Lazy Luddite Log

29.1.20

The Environmental Front

I have rarely written on environmental topics. In this post I admit to a lack interest despite recognizing its vital importance. My explanation was that ecology and climatology are too technical for me. But another motive is that the issue seems intrinsically non-controversial to me. There are many issues I can see are legitimately contentious and I find those the most worthy of contemplation and debate. In contrast environmental degradation due to over-development should be universally acknowledged. The only debate we need is over how exactly we respond to a challenge of our own making.

In my youth this was to some extent the case. The biggest political impediment to recognizing human impact on the planet late last century was simply apathy. As a result we had some big wins such as the global banning of chlorofluorocarbons. Now in these more partisan and emotive times we face an active and thoroughly ideological refusal to accept the scientific evidence that we are warming the planet beyond its capacity to support us in the life to which we are accustomed.

Luckily a growing number are pushing back to that push-back. More and more are acting conscientiously as citizens and consumers. Both are vital. However there is some confusion over that. I have noticed a tendency to say that our small acts to change consumption patterns are useless and only political change matters. This is foolish. The tendency of those who argue this is to characterize political activism as collective (and therefore effective) and consumer action as the fumbling of isolated individuals (and therefore futile). I object to this because both political and economic activity can be individual or collective in nature. There is a spectrum of actions and all of them can be useful to varying degrees. And anyway the distinction between politics and economics is something of an abstraction.

The irony in all this is that those who say 'only politics matters' also regard the biggest environmental culprits as private industry (who pay off crony politicians). If that is so then the most direct way to impact producers is by reducing consumption. They depend on us to buy from them and in a lot of cases we can simply refuse. And that is happening. The fossil fuels industry worldwide is losing its share to alternatives. Some of that is due to the positive actions of governments but it is also because of consumers changing how they consume. Ultimately a mix of actions is what is needed - the more the better. It would be a shame if too many of us fell for the 'only politics matters' line and then decided we can keep on consuming as long as we share a few narky political memes among our like-minded friends.

In the rest of this post I will share a few suggestions for actions we can take and try to sequence them in a continuum from economic to political. It will vary between both deliberate actions and inaction (since for the environment we need to do less in our lives). These work for me:

* Sometimes personal life circumstances result in less environmental impact by happenstance. I have never had kids nor operated a car. I have lived with others and therefore shared energy bills and white goods. Having only a bedroom in which to keep things has limited how much stuff I can own. Low income and a wariness of credit has resulted in me using everything from clothes to devices till they are falling apart. And moving in particular sub-cultures has given me a preference for directing my discretionary spending into experiences rather than objects. I had to do much of this but it has become my personal preference. It can be for others too.

* Some experiences incorporate things however and can be very damaging to the environment. Consider international flights. The energy levels needed to keep a huge hunk of metal flying are obscene and seem to give credence to the old technophobic saying that 'if God had intended us to fly he would have given us wings'. The only way to combat this under present technological conditions is to fly less. I have rarely gone overseas and wish to a few more times while I'm still hale. The next best thing then is for me to pay for carbon offsets. If I can afford the thousands it takes to go overseas then I can also afford the hundreds to compensate for the carbon emissions of all that fuel.

* If I intend to boycott a product then I make sure to tell its producers. Otherwise how can they know? I suggest sending a short message to them to say why one has ceased buying whatever it is they produce. This turns an economic act into a political one. This can also extend to acts like asking your favourite cafes to stop stocking newspapers from the climate-change denying News Corp. The way papers like The Australian have been minimizing the links between climate change and our devastating longer bushfire season is appalling.

* Yes governments and parliaments have a key part to play too. There are lots of ways to influence them. Lobbying can take many forms and be done between elections - consider emails, phone calls, meetings. And during elections it makes sense to play some role beyond just voting. Volunteering for avowedly environmental parties is incredibly useful. However I also suspect that helping parties that are becoming more environmental is also worthwhile. Australian policy lags behind that of most other developed nations and it is hardly a coincidence environmentalism is regarded as the preserve of just a few minor parties here. Turning it into a consensus transcending ideological divides will move us away from an American and towards more of a European vibe in environmental policy.

* Finally there is non-violent direct action. Marches and gatherings can attract attention from media and public. The larger and more diverse the movement the better. One fantastic thing with the recent school student protests is that they also drew more adults into the mix. Lots of those adolescents took parents with them. It grounds the movement in the 'family' demographic that is so important to governments. Another cool thing is that the sooner in life one becomes political the sooner one can mature politically. A problem over the last decade has been that members of all age-groups have been politicized online in a rather callow way. Many have stalled at the politics of simplistic and divisive messaging. Such communication is inherently populist yet even the most vocal critics of populism have helped to normalize it and thus give populists a boost. One solution to this is face-to-face political activity which makes harbouring caricatures of others more difficult to do.

My focus on the need for large and truly diverse movement that can persuade as well as pressure may annoy some. They may think it wishy-washy. But there is nothing wishy-washy in recognizing that politics is a numbers game. On the environmental front this is more so than for pretty much any other issue. I will end this post with an invitation to an action at Monash University (Clayton Campus) on Sunday 16 February in which a 'human sign' will be formed by those gathered to call on our reasonably proactive Victorian state government to offer greater climate leadership. This stunt deserves more than just the usual suspects.

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