A very human tragedy

The Walk Against Warming campaign is about everything we know — about an unprecedented threat to our civilised way of life. It is our mission to find the courage and resolution to change the way we live. [15 November 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Speech to participants in the 2008 Walk Against Warming, Hobart, 15 November 2008

On one day in each year, Australia’s Walk Against Warming campaign seeks to put a recurring public face on the elusive issue of climate change. Each year many thousands come out to show their concern about the way we are desecrating our planet and the inadequacy of official action to redress it. And it’s a growing feast. Every day of every year, somewhere in the world, people are meeting and marching just as we are. We here today are part of a world movement of millions upon millions of concerned people.

Other public demonstrations I’ve been part of down the years have tended to be rambunctious affairs, full of singing and sloganeering and speechifying. In all the past demonstrations I can think of, we really felt empowered to act. The objective could be – and often was – achieved through a stroke of a political or diplomatic or judicial pen.

This time it’s different. This time we don’t feel much like shouting and singing. This time we’re dealing not with a war or a single act of environmental vandalism or a wrong-headed government action or sustained, ingrained corruption or guns or abortion or all the rest in that endless list of grievances that have brought people out on to the streets. All of those things were a part of our human existence that we felt we could influence, issues that we quite reasonably thought we could turn around within a matter of weeks or months or – at worst, a year or two.

But in coming here today, we are concerned with the whole of human existence – the box as well as the dice, the world within and without, everything we hold dear and everything else as well. And we come with no reasonable expectation that we will see any significant change for the better in our lifetimes. Because even if we do make progress to curb our carbon emissions – and progress is starting to be made, in small stages, here and there around the globe – even with progress we will not see results for a quarter of a century or more, and even then they will be subtle, discernable only through measuring and analysing rather than a sudden or obvious improvement in our physical conditions.

We’re demonstrating here about everything that we know. The way we’ve lived – we here as much as anyone else in the world – threatens the edifices of civility and justice and democracy and security and stability and mutual support and all the rest which we have come to take for granted.

We must accept that there is a chance that the world will be unable to shift from its present path. Let us assume for a moment that this is to be our fate – that it turns out we’re unable to shake off our addiction to cheap, stored energy in the form of fossil fuels. In that event, we today are witnessing and participating in a great human tragedy, of unprecedented, truly epic proportions. Just as the great tragic figures of Shakespeare were principal agents in the calamities that brought their downfall, so are we agents of ours.

Our struggle against dangerous climate change looms as a tragedy because we humans have so much to offer – to each other and to our planet. We have intelligence and resourcefulness. The staggering world library of art and artifice are testament to our profound creativity. We have an enormous capacity for investigating ourselves and our earthly and cosmic environment. While we hear so much about our destructive power, we also have a capacity to build, to nurture, to protect. We’ve developed ethical and moral principles, on which our laws are based, so that we can look after our own.

We have learned how to look after our own, but – and this is a big but – we have forgotten how to do the same for things beyond our own: those characteristics of our planet that have sustained life through hundreds of millions of years. We’ve separated ourselves from our sustaining Mother Earth, pursuing economic growth at all costs while pretending not to notice the glaring irrationality that lies at its base, that you cannot grow endlessly on a finite planet. Our politicians continue to do it – even while professing concern about climate change. And we’re paying a terrible price.

While the leaders of the major political parties at both state and federal levels fail to acknowledge the profound contradiction in this stance then we cannot move effectively against climate change. To alter this position will require two things often in short supply among our politicians: vision, to see the problem, and courage, to stand up, face the inevitable ridicule, stare it down and see it out the door.

Vision demands intellectual power. Courage needs strength of character. Can these attributes be found in sufficient quantity in our political leaders? Do they have it in them?

I think they do. The thing is, I think most people have within them untapped reserves of intellect and character that can be brought into the open when circumstances are right. So far, such reserves haven’t manifested themselves, and I think this is as much our responsibility – the responsibility of people outside the central political processes – as it is theirs.

It’s up to us to continue to press our leaders, with all the means at our disposal, to see the profound error of their ways. It’s up to us to make it glaringly obvious that the blinkered, myopic, schizophrenic outlook that has so frequently dominated public life in Australia as it has elsewhere in the developed world has brought us to a cul-de-sac that will eventually destroy human civilisation. It’s up to us to lead them to the clear vision that will help get their intellects working again; that will help them see that cosying up to established interests intent on sabotaging climate action is self-defeating. It’s up to us to inject them with the courage they need to stand up against the inevitable, formidable rearguard action by those interests and their ill-informed supporters, unwilling to move out of their comfort zone.

John Howard wanted us all to be “relaxed and comfortable”. In fostering that attitude throughout his prime ministership, he diverted us from the climate crisis. In the world ahead, we can’t expect to be comfortable. In persuading our politicians to move outside their comfort zone, so must we, too, move outside ours.

For instance, if we believe car and air travel are a significant contributor to greenhouse gases, then not only must we persuade politicians to travel less – we must travel less too. If we think the car gets too much political attention, we must lobby for cycling and walking facilities and public transport – and stop giving automatic support to new road infrastructures.

If we don’t like the transport of out-of-season foods across the globe, we must look to local food – perhaps our own food gardens. If we think excessive consumption is a major problem, we along with our politicians must consume less.

If we think our society uses too much energy and water and want to persuade our politicians and others of this, we must use less ourselves. We must make sure our homes are well-insulated and do what else we can to make them more energy-efficient. We must treat water as precious.

And as we do these and other things to counter the threat from global heating, I feel sure we’ll discover long-lost, long-forgotten pleasures in life. Amid the discomfort of changing treasured, destructive mindsets, we’ll discover the joy of achieving things for ourselves and knowing that we’re doing all we can to give back to our children and grand-children the world that we have enjoyed. Or one that’s better than the one we enjoyed.

There can be no more important legacy. Now let’s get to work.

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