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The gathering storm

Climate change hits the poorest people hardest. Rich countries got us into this mess. Now they must

To fly above the islands on the Jamuna River in Bangladesh is to see, close up, the physical effects of climate change. Here is a set of islands literally sinking into the sea. Meeting the local villagers, it hits you: the argument that global warming ravages the world's poorest people more than anyone else is so much more than just a cliché.

The main island, which will disappear in the lifetime of many of its inhabitants, frequently suffers major floods, the worst of which was in 2007, leaving behind rapidly spreading disease, homelessness and starvation. Firoza Khatun, a 25-year-old mother-of-three, told me: "In 2007, the water came up to my waist. We tried to stay in the house, we raised our bed higher on bricks and bamboo, but when it came to my waist we had to leave . . . We saved the roof but lost the house. We only had food for five days. I was scared."

Before my trip with the Climate Change Secretary, Ed Mili­band, and the International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander, I was shamefully in denial of this truth. Like others in a mercifully shrinking minority, I saw "climate change" - that technocratic, uninspiring term - as a second-order, middle-class preoccupation, somehow separate from poverty itself. But visit Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital city, and the link between the two becomes undeniable.

Thankfully, some progressive politicians have been quicker to recognise the importance of the environment to the social-democratic cause. In 2006, Ken Livingstone, guest editor of this issue of the New Statesman, warned in the Guardian: "I just do not think that politicians understand the implications, which at the very extreme is the end of most large life forms. If we slip into irreversible climate change, it means hundreds of millions of people migrating, and deaths. It means the poorest being hit the hardest."

Today, Labour ministers see climate change as a crucial part of their politics. As Alexander told me during our flight over Bangladesh: "I came into politics to change things . . . For our generation of progressive politicians, climate change is the defining test."

Alexander is helping Miliband in the seemingly impossible task of bridging the gap between a developed world (which must be forced to lead the way on carbon emissions cuts) and a developing world (which has often been reluctant to skip the conventional forms of industrialisation previously enjoyed by the west). As Miliband pointed out in Delhi, between 1850 and 2000, 30 per cent of carbon emissions came from the United States, 27 per cent from the European Union, and 7 per cent from China. There is a clear inequality of responsibility, but today the daunting task is to make the whole world carbon-conscious. NGOs talk of the west's "debt" to the developing world and Miliband accepts our "historic responsibility". On 10 September, the EU environment chief, Stavros Dimas, declared that rich countries should be paying €100bn a year by 2020 to cover the cost of mitigation in developing countries, with €15bn coming from the EU itself. It was the first time the EU had acknowledged the cost of global warming to poorer regions.

This is the backdrop to the negotiators' dilemma, just two months ahead of what Miliband has called the "make-or-break" UN summit in Copenhagen. The stakes could not be higher. The British ministers, moving on from Bangladesh to Delhi, emerged "optimistic" after successful talks with their Indian counterparts, particularly the new environment minister, Jairam Ramesh. On the same day, the Indians - assumed to be reluctant to commit to carbon cuts and hostile to US demands for them to do so - projected a modest level of carbon-dioxide emissions in 2031: between 2.8 and five tonnes per person. Current per capita emissions are estimated at 1.2 tonnes, well below the global average of four tonnes. India is now heading towards producing 20,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2020, and is skipping some of the usual steps towards industrialisation: in Kolkata, the ministers were shown the country's first ever housing complex run on solar power. Days later, hopes were raised further when another sticking-point country, Japan, announced that it would cut its emissions by 25 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020.

But Miliband, whose department is leading the way with a commitment to a 34 per cent reduction in the UK's emissions by 2020, warns against complacency. So does his brother David, the Foreign Secretary, who has been touring the EU presenting slideshows on the extreme potential results of global warming, and says that a deal "hangs in the balance". "There's a real danger the talks scheduled for December will not reach a positive outcome, and an equal danger in the run-up to Copenhagen that people don't wake up to the danger of failure until it's too late," the Foreign Secretary told reporters.

There is still a question mark over whether any proposed deal would be enough to make a difference. It has been agreed that the developed west must cut emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2020 to prevent a global warming increase of 2° or more. But campaigners warn that this may be too little, too late. The Committee on Climate Change has recommended that this target be increased to 42 per cent to ensure a 50-50 chance of preventing the rise. But as Tom Picken of Friends of the Earth asks: "Is this a morally acceptable level of risk?"

So, what would be the result of failure to reach an adequate deal when, according to Ed Miliband, there is "no plan B"? Campaigners have long emphasised how climate change hits the poorest hardest, even in Britain. A study by Oxfam and the New Economics Foundation think tank this year noted that the one in five Britons who live in poverty will be the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. They will be the hardest hit by higher taxation on fossil fuels, the least able to afford adequate insurance against the effects of storm damage and flooding, and the most likely to lose out in the move away from carbon-producing jobs.

But it is the international imbalance that causes most concern. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is the latest organisation to call for a long-term programme of work on climate change and social justice. "Rich countries got us into this mess and they have the money and the technology to get us out of it," says Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International. "This gives them a double duty to deliver major emission reductions at home and provide the money that poor countries need to start tackling their emissions, too." As the UN has warned: "[I]t is the poor, a constituency with no responsibility for the ecological debt we are running up, who face the immediate and most severe human costs."

This is not simply a western, liberal concern. As Rajendra Pachauri, the Indian chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (who won a Nobel Prize along with the campaigning former US vice-president Al Gore) has said: "It's the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit."

Now, in a letter to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, the UK Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development has warned that unless governments step up efforts to tackle climate change immediately, the result could be significant incursions into what it calls "future democratic freedoms". The organisation's director, Halina Ward, says: "There is a real risk that as the decision-making implications of huge social challenges like climate change begin to bite, politicians will be tempted to tighten the reins on our democratic rights and limit our access to public decision-making on difficult issues." She adds: "We have to get climate change out of the environmental margins and into the social mainstream . . . The sooner we come to understand it as an issue of democracy and of social justice, the better."

Meanwhile, the spectre of natural disaster looms largest over poor countries. The total number of floods, cyclones and storms has quadrupled in the past two decades. Over the same period, the number of people affected by disasters has increased from roughly 174 million a year to more than 250 million on average. Environmental threat is acute in countries such as Bangladesh, where 119 million of the population subsist on less than $2 a day. For them and millions of others, talk of climate change is not a fad or fashion, a label to help "modernise" a political party, or the subject of dinner-party self-justification; it is literally a matter of life and death. For their sake, long-standing green campaigners and late-coming progressive converts alike must pray for a deal in December.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood