On politics, prophets and practicalities

In the face of failing political initiatives on climate, there is much to be gained from some inspiring writing published this month. [18 May 2010 | Peter Boyer]

Professor Tim Flannery’s attack on Kevin Rudd last week for his “breach of faith” with Australians on climate change was as accurate as it was futile. An election is coming, and the Rudd government is intent on making itself a small target. Climate action had to go.

141eaarth-totnes2Equally, Senator Bob Brown was rightly critical of the government for turning its back on the Greens’ carbon levy proposal, just as he correctly pointed to the environmental deficiencies in Treasurer Wayne Swan’s 2010 Budget.

The Budget’s $652 million for renewable energy investment is only part of savings from the two-year delay to emissions trading, and its “new” climate and environment programs actually cost $60 million less than abandoned existing programs.

What is there to say? Despite Kevin Rudd’s protests, showing off his government’s credentials as “conservative economic managers” far outranked a working climate program. Why should we expect more from our government? This is politics at work.

But it is also a failure of leadership. Climate action presents politicians with contradictory public expectations that Tony Abbott’s shamelessly hypocritical Opposition has exploited to its advantage. Real leaders would reshape the expectations by knuckling down and getting things under way, but this is beyond the capability of the Rudd government.

If we want action to make our world a better place, we had better include other elements in the mix. As a reader, I can think of no better place to start than a couple of recently-published books: Bill McKibben’s Eaarth and Transition in Action, a community action manual from Totnes, UK.

McKibben is a veteran of the US climate scene. Troubled by the dismantling of former US President Jimmy Carter’s energy-efficiency measures by Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, he wrote the first popular book on greenhouse warming, The End of Nature, published in 1989. In Eaarth, he revisits the state of the planet.

He describes a new world: “not our cosy, taken-for-granted earth, but a planet with melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat.” Planet Earth is gone. Welcome to Eaarth, our present home, outwardly similar to the world we all grew up in but underneath it all not nearly as friendly.

The first half of Eaarth is a powerfully-evoked picture of the world as it is now. McKibben describes a planet in real crisis, where thousands of years of regular weather patterns and steady sea levels have suddenly shifted, exposing the vulnerable under-belly of our civilised existence.

On the claim that human carbon emissions have no part in climate change, McKibben points out science’s complete failure to find any natural cause for the profound changes we are now observing everywhere around us, while noting the build-up of human-sourced carbon in our atmosphere.

He describes polar and mountain ice melting, thinning and vanishing, cities and forests exposed for the first time to warm-weather pests, forests felled, disappearing river systems, jellyfish swarms in warming ocean waters. The long list goes on, and on, each word-picture building on another until we’re left with the inescapable conclusion that our home has changed, irrevocably.

Americans have long treasured their ability to fix anything, an attitude that was fundamental to Al Gore’s essentially optimistic 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth. I have a degree of Australian scepticism about this: it was technological “solutions”, after all, that got us into this mess.

McKibben resists the “can do” instinct to believe that a solution is at hand. We won’t recover the Earth we once knew, he says, but we can learn to live within what resources we have left and minimise future harm. It will be a tough, long slog, but it can work, and it will have its rewards.

We can start by curbing our incessant drive to get bigger, more centralised, more complex. “We need to scale back, to go to ground,” he says. “We need to take what wealth we have left and figure out how we’re going to use it, not to spin the wheel one more time but to slow the wheel down.”

His greatest weapon is the common touch. He uses stories, analogies and metaphors to devastating effect, first to paint a word picture of our global crisis and then to invite us to see the possibilities ahead if we learn to tread “lightly, carefully, gracefully”.

Re-discovering the healing power of a functioning local community is central to McKibben’s recipe for future living. It’s also the basis of a long-running program centred on the English town of Totnes, where the world-wide “Transition Towns” movement started nearly a decade ago.

In terms of building a sustaining, resilient community as a response to the energy challenges posed by peak oil and climate change, the Totnes district is a success story if ever there was one. It didn’t just talk, it took planned action which significantly cut its dependence on fossil fuels.

Now, Totnes has produced its “energy descent action plan” for the next 20 years, inviting its community “to dream how the future could be, and to then work out the practical pathways by which we actually get there”. The result is an inspiring, eminently practical guide for any community.

Read these books, and then use the insights they provide in abundance as a springboard for local action. Government can’t lead, but eventually it will follow. For now, we have to help ourselves.

Eaarth (published in Australia by Black Inc.) is available at your local bookshop. Transition in Action can be read online or you can get your local supplier to order it in.

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