Ironies of the Flat World

Something very ironic just happened in my email inbox, a symptom of the Flat World if you like.

Date: 05 Jan 07
Time: 17.29
Sender: Snowmail – Channel 4 News
Subject: Air rage
Jon Snow here with the newsroom latest

Air rage

The irresponsible face of capitalism? This damning indictment of the airline industry came from the normally exceptionally mild mannered Ian Pearson, an environment minister.

Something undoubtedly got into his tea because he didn’t give up at that, his target specifically was the short-haul cheap flight carrier Ryanair, though he wasn’t very complimentary about British Airways either.

It’s a rare glimpse of antagonism between government and big business, and suggests that despite the appearance of a cozy consensus over climate change, real tensions are starting to emerge over who should pay the price of carbon emissions.

Yes it’s true that carbon emissions from the airline industry are set to triple in the next 20 years, and for every two per cent of efficiency and saving they make through updating planes and engines, the sheer growth of the business is double that, so their carbon footprint is getting worse by the day.

On the other hand, the government is rushing ahead with plans to increase airport capacity so that all these flights can land and take off. If they didn’t build the airports, the flights wouldn’t be able to happen, and carbon emissions – well, Britain’s anyway — wouldn’t increase by as much.

Cathy Newman is on the case but the minister is strangely shy again tonight and his government very far from excited from saying anything at all. Ryanair’s boss Michael O’Leary is voluble, describing the minister as a dead sheep.

Next email
Date: 05 Jan 07
Time: 17.31
Sender: easyJet Newsletter
Subject: New Year Sale on flights, hotels and car rental!
Over 500,000 seats at under £21.99

Thanks to easyJet’s New Year Sale, you can now do more for less in 2007! Why not treat yourself to some winter sun, some ski slope fun or visit a new city with all the family?

We’ve got over 500,000 seats for sale at under £21.99 – but you need to be quick! This fantastic offer must end at midnight on Wednesday 10 January 2007.

These amazing discounts are on flights for travel between 24 January and 24 March 2007.

So don’t delay, book now at…

I shouldn’t laugh but it’s a case in point. Globalization in action in a Flat World. Something that Thomas Friedman would laud – but he doesn’t spare much time in his book to discuss the impacts of globalization on the environment. He does briefly discuss how certain organisations such as Conservation International are beginning to work ‘in partner’ with companies such as McDonalds to reduce environmental impacts (in ways that don’t negatively impact profits), but otherwise there’s nothing. I like the book; its a good, motivating read. I like and agree with the message – get innovating in the developed world or lose out to those who will in the developing world. But it seems to assume that whatever environmental problems we encounter, our innate creativity will be able to solve.

Fair enough, Friedman does suggests at one point that “While many of the old corporate and government safety nets will vanish under global competition in the flat world, some fat still needs to be maintained, and even added. As everyone who worries about his or her health knows, there is “good fat” and “bad fat” – but everybody needs some fat. And that is true of every country in the flat world. Social security is good fat. We need to keep it. A welfare system that discourages people from working is bad fat.” What about the good fat of our valuable and vital environmental resources upon which we base our economies? Our Natural Environment Security? Does that get a look in? It should do but it at the moment when the points are raised we just end up with laughable ironies like that illustrated from my inbox above. Nowhere in his book does he explicitly address this issue.

In his summary, Friedman quotes a business consultant speaking of companies’ demise; “When memories exceed dreams, the end is near”. True maybe, but when all we have are memories of a life-supporting natural environment our end will be upon us. We need to dream and innovate in the flat world, but we also need to remember where we came from and the environment in which we live and require to survive.

Friedman, T.L. (2006) The World is Flat (2nd Ed.) London: Penguin ISBN: 0-141-02272-8

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