resource use and global warming, they burst into gales of laughter. They found these concepts funny, I think, because they seemed so far away, so remote from the sphere of their own considerations that anyone who could compare them in importance to the growth of their industry had to be either joking or insane. “This”, Kierkegaard wrote, “is the way I think the world will end – with general giggling by all the witty heads, who think it is a joke.”

What is it about this pattern of living that demands that those who challenge it must be treated as if they were dangerous or mad? Is it that we have found the key to undying happiness, the transactable elixir of life?

Stand in Liverpool Street station on a Friday evening, while some of Britain’s richest people are going home to enjoy the fruits of their labours. Do they look happy? Stress oozes from them like sweat, anger shudders beneath their skin. No retail therapy, no holiday in the Caribbean could restore the damage done by this self-consumption. The drive to make more money than you could possibly need, to buy more goods than you could possibly enjoy, is a species of mental illness. Success in this system brings not happiness, but, at best, an alleviation of the pain required to sustain it. Even its beneficiaries are also its victims.

What will it take to persuade us to stop using the world as our punchbag? If we don’t have the political will even to remove bullbars from cars, though we can show that they kill scores of children while serving no useful purpose, how on earth can we begin to remove cars from the streets, waste from the food chain, fossil fuels from the grid? The world is dying, and people are killing themselves with laughter