The opportunity the British Empire now gives us
Britain has just achieved its lowest carbon emissions since 1909 and that has to be good news. But not that good. Globally, 2017 achieved the highest carbon emissions on record. In any case, such news misses the point and could even be counter-productive, like saying in 1940 ‘we won the Battle of Britain and that shows we’re doing pretty well so we can let up on the blood, sweat, toil and tears for a bit’. We are never going to halt global warming simply by cutting carbon emissions, because human beings are capable of extraordinary degrees of irrationality, and unless we can address our own madness we have no hope of saving ourselves. Climate change is not only the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced but also our greatest opportunity, because we are all in this together. We sink or swim together. We can create a new earth or destroy it together. We should be feeling not despair at an oncoming Armaggedon, although many, perhaps even most, people are too apathetic even to feel that, but the greatest optimism and excitement at the opportunity this gives us to create a new, more humane and much better world. But to do that we have to stop loving money and start loving love.
The UK is admirably positioned not only to cut a few carbon emissions but to take a lead in creating a much more humane and caring world because we did more than anybody else to make it inhumane and uncaring. The wounds of history bleed on unless they are addressed, and we need to realise how much damage the British Empire did to the world. So many of the world’s trouble spots today are part of its legacy. The slave trade is up there with the Holocaust as the greatest crime in history. A million and a half people in Ireland were allowed to starve to death in the name of free trade. But much as it talked about it, free trade was the last thing the British Empire practised. Instead it imposed trade arrangements highly advantageous to itself and extremely damaging to its victims at the point of a gun. Trade liberates, brings people into contact with each other and makes both its partners more prosperous. Think how rich the people of Africa with its great wealth of resources might be today if we had only traded with them instead of exploiting them – and if they had been more wealthy they would doubtless have used some of that wealth to trade with us and made us richer too, as Adam Smith teaches. Think of the Opium Wars. Think of all those Kikuyu tortured and castrated in concentration camps in Kenya during the nineteen-fifties, think of food being taken out of India, just as it was in Ireland, during the great Indian famines of the late nineteenth century to pay the interest the British Government owed to Rothschild’s bank and to keep the price of bread in Lancashire low so that manufacturers’ profits could remain high. Play up and play the game!
All this is in the past and we cannot alter what happened now. But what we can do is to address our own irrationality by recognizing what we did for what it was, and the irrationality of those who still hate us and want to take revenge by blowing up innocent citizens in our streets, by expressing our contrition (in his book Inglorious Empire Shashi Tharoor recognizes that paying compensation is unrealistic but a penny a year would do very nicely) turning over a new leaf, becoming different people whose burning desire is to bring humanity to humanity, lighting a new lamp in the world. We can’t pay compensation we don’t have the money. But we can stop imposing deleterious trade terms on Africans and then adding insult to injury by giving them aid, we can help poor countries to ward off climate change as much as we can, above all we can tell the people of Africa not just that they are useful economic objects but how precious they are. Africa, after all, was the cradle of humanity. Above all, we can become enthused at this opportunity not only to save the earth but to create a much better one, and not only our little bit of it but all of it.