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The Barbarians Are Here

Mohan Munasinghe, reporting for Britain's intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), thinks reports of our civilization's demise have been greatly underexaggerated. According to the substance of a talk Munasinghe gave recently at Cambridge, we are headed for an ugly, dystopian future driven by resource shortages and overpopulation that will produce devastating competition and in all likelihood, more walls and more wars. "Climate change is, or could be, the additional factor which will exacerbate the existing problems of poverty, environmental degradation, social polarisation and terrorism and it could lead to a very chaotic situation," he says. (See the rawkin' Children of Men for more on how "chaotic" that could look.)


This "barbarisation" of world civilization, he says, is already underway, with two huge contributing factors, from where I sit: compartmentalization and conspicuous (green) consumption. Firstly, the things that average people worry about when (if at all) we worry about global warming have been abstractly "environmental," as in smoggy air, or icky rivers, or the gash in our ozone layer. What is less concrete, however, is how existing problems relating to food, water and personal space are environmental, too, and are poised to get much worse. Refugee crises and food shortages are already at issue--check the spate of weather- and geology-related disasters that have struck the planet in this young month of May. In thirty to fifty years, fishing in a clean lake will be far less of a concern than, um, getting a drop of the good stuff to drink.

Secondly, Munasinghe warns against "fortress world"--"a situation where the rich live in enclaves, protected, and the poor live outside in unsustainable conditions." In countless ways, especially as they pertain to the green movement itself, fortress world is already here. We see evidence in abundance of a burgeoning eco-apartheid, from Katrina's free-market evacuation to the availability of good food to the sinking of small islands to the emergence of low-income "regional sacrifice zones," to which our trash, exhaust and industrial processes are relegated.

Further salting these wounds is the ridiculous eco-chic movement that has these past few years contented itself with a ten-percent solution to a catholic problem (see Vanity Fair's hefty, glossy "green issue" for a shameless example). News reports are filled with ways to spend your money in more eco-friendly ways, on everything from Mother's Day gifts to wedding bands--and when it comes to carbon footprinting, only celebrities from Julia Roberts to John Edwards are rich enough to do something about it. The rest of us are given few entryways, either practical or psychological, into reducing energy use and individual waste. The greens'* focus is on consumption, of all things! Yet at over $127 these days, it won't be long before a single barrel of oil costs as much as a pair of Loomstate organic jeans (now retailing for $152). When that happens, I suspect, the barbarians will have won.

You can listen to Munasinghe's Cambridge talk here.

--Dayo Olopade

*or rather, retail profiteers'