Tuesday, February 19, 2008

How many deaths is a flight worth?

Yet again, George Monbiot produces a thought-provoking analysis. Today he discussed the freaky way in which economics is used to justify behaviours we wouldn't, as normally morally concious beings, objectively consider as good.

Economics, as envisaged by it's father Adam Smith, should be used as a tool to make existence better for humanity. But instead of a tool, it's used as a weapon, and in the case of Heathrow cited by Monbiot used to hammer through developments which may not just directly damage a minority, but contribute to the erosion of the general well-being of us all.

The 'economic benefits' argument is often used to justify anything from the second Tyne Tunnel to a new runway at Heathrow. There are similarities. Both projects promise (doubtful) 'economic benefits'. Both projects are driven by a Labour government for the benefit of a minority. But both projects also promise significant environmental degradation, and guide us towards a future we should be carefully edging away from - rather than running for the cliff edge at full tilt.

Projected economic benefits are often wholly subjective and dependant on a wide range of wildly optimistic scenarios and unmeasurable factors. But now the economic benefit argument is being twisted further in a sick accounting - a deadly ledger to tot up the value put upon lives of the poor in other countries.

Some (who sometimes falsely call themselves libertarians) cry that this is our 'right'. We pay for the 'right' to consume with our economic success and superiority, blind or uncaring that it comes at a price that is often paid by others. Those rights are allegedly inalienable - irrespective of the damage done to others. Anything that challenges those perceived rights, like laws, taxes or regulations, are derided as interventionist, dictatorial or that lazy old cliché, 'nanny state'. This is mistaking true human rights for an excuse to do whatever the hell we want; free from society, government and civil responsibility and displacing any kernel of guilt with the excuse that "it's my right".

Like a disease, this behaviour has it's own defence mechanisms - even daring to suggest that these attitudes form a core of the anti-social behaviour which haunts our society attracts contemptuous charges of being sanctimonious.

Decisions based upon economic factors will always have a place; after all, economics is still just a tool. But we should all worry when lives are measured in pounds and dollars and our rights in reckless behaviour.

In an ideal world the true rights of everyone - rich and poor - would be balanced through democracy and expressed with the currency of human rights. The need for this balance is acute and will become more so with the effects of a heating planet. Unfortunately in the feudal corporate/consumer system we currently inhabit the shallow 'rights' enjoyed by the affluent will be paid with the lives of the poor.

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