Darning the Planet

How had no one thought of it before? As millions sweltered in record-breaking temperatures across America and Southern Europe, a solution was hiding in plain sight. Simple, effective, and right under our noses – yet it took the perspicacity of the President of the French Republic to spot it. During Paris fashion week, Macron’s Secretary of State for Ecology, Bérangère Couillard, announced a groundbreaking new measure: from next autumn, subsidies ranging from €6 to €25 will be available to any French citizen who has an item of clothing repaired. The climate crisis will be averted by a trip to the tailor or the cobbler. Thanks to the meticulous bureaucracy of the French state, we already have the fine print of this bonus réparation textile:

For a pair of shoes:

€8 for an insole

€7 for the heel

€8 for stitching or gluing

€18 for a complete resoling (€25 if the shoes are leather)

€10 to replace a zipper

For a garment:

€7 to mend a hole, tear or rip

€10 for a lining (€25 if it’s complex)

€8 for a zipper

€6 for a seam (€8 if it’s double)

It could be argued that before it starts encouraging consumers to be less wasteful, the French government ought to encourage the textile and footwear industries to curb their practice of planned obsolescence, by imposing warranties that would oblige them to repair defective items free of charge for several years, or requiring the use of more durable materials. Educating citizens about environmentally friendly practices is certainly no bad thing. But given that – as Mies van der Rohe once said – ‘God is in the details’, it is worth taking a moment to consider the sums involved. The total amount allocated for this revolutionary measure was €154 million. Assuming that this figure doesn’t include the cost of employing bureaucrats to assess requests, disburse subsidies and supervise the quality of the repairs, this means a handsome €2.26 has been allocated for each of France’s 68 million people. Even if one were to only consider the 29.9 million ménages composed of an average of 2.2 members, each household would receive a grand total of €5.13 per year. To put this in context, recall that the French state spent some €7 billion on its pointless colonial mission in Africa, Operation Barkhane, which ended in ignominy last year; roughly €100,000 euros per year for every solider dispatched to the Sahel.

These numbers say a lot about the extent of the French government’s environmental commitments, and, more broadly, about the gigantic practical joke being played by world leaders in their ‘declaration of war’ on global warming. It is not just Macron. Look at how the rulers of countries hit by the record-breaking July heatwave behaved: as if global warming was some future menace, to be mended with the odd €6 for a jacket here and there (or €10 if it’s lined).

We’re not dealing with denialists here: they are comparatively unthreatening, for their bad faith is transparent, and they grow more pathetic by the hour despite their corporate bankrolling. Far more dangerous are those like Macron – that is, the overwhelming majority of the world’s political class, irrespective of ideological orientation – who feign concern from their air-conditioned offices and private planes, and then do nothing. Worse than nothing, in fact: for they make the public believe that the problem can be solved with half-measures and palliatives, promoting market solutions for a problem created by the market itself.  

The world is currently suffocating beneath a deluge of plastic, yet the plastic industry, which may well have the most effective lobby on the planet, is glaringly absent from environmental debates. The oil industry on which it depends meanwhile has discovered an irrepressible passion for the environment, according to its advertising campaigns; the term ‘greenwashing’ is appropriate precisely because it recalls money laundering by criminal organizations. They also propose utterly improbable solutions. Think of the electric car delusion – in order to pollute less we apparently need to build an electrical grid spanning the entire globe, replace every single car in the world (trucks and vans included) and furnish them with batteries whose production is one of the most polluting processes known to man.

Scientists contribute to these absurdities. A recent report in Nature described attempts to introduce crystals into the ocean in order to increase its alkalinity: a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions end up in the ocean, which acidifies the water, making it potentially inhospitable to life. What this plan amounts to is throwing lime (or some equivalent) into the sea. The problem is that humanity produces 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (in 1950 the figure was 6 billion). A quarter of this is over 9 billion tonnes, which could only be neutralized by a quantity of crystals of the same scale, which would presumably be dropped into the sea from the air. How much CO2 would be emitted by the production and global distribution of billions of tonnes of ocean antacid (without even discussing the immense pollution that this ‘solution’ would entail)?

