Published on Thursday, May 26, 2011 by The Independent/UK
A Turning-Point We Miss at Our Peril
We have the choice of burning all the oil left and hacking down all the remaining rainforests - or saving humanity
by Johann Hari
Sometimes, there are hinge-points in human history – moments when we have to choose between an exuberant descent into lunacy, and a still, sober voice offering us a sane way out. Usually, we can only see them when we look back from a distance. In 1793, the great democrat Thomas Paine said the French Revolution shouldn't betray its principles by killing the King, because it would trigger an orgy of blood-letting that would eventually drown them all. They threw him in jail. In 1919, the great economist John Maynard Keynes said the European powers shouldn't humiliate
Another of those seemingly small moments with a long echo is happening now. A marginalised voice is offering us a warning, and an inspiring way to save ourselves – yet this alternative seems to be passing unheard in the night. It is coming from the people of
In the four billion years since life on Earth began, there have been five times when there was a sudden mass extinction of life-forms. The last time was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were killed, probably by a meteor. But now the world's scientists agree that the sixth mass extinction is at hand. Humans have accelerated the rate of species extinction by a factor of at least 100, and the great Harvard biologist EO Wilson warns that it could reach a factor of 10,000 within the next 20 years. We are doing this largely by stripping species of their habitats. We are destroying the planet's biodiversity, and so we are making the natural chains that keep us alive much more vulnerable to collapse. This time, we are the meteor.
At the same time, we are dramatically warming the atmosphere. I know it has become terribly passé to listen to virtually all the world's scientists, but I remember the collapsing glaciers I saw in the Arctic, the drying-out I saw in Darfur, and the rising salt water I saw in
So where does
Yet almost all the pressure from the outside world today is to saw it down. Why? Because underneath that rainforest there are almost a billion barrels of untapped oil, containing 400 million tones of planet-cooking gases. We crave it. We howl for it. Unlike biodiversity and a safe climate, it's tradable for cash.
Here is a textbook example of what is driving both the sixth great extinction and global warming. We have been putting short-term profits for a few ahead of the long-term needs of our species. Every rainforest on Earth is being reduced to the money that can be stripped from it
Here's the offer. The oil beneath the rainforest is worth about $7bn. Everybody knows that a stable climate, biodiversity and functioning lungs are worth far more than that. But until now, nobody has been willing to pay.
No country with oil has ever considered leaving it in the ground because the consequences of digging it up are too disastrous. This is a startling attempt to reverse one of the greatest dysfunctions in the global economic system. The market considers things like species diversity, the climate, and the rainforests to be "externalities" – factors not affected by the price and profit mechanisms, so irrelevant, and dispensable. It's a system that, as Oscar Wilde put it, "knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". The people of
They first made this offer in 2006. So how has the world responded?
If one rainforest seems a small matter to you, remember that the head of one deposed French king, the punishment of one broken country and the deposing of one Iranian prime minister seemed fairly minor once.
This, too, could be a moment where history branches into two directions. On the path to the right, we turn down the chance to restrain ourselves, and decide with a shrug to burn all the oil left in the world's soils, and hack down all the remaining rainforests. Professor James Hansen, the Nasa climatologist, explains where this ends
But there is another path, where we choose to protect humanity's habitat – and are prepared to pay for it. If our governments won't accept this offer, at this late moment in these ecological crises, what are they saying about themselves – and about us?
© 2011 The Independent
Johann Hari is a columnist for the London Independent. He has reported from
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs