At the climate change protest in London last Saturday, billed as the Big (or Blue) Wave, one feature was striking. The protestors had done their best to look blue as instructed–blue face-paint, blue wigs, blue bobble-hats–but underneath the blueness nearly everyone was white. In a crowd of 50,000 (the organisers’ estimate) I saw no more than a couple of dozen black people, and of that number hardly anyone at all who looked to have south Asian ancestry. We were white and we were middle class, and we might have been marching from Aldermaston to Trafalgar Square through the different, paler England of 1961.
As London is now probably the world’s most ethnically diverse city and this is a global crisis like no other, why had so much of the globe stayed away? Two people in a good position to know are Ashok Sinha, the director of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition that organised last weekend’s protest, and Andrew Murray, who chairs the Stop the War movement that had unprecedented success in terms of the social, racial and religious diversity provided noticeably by its Muslim support. Their answers were similar. In Sinha’s words, this was a “complicated question” entangled in the wider problems of social class and communal division and the particular nature of the environmental lobby. You couldn’t just go into a community and hope to proselytize, he said; the persuaders–imams, for example–had to come from within. Murray said that his movement’s backing by the Muslim Association of Great Britain had helped it embrace poorer people as well as different races, while the campaign against global warming remained undeniably middle class: “What agitates north London can bypass east London entirely.”
All no doubt true, though Britain has at least two Muslim groups, Islamic Relief and the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and the Environmental Sciences, both based in Birmingham, which seek to protect the environment by “eco-jihad”. How popular they are is difficult to know, but to judge by Saturday’s march they have yet to make an impact on London. Two sets of figures are worth considering. London has about 200,000 citizens of Bangladeshi Muslim origin; Bengali is the most common language in the city after English. In Bangladesh itself, at least 20 million people are predicted to be displaced by rising sea levels within the next 40 years; nowhere else in the world do so many people face such an immediate future as climate refugees: “climigrants”. Does the fate of the second affect the behaviour of the first? It would be dangerous to generalise. All one can say is not visibly, not at least in public protests against carbon emissions, and yet these two populations are bound by language, religion and national history. Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Qur’anic blasphemy: all these causes are much more likely to get a crowd out in Brick Lane as well as in Barisal, a town on the Bengal delta marked down for a submarine future.
You might call this a paradox of pan-Islamism–its promise of social unity can never be completely fulfilled–but then the state of Bangladesh has been wrestling with the same paradox since its original foundation as East Pakistan. In the end, a different language, culture and economy overpowered its one bond with West Pakistan, which was a shared religion. And within Bangladesh, too, there are big differences. Nine out of 10 British Bangladeshis have their roots in Sylhet, a relatively prosperous district in the far north-east with its distinct variant of Bengali and those national rarities, hills. The expected inundation will occur much further south, in the low flat country built into the Bay of Bengal by the sediment brought down by the rush of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers.
Very few Bangladeshis in Britain come from that part; there is such a thing as being too poor to migrate. Life there has always been difficult, because the combination of air, water and land is so dynamic. Cyclones blow in from the sea; one in 1970 killed half a million. In the past, great rivers have broken through to new channels in the course of a night, destroying villages, throwing up fresh sandbanks and new islands, so that the very landscape seemed temporary; and not in ancient times–one of the Ganges’ great changes of direction occurred in the 18th century–and by no means yet over.
A memorable account of this fragile civilisation was published in 1876 by an imperial civil servant, Henry Beveridge, who worked as the chief official of the Bakarganj district, now Barisal. The district, he wrote, had always been neglected and despised. It had produced no history, hardly any “resident aristocracy” and no art of any kind. The climate was damp and steamy. Fever and dysentery prevailed. The soles of boatmen’s bare feet were holed with ringworm, like a sponge. Perhaps the most desolate sight, however, were the foundations of houses that had been abandoned near riverbanks, when the river had looked likely to change its course. Beveridge wrote, “When the peasants are thus driven away by the rivers, they sometimes merely move further inland; but when they cannot get fresh land there, they are obliged to move to . . . distant parts of the country. They are sometimes expressively called nadi-bhanga lok, ie, river-broken people.”
I first read Beveridge in the national archive in Dhaka 20 years ago, and remembered him again this week when I watched an interview with Bangladesh’s finance minister at Guardian online. Abul Maal Abdul Muhith gave the figure of 20 million people displaced by flood, erosion and salinity, though as he said the figure could be much higher owing to the country’s population growth (rising from about 160 million to 256 million by 2050, according to UN projections). He wanted international law to define them as a new category of refugee, the climate refugee, so that their migration to the UK and elsewhere could be managed. “We can help, in the sense of giving them some training, making them fit for existence in another country,” Muhith said, and in that “them” I caught the same sense of distant, helpless compassion–for a situation beyond government control–as Beveridge applied to his river-broken people.
Other than in global institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that are not directly answerable to national electorates, the response to Muhith’s radical suggestion has been silence. Which state, which of us, wants to take aboard millions of sea-broken people? India has already half-completed a fence of concrete and barbed wire, 2.5 metres (10ft) high and manned by border patrols, which will eventually surround Bangladesh. Whatever happens at Copenhagen, the landmass of Bangladesh seems bound to shrink. It may be that intuiting this truth is what makes Brick Lane stay at home while the white folks wave at the Houses of Parliament, and whistle in the dark.