12 February 2020

Walking the line – a million ways to be more or less bad?

When Johnny Cash wrote I Walk the Line in 1956, the master storyteller was making a point about the morality of people – ‘the line’ can be a hair’s breadth in width at times, a razor’s edge that just keeps getting sharper. While Cash was singing predominantly about the challenges of being a star on the road tempted by promiscuity, drugs and alcohol, his point about the demons we face every day was not one of vilifying human nature but understanding it, managing it and coming to terms with the fact that decision-making is not black and white.  

A million ways to be more or less bad

It reminds me of a foreword I read many years ago by Zadie Smith in Graham Greene’s book, The Quiet American.

She explains that while clumsier and less talented writers will mark their characters out as good, bad, dishonest and trustworthy with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the temple, Greene paints a much more nuanced picture of character distinction.  

“He used the thin lines that separate evil from cruelty, from unkindness, from malevolent stupidity. His people exist within a meticulously calibrated moral system. They fail by degrees. And so there is no real way to be good in Greene, there are simply a million ways to be more or less bad.”  

Greene was not the first novelist to make this distinction. Life is grey and rarely so clear-cut. It’s how you portray this greyness and manage the conflict between right and wrong, light and dark, war and peace that matters. He once said: “When we are not sure, we are alive.” 

These moral challenges face each of us daily and, sadly, the modern way is to try our damnedest to categorise action into one of two camps. War, foreign conflict, political flip-flopping, free speech, you name it. If a journalist slouched in a chair on an idle Tuesday afternoon can’t slot their story into news bin A or news bin B they’re not going to use 8,000 words detailing the nuances of the decision, action or outcome. Why bother? Far easier to give it 500 words and cook up an inflammatory headline playing on age-old stereotypes, prejudices and schemas. Dog-whistle journalism is sadly stronger than ever, or perhaps it never went away? 

But what about those rare moments when we resist all the urges to fall on either side of the line and instead try and straddle it? As Greene said, ‘people fail by degrees’, by millimetres not miles. Which leads me onto one of the greatest debates of our generation, climate change.  

Heaven or hell, sir?

Do you remember way back in school when you might have been fortunate enough to learn about Blaise Pascal? Perhaps not. I’m talking here about his wager argument. Pascal was making the point about a belief in God, and framed it as a wager whereby humans essentially take a bet in their lives on whether, on their final day, they’ll meet St Peter at the pearly gates or simply become…well I’m not going down that rabbit hole, thank you.  

Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas he stands to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell). 

Cripes.  

So the wager is this; you might as well forgo some earthly bits and bobs and believe in the ‘big guy’ as the outcome is far worse should you actually be proved wrong. Eternal damnation being fairly problematic for most of us.  

What’s that got to do with climate change you ask? Well that’s personally how I see climate change. The wager for me lies in the fact that burning fossil fuels creates a crappy planet (air quality, rising sea levels, things generally being climatically worse than they were 1,000 years ago etc) so why wouldn’t you adopt a cleaner agenda? You could argue that forgoing some areas of rampant consumerism, travel and energy choices now could buy us 500 more years of relative climate sanctuary? If not, see door number two Mr Streeton, eternal damnation this way please… 

Developed and developing worlds have made huge strides in the last 200 years. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty is down globally. People’s access to basic education, vaccinations and democracy all up. Child mortality rates are down. We sometimes don’t talk enough about the positives of our ‘modern’ world and it’s very easy to feel like we’re going backwards. (Taken from the brilliant Our World in Data.

“Freedom is impossible without faith in free people. And if we are not aware of our history and falsely believe the opposite of what is true we risk losing faith in each other.” 

Why wouldn’t we do this?

Now I appreciate characters like Trump, Jinping and Morrison are balancing social and economic interests with the green economy and, as we know, it’s never black and white. You could argue that our appetite to consume is greater than ever, fuelling this insatiable desire for cheaper products and in greater volume. 

The trouble is that we like cheap stuff, even when we know full-well what a ‘Made in China/Vietnam/Taiwan’ tag means. Just look around your office now – do you know the provenance of every item in it? Did you research the labour laws, what the conditions of the people making it were in, the pay? Ricky Gervais pulled no punches when he set Apple’s Tim Cook firmly in the crosshairs of his blistering Golden Globes monologue

What’s worth bearing in mind however is that it’s become trendy to criticise Apple, but it’s even trendier to be seen with the latest iPhone…even to go so far as to take to social media using your iPhone to remonstrate against Apple’s working conditions. Irony is seldom absent from the biggest societal questions it would seem.

