There is a view of international development aid that holds it is (at least partly) payments of guilt money by countries who grew rich subjugating and then exploiting their less technologically advanced brethren who now bear the moniker ‘developing countries’. I do not particularly ascribe to that point of view for a number of reasons:
- The principle behind the legal statute of limitations. Much of Europe was at one time part of the Roman empire, should Britain and others be seeking reparations from Italy? (Just think of the compound interest that might be due on that!) The latter day empires were only the last in a series which all followed the same overtly nationalistic / racist approach to other societies.
- The European colonial empires were creatures of their time. The British empire appears to have been no worse than its competitors, and may, from time to time, even have operated more benignly towards it foreign subjects than other empires.
- It does not appear necessary to once have had an empire in order to now be rich, see for example Sweden. Ergo it does not follow that Britain’s current wealth is necessarily a direct product of empire, which in fact mostly spent itself defeating Nazism. (Indeed, come 1945 Britain was substantially indebted to one particular ex-colony who, 200 years earlier, had refused to pay for another war Britain had fought on their behalf.)
- My family’s ancestry is decidedly humble; we ourselves certainly did not get rich subjugating foreign lands. Even the amazing education I received was substantially funded by endowments originating somewhat further back in history than the British empire.
So whilst I am sure it would be nonsensical to suggest that the current division of wealth around the world was not at least partly shaped by the experiences of empire, I surmise that much of that wealth was subsequently derived from how individual people and societies took advantage of simple and peaceful business opportunities that were presented to them rather than as a direct result of plunder.
All of which is a rather long preamble to arrive at the observation that this case of affairs may not apply for much longer. Already, in international climate change negotiations, it has been suggested (and accepted in principle by many) that developed nations should pay developing nations for the costs of adapting to global change almost wholly caused by rich countries (and now being exacerbated by the newly rich). This strikes me as only just the beginning.
The film The Age of Stupid was so titled because we are the first civilization in history to be able to see environmental catastrophe coming, and yet are still doing virtually nothing about it. I am somewhat more optimistic that we will come to our senses before, as the film implies, we wipe ourselves out with our own stupidity. But many climate scientists now gloomily predict that significant global climate change is inevitable; coral reefs and polar bears will be consigned to history, and many of the poorest countries in the world, e.g. low-lying island states, are expected to suffer the most.
Who then will be to blame? It is not too great a stretch of the imagination to envision astronomical claims for compensation being laid at the door of polluting businesses. Whether American or other courts would force them to pay up is quite another issue. But the real climate-gate, when it hits, won’t be just about a few emails hacked from a university computer system, and the claimants will have real moral force on their side.