Monday, 6 August 2012

"Brother John" as a question of climate change

Last night I watched with my aippakuluk a very interesting movie starring the incomparable Sidney Poitier called, Brother John. The movie, I think, was based on a short story and was rather cursory in the treatment of very interesting question of "personal responsibility" vs "(judgement on) humanity as a collective" and it got me thinking about the climate change discourse.

Now, we've all heard of that old chestnut about "acting locally" that we do not hear of anymore. I think the rise of intransigent partisanship and corporatism has a huge part to do with this sad comment on humanity's recently acquired collective ADHD. After Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, people like David Suzuki (and other public figures and luminaries especially in the 1960s and -70s) have slowly been silenced by relentless attacks on their credibility by corporate propaganda and sophistry (through commercials on nothing in particular that praise the virtues of... what?). Our uncritical shift in focus has come about as if we were dreaming.

Brother John is asked by his love interest in the movie whether we have a chance of personal redemption but his response is that humanity might be judged collectively as a species.

I like to think that deliberate personal acts and global consequences are still intimately linked. I read just this morning in the Canadian edition of the Huffington Post website about the alliance of Christian Churches' open letter to Harper about their opposition to the Enbridge proposal for the Northern Gateway pipeline because of the recent gutting of federal environmental and social impacts review processes, and the Anglican clergy's stated decision to exclude Enbridge stock from its investment portfolio to demonstrate in practical terms their opposition to the unmitigated assault on the planet and indigenous peoples. (the question begs how and why the new-found conscience of the church, but we take improvements where we find them).

The ability to exercise collective power in this way is heartening to me: big things have small beginnings. I mean, remember "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson? After the book came out certain toxins and pollutants were banned globally and many species of birds and animals were given reprieve. Then, as now, the book created oppositions along the lines of the corporate world vs public interests, as shown in the Wikipedia entry:

In 1999, celebrated writer, naturalist, and environmental activist Peter Matthiessen wrote in Time Magazine that before Silent Spring was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1962 there was vicious opposition to it:
Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a "hysterical woman" unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto Company, Velsicol, American Cyanamid – indeed, the whole chemical industry – duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.
In the 1960s, biochemist and former chemical industry spokesman Robert White-Stevens stated, "If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth."

Silent Spring, continues to be criticized by a number of different sources and in recent years Carson and her book have come under increasing attack from authors, particularly libertarian groups that claim restrictions and stigmas of DDT have caused millions of deaths indirectly by preventing its use to combat malaria. In 2002, economist Ronald Bailey wrote in Reason magazine that the book had a mixed legacy:
The book did point to problems that had not been adequately addressed, such as the effects of DDT on some wildlife. And given the state of the science at the time she wrote, one might even make the case that Carson's concerns about the effects of synthetic chemicals on human health were not completely unwarranted. Along with other researchers, she was simply ignorant of the facts. But after four decades in which tens of billions of dollars have been wasted chasing imaginary risks without measurably improving American health, her intellectual descendants don't have the same excuse.
The weekly Human Events gave Silent Spring an "honorable mention" in its list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries." British politician Dick Taverne asserted Carson was responsible for millions of deaths:
Carson didn't seem to take into account the vital role (DDT) played in controlling the transmission of malaria by killing the mosquitoes that carry the parasite (...) It is the single most effective agent ever developed for saving human life (...) Rachel Carson is a warning to us all of the dangers of neglecting the evidence-based approach and the need to weight potential risk against benefit: it can be argued that the anti-DDT campaign she inspired was responsible for almost as many deaths as some of the worst dictators of the last century.
New York Times journalist and author, John Tierney, wrote of Silent Spring in 2007: "For Rachel Carson admirers, it has not been a silent spring. They have been celebrating the centennial of her birthday with paeans to her saintliness. A new generation is reading her book in school - and mostly learning the wrong lesson from it."

In 2009, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, "a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty", set up a website, stating "Millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm. That person is Rachel Carson." (

Then, as now, misinformation and uncritical appeals to public and personal "safety" and "interests" were framed in such a way as to make all of us mutually culpable (thus, trying to negate and preclude any rational discussion and collective action). The Anglican Church's decision on Enbridge stock show what the true make up of the tiger is: paper.

This, then, is less a political issue than one of financial interests (many vs the few). We need balance, and realize that everything comes at a cost - it's a question of personal/spiritual and societal values and principles.


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