Just the other day I found myself questioning my environmental wager as I realised I was failing in most areas of morality and ethical consumption.

Forgive me, Greta, for I have sinned

Let’s take my recycling efforts for instance. I would piously tell people that I recycle therefore I’m hedging on the good, green life. But no, it turns out all my carefully washed and segregated plastics were being shipping off this fair isle and sent to China and Hong Kong. Oh, and did I mention we’re burning more of it as well? According to this BBC article, waste firms in the receiving country may sift through the rubbish, take out the economically valuable material and burn or even dump the rest. The waste industry is notorious in some places for its links with criminal activity. The global illegal waste trade is  estimated by the UN to be worth between £8bn and £9.5bn a year.  

Then I stumbled across the statistics on ‘fashion’. I’ve put fashion in inverted commas as for those who know me will understand that this is a tenuous term. Most days I resemble a creature from a Julia Donaldson novel crossed with Boris Johnson. ‘His hair was tousled, and his trousers were soup-stained, where they came from caused him great pain’. I think the line that sticks in my mind the clearest comes from Fight Club when Tyler Durden says, ‘you’ll buy clothes that’ll last you the rest of your life’.  

When did you last pop down to Primark, pick up a particularly fetching jumper and say ‘yes, this’ll be the one I’ll wear for the rest of my days’? By the 1990s the UK’s industry had been almost entirely exported to some of the lowest wage economies on earth. One in three women in the UK consider garments worn one or twice to be old. We sent 300,000 tonnes of textiles to be burned or dumped in landfill in 2018.  

The Metro reported that every minute in the UK we buy nearly 2 tonnes of clothing – that’s the equivalent to 15,760 T-shirts. It takes roughly 4.7 million litres of water to produce all those clothes. That’s enough water to give everyone a shower in the city of Bath. And 59 tonnes of CO2 – the same as 500 car trips from London to Edinburgh. 

So the next time you ‘fancy a new top’ ask yourself if you fancy explaining to your children that we missed countless climate targets because some oxygen thief on Love Island was wearing something ‘nice’. The ice caps could do without nice hats.

While I’m at it, here’s one more. Flying. Widely cited as one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise. By 2037, global air traffic is likely to reach 8.2bn air passengers. And, you can probably see this one coming, the UK is fairly horrendous. The global flight industry is responsible for around 2% of global CO2, but this could increase as air traffic grows. Chinese flights emitted 95m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) in 2018, making up 13% of global aviation emissions. This placed the country second in the emissions ranking, behind the US, on 182MtCO2, and ahead of the UK, on 30MtCO2. However it’s our per-capita stats that are more damning. The UK comes in at 0.84 tonnes per capita, second only to Australia. 

So there we have it. Better start travelling by catamaran more.

When I tot this whole mess up I’m pretty despondent. From the minute I open my eyes in the morning and boil the kettle, turn a light on, put a polyester jumper on, drive somewhere, I’m putting more pluses on the balance sheet. And yet I’m being told it can’t take much more. When you read reports that just 100 companies are responsible for 70% of the total man-made CO2 in the world since 1988, you start to see that they’re only in business because of a demand.  

China Coal, Aramco and Gazprom make up the top three. A fifth of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions are backed by public investment i.e. good, healthy returns to the shareholders. When will ‘collective will’ decide that profits be put back into ‘greening’ the dirtiest companies rather than turning a quick buck? You could probably imagine that conversation faltering. No dividend this year folks, we’re investing in carbon capture. It might not be my generation, but it certainly could be my children’s? Just last week, Blackrock, which manages £5 trillion-worth of investors’ money wrote to business leaders stating that it will start exiting investments in coal producers and other companies that represent high sustainability risks. 

Green shoots

I don’t want to end on a low note, as I’m British. That means I’m eternally ‘chipper’. I think it stems from having 350 days of rain per year meaning that I must be an eternal optimist. Britain’s CO2 levels peaked in 1973 and are now at their lowest since Victorian times. Air pollution has plummeted since then, with sulphur dioxide levels down 95 per cent. Energy consumption peaked in 2001 but has fallen by 19 per cent.  

We’re all still walking the line, and we should all continue to. But our strength comes from walking it together. Corporations pumping billions into R&D and paying the same in taxes alongside governments laying the foundations for sustainable, profitable growth in alternative means.  

I’ll stop berating myself about my moral faux-pas and try to wield my power in the system that created me. I’ve failed, for now. Not by miles, just a few degrees. We just have to ensure that the planet doesn’t do so as well.  

Teaser Photo by Photo Boards on Unsplash

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