Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mr. Poor Country meets Mr. Rich Country

[Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes]
[Mood: Contemplative]

As the devastation from Super Typhoon Haiyan becomes the backdrop of the discussions at COP19, the "global climate conference", much is being said about how the developed countries of the world have a responsibility to pay for damages wrought by environmental disasters made worse by climate change. It's true that poorer countries suffer the most from these natural calamities because their peoples and economies are not as far removed and insulated from nature as the richer countries while it's the richer countries that have contributed the most to climate change.

However, this simplistic reasoning covers up some very important facts that lie underneath the climate debate and in fact, the global economy itself. At best, it is a matter of convenience to talk in terms of countries and nation states. It helps to convey the fact that, on average, there are countries that are rich and there are countries that are poor, as measured by GDP or some such metric. And that the rich countries as defined above are more responsible for climate change while the poor countries suffer more from the same. But talking in averages is often misleading. The human suffering caused by typhoon Haiyan is no different from that caused by hurricane Katrina. In both cases, it's the poor that suffered (and continues to suffer), whether they live in a rich county or a poor country. There's not even any difference between typhoons and hurricanes. As the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states: Hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons are all the same weather phenomenon; we just use different names for these storms in different places.

Talking in terms of averages misleads us into drawing the wrong conclusions about the people who cause most of the damage to Earth and its living systems and those who suffer the most from such damage. We necessarily have to step down from talking in terms of countries to talking in terms of people and even individuals. The distinction is not between rich and poor countries but between the rich in any and every country and the poor in any and every country. Let's not be fooled by the way mainstream media frames this and other similar issues.

Mr. Philippines is not begging for help from Mr. United States. Those affected by typhoon Haiyan could use help from both the wealthy in Philippines (and there are plenty of them) and the wealthy in the richer western countries. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are barely getting by themselves and are in no position to make any significant contribution to the victims of Haiyan. Mr. Haiti doesn't exist. The wealthy businessmen and bureaucrats in Haiti are as well off as they ever were (and perhaps more so after the disaster there) while the poor continue to suffer the aftermath of the earthquake despite "aid" from the West.

Did Mr. New Orleans go to Mr. Washington for help when Katrina struck? As far as the economic and power disparity between New Orleans and Washington DC goes, there's actually no single entity called Mr. New Orleans and no such Mr. Washington. It was the poorest communities of that city that suffered while the rich of The Big Easy were relatively unaffected. Just as the poorest in Washington DC are no better off than the poor anywhere else.

Is there a Mr. Pakistan? Is he rich or poor? Pakistan's richest have more in common with New York's and London's "elite" than with the tribes living in Pakistan's countryside. At the same time, the 50 Million Americans living on food stamps and suffering the most from disease, malnutrition, addiction, street crime and police brutality have a lot more in common with Pakistan's tribal peoples, farmers and fishermen who live under a constant fear of getting blown to pieces by military drones.

One only has to look at Forbes magazine's lists of the world's richest, updated annually, to realize that the rich of the world live in every country. They may not speak the same language but they have similar worldviews, worldviews with little room for nature and ecology in them. Worldviews with little concern for fellow human beings who depend more directly on nature than they do. Worldviews with little conscience. It would be naive to think that they live under the impression that their market investments, strategic goals, and growth targets have little to do with climate change, pollution and species collapse.

It might be convenient to talk in terms of countries but we would be talking in terms of averages. Let's realize that statistics is the language of the ruling class. The people who lose their homes in a typhoon don't talk in terms of means and medians. It's the bureaucrat, the politician, the businessman, and the CEO who makes sense of the situation on the ground by playing numbers games. They can't help but talk in those terms because it's humanly impossible to grasp the enormity of the resources they control and the people they affect in any other way. They can't possibly relate to every human being affected by their actions. Numbers and generalizations provide refuge as they plan their next move on the chess board that is planet Earth.

So should rich countries pay for damage caused by global warming? Who's asking?

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