Corrugated City

Monday, 2 July 2007

Corrugated Environmentalism

Well for the past 3 days i've been stuck in bed. Something happened to my back on Friday-a flare up of a long term problem and i've been doped up on muscle relaxants and pain killers ever since. I think i've slept more in the past 3 days than i have in the past 6 months which has done me the world of good. Always a silver lining.

Anyway, i've had time to think and i've decided to veer away from the usual content of this blog (namely pretty pictures of kittens and colourful houses) and venture into the uncharted waters of issues.

I honestly believe that Chile does a lot of things right. It has an open and investment friendly economy, levels of corruption are no worse than in many 'developed' countries and the police are honest and unbribable, unlike in every other South American nation. The economy is growing steadily and the middle class is expanding. We have friends who are not from wealthy or even middle class families who have good jobs and have been able to buy cars and homes. This is way ahead of Chile's neighbours. One major problem is that the wealth-gap is not shrinking. As in, although the country as a whole is growing more wealthy the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest isn't getting any smaller. And Chile has one of the largest gaps in the world. The only silver lining is that as the whole country has come up, Chile's poorest are no longer as poor as Argentina's, Peru's or Bolivia's poorest. They're still obscenely poor by European poverty levels but not so much by South American poverty levels. That's some sort of progress at least.

But i'm not here to talk about the wealth divide. I'm here to talk about the environment. Because this is a topic that Chile just wants to ignore.

I've heard the following comment a number of times from people who really should know better:
Chile's emissions are so minor that they don't have any impact on Global Warming so it doesn't make much sense for companies to improve emissions standards.

Ok, so it's probably true in some respects. Chile could probably produce 10 times more emissions and within a week China would be producing even more but that is simply not the point. As Chileno
repeatedly points out, smog in Santiago makes life a misery for the people who live there. And about 30% of Chile's population lives in Santiago.

I've found that most people from Santiago have a 'bury your head in the sand' attitude when it comes to smog. They know it's a major problem but they just refuse to really accept it. I guess they feel powerless and want to ignore it so they can feel as if they have some sort of control over the problem. I don't know. It's a weird attitude. I know that if a major European capital had the same smog problem they'd at least make an effort to improve things.

Santiago suffers from a number of problems. The first is the thermal inversion layer, the second is the huge quantity of old, polluting buses doing the rounds, the third is that due to Chile's recent economic success the amount of new cars on the road has boomed, the fourth is that there's a lot of heavy industry within the cuenca or 'bowl' of Santiago, the fifth is the attitude of the the people who live in Santiago and who can't be bothered to complain and finally, the sixth is the attitude of the government.

And at the end of the day, it's the fifth and sixth reasons that are the most important. If Santiaguiños knew how to demonstrate like their Argentine cousins over in Buenos Aires then the government might sit up and take note. Unfortunately, 17 years of Pinochet turned Chileans into a meek and malleable people. Maybe that'll now change-the first generation since the end of the dictatorship who don't fear torture, murder and reprisals are coming of age and are starting to make their voices heard. This is real progress.

But because the people don't complain the government is under no social pressure to improve things. So it doesn't do anything to improve things. The Transanfiasco was supposed to reduce smog levels. I don't believe it has.

It was only last year that the government created an Environment Ministry. Unfortunately, the Environment Minister is a bit of a lame duck. The big business that pollutes the most is very well connected. The Environment Minister isn't well connected. She has the best of intentions but she doesn't have the power or the connections to make things change. We know her family very well and i know she really wants to make a difference. I also know she's not from a background that will help her play hardball with the big boss men who essentially run Chile's economy. Seriously heavy fines should be introduced for businesses that don't meet strict standards and these standards should be real standards, not make believe like the smog levels in Santiago (the government classes pollution levels as 'good' when they're around 3 times higher than 'emergency' levels in Europe and the US).

What Santiago needs is a purpose built high-tech industrial park outside of the cuenca. This should be government built. Major incentives should be provided for polluting businesses to move the hell away from Santiago. The government is currently rolling around naked on a bed in Vegas with huge amounts of cash due to high copper prices. It should spend some of this money on improving the quality of life for 30% of its people. It'll never happen, of course, but it'd be nice to believe it might.

But there's another problem. Chile's economy is almost entirely based on environmentally damaging industries: forestry (chop down native forests and plant pine and eucaliptus), mining (dig big hole in the ground and plans are afoot to 'move' a glacier in the south in order to reach 'possible' gold), agriculture (redirect mountain streams and rivers, use inordinate amounts of water for irrigation) and finally, salmon farming (release farm bred salmon into fragile southern eco-systems along with tons of chemicals and antibiotics).

These industries cover the entire length of the country from the mines in the north to the salmon farming and forestry in the south with agriculture in between. There's not an area of the country left untouched from environmental havoc.

Now i honestly believe that it's unfair for developed nations to force developing nations to uphold the same environmental standards as them. I mean, developed nations got to where they are by employing the same methods (manufacturing, manpower, bullying) in the past to get to where they are now. It's very hypocritical for, say Britain, to force Chile to use high-tech equipment that only recently Britain could afford.

However, i also believe that Chile has the money to change at least some of big business' practices. I'm no expert but i'm willing to bet that a lot of these changes could be made with a short term profit reduction but with long term gains through greater productivity. But short term losses hurt, unfortunately, and most people just don't want to even consider them.

Also, Chile is perfectly placed to take advantage of the boom in eco-tourism. This country has some of the most spectacularly beautiful and diverse scenery in the world. This must be protected, not only for foreign tourists but also for future generations of Chileans. Tourism really is big business. But Chile doesn't seem to care about that either as it charges an absurd 'recipricocity tax' on americans, canadians, aussies and mexicans just to enter the country. This puts a lot of people off coming to Chile.

So what's the real solution to Chile's environmental problems?'s hard.

This has turned into more of a rant rather than a well-reasoned and well-researched article. Oh well...Corrugated City will be back to nice photos of the seaside and old buildings as soon as i'm able to walk properly again.

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