In Evelyn Waugh’s classic satire Black Mischief, the fictional African country of Azania welcomes an English delegation from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, at a gala dinner. In the after-dinner speech, given by the Azanian Minister for the Interior, it becomes clear that there is a slight misunderstanding about the Society’s objectives:
‘It is my privilege and delight this evening to welcome with open arms of brotherly love to our city Dame Mildred Porch and Miss Tin, two ladies renowned throughout the famous country of Europe for their great cruelty to animals. We Azanians are a proud and ancient nation, but we have much to learn from the white people of the West and North. We too, in our small way, are cruel to our animals…’At this point, Waugh explains that the Minister ‘digressed at some length to recount with hideous detail what he had himself once done with a woodman’s axe to a wild boar’.
I sometimes think that the mess that countries like Sri Lanka get themselves in is perhaps due to a similar ‘lost in translation’ phenomenon. Presumably, when our modern-day, do-gooding, busy-bodying westerners turn up in countries like Sri Lanka, with promises of infinitely cheap renewable energy, there is the mistaken belief that these envoys, from the rich industrial nations of the west, must know what they are talking about. Like when George Soros and Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz were the guests of honour at the 2016 Sri Lanka Economic Forum at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo. As Professor Stiglitz told the assembled government officials and business leaders, ‘your major source of energy is the sun and not oil’. In a written article following his visit, Stiglitz explained that a carbon tax was the answer:
‘Sri Lanka has abundant sunshine and wind; a carbon tax would raise considerable revenue, increase aggregate demand, move the country toward a green economy, and improve the balance of payments… Sri Lanka may be able to move directly into more technologically advanced sectors, high-productivity organic farming, and higher-end tourism.’ Unfortunately, and tragically, Sri Lanka took his advice, stopped building a coal-fired power station, promised a 70 per cent renewable energy target, mandated organic farming and achieved an ‘ESG score’ of 98 out of 100. As a result, the production of Sri Lanka’s major cash crops fell by 20 per cent, they have a major balance of payments crisis (despite abundant sunshine they can’t afford to import oil) and their government has been ousted in a people’s revolt.
The one difference from Waugh’s time is that there is now a two-way trade in ignorant, wishful thinking between the developed and the developing worlds. At last year’s Glasgow climate change conference, Sri Lanka launched the #Nitrogen4NetZero initiative. As the then president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, explained to his gullible mother country audience, ‘nitrogen generated by human activity and released into ecosystems worsens climate change’. Sri Lanka was the driver behind the Colombo Declaration, signed in 2019 with the goal of halving nitrogen waste by 2030.
European countries have backed the Sri Lankan push and guess why Dutch farmers are angry right now? They are protesting because a new law would force many of them off the land so that more houses and roads can be built while the Netherlands, as a whole, stays within strict nitrogen limits set by European laws. This started because a small environmental group, Mobilisation for the Environment, successfully sued the Dutch government in the European Court of Justice in 2017 for insufficient limits on nitrogen. Since then, the Dutch government has developed plans to reduce nitrogen use, which is a by-product of everything from transport to construction to agriculture. When asked whether the plans would require compulsory farm buyouts, the responsible minister said, ‘I really can’t rule it out’.
Nitrogen is the most important nutrient for plant growth because it helps plants form protein and that ultimately keeps humans fed. Nitrogen is the most abundant element in the atmosphere but until the German scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, developed their eponymously named process, there was no way of directly using atmospheric nitrogen to stimulate plant growth. Before nitrogen-based fertilisers, famines were a common disaster. After Haber-Bosch, famines are only caused by political dysfunction not agricultural failure. The process was originally developed at the world’s largest chemicals hub, the BASF facility at Ludwigshafen, Germany. This month BASF executives reported that they are considering shutting down the entire facility if Russia restricts gas supplies further.
Food security and energy security are two sides of the same coin. As we enter the worst energy crisis in our nation’s history, the Dutch and European experience shatters the myth that something like Sri Lanka cannot happen here. On the Australian Greens website, they say that they want ‘to support farmers to reduce emissions, including through reducing usage of fossil fuels and nitrogen fertilisers’. Even more foreboding is a tweet from our new Prime Minister, after just two months in the job, ‘Thanks to @JosephEStiglitz for the discussion about the global economy this morning’. The obligatory selfie of inane grins provides no confidence that organic farming, or the power of sunshine, were not discussed.
The Labor party has been elected on a platform of grand promises to transform our food and energy production processes. They want more than 80 per cent of our electricity to come from renewable energy and they want to pay farmers to shut down food production so we can ‘offset’ other carbon-emitting activities. As the world suffers from food shortages does it seem a little strange to pay farmers to grow less food?
At least in Waugh’s Azania the leaders were trying, however unsuccessfully, to make their nation more advanced and prosperous. Our leaders now seem to be in a race to join the third world as quickly as possible. It would make for a funny satire if we were not all characters in the story.