Society

How Can Saving Notre Dame Come Before Saving The Planet?

As vast sums are donated to rebuild Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, the same billionaires don't step up to protect dying species or reverse global warming.

An environmental protester in Munich
Claudio Campagna

-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES — Would people pay more attention to the species that are disappearing if they burned to death in the heart of Paris instead of becoming extinct without anyone knowing or caring?

It would be madness not to care about the loss of a symbol, especially a beautiful one, regardless of its religious status. For even an idolater or animist would admit that the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is an extravagance worthy of existence and contemplation.

As a monument conceived to defy the passing of time, its existence is worth more than its utility, and it would be culturally shortsighted to merely judge its going up in flames on the basis of religious sympathy (or antipathy). Here, beauty trumps ideology.

But the drama of fire crushing beauty raises questions regarding people's sense of justice. Is Notre Dame more important than social justice or the natural world? People have felt unease on seeing the rich clout of magnates opening their palatial wallets to right a wrong. This show of universal empathy crashed against the facade of globalized frustrations, and the publicized zeal of a few billionaires is prompting indignation, not admiration. Indeed the sources of such wealth arouse ethical doubts in a world that is all but in flames. Is our society seething and sick of unequal destinies?

One may reasonably regret the loss of cultural icons, but where does a world filled with nonsense leave notions of what is reasonable? Reason heaves under the social inequality that is deviating humanity from a viable future.

The social response to the fire deserves reflection when compared to other calamities. I shall direct my words toward one in particular: the lack of response to the extinction of species.

Don't let anybody fool you: The state of the natural world and the extinction threatening so many species is not due to insufficient resources. Resources abound and are enough not just to safeguard all life forms from the ill-treatment we inflict on them, but also to bring billions of humans within reach of good living standards. There is money for this and to pay for all national parks and protected areas, and safeguard all the expressions of art and science while assuring the good health of individuals and society.

What is truly a loss, and unacceptable, is the extinction of a natural species because of human action.

There are more than enough resources in the world, so much that if better redistributed, we might not even know what to do with so many blessings. We would have enough to seek out life on other planets, to convey to them our infinite respect. We can be sure of this: There is no shortage. There is concentration, accumulation and inequality.

Much work lies ahead —Photo: Jacques Paquier

The collapse of Notre Dame cathedral is bad and dramatic. But what is truly a loss, and unacceptable, is the extinction of a natural species because of human action. There are many creatures in this condition at the moment.

People do not understand what is at stake. Many of the rich do not understand it who could finance those who are working to stop this unacceptable truth. Governments do not understand it either. Quite simply there is a lack of understanding, though the matter is far from incomprehensible.

Those who say that every species lost is like a cathedral collapsing are almost right. They would be absolutely right if they said that a disappearing creature is quite different to all the cathedrals, mosques or monuments we might have built throughout history, and more essential, profound, important and irreplaceable. Take note: We took the blue whale to the verge of extinction.

Today, we have the technological ability to rebuild cathedrals in no time. The rich have the money for it. But we cannot replace a single lost species, not even with enough gold to unhinge the planet in its orbit. Those who talk about bringing species back to life do not know how to use language.

Notre Dame will, we hope, be rebuilt, even as many species continue their precipitous downfall. This apparent pattern of history is spreading frustration and ire, to the point of sickening a part of humanity. Many of us are sick of constantly losing out to those who never reason.

Conservation of nature is a prolonged exercise in repeated failures. It produces resentment, which came to the surface before this shameless ostentation of wealth. We push countless forms of life toward extinction. How shall we react when the day of our downfall arrives? I predict a departure bereft of glory or regret. We shall succumb for being insensitive and irrational. We are not frightened by our vulnerable condition. We live in delusion and are not human.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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