Does Osama bin Laden read my column?

In his latest couple of videos, the dyed one mentioned Western civilization’s contribution to global warming among his list of complaints of quite what was wrong with the state of affairs, which he suggested a bout of Osamanomics could cure. The generation of largely American (which is not a comment on their girth) economists brought up on the ideas of Reaganomics who now rule the roost across the global financial system can perhaps imagine the very opposite of what they believe in, namely a demand-led reduction of Group of Seven (G7) economies that culminates in collapsing economic growth across Asia, thereby keeping billions of people mired in poverty.

Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, the green movement appears to want exactly the same thing.

In one of my articles last year, [1] I wrote:

Terrorism could actually play a large part in reducing the world’s carbon emissions, and that alone should make bin Laden and his ilk the new poster-boys of the green movement.

This seemingly counterintuitive idea is explained in a subsequent paragraph:

Terrorism, by targeting … urban centers, can produce a visible difference to the scenarios envisaged by the SciAm (2) writers. More atrocities on the lines of New York, Madrid or London would likely induce a gradual shift away from concentrated urban centers like Manhattan to satellite locations that have affordable residential accommodation in close proximity. In turn, this would allow many mass-transit systems to reduce their operations while also reducing the annual mileage of Americans and Europeans by a factor of 20-40%. Additionally, currently available technologies such as telecommuting would likely accelerate in this scenario, producing even more energy savings.

Much of that article was written with tongue firmly in cheek, as the introduction to the section on terrorism’s “contribution” to reducing global warming makes clear:

In the spirit of solving the world’s carbon emissions problem using fresh thinking, we could then consider truly different alternatives.

When you are living in a cave in some godforsaken part of Pakistan, albeit with broadband connections and the services of an eccentric barber, it is possible that subtle sarcasm can be easily missed; but then again, being a literalist Wahhabi, Osama probably never had any grasp of such thought forms in the first place.

The enemy of my enemy

The widely accepted notion of what constitutes the establishment in the G7 today points to distressing levels of homogeneity (no, George, not homosexuality), with leaders viewed as ruthless, voracious, capitalist bottom-feeders with no regard for either cultural or environmental matters. Of course, one arrives at this composite picture by mainly reading the left-leaning media across G7 countries, while leaving aside the staunchly pro-establishment newspapers and television channels. In other words, don’t read or watch anything to do with Rupert Murdoch, and this is the Identi-Kit picture of world leaders you will invariably get.

Ensconced in this comfortable fiction of the avaricious and the grubby, the media then lurch from one topical problem to the next, which are all conveniently laid at the feet of the above-mentioned leaders. Be it global warming, African poverty, the war in the Middle East (I cannot in good conscience call it the war in Iraq anymore now, what with the steady drumbeats for a new front against Iran growing ever so steadily into a crescendo) or China’s problems with manufacturing Barbie dolls, the culprits are inevitably the same cast of characters, namely the Identi-Kit world leader from above.

Tapping into the apparently bottomless reservoir of discontent building against these world leaders are both the greens and terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. While the greens rue the passing of the Kyoto Protocol into the dustbin of history, despite US President George W. Bush’s extremely late conversion to the issue, they have upped the shrillness considerably in the past few months.

It appears that not a day goes by in the non-Murdoch media when some new environmental disaster isn’t revealed. Many key political figures have tapped into this river of discontent, highlighting their commitment to resolving environmental issues. The most oddball conversion in this regard is that of the British Conservative Party, which has somehow sprouted green wings in its battle against the Labour establishment.

Leaders with anti-establishment credentials are also duty-bound to criticize the war in the Middle East, even if most of them supported the original invasion in 2003. This slippery slope, though, immediately puts them on the road to endorsing the objectives if not the methods of the al-Qaeda – namely withdrawal of US troops from the region, resistance to Israel’s policies, and reforming the military government in Pakistan, among others. Perhaps thankful of such support, Osama has shown interest in green issues of late.

There are economic reasons for Osama and his ilk to support the campaign against liberal capitalism, too. In another article, [3] I wrote the following:

Secular societies “work” because underlying economic organization allows them – indeed forces them – to separate religion from state. It is here that radical Islam fails to make the case. When removed from its agrarian or military origins and plonked into the modern world requiring frequent interactions with other communities, competitive industries and innovative thinking, it is secular countries that outrun their unilateralist counterparts. The difference between the economic performance of South Asian states highlights this view, and emphatically so. As an example, Wahhabi notions of restricting the economic participation of women simply do not work in resource-poor states.

