It’s the end of the world as we know it... but we feel fine

Even as the alarm bells on cli­mate change grow louder and louder, all the ma­jor­ity of us are pre­pared to do is to buy a keep cup, writes Bren­dan O’Connor

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Comment -

IT’S the end of the world as we know it, and we feel rea­son­ably fine about it. There’s been a lot go­ing on so you may have missed this. It was last Mon­day’s big news. It’s been a long week since then. So be­tween freaky weather and other go­ings on, we man­aged to to­tally move on from the UN In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change is­su­ing the most grim warn­ing ever about our need to change our ways if we want to save the planet.

We were, we would all ad­mit, a bit taken aback by the stark­ness of the re­port and the ex­treme mea­sures rec­om­mended. But then the news cy­cle moved on, and so did our at­ten­tion. It was just an­other bit of news, an­other piece of click­bait, to give us some kind of neg­a­tive or pos­i­tive hit, and then the next wave came along.

This whole ‘green’ busi­ness has been go­ing on for a while, and they keep try­ing to get peo­ple’s at­ten­tion with it. But even as the warn­ings get louder, it never re­ally catches on. Even as we are told the prob­lem gets more and more im­me­di­ate, we still re­gard it as one of those things to be dealt with later.

I’ll be the first to ad­mit I don’t know enough about cli­mate change. I get as bored as most of you by the sci­encey stuff. I do re­mem­ber that nearly 30 years ago in col­lege, I learnt about the brave new world of how it was all go­ing to go. We stud­ied the work of Michael Porter, who was king of cor­po­rate strat­egy in those days. Porter’s big thing was com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage, which was not as well known a con­cept then as now. Some of the talk back then was about the big new source of com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage — ‘clean and green’. In­creas­ingly en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious cus­tomers were now de­mand­ing eco-friendly prod­ucts. The com­pa­nies that could get ahead of the posse and sell their clean-ness and green-ness would be the ones to thrive

That was 30 years ago, and while there is the odd pre­mium brand around that sells it­self on be­ing eco-con­scious, and while most ma­jor brands make a nod to it, and while we all like a bit of or­ganic veg or trace­able meat, you’d have to say that in that in­ter­ven­ing 30 years, mar­ket forces and cus­tomer de­mand did not clean up the world.

You know why? Be­cause the cus­tomer never re­ally de­manded it. Most of us con­tin­ued to buy mass-pro­duced goods, with in­creas­ing amounts of pack­ag­ing on them. We con­tin­ued to de­mand that life be more con­ve­nient and bet­ter pack­aged for us, that fash­ion be faster and cheaper. And while we nod­ded our heads sagely when peo­ple talked about the en­vi­ron­ment, we never re­ally made any con­nec­tion be­tween our own con­ve­nient life­styles and what the hip­pies were say­ing about Gaia. We made con­ces­sions to it here and there. Hol­ly­wood peo­ple and taxi driv­ers’ Priuses. We got three bins in our houses in­stead of one, even though to this day we’re still not sure what pack­ag­ing we can and can­not re­cy­cle. But we’re not too fussy about what goes in the green bin any­way, be­cause we’ve vaguely heard that maybe lots of it doesn’t get re­cy­cled.

The funny thing about it is that main­stream so­ci­ety has adopted so many other el­e­ments of the phi­los­o­phy of tree-hug­ging hip­pies. Yoga, ther­apy, self-care, mind­ful­ness, seed-munch­ing veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, funny teas. You would imag­ine that for the Quinoa Classes a se­ri­ous com­mit­ment to en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism would be part of the pack­age. But some­how, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism doesn’t give the same lev­els of nar­cis­sis­tic sat­is­fac­tion as the rest of the hip­pie pack­age.

In fair­ness, it’s not as if we’re against the green agenda. Our kids do projects about it at school, col­lect­ing rub­bish to make stuff, and some of us have even spent a for­tune on keep cups for the in­ces­sant doses of cof­fee or chai lat­tes we use to fuel our­selves. But some­how, we just can’t en­gage prop­erly. We have a Green Party, who ar­guably have a more se­ri­ous and im­por­tant agenda than any of the other par­ties, but they can barely get ar­rested, never mind elected.

There was a poignant mo­ment dur­ing the week when Green leader Eamon Ryan ap­peared on our screens af­ter the Bud­get — a Bud­get which did pretty much noth­ing to ad­dress en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. “This is the is­sue of our time,” he said plain­tively. And the funny thing is no one would dis­agree with him. Most of us are not cli­mate-change de­niers.

We might not have the ex­per­tise to look into it our­selves, but we largely ac­cept that most rep­utable sci­en­tists seem to now ac­cept we are de­stroy­ing the earth. But still many view Ryan as a crank, given 30 sec­onds of air­time to cover off the whole ‘Green thing’.

And we watch and we think, “He def­i­nitely has a point” and we won­der briefly if all the strange weather is con­nected to this thing. And then we get back to the real mat­ters at hand, like juicy po­lit­i­cal scan­dals and the fiver we got in the Bud­get, and a whole load of other things that won’t mat­ter a hill of beans to us by next week.

And per­haps that’s the prob­lem. The Green is­sue, while get­ting more im­me­di­ate all the time, is still a bit vague and in-the-fu­ture. Even when we get the kind of dire warn­ings we got last week from the IPCC, we still man­age to men­tally long-finger it.

“It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the mo­ment and we must act now,” De­bra Roberts, a co-chair of the work­ing group on im­pacts, said at the launch of the IPCC re­port last week. “This is the largest clar­ion bell from the sci­ence com­mu­nity, and I hope it mo­bilises peo­ple and dents the mood of com­pla­cency.”

And we hear her. And we hear the warn­ings about the dif­fer­ence of a half of one de­gree in global warm­ing. Hun­dreds of mil­lions saved from poverty, some co­ral sur­viv­ing in­stead of none, fewer droughts and floods, fewer peo­ple dead due to ex­treme heat, less thaw­ing of the Arc­tic that might mean sea lev­els don’t start ris­ing in feet rather than inches. We hear it all, but some­how we don’t.

Many of the peo­ple at the launch of the re­port were in tears.

And then there’s the is­sue of what the IPCC says we have to do. It in­volves un­prece­dented change in how we live our lives in the next decade. It in­volves get­ting rid of our cars, our gas boil­ers, mass scale plant­ing of forests, cut­ting back hugely on meat and cut­ting back emis­sions at a fairly rad­i­cal rate. It re­quires change that is un­prece­dented in the course of hu­man his­tory.

So sure, we’ll buy a keep cup. But we took one look at what the IPCC was de­mand­ing, and thought, “Yeah. That’s not go­ing to hap­pen.” The Govern­ment, recog­nis­ing that no one was go­ing to cause up­roar about in­ac­tion, did noth­ing about it in the Bud­get. And life went on.

Erik Sol­heim, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the UN En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme, de­scribed last week’s re­port as be­ing, “like a deaf­en­ing, pierc­ing smoke alarm go­ing off in the kitchen”.

But some­how we have our fin­gers in our ears singing ‘la la la’.

You have to won­der, if it’s not too late al­ready, is it time we started hear­ing the deaf­en­ing, pierc­ing alarm?

‘It’s not as if we’re against the green agenda. But some­how we just can’t en­gage prop­erly with it’

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