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What looting has to do with trashing the planet

Harriet Williams

15th August, 2011

Recent riots and looting across the streets of England is a mini-tragedy of the commons, says Harriet Williams. If only some of the evironmental damage we cause everyday was as immediately visible and socially unacceptable

The only thing spreading faster than the riots last week was opinion on what dark forces are to blame. Who are these people? Why is this happening down my street?

True, the local conflagration here in east Bristol – a burnt-out moped in the Lidl car park – wasn’t exactly London burning. But the riots came close enough to Any Home, Any Town, that citizen-pundits everywhere were stirred to man their Twitter feeds deep into the febrile night.

Thugs, apologists, scum, thundered those of a right-ward disposition, making for great headlines. Those sitting to the left sought consolation in the grey shades of socioeconomic context. Making for better sense but not such great headlines.

True, true, hmmm, right enough, I murmured to my latte-sipping companion as we flicked through our preferred media provider (its not the Mail). Compelling stuff on theories of youth alienation, for sure, but what’s in it for an environmentalist like me? I just know an aggressive form of neo-liberalist capitalism predicated on voracious resource consumption is at the beating heart of this. But what’s my angle?

Hang on a minute. Individuals trashing Debenhams, bearing off with armfuls of bounty and reducing the availability of said bounty to visitors from the future. Individuals, torching cars and generally messing up the streetscape that benign but undervalued forces have provided for our shared enjoyment. Individuals, depleting the asset base through not bearing the full costs of their chosen electronic knick-knacks.

Damn me, if it doesn’t all begin to look a bit like a mini-tragedy of the commons. This theory, posited by Garrett Hardin in 1968 and a bedrock of environmental policy ever since, has it that:

…individuals acting with self-interest will ultimately deplete a shared resource, when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen…’ (paraphrased from Wikipedia)

Nature’s great commons – the oceans, forests, atmosphere and minerals – are usually cheap or free at the point of use and available to everyone. Consumer goods – trainers, plasma screens, general bling – are usually kept under lock and key, accessible only to commoners paying cash or credit.

For a night or three last week, the price barrier broke down and private property temporarily joined the ranks of there-for-the-taking commons. The situation was quickly bought under control, with the perpetrators processed through the courts as holidaying politicians returned en masse, promising to make life ‘hell’ for gang members.

Environmentalists and anyone else with a laborious cause to tout could only watch and wonder. Yes, the riots were a tragic event. But oh, for a bit of the same blitz spirit when it comes to tackling pollution, species extinction or other planetary ills of our own making. What does a crime crisis have that climate change doesn’t?

First up, a them and us dynamic is at work. Few people choose to riot or steal. Those that do so offend everyone else’s deep-held values. We are all of us polluters, with limited choices about controlling that pollution even if we wished to.

I feel a bit guilty when I get on a plane. But is anyone going to confront me about my carbon footprint in the duty-free? Please, bring it on.

Closely allied are the visibility and immediacy of consequences. If a rioter drops a petrol rag through a letterbox the shop catches fire. When a polluter fires up their SUV in the morning they’re worrying about where to park the goddamn thing in town, not the effects on the Arctic ice cap.

All this relates to moral certitude. Rioting is felt to be wrong, in the way that polluting is just a bit sad. Certitude is a mandate for action via enabling laws and institutions, like the criminal justice system. Doubt lends itself to mess and obfuscation, like the state of international climate policy.

This isn’t to say that environmental issues can’t be associated with a clear sense of right and wrong, rather than some sloppy guilt-slash-indifference middle ground.

Tools like sustainability rankings supposedly empower individuals to ‘do the right thing’. But they tend to preach to the converted, and are ultimately unsatisfying since they take the edge off individual guilt rather than putting the system to rights. Who cares if I can offset my air-freighted flower bouquet? I shouldn’t be able to buy air-freighted flowers at all.

Most people need more than a dry re-telling of the facts to feel and care about environmental damage in the visceral way they respond to clear and present danger on the streets.

The best campaigning groups tell a compelling story, complete with victim, a boo-hiss baddie and an element of shared outrage. Think Greenpeace ‘s macabre KitKat spoof, or the furious backlash against government proposals to sell-off Britain’s woods earlier this year.

Defending the global commons requires more interpretations like these, which rework events happening to other people, in other places into something relevant right now, over here. This is one tragedy of the commons in need of a bit more drama.

Harriet Williams works as an advisor at the JMG Foundation, part of the Environmental Funders Network

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