Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I am beginning to think that David Lean’s masterpiece of a war movie, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), was actually a film about today’s environmental movement. If the screenplay was modified to fit our current ecological predicament, the Oscar-winning performance by Sir Alec Guinness, who played the part of the obstinate, ramrod Colonel Nicholson, could be duplicated by Carl Pope or Stephen Hazell, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada. Ranged against Hazell would be Nicholson’s equally stubborn antagonist, Japanese POW camp commandant Colonel Saito, played by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper---who in the remake would be dedicated to building a bridge to economic recovery. So as in the original plot, the new one would have the two putative opponents collaborating to form a partnership in the manic pursuit of economic growth.

Just as Colonel Saito argued that he must meet an imminent deadline to complete construction of a bridge to move supplies and troops from Bangkok to Rangoon, Harper’s Saito would face an electoral imperative to deliver the goods on time---that is, resurrect the growth economy with “quantitative easing”. Stephen Hazell and the environmental movement, of course, offer no fundamental opposition to this goal. Only that the same destination can be reached by more efficient means, with less collateral cost to people and resources. We can have something called “Green Growth”, a growing economy with low “throughput” and negligible ecological consequences. In other words, our society can go on binging on 6,000 calories a day if we shift to 6,000 calories of Diet Coke. Unfortunately no society can subsist on soda pop, and a nation of potters, painters, poets, musicians and yoga teachers cannot long support the superstructure of social services upon which we depend. Someone, somewhere, must do the dirty work in mines and factories, if not at home, then abroad. This reliance upon a distant population for primary production is what Dr. William Rees called “appropriated capacity”. To call an economy that feeds off this dark underbelly of wealth “sustainable” is like a nun claiming chastity while working part time in house of ill repute. To grasp the surrealism of environmentalist concern for an economy in retraction, imagine if Jews on a cattle car to Auschwitz fretted about finding a renewable energy source for the train if it stalled for want of coal. Size matters, and the economy needs to shrink so the environment can grow.

But here is where modern environmentalism and Colonel Nicholson’s logic converge. Nicholson ignored the fact that in sharing Saito’s objective, he was actually collaborating with the Japanese war effort by working to construct a route to the doorstep of British India. His focus was not on the war, but on his men’s morale, which he hoped to boost by making them take pride in their work. By re-building the bridge properly he could re-build his battalion. Bridge construction was just a tool in this more fundamental mission.

In a re-make of the film, Sierra Club Executive Director Hazell would recruit his green army to help re-build “the bridge to growth” so that they may feel good about themselves, and to be, in Saito’s words, “happy in (their) work”. After all, resigning one’s self to the inevitability of growth is the only rational attitude for any Canadian to take. Canada is just like Saito’s Camp 16 or any other gulag in the archipelago of Burmese POW camps. “Escape is impossible---you would die”, Saito warned. “Grow or die” would commandant Harper’s injunction. “It is not whether we grow, but how we grow” would be Hazell’s qualification. Growth, in any case, is inevitable.

Best then to “manage” it rather than dream the impossible dream of jumping off the runaway train. In fact, if it slows down, Hazell advises, let’s accelerate it with a “Green Stimulus Package”. Let’s give CPR to Frankenstein to get him up off the ground and running again. Of course, we’ll clean him up with green wash and dye his hair green, and maybe then we’ll forget about that he is still a voracious consumer. Unfortunately, as the remake would show, you can employ people to retrofit houses, build smart cars in ‘green’ factories, and build green homes and buildings with solar panels---but these projects still consume materials, and deplete resources that are often imported. The greenest structures use nails, cement , bricks, pipes and plastics, and the energy used for their production and transportation is formidable. In fact, the energy needed to produce the high quality silicon for photovoltaic solar panels is three times greater than the electricity it will produce. And the workers employed in all of this ‘green’ production will be paid wages, wages that purchase not-so-green products and services. “Green growth” is still growth. The Bridge on the River Kwai will still help the enemy conduct the war--- the war on the environment, the one they are winning.

The collusion between Harper and Hazell in their mad rush to disaster is not without critics, however. In the original movie, American Colonel Shears, played by William Holden, and British medical officer Clipton, were dissenting voices. Shears acknowledged that the chances of escape very exceedingly slim, but added that death would be certain if escape was not attempted. A slave happy in his work would still meet an unhappy fate. And when Colonel Nicholson unveiled his “green stimulus package’ and sold it to the Japanese, Major Clipton asked him, as Hazell and the Sierra Club should be asked, “The fact is, what we are doing could be construed as---forgive me sir---collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps as treasonable activity. Must we work so well? Must we build them a better bridge than they could have built for themselves?”

The Russians in 1941 answered with a definitive “nyet”. In abandoning their farms before advancing Nazi troops they did not feel it their moral obligation to be “good stewards” so that they could leave a lasting legacy to those who succeeded them. On the contrary, they burned their crops, slaughtered their livestock and destroyed their equipment. They destroyed their environment rather than accommodate to a force that would wreak even greater havoc if it was allowed to inherit their resources intact. By the same token, I feel compelled to blow up the bridge to growth as the British sabotage team eventually blew up the bridge over the river Kwai. Nature doesn’t care if I feel good about myself. Only that growth be stopped. The feel-good boy scout efforts of environmentalists to “go green”, to reduce, conserve, recycle, drive hybrid cars, build green, use land more efficiently or abstain from meat only postpones the day of reckoning for a growth economy that each day extinguishes 200 species.

Our goal should be smashing bridges, not building them. Until the war against growth is won, we must withhold our cooperation in its management. We are not here to make growth work or make it “smart”, but to hasten its death. Hand me the verbal dynamite.

Colonel Saito said it best:

“This is war. This is not a game of cricket.” And Nicholson, (Hazell) he confided, is “mad, quite mad.”

Tim Murray
August 16/09

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