The Missionary Position: The export of carbon guilt to the developing world

August 31, 2010 |

The advocates of renewable energy have long chanted a mantra of “green jobs, energy security and lower emissions”, but in country after country we continue to see a fork in the road emerging whereby individual nations are forced to make choices between lowering (global) emissions or developing (local) green jobs.

In Indonesia, the crisis has erupted over the oil palm tree and the development of the oil palm industry. A section of the environmental community suggests that the expansion of oil palm will cause a loss of rainforest. That loss, goes the argument, will eliminate a major carbon store, and a source of important global biodiversity.

It is an argument which has won substantial support in major capitals around the world. Unfortunately for its supporters, it has not won many fans in Jakarta. There, the government is more committed to developing its economic base, and lifting its considerable and growing population of decades of post-colonial poverty through the development of oil palm for food and fuel.

We see the battle over rural development flashing at other points around the globe, but nowhere so starkly do we have a choice between the War on Poverty and the War on Carbon as we see in the heart of the oil palm industry in Indonesia and Malaysia. Like zealous, white-skinned Christian missionaries of an earlier age, a stream of NGO personnel flowing out of the West have had little success in changing Asian minds about priorities for the 21st Century.

The Asian reaction

To the missionaries’ pleas for environmental preservation, Asian authorities are (usually in private) wont to point out the fact that Europeans and Americans dismantled their massive forests, and dug up and burned their fossil fuel resources, for the purpose of industrial, and economic development in previous decades.

Why should Asian forests become so suddenly sacrosanct? they ask. Is it not just another form of colonial suppression? Accompanied by a newly minted form of European messianic moral export program, aimed at justifying why the white man should have a monopoly on nuclear power, industrial might, and the economic base with which to develop high technology?

The US and Europe have become the bastions of high wages, and the industrial-scale exportation of guilt. Like the export of the “missionary position” to colonial outposts in another, earlier, wave of Western shame.

Western preaching on the nature of sin

At the Digest, we very much doubt if the NGOs in question see themselves as just another generation of religious zealots teaching natives the missionary position, but the comparison is an apt one. The NGOs have manufactured yet another Western justification for the villages of Africa and Asia to be denied the very benefits of economic development that no sane Dane ever denied to Denmark. In moral terms, it reminds us of the man who wolfed down his food, and then declared to the rest of the family that dinner time was over.

Why does Europe, and the United States, have such wondrous high technology? It flows from wealth, which freed people from the cultivation of crops and made it possible for countries to afford to educate vast hordes of PhDs and MBAs. Plus, a cadre of missionaries, who have discovered a new tactic for holding down development of the Third World. They have taught themselves to befuddle the World Bank into setting strict conditions on the development of oil palm as a condition of finance.

If you can’t prevent development in the Third World, starve it by imposing conditions that were never imposed on the OECD in its developing years.

Rich city, poor countryside

We see it again and again – not only in relations between rich and poor countries, but in relations between rich cities and rural areas in the West. Having taken down the forest of New York and Pennsylvania, extracted the fossil fuels and burned them, the citizens of urban, coastal cities – having feasted on the wealth piled up by generations of uncaring excess – now propose, in a fit of angst, to deny the right of Nebraska and the Dakotas to develop their own renewable resources.

Because it adds uncomfortably to the carbon totals that, last I looked, pour out of the factories of the East, providing enough jobs and wealth to fund a rebirth in high technology, and a recreation of the high moral ground that would make an abolitionist pea green with envy.

The Adirondack Bank proclaims "money to lend" to depressed rural market towns like Utica, NY, whose main city streets feature second-hand clothing stores, "buy jewelry" and "melt gold" options amongst the boarded up office buildings of a once-proud rural market center of the Mohawk Valley

They would deny not only the rural Midwest, but even their own upstate New York. We wonder how many members of the aforesaid New York-based NGOs have spent much time in towns along the Mohawk Valley. Once the prosperous breadbasket of the Revolutionary War – now, troubled districts beset by unemployment, with the banks of once-proud market towns like Utica filled with flapping banners proclaiming “money to lend”, with main street stores offering second-hand clothing and home-grown veggies, and economic downturn visible on every street corner.

For these districts, development of new rural-based technologies and new markets for crops are not a “nice to have”, they are a “need to have”.

The palm oil problem

In this context, World Growth today responded to the World Bank Group’s palm oil review consultation in a letter to World Bank President Zoellick and a formal submission – “Whither Poverty Reduction? The World Bank’s Visible Green Hand” – ahead of the Frankfurt meeting this week on palm oil.  “The World Bank Group is bowing to the advocacy of environmental NGOs which do not factor development objectives into their environmental strategies,” said World Growth’s Chairman, Ambassador Alan Oxley.

“Research by World Growth refutes and corrects the environmental NGOs’ criticisms showing that palm oil is not a major driver of deforestation, not a significant emitter of greenhouse gases and not a major source of bio-fuel.  The submission calls on the World Bank to amend its proposed anti-growth framework that would adopt discriminatory certification standards of ceasing land conversion for agricultural proposes.”

World Growth concludes the proposed strategy will:

1. Violate the Bank’s own stated policy on how best to address the impending global food crisis;
2. Erect onerous and discriminatory requirements for financing of oil palm development thus establishing the World Bank as the de facto global regulator for all things palm oil;
3. Reduce the capacity of the Bank to support economic growth and moves the organization away from its core mission to support national development and alleviation of poverty; and
4. Set standards which accord sole recognition of certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) as a condition for financing, as it has in forestry in the case of the Forest Stewardship Council,  precluding recognition in the future of any other systems of certification.

“In developing its sustainability standards for forestry, the World Bank has made no technically-based assessment of the measures taken by developing countries to set aside forest land for conservation or to protect biodiversity.  The Bank has simply adopted the anti-growth mantra of WWF and other environmental NGOs that no natural forest should in future be harvested or removed.  Such certification standards that advocate for the cessation of land conversion harm palm oil’s small land holders in the developing world.

“World Growth calls on President Zoellick and the World Bank Group to restore support for economic growth as a cornerstone of its institutional mission, to balance sustainability with economic growth and cease from collaborating and supporting the work of anti-palm oil groups.”

Your Land is My Land, My Carbon is Your Problem

At the Digest, we think it is high time that carbon policy was no longer used as a mechanism to hold back development. Why not use technology to find new ways of development, instead of simply smashing the means of development in some Luddite orgy of economic destruction?

If someone needs to reduce carbon emissions so badly that generations of people must live in economic chains, by all means let the NGOs tear down the factories of Europe first, and protect the forests of Indonesia later. A few months of return to the economic conditions of the Middle Ages, and we suspect that the European left will rediscover the virtues of rural economic development.

The old song of togetherness went “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” – but it appears to have been rewritten by some as “Your Land is My Land, My Carbon Problem is Your Carbon Problem,” and they are doing far more to generate North-South hostility than they are doing to remediate it. The West needs to export solutions, rather than exporting its problem.

More on the World Growth story.

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