Sunday 20 October 2019

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

'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.' Photo: Getty Images
'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.' Photo: Getty Images

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?

Sunday Independent

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