09 May 2007


"For what’s left of our religion,
I lift my voice and pray:
May the lights in The Land of Plenty
Shine on the truth some day.”
Leonard Cohen

We had been discussing varieties of epiphanic experience and were lost in the contemplation of glory when Andrew looked out of the window and we crashed back into unpalatable reality. He counted the gas-guzzlers parked in the Square. “I would like”, he said, “to go to the driver of each of those monsters and say ‘If you do not trade that thing in for a small more eco-friendly car, a little girl in Bangladesh will drown and you will have killed her.’ And do you really need to have forty eight pairs ofshoes? Think of all that wasted energy.” With this parting shot, he took his leave. I had to agree with him. I don’t need forty eight pairs of shoes and I want to see each individual and every government living in harmony with the natural world, reordering our lives and society so that the world may perhaps escape the terrible results our reckless consumption seems to be bringing.

But, pursue these policies single-mindedly and the Law of Unintended Consequences will kick in. Cut back or cut out, control and ration - then jobs will disappear, services shrink and the weak go to the wall. In the affluent West, there could be big tax rises, increasing unemployment, civil unrest, anger at the loss of our precious freedom to do what we like and to hell with the rest of them. Much, much worse, if all the Western women like me stop buying shoes we do not need, a worker in a Far Eastern sweat shop may be sacked and his family go hungry. If his young daughter gets sick, he will have no money to buy medicine and another little girl will die.

If we want the moral luxury of choosing to moderate our own life style - consuming less, buying less, recycling more, rescuing the Northern Spotted Owl, saving the rain forests of the Pacific North West, then surely we must recognise the moral necessity of overturning the policies of discrimination and preference now perpetrated by affluent European and North American nations against the struggling economies of the Third World. While good global ecological practices can help make life easier for struggling South American and African farmers for example, they will not be enough to make any significant lasting improvement unless all kinds of protectionism against these poor nations are removed. Our well meaning efforts to avoid one kind of ecological disaster will be tragically wasted if we fail to recognise that another equally appalling human catastrophe is already happening.

Otherwise, we remain perched precariously on the horns of the great grandmother of all dilemmas - half the world may still be damned even if we do what many of us believe the whole world needs - but the whole world may be damned if we don’t.