First posted 03 April 2006, Mexico City
As I sit writing this in my 12th floor office a gentle orange brightens the far horizon and I can see the mountains eerily outlined in the evening haze. This is one of modern life’s most unique phenomena, the pollution sunset. Perhaps the Kinks should write a song. It took me my first week here to realise that the head and eye aches I was feeling were not only down to the fanatical working hours I was putting in trying to prettify my graphs demonstrating the role of aid and debt in development. They were due to one of Mexico City’s most famous inhabitants, Mr S. Mog. I appear to have acclimatised since but am not sure if that is a good thing.
Going… going… gone. Whether I can see the mountains from my office window is a function of how many cars there are on the road and how much wind there is. There are billions of cars and it’s quite nervewracking crossing the road because people drive like imbeciles. This is at once predictable (people everywhere drive like imbeciles) and surprising: why is it that such laid back people with so much time on their hands suddenly decide that they are in a desperate hurry the minute they don’t put on their seatbelts? (I once saw this brilliant sketch of what life would be like if we walked like we drive – beeping at each other to get out of the way, walking really close behind the person in front etc.) I have seen more people in neck braces in the last month than I have in the previous ten years – there was one today at a conference. Either this is the latest hip fashion accessory or there are tonnes of accidents here in DF.
Then there is the pollution. I climbed (a bit of) the Popacatepetl volcano yesterday. It is 2 hours drive outside DF but the views are still subject to serious ensmogification. A Christian Aid colleague (John McGhie) found an astonishing statistic from the World Bank – apparently pollution from cooking with wood and dung is the biggest killer of children in the world. Given how sceptical I am of most other things emanating from the World Bank (and also, in fact, John Mcghie) I don’t know why we should trust them on this but while car fumes may not be quite so bad I presume they don’t do children’s health much good either. It underlines the absurdity of working on behalf of poor people without working to improve the environment, both locally and globally. Because you can bet your bottom peso it isn’t rich kids dying.
Then there is global warming. This occurs when… actually just pick up The Independent tomorrow and it is more than likely to be explained for you (again). It will hurt the poor the most as well as penguins.
So, what needs doing? Well in a recent incarnation, presidential candidate and people’s champion Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was Mayor of Mexico City. His answer, impressive only in its boneheadedness, was to build a large new road. Good thinking. That’ll fix it. What in fact needs to be done – and I realise this sounds tedious – is to gradually reclaim the city for public transport, pedestrians and bikes (there are no bikes to speak of except superb Harleys which make me want to take off round Latin America with a best friend every time I see one). Which is why I have so much respect for Ken Livingstone, despite (or maybe secretly because of) his increasingly absurd attempts to annoy people.
Most Mexicans I have spoken to say public transport is terrible in DF. Actually I have never experienced more regular buses or more reliable tubes. The people I tend to speak to have nice cars and, I reckon, basically don’t like slumming it with the proletariat. The more they denigrate public transport, the more they feel justified about jumping into their cars/trucks/A-team vans.
One of the messages on public adverts around the city at the moment, following the recent water forum, is, “Play your part – conserve water.” That’s great, but I have become very sceptical of individual action to conserve the environment, to curtail climate change and car usage, and, in fact, to achieve many public goods. I support giving to charity (obviously). But I don’t think we should rely on that to redress inequality and provide basic services. I think it’s great when companies make an effort to have a positive social and environmental impact. But I am not naïve enough to look the other way once they have promised to do so. That’s why we have governments, to provide public goods and to punish wrong doing. People and companies have to agree to be regulated because we know we can’t be relied upon to always do the right thing.
It is unfortunate but it takes politicians to make change happen. There will always be some people that are prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of the environment, like not flying off to check out Tuscany for £50 on Easyjet. But most won’t, precisely because they know that most aren’t. If we were sure that everyone else was sacrificing Tuscany, we might be prepared to. But while we watch other families enjoying espressos under the cedars, we generally feel like doing the same. Tuscany is awesome.
So I’ll turn off the TV standby when I go to bed, and put the green bottles through the green bottle hole. But mostly my individual lifestyle choice to protect the environment for my children will be to lobby my government to introduce green legislation, and to try and persuade other people to do the same.
And it is our countries that need to take the lead. In poorer countries where incomes are rising, the aspirational classes compare there lifestyles with those in the West. It is no good preaching to Mexicans about reducing inequality, which will necessarily mean some sacrifices for the middle classes, while we continue to flaunt our mind-boggling wealth and seemingly endless opportunities. It is global inequality that feeds the grim national inequality dividing Mexico's benighted poor from its besunglassed rich. So in that sense I do agree that we need to start at home.