Saturday, February 17, 2007

Sharing the Blame - Masking the Reality

Just wanted to flag up Jeremy Seabrook's excellent recent Guardian article. He really puts his finger on something that has been nagging away at me for a while - something I couldn't articulate.

Whenever I see reports on environmental degradation on BBC News (or, I suppose, any other channel) I'm irritated by the tone of the report, which, inevitably suggests that we are all, somehow, to blame. The reporter almost always affects a kind of downbeat presenting style which implies a kind of representative penitence - as if he or she is speaking for us all and that we all ought to be blooming well disappointed with ourselves. The guilt, it is implied, is a collective, human guilt - 'oh', the reporter, seems to sigh, 'we flawed humans had better change our ways... dear, dear, yes we had'. I always think of 'orginal sin' when I see these reports - as if the media think that environmental degradation stems from humanity's in-built tendency to be bad. Of course, the attribution of guilt to humanity collectively - the attribution of guilt to our 'human nature' - effectively lets those who may be more guilty than others off the hook. In fact, I think it's unhelpful to point the finger at individuals - it's better to point to social structures, ways of living, ways of producing and consuming. It is these things that we should identify when we look around for something to blame (and change, one hopes) - and it is the reality that these things are to blame for environmental destruction that the media's attribution of guilt to 'human nature', effectively obscures.

Seabrook writes:

"The almost universal recognition of the potential disaster of climate change... ascribes the causes to "humanity". Human activity, mankind, man - these generalised entities have been the great reshapers of the planet and its fragile atmosphere. This dispersal of blame diffuses responsibility, and permits the culprits to embed themselves in the global population to escape the consequences of their actions.


An inclusive first person plural is always invoked when the world faces catastrophe. It is rarely in evidence when the "fruits" of wealth-creation are being distributed. We are all in this together. Both rich and poor are threatened. There is nowhere to hide from global warming. Every country must be "on board", on the far from agreeable voyage to a future land of sustainable harmony.

The "we" - the bogus unity invoked by privilege - masks the reality, namely, that the poor are going to pay disproportionately to put right wrongs of which they have never been beneficiaries.


To efface the "footprint" of "mankind" upon the earth would require a contraction, or at least a different kind of economic activity, one which ensures a more modest use of, and more equitable distribution of, resources. This is the most frightening prospect the leaders of the rich world can imagine; even though it might guarantee a secure sufficiency to the hungry and wanting of earth and serve as cure for the excesses, addictions and violence of those who have more than enough.

This is indeed a pivotal moment. Decisions made now may well determine the fate of the earth and all its peoples. But to provide for the sustenance of the poor remains the most urgent priority. It is disingenuous to give way to lachrymose exaltations about the fate of humankind and our menaced habitat, while not addressing the cruelty of a world economy worth $60 trillion annually, which leaves hundreds of millions to expire in sight of global plenty, even while the rich look in vain for ever more expensive and marginal pleasures to augment their value-added discontents."

I read Seabrook's peice and thought 'Yes, that's exactly it. That's what it is'. This discourse of collective human guilt in relation to impending ecological disaster is, of course, only the latest manifestation of one of the central ideological props of liberalism/capitalism. Liberalism tends to obscure the material differences between people through the trumpeting of some abstract, formal and largely fictitious equality between 'citizens'. Class differences, actual inequalities of wealth and power, are surreptitiously removed from the political frame of reference. The attribution of guilt to humanity in terms of global warming and so on, function along the same lines. The poor, the starving, the disenfranchised are all equally as much to blame as SUV drivers, frequent flyers and etc since the ideological gendarmerie of capitalism have no desire to point the finger at the real culprits.

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