Preparing for a disorderly future

Our world has changed forever, and there’s no going back. Our children understand that. Unfortunately our leaders don’t.

Some time back, as university students, we took to the streets to confront our elders about a war in Asia that was none of Australia’s business. To escape from that mess, all we had to do was get out of the war. Which we did.

The students are in the streets again, but now they’re school-age, something unthinkable in the Vietnam era and hard for many to swallow today. Their mess is no mere war, but a global crisis which left unattended will devastate Earth’s life systems, including ours.

The crisis is so big that most adults ignore it and focus on more immediate things, like staying solvent and putting food on the table. Or if they’re at the top of the human pile, keeping the company profitable, reading the economic tealeaves or winning the next election.

Our children have stepped into the breach, demanding that we stop making loony decisions about our future, like building a new power station to burn more fossil fuel, and start being honest about what we’re now facing.

It is now clear to all who think about it that while some political and business leaders seem to understand that we’re in a crisis, no-one at the top is willing to confront this and make the big decisions needed to turn it around.

The rational approach to the climate crisis is to follow the lead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the thousands of scientists responsible for its reports. In tones of increasing urgency they all say that the scale of disruption ahead demands a complete end to carbon emissions and truckloads of preparation for an orderly and just transition.

But for decades these calls have landed on deaf ears. Those of us who try to engage with political leaders, including Tasmanian ones, about the fast-disappearing window for effective action know all too well the fossil fuel addiction that continues to drive and shape their world view.

Knowingly or otherwise, decision-makers everywhere are under the malign influence of that old order. Interests with a stake in prolonging the use of fossil fuels keep politicians on a short leash while attacking detractors and sabotaging public discourse with misinformation. 

School strikers see what their elders apparently cannot: that the old scheme of things is collapsing around us. In the face of cascading environmental, social and health crises, the efforts of our leaders to mask reality with daily barrages of the old measures – GDP or budgetary or employment data – seem pointless, even ludicrous.

We have to admit that elected or appointed leaders in government and business are not up to the job. And we have learned from our enduring public health crisis that when old ways of thinking are shown not to work, we must discard them. 

The pandemic should be a wake-up call. We urgently need to apply that elsewhere and be honest with ourselves and others about our present situation, which is nowhere near where science says we need to be if we are to keep climate change within safe bounds.

In fact, the time when individual governments, communities or people could have an impact has already passed us by. The only shot left in the locker is radical action by all developed nations working together, but the chances of that happening are vanishingly small.

Let’s face it: we are not going to get an incremental, orderly transition to a secure future. Hard times will continue, even get harder, as a changing climate makes its presence felt and systems are shaken to their core. The failure of gradualism leaves us facing an unsettling ride into a thoroughly disjointed future.

Yet there is reason for people both older and younger, but especially younger, to take heart. We are entering a time different from everything we know, in which we are all learners. And young people, as we all know, are the best learners. Unlike their elders who know only a fossil-fuelled economy, they are unencumbered by outmoded mindsets and expertise. 

School students are right to be angry, and I hereby offer them a baby-boomer’s apology for the continuing failure of older citizens to address this unfolding calamity. 

But our young soon-to-be citizens should also feel energised by the challenge before them. There is opportunity to be had in the inevitable disruption ahead. Young people will be best placed to cast aside old, failed systems and take charge of building a new, sustainable world.

That transition will be tough, and there will be disheartening setbacks. It will be disorderly, sometimes painful, occasionally shocking. But it definitely won’t be boring. 

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