Reading this week’s stories of Greenland’s dramatic ice melt and rising food prices after drought and extreme heat wrought havoc through North America’s corn belt led me to recall a Gandhi quote I’d heard a read a while back.
Like many famous quotes it has been shortened and altered over time and a bit of googling reveals many variants. But here’s its essence:
Whenever in doubt, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest person you have seen and ask yourself whether the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to them. Will they gain anything by it? Will it restore them to a control over their lives and destiny?
So what made me connect these stories to this quote?
I’m one week into a new job at Oxfam and have been learning about the disproportionate impact of climate change upon poor people in developing countries, particularly in terms of water and food shortages.
I don’t need to tell you that there is a profound injustice in the situation now unfolding. The world’s poor, from coastal fishing communities in Bangladesh to nomads in the Sahara, face the greatest challenges in a changing climate. At the same time, with an environmental footprint per person many times lower than industrialised nations, such communities typically bear little or no historical responsibility for the shifting weather patterns and other changes now ravaging their lives. Yet efforts by developed countries to both reduce emissions and mobilise funds to help vulnerable communities to adapt to those changes that can no longer be avoided remain painfully slow.
In Australia we have the bizarre spectacle of major corporations and complicit state and federal governments (and by proxy, a complicit Australian population) forging ahead with a massive expansion of our coal industry while scientists around the world make clearer and clearer that to avoid devastating impacts upon the world’s poor we must do the opposite – move away from fossil fuel burning as soon as possible and towards renewable energy sources.
Many of us I know have tried to understand the perspectives and habits of thought that allow us, collectively, to continue with actions that we know beyond reasonable are contributing to unacceptable harms.
The new maps of ice melt and accompanying video clips of a road and a tractor being washed away by melt-water have an almost Hollywoodesque drama about them. Nonetheless, we are clearly yet to properly grasp the connections between our behaviour, observable changes in the earth’s climate, and their very real impacts for the world’s poor.
To date, the effects of sea level rise from rapid ice melt coupled with more intense storms are too subtle for most of us to really feel. Not so for low-lying communities in the Pacific. Similarly, food price spikes are uncomfortable for Australians but few of us are yet going hungry. By contrast, the 2008 spike pushed tens of millions in other parts of the world into poverty.
So, since we seem unable to make sensible judgements without a little help, perhaps it’s time we applied Gandhi’s test when weighing such things as the expansion of our coal industry. The answer should then be very clear!