In turn, the economic failures of economies founded on the antiquated principles espoused by al-Qaeda – such as Taliban Afghanistan or most parts of Pakistan – force the central organization to lash out at all other economic forms, with secular democracies and liberal capitalism becoming the prime targets mainly because of their unquestioned success relative to other forms of government and economic organization.

Luddite and anti-modern

Many authors, including John Gray, have cast al-Qaeda’s brand of Islam as merely the most updated version of anti-modern movements. [4] The domination of the Western schools of thought in both the economic and political spheres over the past 200 years has helped to generate resentment across a wider group of vested interests than ever before.

While some object to the relentless pace of modern life, most merely chafe at the identity of the successful – thus it is that a combination of sloth and envy helps to fuel the engine of both the greens and Islamic terrorists. This is no trivial point, as the key objective for both groups is to reverse the gains being made by some sections of society, and both operate at least nominally in the name of the greater good. The philosophical construct underpinning both movements, then, is the same disdain for liberal capitalism that writers such as Francis Fukuyama [5] classified as the sole victor from the wars of the last century.

Much as the arguments may make sense in some context, the immediate consequences of what the greens intend can be quite damaging for Asian economies. In particular, mandated reductions on emissions and the use of carbon credits to offset Western emissions will both damage Asia far more than al-Qaeda ever could, even when one includes the horrific bomb blasts in the Indian city of Hyderabad recently. [6]

Asian countries have only just started their evolution on the economic scale of things. An example of how restrictions on emissions may hurt the region can be understood by looking at coal-fired power plants in China. While the Western examples of such plants are inevitably decades old and therefore ripe for replacement, China’s power plants are fairly new and modern. To ask the country to replace these plants in short order, say over the next 20 years, would cause significant economic damage and in essence a rollback on the pace of industrialization in many if not most parts of the country.

Carbon credits are even worse, as they quite literally move the problem from one country to another, inevitably punishing the poor. A typical scheme for generating carbon credits for a polluting company in say, Germany, would be to buy them from a company in South America, which generates them by either afforestation or a reversion to organic farming. While this looks good on paper (acid-free, of course), what it means in practice is that a few hundred Latin Americans lose their jobs working on farms, while the farmers lose their crop gradually to pests and the vagaries of the weather.

Incredibly, these countries would then be forced to buy grains from exactly the same countries to which they sold the carbon credits in the first place, namely the rich economies of Europe and North America. This is one reason wheat exports from the US and Canada have increased dramatically of late. No green lobby I know has dared to touch the lot of Western farmers, and yet they remain strongly supportive of pushing the pain to the poor farmers of the Third World who already have to compete with the glut caused by egregious subsidies provided to Western farmers, thereby needing the additional income that forces them to use “green-friendly” technologies.

Confronting such poverty and the conflicting demands for generating green credits imposed on them by corrupt politicians and other leaders, many of the poor choose to join radical movements, whether it is the local communist rebels in Mexico or al-Qaeda in Indonesia. Any atrocities thus committed then go to feed the Western guilt machine I described in the first paragraph.

There are much simpler, market-based approaches to the pricing of negative economic goods such as air pollution that would limit the economic fallout on other communities. These would, however, necessitate less demagoguery and more comprehensive understanding of the underlying causes of excessive consumption. Among the policy weapons that can be used to fight over-consumption in the West would be adjustments to Asian currencies, which I have long argued in favor of.

Ignoring such obvious measures and instead pursuing “pie in the sky” plans for conditional charging based on usage and imposing blanket limits on emissions would instead condemn billions to lives of servitude and poverty. Greens have to wake up before this destructive spiral gathers too much momentum.

1. Eco-friendly terrorism, Asia Times Online, September 30, 2006.
2. “Energy’s future: Beyond carbon”, Scientific American, September 2006.
3. When progress is against the law, ATol, June 2, 2007.
4. John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, 2004.
5. Francis Fukuyama, “The end of history?”, The National Interest, 1989.
6. India’s Muslim ‘problem’, ATol, September 1, 2007.