Last Sunday I went to see the Al Gore doco An Inconvenient Truth, having been primed by his appearance on Enough Rope. For someone who hates Powerpoint – we’ve all got to have a passion – I was completely engrossed, not least by the ideas at the end showing a relatively easy possibility of getting back to 1970s CO2 emissions. Of course, hard to be convinced without being a scientist myself, and the inner cynic quickly latched onto the claims of Pacific Island evacuation and the fact that Big Al had delivered his message flying business class to over 1,000 cities.
But the stack of evidence on the other end of the scale was pretty daunting. Problem is, I think the idea of people and organisations solving the problem naturally is slim, owing to three main reasons: the Market, the Media and the People themselves.
Lazing about Bronte Beach last weekend, I looked up in the sky to see a plane buzzing overhead – which was writing messages for hire. Think about this in the context of fossil fuels: peak oil will be reached sometime between now and 2010, leaving us maybe 50-75 years to get our act together if we’re lucky … and the smartest way to spend what we have left is apparently writing “I love you Shel” and “Hooters” in vapour trails. On a similar note, today I saw a bunch of cars and motorbikes pulling billboards around the city all day, advertising … a car-selling website. Let nothing stop the lemmings rushing past each other on the way to the cliffs …
Many economists would note that as oil gets more expensive, we will naturally come up with other ways to get about. Really? Any alternative will likely take a massive investment both in time and money. Government is unwilling to come to the party (not their job anymore, apparently), business wants to see a guaranteed profit first, and consumers can’t comment until they have something to try out. So with everyone unable to see past the next season fashion, time keeps ticking away, and Western companies are unlikely to notice the 3rd World sinking beneath waves / choking on pollution / parched by drought until the cheap clothing factories stop production. By which time the tipping point will be long gone.
Over the last decade or so in the media, black is the new black, white is everything else and shades of grey are, well, last century. Opposing camps glare at each other from the trenches, and no-one’s willing to move forward because … no-one can agree whether there is a problem in the first place.
It’s well known (certainly thanks to Al) that Exxon and the like are attempting to confuse the populace by positioning Climate Change as “theory rather than fact”, not to mention shoring up their position via political support in Washington elsewhere (in Australia they wouldn’t need to: just sit outside Kirribilli House singing about economic growth).
On the green side, there’s now a crime being pushed called Climate Change Denial invoking the Holocaust – as if raising the earth’s temperature by a few degrees is on a scale with the planned, systematic murder of six million people.
Most people with access to coherently presented arguments would probably think the truth lies somewhere in between, but this is not allowed. The global footprint calculators popping up on Climate Change websites give a scolding to you whatever your responses () and interesting explanations, such as the Russian scientists blaming sun spot activity for rising temperatures, are automatically branded as big oil stooges. And again, the clock keeps ticking.
Leading on from the above, the man or woman in the street is bombarded with noise from all sides … and probably finds it easier to go shopping. It all seems too hard. This is assuming, of course, that people are still paying attention at all, rather than trying to get on with their busy twenty-first century lives.
The main roadblock of the proposed solutions – eg. the global footprint calculators – is the instruction from those on high that we need to tighten our belts and consume less. This is completely the opposite direction to where any society and civilisation, bar those collapsing, has ever headed. Humans evolve, humans strive, humans try to grow – and this always means an upward trajectory in what we use.
An uncertain future?
So two possible futures:
1. Technology comes to the rescue: GM crops, nanotechnology or hydrogen fusion fix our energy crisis, remove the dependence on carbon and save us all.
2. Doomsday: we twiddle our thumbs, the planet gets hotter, countries start wars over resources and New York and Holland go under the ocean.
The answer will be somewhere between the two, as ever, and even more so, nothing like the scenario we expect. But we’re always afraid of something, and we always adapt to whatever’s in front of us for better or worse. Interesting times ahead.