Is the generosity of Australian’s just another example of “Conspicuous Compassion”, a way to make ourselves feel good without actually having to do good.

Isn’t it sweet. We’re all showing how much we care by watching much the same footage of wreckage for hour after hour after hour on the TV. (Thank God there’s something on in the first week of January instead of the token sitcoms the US networks make for Afro-American audiences and demand that the local commercial stations also take if they want the rights to Friends.)

We’ll have another opportunity to show how much we care this weekend when Seven, Nine and Ten all broadcast the aid concert. The artists will look good, the networks will look good, the advertisers will look good and we’ll be able to feel good – all without leaving our armchairs.

That notorious bleeding heart Gerard Henderson took advantage of the tsunami to have a go at the “conspicuous compassion” thesis in his column this week.

Conspicuous Compassion, a term coined by British writer Patrick West, argues that “our culture of ostentatious caring is about feeling good, not doing good, and illustrates not how altruistic we have become, but how selfish”.

Henderson wrote “A consequence of one of the worst natural disasters in human history has been to initiate one of the most conspicuous bouts of compassion that the Western-style democracies have ever seen. National governments give the impression of attempting to outbid one another in funds committed to disaster relief. Independent of this, citizens seem to be donating generously to international charitable organisations. There have also been calls for manifestations of public empathy.”

D’oh, Gerard. West was talking about leaving polyester teddies outside the gates of Kensington Palace after the death of the Princess of Wales. But just how much good are some of our responses doing – and what exactly is the motivation?

The Australian today carries this feature from The Times on the “theological” debate sparked by the tsunamis and fuelled so well by the low church, low brow Anglican Dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen.

We don’t need to quote anything more than its title, “For God’s sake, stop this drivel”. It may have gone tabloid, but the old Thunderer can still live up to its name.

Locally, The Age has run this opinion piece today by staff writer John Schauble, with an uncharacteristically brave opening:

“First came water, then compassion. But the new wave threatening to swamp the tsunami-affected nations of Asia is aid. Australia late on Thursday gazumped other donors by pledging $1 billion, comprising $500 million in cash and the balance in program-based aid stretching over several years. An hour earlier, Germany had trumped Japan’s $643 million commitment by upping its contribution to $867 million. Globally, the total promised is already around $5 billion.

“There is no question global politics is at play here, at least in some quarters…”

The same paper, however, featured a curious graphic earlier in the week on disaster aid which, for some strange reason, showed the Rainbow Warrior much larger than the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. I’d hazard a guess that no matter what you think of Dubya, the US Navy is making a more practical contribution to disaster relief that a bunch of professional protesters.

The Online Opinion website has dared to explore this territory with this item entitled Sharks in the Tsunami.

“I’ve avoided writing about the Indian Ocean Tsunami so far,” editor Graham Young writes. “Mostly out of respect. Respect for those who died. Respect for their relatives who grieve. Respect for the existential pitilessness of nature. Time for analysis and comment comes, but not immediately.

“Others have not been so respectful, and as the water recedes it becomes time to prod and poke again as the shysters and exploiters start to ply their trades.

“First (and mildest) mention goes to the Federal Government. This press release boasts about the ‘$1 billion’ we are contributing to reconstruction in Indonesia. In fact, the contribution is much less than this. There is $500 million of aid (a large proportion of which may well be spent with Australian firms), and there is $500 million of soft loans. The correct way of calculating the total is not to add the two figures together, but to take the first $500 million and add to it the interest foregone on the second $500 million.

“Presumably the $1 billion figure was picked as a public relations ploy in line with the ‘law of large round numbers’, but why not stick with the truth? Our contribution without the fiddling is still outstanding.

“Second mention goes to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. It is inevitable that advocates will be hooking their own bandwagons onto the Tsunami – it’s all that people want to talk about at the moment. Peter McMahon and Peter Sellick have both used it to write about greenhouse and religion respectively. The executive director of Greenpeace UK told The Independent ‘No one can ignore the relentless increase in extreme weather events and so-called natural disasters, which in reality are no more natural than a plastic Christmas tree,’ while Friends of the Earth Director Tony Juniper was quoted as saying ‘Here again are yet more events in the real world that are consistent with climate change predictions.’ ”

The Howard Government is doing what all government do – putting the best possible spin on figures.

But Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth? What they’re up to isn’t even conspicuous compassion. It’s called product placement.

A response from Friends of the Earth

Honestly, this is getting quite boring. Christian Kerr seems to be making a habit of mis quoting us.

Last weeks effort was a remarkable display of politics over-riding the facts (A tidal wave of conspicuous compassion,
Jan 7). He again jumps on the greenie bashing band wagon with claims that groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are
using the tsunami for ‘product placement’.

Two things must be said about this; firstly, as a global network, we are active in Indonesia, and have lost staff and friends to the tidal wave
in Aceh. After the tsunami, Friends of the Earth Indonesia (WALHI) launched an immediate grassroots response to the crisis in Aceh,
providing food, sanitation and medicine to affected communities. FoE groups around the world are raising funds as fast as we can to channel into this necessary and difficult work. Details on these ongoing efforts can be found at: http://www.eng.walhi.or.id/

Then there is the matter of FoE and Greenpeace ‘blaming’ the tsunami on global warming and generally using it to push their own wagon. Any one who bothered to look into this story found out immediately that quotes were used from these groups that were written before the tsunami and hence taken out of context (there are even postings to this effect on the on-line opinion article that Christian refers to). At no point has FoE suggested there was any form of direct link between the earthquake/tsunami and global warming. To maintain otherwise is to let your anti-environmental ideology get in the way of the truth; how does that constitute professional journalism?

I would trust that this letter will be published. Given that Christian did not even respond to earlier attempts to have him straighten the
record on another piece where a made up quote was attributed to me, I look forward to some more professional behaviour this time. Its fine to have differing opinions; but when you mis-quote people in an attempt to prove your point, all is does is show you to be ideological at the expense of responsible and professional journalism.

Cam Walker
Friends of the Earth Australia