Monday, 20 July 2009

Why is Global Warming missing the mainstream?

For a long time, I have been an eco-bore. Since my friends found this tedious and nothing much seemed to be changing around me, I settled for keeping my own little corner of the world as green as I could, stuffing cupboards with recyclables until I pass the glass and plastic skips, walking everywhere, siting water butts around the garden, buying locally and so on.

However, I have now stepped up a pace. The catalyst for this was seeing Franny Armstrong’s film, The Age of Stupid, at the beginning of June. This stars Pete Postlethwaite who is marooned, in 2055, as the only person left on earth, with the rising Thames having drowned London, our temperate climate a thing of the past and all life as we know it destroyed. The film shows him looking back at the early 21st century, and he reprises the decisions that we are currently taking (or ignoring) in an attempt to work out why human beings committed mass suicide by not addressing the dominant issue of climate change. It’s no blockbuster, but nevertheless, after watching it and listening to the follow-up talk, I decided to do everything that I can to safeguard my children’s future, or, at the very least, be able to tell them that I tried.

As a result of my personal green revolution, on 4 July, I joined a demo at Kingsnorth Power Station. Green Peace, Oxfam and the WI had got together to arrange a protest in which people would form a ‘miliband’ by holding hands all around the power station to send a message to our friend Ed that traditional coal-fired power stations are not the way forward in terms of saving the planet. As if he doesn’t already know.

It was a fascinating experience. First, it was interesting to see that my fellow demonstrators were drawn from across society. All ages were there, from young children with their parents to an elderly woman who could barely cross the fields to the power station on her crutches. Everyone was obviously passionate and committed. Second, it was highly orchestrated, and we were very much the extras on set, but never mind; I was a demonstration virgin (so to speak) and was glad to be directed, even if chanting slogans to the few migrant workers harvesting marrows in the fields around the power station felt somewhat anticlimactic.

There was one overwhelming conclusion that I brought away with me. It was this: those of us who strongly believe in the idea that, as a society, we must change our habits out of responsibility to future generations (and more immediately, to prevent suffering on a massive scale as climate change impacts millions of people, above all in poorer countries) have not managed to make global warming an issue that has gained the mainstream in society’s consciousness. It was amazing that there were only about 1000 of us at the demo, and we couldn’t encircle the area at all, not even by holding long ribbons between us that easily doubled the distance that the miliband could stretch. Nobody stopped their cars or honked their support, people didn’t flood out of their houses to join us as if they’d heard the Pied Piper’s flute, nobody even said – thank God someone’s doing this, it needs to be done. We mostly got either bemused looks from onlookers or the indulgent half-smile that is bestowed on someone who is clearly barking, but mostly harmless. Even the police would have looked bored if they hadn’t been given off-road motorbikes to play on for the day.

It made me realise that whatever is happening in terms of the fight against global warming, it has not captured the popular imagination, and until it does, public opinion on this issue is about as useful as a rubber duck in the shower. As a result, anything that happens because of people pressure will happen super-slowly. The problem of global warming is still perceived as a marginal interest and not a fundamental concern. Until this changes, and the strength of public opinion outweighs short-term and self-serving considerations, politicians will take the line of least resistance and will drag their heels rather than take radical steps towards safeguarding our futures. Whilst I hesitate to include Mr Miliband the younger in this generalisation, I suspect that, in any case, he does not have the clout within cabinet to make a difference on his own.

What would capture the public’s imagination and focus attention and energy on preserving the future for our children? The charities leading the campaign are already doing a great job – there are constant news items (although I’m pretty sure that the majority of listeners automatically screen most of them out), and Oxfam’s shops have changed in nature over the last few years to sell, amongst other things, products made from recycled material or non-pollutants.

But that only gets to relatively few people. What could flick the switch to start people caring? What would it take to get a million people marching through London to demand changes that would save countless lives and stop some of the world’s habitable land from going under the sea?

Maybe one can try to glean the answer by trying to analyse the reasons for the current lack of active interest: first, global warming is a huge problem, and this is utterly disempowering for the individual, who blanks out what he or she can’t handle.

Secondly, it isn’t obvious what to do about it – our society has evolved with seemingly irreversible dependence on oil, and its philosophy has changed from the ‘make use and mend’ attitude to one in which almost anything is disposable – see, even reading that sort of old-fashioned phrase almost sends you to sleep, doesn’t it? Again, it seems overwhelmingly difficult for the individual to reverse this. It feels as desperate and pointless as a lone person bobbing and waving in the sea as an enormous trawler approaches, frantically trying to get the ship to change course.

The other major reason, it seems to me, is the perception that there is a lack of immediacy in the need to deal with global warming – there is a delay between our actions and their outcomes, and we are instant gratification junkies. This works both ways – it enables us to ignore the implications of our lack of action today as the result won’t become apparent tomorrow, and conversely, if we do take any steps now, we won’t see the benefit for some time. We are also used to being led, and strong leadership and moral courage at the top of the current power tree simply aren’t there on this issue.

And yet. The Stop the War Coalition got people onto the streets in a march that everyone is proud of. It didn’t stop anything, of course, but people were there in their hordes, demanding to be heard. Historically, there are many examples which strongly demonstrate that people power can move mountains, not least the social changes brought about by the suffragette movement.

Do we need a central figure around whom we can all gather? Would it help to have someone to step into the limelight like Bob Geldof, to inspire and motivate? He changed the world, even if temporarily, with Live Aid, was less successful with Live 8, and I don’t blame him if he thinks now that it is someone else’s turn. So who might that be, and why aren’t people lining up? If you are in a position to make such a massive difference, why are you still sitting on your bum, whoever you are? Where is this modern day Gandhi?

On the basis that the eco-messiah is not about to stand up, then we have to conclude that it’s up to every one of us. Those of us who are massively concerned about the way that we are going, and baffled by all the ignorers or deniers, will continue to do what we can, and nibble round the edges. But we need help. We need numbers. We can’t wait for the politicians to put down their cappuccinos and pay attention to what really matters to the whole world. We have about 5 years, according to prevalent scientific opinion. Join us. Help.

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