Harnessing stress, accommodating eccentricity

Reducing our carbon emissions won’t be easy, but it will have its rewards. One of these will be bringing to fruition bright ideas in our midst. [29 January 2008 | Peter Boyer]

In a television interview just before he was first elected prime minister in 1996, John Howard said his vision for his country was that Australians “feel relaxed and comfortable”.

Contrast that with Malcolm Fraser’s observation in 1971 that “life wasn’t meant to be easy”.

Howard, who soon afterwards was elected in a landslide, could fairly claim that his words struck a chord. Fraser’s sentiments, on the other hand, were widely seen as a sign that this dour gentleman-farmer was out of touch with ordinary folk.

But Fraser’s austere vision seems much more fitting in today’s climate crisis than Howard’s more complacent outlook.

It also fits how evolution works. Life thrives on difficulty – on meeting environmental challenges and dealing with them. When we’re not under stress, we’re going nowhere.

Trying to avoid the stresses presented by change is to court both personal stagnation and planetary disaster. Facing them will give us strength and purpose.

In the process there will be some surprises in store, because climate change demands paradigm shifts an order of magnitude above what any of us in this “relaxed and comfortable” western world have experienced in our lifetimes. That’s where innovation comes in.

There are innovators aplenty in our communities just itching to show the world what they can do to help save the planet. On the climate trail in Tasmania last year I came across a number of home-grown ideas worthy of serious public attention.

There are crops that flourish in arid and degraded soils, cement that absorbs carbon dioxide, a process using waste wood to produce soil fertiliser and low-carbon electricity, biofuel made from algae growing in seawater, and traffic lights that operate on a tiny fraction of the cost of running current systems.

Public support and private investment is needed to get such ideas going. With the imperative to act looming ever larger you’d think useful innovations would have an improving chance of success, but too often the processes for getting support have presented impossible barriers.

Innovators tend to be eccentrics, and bureaucrats and business people often find them hard to deal with. If so, they’ll have to change, because we can’t afford missed opportunities.

Our innovators may be irritating but they’re never dull. Besides financial benefit, supporting them may bring other pleasant surprises.

Malcolm Fraser’s famous line deserves its fuller context. In George Bernard Shaw’s 1921 play, Back to Methuselah, an ancient sage says, “Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.”

There could be no better maxim for anyone looking for pathways through the climate crisis.

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