Brian Monteith: Greed must end for all our sakes

WE NOT only steal wealth from future generations but rape the world they will inhabit, writes Brian Monteith

An aerial view from 2013 of devasted creeks and land in the Niger Delta from oil spilt by thefts from a pipeline. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
An aerial view from 2013 of devasted creeks and land in the Niger Delta from oil spilt by thefts from a pipeline. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Last week I mentioned the concept of generational theft and how, by the extent to which the United Kingdom, but Scotland in particular, live beyond their means we essentially steal taxes from earnings of people mostly not yet even alive. Without a second’s thought we allow our politicians to bribe us with taxes from earnings not yet earned.

Our country lives on tick with no intention of us paying back, we will leave the tab to be picked up by our children, their children and the children beyond them. I believe it to be the public scandal of the modern democratic age and one that we should be deeply ashamed off. We vote for more largesse but those who will pay for it have no votes, many are too young, the majority are not even born.

I was challenged last week by a friend who suggested to me this debt – the totality of our country’s annual deficits and existing debt of over £1,566 billion – was acceptable when it funded investment for the better good, not just for us now but for those future generations. I could argue against that analysis on many levels but the most important issue we must come to terms with is that we are not so high in debt because we are investing in our futures, or those of our children, but because we are consuming benefits to ourselves.

When the annual interest on our national debt is some £55 billion, more than we spend on defence (including allowing for Trident) and almost as much as England spends on Education, then surely we can see that this is not right? We surely must recognise that we are taking too much out of our nation’s wealth when we have no alternative but to mortgage against future wealth?

It is not the school, road or house building that causes needless debt, for we have always had need of those in the past and shall have need of them in the future. No, the problem stems from when we start to directly consume spending on ‘free’ benefits for bridge tolls, eye tests, prescriptions, bus passes, school meals and the like that go to people that are more than able to pay for these themselves and got by in the past without such benefits. Even free tuition fees are a (very costly) middle class benefit rather than an investment, for the recipient stands to gain most from expected higher earnings and can thus afford to finance these personally. By adding new public consumption that becomes seen as an entitlement we create a structural cost that will rocket when interest rates rise again.

There is however another form of generational theft I would like to draw to readers’ attention, namely the plundering of our world by us in current generations without preserving it in a sustainable and healthy way to pass on to our future generations. We live in a manner where we not only steal wealth from future generations but rape the world they will inhabit. We cannot continue like this.

Today in Paris this year’s international Conference Of the Parties (COP21) on climate change opens with a great sense of optimism that an agreement can be reached about addressing the real threats that mankind faces from climate change. Now I am not wholly convinced about the degree to which man is responsible for the climate changes we experience, but I am certainly of the mind that we play a role in them, possibly a significant one.

And to those on the political right I would remind them that Margaret Thatcher, a qualified and practising chemist, herself spoke of and was concerned about what she called “climate change” over 25 years ago. There can be no doubt that our climate changes and will continue to change. It always has.

Surely we should look to protect our Mother Earth for future generations to the extent that we can, just as we should protect their income and wealth from our politicians? Where mankind can put right the ravages from our industrialisation or unthinking behaviour we should do so.

This second form of generational theft came home to me when I was privileged to see last week a documentary film that is set to take COP21 by storm. It is a Nigerian film called Nowhere to Run made by Jackie Farris of the Yar’Adua Foundation that catalogues the real and present environmental devastation that is being caused by climatic changes in that country.

It shows the desertification, deforestation and drought in the Lake Chad basin in the North of Nigeria. It catalogues the soil erosion from untypical heavy rainfalls in the East and the encroaching seas in the south that threaten Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city of over 15 million souls. It highlights the combined threats to the mangroves in the south east from oil spills and wood-burning subsistence. Some of these ecological tragedies are as a result of changes in the climate while some are undoubtedly impacting on our climate.

The gas flaring from Nigeria’s oil and gas fields remains its largest contribution to carbon emissions, but just as it is the nation’s most scandalous pollutant so too is it the most appalling waste. For, if harnessed, the gas flaring could provide more power than Nigeria’s electricity-starved people could use. While the technology exists to exploit this resource the political will has not. Thankfully that is about to change with a new Government and in particular a new environment minister, Amina Mohammed, committing to have converted that flaring into power by 2030 or sooner.

For me the strength of the film is that it is not preachy but heartfelt. It shows not only the great distress of real people but the simple solutions that could make a difference to them – such as changing the bread ovens that consume a tree a day. Such an approach builds common ground between everyone who cares about our environment, from Eco-warriors to climate sceptics, and that is an achievement in itself. I recommend you see it.

If COP21 can succeed in addressing the generation theft of our environment it will be in part because of Nowhere To Run and people like Jackie Farris – and hopefully Amina Mohammed.