Monday, 9 August 2010

The statistical value of a human life

Another curious snippet from the Wikileaks documents relates to nothing less than the value of a human life. The logs reveal that when Afghan civilians are killed as a result of military clumsiness, American policy is to compensate them to the tune of 100,000 Afghani, which may sound like a lot but actually amounts to the rather less than generous sum of $1,500.

Now in a world which aims to, in the words of Bill Hicks, put a price tag on every goddamn thing of value, it is inevitable that there should be a generally accepted measure of the value of a single life, and given the inequalities which condition every aspect of our lives, it is inevitable that it should differ considerably. According to the Value of Statistical Life (VSL), the measure used by insurance agencies and so on, the estimated value (in terms of foregone earnings and the lost contributions to the economy) of a (US) soldier in the Iraq war was between $6.1 and $7.2 million. So Harmad Karzai appears to have a point when he protests that Afghan lives are regarded by the occupying forces as 'cheap'.

Another interesting point of comparison comes from Turkey, In 2004, the Turkish Government adopted Law 5233 on “the Compensation of Losses Resulting from Terrorist Acts and the Measures Taken Against Terrorism” in favour of those who had suffered losses or damage as a result of “action by terrorist organisations and measures taken by the government to combat it” since 1987. There was considerable anger at the meagre levels of compensation involved; for example For example in Diyarbakir, the amounts offered were 16,000 YTL (€10,000) for a death, while in other provinces it was offered 15,000 YTL (€9,500).

This case contrasts sharply with the amount of compensation paid to the family of a British tourist, also in Turkey. In this incident, one killed and 5 injured in the same family, victims of a terrorist attack while on a holiday in 2005 were awarded more than £1m by the Turkish government.

A non--monetary echo of this can currently be seen on the Guardian website, where the deaths and displacement of tens of thousands of Pakistanis, a tragedy apparently greater than that of the 2004 tsunami, the Haiti disaster and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan combined, is relegated halfway down the page, below the huge splash on the tragic resignation of a football manager. Evidence that, in the oft- and fondly-quoted words of Bill Shankly, football is so much more important than either life or death.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Some thoughts on wikileaks and climate change denial

Nina Power picked up on one little-noticed aspect of the Wikileaks affair, and I want to pick up on another.

I saw in the Guardian that intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, the source of the leaks, wrote excitedly to his (poorly) chosen contact in the outside world, 'it's Climategate with a global scope and breathtaking depth'.

Climategate: we hoped it had quietly gone away, but this snippet shows it has had a monumental impact on public opinion of climate change. Or at least, it has legitimised a stance of total denial.

Why are so many otherwise entirely rational and intelligent people so prepared to give credence to the denialists? Of course it is partly to do with the media hegemony of corporate power, but not entirely. Personally I comfort myself in the secure knowledge that I myself am prepared to 'believe' in the reality of what is happening and what we face, that I 'know' that it is happening and will continue to happen; but I've come to think that I may be mistaken about my own belief.

There are after all very many things we think we believe, but actually we don't, and to 'know' something is not the same as, in the words of Sven Lvindquist, to have understood what we know and to have drawn conclusions. Despite my firmly held and rationally based opinions, my own actions suggest that I am not a strong believer in the reality of climate change. I do not place much importance in recycling, for example, choosing to regard it as something of a superstitious action akin to shouting at the TV to influence the result of a football match (nobody of course would 'believe' for a second that doing so would have any impact, but their (irrational) behaviour might make one think otherwise). My position on recycling could probably be characterised as something of a 'beautiful soul' one: given that other people refuse to change, and given the immense complexities involved, I refuse to act, regarding it (entirely rationally) as both utterly ineffective and beneath me. Nevertheless it's one that I have until now felt entirely comfortable with.

It's very difficult, impossible perhaps, to take a realistic and rational view of climate change. There is no level of fear or anger that is proportionate, and none of our individual actions are remotely sufficient. I have come to realise however that gestures are important, contrary to what I've always thought and contrary to what Slavoj Zizek so entertainingly argues. My actions suggest that subconsciously, like anyone else, I refuse to accept the reality of climate change. The trauma is too great to integrate into my notion of the world, the future of the world and my place in it, and so I act as if I will never be affected. But changing my habits can force me into believing at a deeper level. In Alcoholic's Anonymous they call this 'acting as if'; first you change your behaviour, and then hopefully, gradually, your beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, about your ability to manage your life without a drink in your hand begin to change.

To slip briefly into amateur Lacanese, because the Real of climate change is impossible to apprehend, we have to act within the realm of the symbolic. Symbolic tokens in the form of gestures do have a value; they can be exchanged for genuine belief. Not just recycling but skills shares and community gardens are important, as are all other forms of exchange not based purely on exploitation. Staying out of supermarkets is a good move for all sorts of reasons.

Nowadays, again like anyone else, we consume constantly, indiscriminately, or ironically, consuming our own gestures of consumption. This is the age of Mcdonalds happy meals consumed in a constant low-level muzak hum of cynicism, apathy and despair, flat screen Tvs gorged down in the midst of a recession. We consume because we are; What else are we, what else are we to do?

There is of course no substitute for collective political action, for maximum anger gathered and launched at those in power who notice our failure to genuinely believe and so pretend to act, understanding that for us, for now, pretending to act is enough. But it can serve to help us accept the anger and fear that climate change generates, to live with it and try to live differently.

I think I believe in the reality of climate change. But the fact that I fail for the moment to begin to live differently shows that I do not, yet. I first have to change the way I live my life.