Every year – as CO2 emissions and plastic production continue to climb – objectives that everyone knows to be unattainable are pompously announced. The 2015 Paris summit’s overarching goal was to hold ‘the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels’ and pursue efforts ‘to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° above pre-industrial levels’, requiring greenhouse gas emissions to ‘peak before 2025 at the latest and decline 43% by 2030’. Such communiqués resemble a letter to Father Christmas; childish wishes for gifts to fall from the sky, or down the chimney. Only here governments around the world are writing Christmas letters to themselves. The World Meteorological Organization announced in May that there is a 66% chance that the 1.5° temperature rise will be reached before 2027. Yet the same organization maintains that already in 2022, the planet was 1.15 ± 0. 13° warmer than the pre-industrial average, making the last 8 years the warmest on record; that between 2020 and 2021 the increase in the concentration of methane in the atmosphere was the highest since measurements have existed (methane is far more damaging than carbon dioxide to the greenhouse effect); that the rate of ocean level rises doubled between the decade 1993-2002 and 2013-2022; that ocean acidification is accelerating. And so on.

Yet the environmental crisis is treated as a future threat, notwithstanding the warnings emanating from outlets as close to polluting corporations as the Financial Times, which sternly informs its readers that we are dealing with ‘a present reality’. The planet is becoming unliveable already. As an acquaintance recently joked to me, ‘you can’t live locked in a refrigerator’; yet the fastest growing city in the US is Phoenix, where this summer the temperature exceeded 40° for more than a month, forcing people to rely constantly on air conditioning (which further accelerates global warming).

Inspired, perhaps, by Ionesco and Beckett, today’s world leaders have invented a politics of the absurd. To get a measure of the situation, one need only compare the attention, ideological mobilization and resources devoted to the war in Ukraine with those devoted to the environmental crisis. The difference being that while the war endangers the lives of 43.8 million people and directly impacts 9 million more who live in the disputed territories, the environmental crisis endangers the lives of billions of people, condemns billions more to poverty and starvation, and has already forced 30 million people a year to migrate, with some forecasts predicting 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050. Meanwhile, Russia and NATO spend hundreds of billions on arms, while the war drives up commodity prices and government deficits. If just a tenth of these sums were devoted to the environmental crisis, the effect would be revolutionary.

This gives us a clear sense of how high the environment ranks in our ruler’s priorities. From a certain perspective, the masters of the earth behave towards nature as the US has towards Russia: waging a war against it without outright declaration. They treat the planet like marauders who plunder cities, burning everything to the ground. Why such obstinacy on behalf of our ‘cognitive aristocracy’? Why do they have it in for our planet? It’s not like they can emulate the marauders who, after sacking one city, could move on to the next. As much as they tout their mythical space industry, they will not be able to emigrate to a new planet after rendering this one uninhabitable. Pure recklessness, perhaps? A complete immersion in the present that effaces any thought of tomorrow? Boundless selfishness? The syndrome of the scorpion, for whom the earth plays the part of the frog? Or is it simple cowardice, a lack of courage to face the problem?

Perhaps a clue was recently provided by the ineffable Macron himself, when he spoke of the violence that broke out in late June among French youth – overwhelmingly children of immigrants living in the banlieues – triggered by the killing of a young man by the police. The solution, according to Macron, was simple: ‘order, order, order’. ‘Authority must be restored’ because the violence ultimately depends on a ‘parental deficit’. ‘An overwhelming majority’ of the protestors, he explained ‘have a fragile family framework, either because they come from a single-parent family or their family is on child support benefits’. In short, it’s the fault of single mothers (implied to have loose morals), who have failed to instil the values of civil etiquette in their turbulent offspring. In other words, the youth of the banlieues are violent because they’re sons of… To think we hadn’t realised! Maybe the elites exercise such violence on the planet because, without ever admitting it, they too are sons of…

Read on: Adam Hanieh, ‘Petrochemical Empire’, NLR 130.