Getting real, getting physical

In the climate challenge, social contact is important, but the only real progress is physical action. [2 September 2008 | Peter Boyer]

I don’t know about you, but I enjoy being human, mixing with other humans. If talking and writing about climate has done one thing for me, it’s been to emphasise how precious is this society in which I move, and from which I draw sustenance.

Among the things I enjoy most are the cut and thrust of our public debates, in which we work out how we relate to each other and to our universe, and the wonderfully clever, imaginative ways we’ve found to express these ideas. And therein lies a paradox and a problem.

Travelling down this twisting, vexing, endlessly interesting climate road, I’m repeatedly struck by how the same cleverness that has so enriched our lives has also caused such damage to our world.

For example, the hydrocarbon technology we gained in mining and refining oil and coal for energy has been applied to countless other uses beneficial to humanity, such as plastics, fertilisers and medical technology.

I’m grateful for the benefits of this technology and the economic benefits that went with it. But we can’t deny that this revolution has left us poorly-prepared – at least in a psychological sense – for dealing with climate change. If saying that is biting the hand that fed me, so be it.

Illusion has always been a mainstay of our culture. Escaping into fantasy through performing or story-telling or day-dreaming has from day one served to take our minds off tough circumstances, giving us recovery time before we resumed hunting, gathering and other life-sustaining work.

In the modern era, film, television, recorded sound and vision, computers and mobiles, and the myriad other spin-offs of these technologies we now see everywhere, have taken the power of illusion to unprecedented levels. For some it’s almost a whole-of-life experience, leaving little room for reality.

Such thoughts surfaced last week in a meeting I had with people seeking to work up a community-based initiative to address climate change. The discussion reminded me how hard it is to break out of our illusory world to change lifelong habits, with the real, physical urgency that climate change has now made necessary.

We discussed all sorts of actions that are needed, like getting people out of cars and into public transport, getting them to make their homes more energy-efficient, to generate their own power, and to make our island more self-sufficient in food and energy.

Yet in the end we weren’t talking about action at all, but ideas – about how our community might be prompted to take action. We took comfort from the talk and the companionship – the illusion of progress if you like – but the necessary action remains some distance away.

This is the biggest of all our climate change problems. We’re social beasts. We like to talk, often while watching others doing things. But talking about climate change counts for nothing if there’s no doing to follow, and action delayed is action devalued.

All our mitigation initiatives, from home improvements right up to national and international programs, must have built into them a priority and an urgency befitting this supreme challenge – and a clear, tightly-scheduled path of action.

The challenge demands that all of us understand this and cut to the chase. That includes you, Mr Bartlett. And you, Mr Rudd.

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