Silence is tarnished

November 10, 2000

It is time for the West to admit to the damage it does, say David Cromwell and David Edwards

As Britain continues to suffer the most extreme weather since that storm in October 1987, media attention is already shifting away from a detailed debate of the causes. It is but one example of the heavy silence that covers the "liberal" West's role in global environmental and human rights abuses.

What will next week's climate talks in The Hague, with their hordes of government ministers, business lobbyists and environmental pressure groups, actually achieve? The Kyoto Protocol commits developed countries to a meagre 5.2 per cent cut in emissions of global-warming gases. Governments will scramble to work out the finer details of implementing these reductions - or wriggle out of making any cuts at all. The United States, the globe's biggest polluter, is facing massive pressure from domestic business not to sign up to the climate agreement at all.

The UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has called for at least a 60 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions if there is to be "a tolerable effect on the climate". Otherwise, according to the Global Commons Institute, there will be more than 2 million deaths worldwide in the next ten years as a result of climate change-related disasters. Damage to property will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars. But there have been few in-depth media debates exposing the chasm between the magnitude of the climate threat and the pitiful political response to it.

The majority of us are complicit in this silence, which extends from global warming to human rights abuses. For example, Unicef says that Western-imposed economic sanctions are killing 5,000 Iraqi children every month. And leading Latin America expert Lars Schoultz says US aid "has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments that torture their citizens".

The rationale is not hard to divine. Exploitative conditions that benefit local elites and Western corporations require violence to pacify the discontented, impoverished majorities. These facts generally do not get coverage by the "free press", itself made up of corporations, owned by yet bigger enterprises in the global economy, and dependent on corporate advertisers. It is not that they are false, they simply cannot be true under a system of global capitalism that is supposedly essentially benign. And so they are ignored, or dismissed as delusions.

"It's not my responsibility" or "I'm just doing my job" are typical responses signifying collusion in the abuses. But where and how can the line be drawn between the professional self and the personal self? The disjunction echoes R. D. Laing's concept of "the divided self" - a division that is characteristic of the truly insane mind.

The German psychologist Erich Fromm analysed the psychology of obedience in modern corporate society. The "organisation man", he wrote, "is not aware that he obeys; he believes that he only conforms with what is rational and practical". In modern society, this means conforming to a system that rewards obedience to state-corporate power.

As sober professionals, we are not supposed to step outside our specialised fields of knowledge to criticise the private interests that threaten the global climate system and cause mass human rights violations. We are supposed to restrict our public statements to topics that will not reflect badly on our employers or upset funding sources. Adopting such an impartial, apolitical role means that we acquiesce in research and education moulded to fit a corporate-shaped economy. In truth, neutrality is impossible: to do nothing is to vote for disaster.

The linguist Noam Chomsky was once challenged to explain what qualified him to comment on US domestic and foreign policy. "I'm a human being," he replied. So, how much do we care? How much does democracy matter to us so long as we can get on with our job, playing safe and climbing the promotional ladder? Or do we speak up, for our own wellbeing and that of society at large?

"The truth," warned the Soviet poet Yevgeney Yevtushenko, "is replaced by silence, and the silence is a lie." It is time we stopped lying.

David Cromwell is an oceanographer and author of the forthcoming Private Planet , published by Jon Carpenter Publishing. David Edwards is the author of Free to be Human and The Compassionate Revolution .

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