If We Aspire to Put the World Right, We Must be Sure of What is Wrong
From Libya to the north-east coast of Japan, we fail to protect the vulnerable due to our short-sightedness
There was never such a week of fearful images. As if mankind was a political prisoner, shown a run of blinding photo panels designed to shatter hope and force surrender. Those Libyan rebels in rags, facing the empty road down which the tanks will come. The silent flash and puff over Fukushima, as science's boldest dream turns to poison; the dignified old ladies of Japan waiting in snowy wreckage without food or warmth. The hospital in Bahrain, where people lie in their blood who only yesterday thought they had become free.
That long, long line of spotlessly new armoured vehicles, motoring in second gear across the causeway from Saudi Arabia to destroy something else new and shining: liberty in a small country. That sea, thick-brown with timbers and minibuses and mud and corpses, heaving itself over the land so slowly and yet so much faster than a car can drive or a man can run.
As usual, WB Yeats was here first: "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned…"
And another artist comes to mind: the weird and doomy Victorian painter John Martin, whose colossal canvases of apocalypse are currently on show in Newcastle. The Great Day of His Wrath shows a dark landscape bursting apart in flame; the oceans rising from their bed; the sinful millions slithering into the abyss; a steam train with top-hatted passengers plunging off a cliff.
But Martin, tempting as his imagery is, won't do. Not even for north-eastern Japan in the month of March, 2011. He won't do because so much of what has happened in the world in these weeks, and is still happening, didn't have to happen. Even earthquake and tsunami are only partial exceptions. It's true that little significant could have been avoided: Japan on 11 March was better prepared for seismic disaster than any nation on earth, but the Great Day of His Wrath rolled over the Japanese emergency plans and washed them away.
But it's still possible to say that without those plans and preparations it would have been worse – far worse. Tokyo, now standing on springs and shock absorbers, would have been shaken to rubble without its patient, expensive underpinning in the 20th century. Some people on the coast – not very many – were able to escape the tsunami because everyone had been taught at school about what can follow an earthquake, and they had the luck and time to reach higher ground.
So human prudence and foresight can at least mitigate the worst natural disasters. And it remains true that many of them – global warming, or the impact of Hurricane Katrina – are not so much natural as the outcome of our own stupidity. Some consequences, such as rising sea levels, become unavoidable and we have to adapt to what we can no longer prevent. But others, such as the hole in the ozone layer or the accumulation of greenhouse gases, can be reduced, if not reversed. And still other catastrophes – including many of last week's fearsome scenes of cruelty and blunder – could have been prevented altogether.
Long ago in Karamoja, in the limitless nothingness of northern Uganda, I met a dotty old English engineer. He was a freelance wanderer, giving advice about road building which nobody listened to. He said to me one night: "As an engineer, I can tell you the root of all human mistakes. It's people putting things right, before they have finished finding out what's wrong".
I thought of him often last week. Most obviously as the Tokyo Electric Power Company frantically threw one dud solution after another at reactors whose damage they had not yet diagnosed. Sea-water dropped from helicopters? New cables to restart a cooling system which, for all they know, may have been burned away? But in a wider sense, the old engineer's maxim applies to the political dramas unfolding in the Middle East.
We have decided to use armed force against Libya, and once again American and British missiles are thundering down on foreign cities. It's called 'Odyssey Dawn' – a name fit for a package holiday – but is it 'Shock and Awe' under another name? Gaddafi's tanks were already in the Benghazi suburbs before the first French or British warplanes took off. Kosovo should have taught the west that it is hard to change a dictator's mind from a height of 30,000 feet. But have we really found what's wrong with Libya before we start putting it right?
Gaddafi is what's wrong, and it's inconceivable that this intervention won't "creep" towards regime change. But half-cock recipes for dealing with Gaddafi have a long history. Plenty of people have tried to put the Gaddafi dysfunction right by ignoring the underlying problem – himself – and instead addressing the symptoms: his appalling behaviour to the outside world. And at that level he responded. Would anything in Libya really change, he reflected, if he junked his nuclear programme, sold el-Megrahi to the Scots and offered oil bargains to his critics?
Tony Blair was far from the first to make that mistake. A previous owner of the Observer, the buccaneer financier and cynic Tiny Rowland, also thought that all the colonel needed was a bribe and a hug. I once dared to ask him why he was so intimate with that murderous regime. "Dear boy", he replied, "Gaddafi is a mere retailer in death. The Americans are wholesalers!"
Common to most of these horrors is the world's convulsive greed for energy – whether nuclear or fossil. It's that greed which makes people rush in with cowboy repair solutions, failing to seek the real sources of a problem. Fukushima is only one example. Here we jump into Libya, after a dirty deal with Arab autocrats to win their support against Gaddafi at the price of letting them suppress people's struggling for justice in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. And that's another old story. Back in 1953, short-term lust for oil drove the British and Americans to overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh's democratic revolution in Iran, a fatal interference which ultimately led to the tyranny which rules Iran today.
All over the world, from China to Germany, governments are halting their nuclear power station programmes because of Fukushima. But what is that supposed to "put right"? Whatever went wrong in Japan must have something to do with laying a chain of obsolete reactors precisely along a famous tectonic fault. But the German reactors at Unterweser or Neckarwestheim are nowhere near an earthquake zone, so why has chancellor Merkel shut them for three months? It's about as rational as the grand Chinese salt panic: hoarders have snatched it off every shelf in China, after a rumour that Fukushima had turned the salt of all the oceans radioactive.
And the "Arab Spring"? The peoples in those uprisings first diagnosed what was wrong: brutal police states, many of them kingdoms. So their ideas about "putting it right" are well founded. Out with the tyrants, who stand between us and the "normal" modern world with its rights and opportunities. That for a start. So far, only Egypt and Tunisia have struggled over that first threshold. Will Libya and Bahrain and Yemen follow them? And will the new house beyond the threshold be airy and clean? We must hope so. Inshallah.
© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited