Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 February 2020

Jane Goodall's point about climate change is an example of the West's flawed thinking

In terms of analysis, there seems to be a failure to see how disparities between the world’s richest, and the rest, matter

When Jane Goodall mentioned population sizes, the underlying assumption was that different sections of the world’s population are similarly responsible for the climate crisis. Courtesy Emirates Literature Foundation
When Jane Goodall mentioned population sizes, the underlying assumption was that different sections of the world’s population are similarly responsible for the climate crisis. Courtesy Emirates Literature Foundation

So much that occurs in international discourse today seems embedded in a western bubble. And within this bubble, there seems to be a failure to see how disparities between the world’s richest, and the rest, matter in terms of analysis. This kind of narrow-thinking permeates across so many discussions that we have today, ranging from climate change, to passport rights, to the West's involvement in the Arab world, and beyond.

A case in point is the famed British anthropologist Jane Goodall's recent comment on the climate crisis. “All these [environment-related] things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of population that there was 500 years ago,” she said. It is a statement that sounds reasonable, but when Ms Goodall mentioned population sizes, the underlying assumption was that different sections of the world’s population are similarly responsible for the climate crisis. That is, however, not quite accurate. The richest 10 per cent of the world’s population account for around 50 per cent of the world’s carbon monoxide emissions. The poorest 50 per cent are responsible for around 10 per cent of total lifestyle consumption emissions.

To put it bluntly, the rich and the poor are not equal – not in terms of wealth, nor in terms of damage. We have to factor that into analysis

To put it bluntly, the rich and the poor are not equal – not in terms of wealth, nor in terms of damage. We have to factor that into analysis. Otherwise, we will underestimate the scale of change that needs to happen, and most of the change needs to happen with the richest of the world’s population.

Another example is the Trump administration’s recent moves to limit birth-right citizenship to the children of pregnant women who travel to the US. Another country that stipulates birth-right citizenship is Canada, along with most countries in South America. The laws of such countries stipulate that anyone born in the territory is a citizen – and some argue that this opens up the danger of "birth tourism" which is against national interests.

On the face of it, such a concern is understandable. Countries have a reasonable expectation that citizens should have a desire to exercise citizenship, and not simply acquire passports that give them certain privileges. However, the expectation exists in something of a bubble. Yes, citizenship ought to carry a meaning that goes beyond paperwork. Countries must continually work on deepening citizenship as the basis of cohesive societies.

However, we live in a world of unequal citizenships – both within nation-states and between them. An Afghan, an Iraqi or a Syrian, for example, enjoys extremely limited freedom of movement to different countries, on the basis of the passport he or she holds. When compared with a German, an American or a Singaporean, the situation is very different; the power of their passports cannot be compared to, for example, Somalis, Pakistanis or Yemenis.

A handout photo made available by the US Marine Corps shows US Marines inside the perimeter of Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. EPA
A handout photo made available by the US Marine Corps shows US Marines inside the perimeter of Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. EPA

Yes, there is an argument to be had about birth-right citizenship, but that argument cannot be looked at in a vacuum. The enjoyment of freedom of movement across borders is not equally shared or equally restricted across countries. Power matters.

The same can be said about western involvement in the wider Arab world, the pros and cons of which many in Europe and North America are currently discussing. After all, it is a region that has many challenges, and western foreign policy priorities are no longer defined as they once were. So, withdrawal – as many analysts and policy makers are arguing – seems to be a logical option to consider.

Again, however, such a discussion cannot happen in a vacuum. Many of the challenges of the Arab world derive from the various nations' colonial history, as well as the many structural problems that colonialism – and then post-colonialism – is responsible for. When we discuss withdrawal, those aspects are often overlooked or minimised. To take an obvious example, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq led to many issues that the region is still reeling from, and withdrawal does not simply remove the repercussions of that history.

Indeed, even when we discuss withdrawal, we are still talking about it against a background where the power dynamic between the Arab world and the West is fundamentally an unequal one. So, for example, even if all western military forces were pulled out entirely from the region, the impact of western economic involvement would not be removed. Any discussion that minimises or ignores this would be a misguided one at best, and a dishonest one at worst.

The world in general – and the Arab world in particular – faces many challenges in 2020. And it befits us all to confront them holistically. When we do so in a piecemeal manner, we often end up aggravating the problems in question – and that does not help anyone.

Power matters, and it must be accounted for in any approach to minimise damage, especially vis-a-vis the world’s most vulnerable.

Updated: January 28, 2020 07:49 PM

SHARE

SHARE

Most Popular