Mainstream environmentalism was born in the 1960’s and 70’s, and it heralded a new age where people from across the world began to care about the natural world. The environmental movement was responsible for many significant victories such as - cleaning up the air from toxic pollutants, regulating CFC’s, and protecting vast tracts of rainforests. The movement brought attention many issues that were, up until then, largely ignored. We’re indebted to them.
Over the past three decades, climate change has become an increasingly prevalent issue on the world stage, within businesses, and in people’s everyday lives. We’re surrounded by it. The environmental movement has pounced on this opportunity in the hopes of fostering yet more good outcomes for the planet.
In the fight against climate change environmentalists have, and continue to do so, argue that climate change and its ills are the faults of Western nations. Many national leaders and citizen environmentalists have joined the crusade that points the finger at industrial development in the West. However, this argument is morally flawed.
During my university years, I sat through innumerable lectures where many of my professors indeed touted the same message that climate change is ‘our fault’. Students absorbed these messages of guilt, including myself. I began to be critical of my culture and civilisation that we have built and became obsessed with fighting against the way we live. What a mistake that was.
When the first steam engine was invented, it heralded a new age of rapid change, a change that the world has never previously experienced. Humanity was on a brand new adventure into the future that would have lasting impacts. Indeed the combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, gave us so much concentrated energy that was previously unattainable. The rapid advances in Western development lead to increases in everything from electricity to communication to transport to medicine.
Western development has given us lights, longer life spans, abundant food, better medicines, less disease, easier communication, and cheap transportation – the list could go on and on. In addition to this, more people in developing nations are moving upwards out of poverty than ever before. As technology and our development advances, we are no longer shackled to the land. Today, the average middle-class citizen lives better than kings did in the middle ages. These are all things we should be so proud of as a species.
However, with progress comes a cost. Climate change has been by and large the most significant cost of humanity’s development. Across the planet, it has been wreaking havoc and many people are now, not in an abstract future, feeling the impacts of a warming world. From droughts to floods to severe cyclones and changing weather systems – it is affecting everybody from rich to poor. I have, first hand, viewed many of these impacts across Asia in particular.
Environmentalists today have almost continually focused on the costs of this development and disregarded so many achievements. It is a message of doom and a message of humanities failure to care for the environment. By focusing on costs many environmentalists hope to inspire people to begin caring for the planet, and indeed in many cases it does. However, it has been a common misconception that people began to care for the natural world due to a focus on costs, failures, and destruction.
As our societies in the West grew richer over the past 50 years our material needs were met. We began to focus on abstract things, such as protecting and caring for the environment. We no longer had to worry about where our next meals came from or whether or not we would have to cut down and burn that tree, as it was the only source of accessible energy. We looked elsewhere for our callings, and unfortunately, we came to blame ourselves, and still do, for all of our ills and forgot about all the progress that we had made.
But what intentions did the West have when it began to develop rapidly? Did it intend to release copious amounts of carbon dioxide that are the precursors to climate change? Did it intend to pollute the atmosphere and people's lives? Did it intend to threaten small island states with inundation due to sea level rise? The answer to all of these is, of course, no.
It is crucial to realise that the Wests intentions speak volumes. When environmentalists and others blame the West for climate change, it is an insufficient and morally unsound argument, as the events of today were largely the unintended costs of our progress. Imagine a mother in the Indian Himalaya whose only access to energy is burning dried cow dung to keep her children warm and cook them food during the winter. Is it her intention to give her children lung cancer from a lifetime of smoke rising from the fire in an unventilated room? Of course not.
However, in saying this, with the knowledge that we hold now, as a globe, about climate change and our lack of intention to address this existential threat is a nothing but a moral failure.
Fellow environmentalists, we cannot keep peddling the message that climate change is the West’s fault. It is not. Western civilisation due to development has contributed so greatly to human and scientific progress, indeed, if it hadn’t we wouldn’t be arguing about whose fault climate change is. Instead, we would probably still be likely to be fighting over where our next meal or drink of water comes from. Many places across the planet resemble that dystopia.
Yes, fossil fuel combustion due to development has had its costs, but we as a movement must go beyond pointing fingers and throwing blame around. We have not failed; we have just embarked on yet another chapter of humanity and one that can be overcome. By focusing on our achievements and potential to address climate change is a must if we are ever to win. It is no one’s fault; we’re in this together.