The Juggernaut: consumerism is antithetical to solving climate change
The big container ships and oil tankers can run on for 20 miles after putting their engines in reverse. Inertia prevents them stopping any quicker – the tendency for matter, when moving, to keep moving in the same direction. (For the pedants, inertia is also the tendency of matter, when at rest, to remain at rest. I’m casting guilty looks at my exercise bike as I write this).
I’ve reached something of a hiatus in my writing. The catalyst was posting an item in my blog which, it turned out, was pretty much identical to something I’d written two years ago. Christ! I’m just repeating myself now. This isn’t good, surely? I know the sceptics and their hardcore brethren repeat their clichés ad nauseum – discussions I would largely characterise as ‘wading through vomit’ – but while repetition is the stuff of propaganda, science is about constant discovery and refinement; how come, as a follower of science, I’m not full of novelty myself?
Perhaps it is because science, like Max Weber’s politics, ‘is a strong and slow boring of hard boards’. We don’t get a gripping story, even much of a narrative, from climate science on a weekly basis. (Just as well, for it usually transpires than when events move that fast, bad things follow – unintended consequences and all that). Climate science is like that which it studies, a steady and inexorable process that takes a long time to get anywhere. The length of this journey and the lack of milestones by which we can adequately judge our progress are very problematic when it comes to getting anything done about climate change, building around it a consensual position in a democratic society, or writing about it. Climate change – or rather, the damage it will do – is all too remote, too abstract. Not only that, but when the damage is manifest, it will be done mostly to people who live a long way away, their terrible plight reduced to a 2 minute news item, misery compressed to fit inside the frame of an LCD screen, the horror sanitised so it doesn’t offend people eating their breakfast.
In fact, I too am feeling a bit distanced from my subject. For years I’ve struggled to build some kind of analysis in which I can argue credibly for change, but Copenhagen and Cancun, US intransigence and other events have, in the past year, largely convinced me that mitigation simply will not happen. Whatever climate change has in store for us, I suspect we are going to find out – over several generations certainly – but history will record our dismal failure to protect ourselves, to curtail our indulgencies and embrace change.
Recently, I have been doing some back to basics thinking about the whole issue. One strand of thought follows a historic perspective, in which this civilisation goes the way of all previous empires, conveniently solving the population problem, albeit with an awful lot of violence along the way. This is an argument based on historic inevitability, but it could just as easily be presented as a revenge tragedy enacted by Lovelock’s Gaia. I remain suspicious of it, however; it’s so easy to propose, yet difficult to substantiate.
If history isn’t inevitable, then what is? Well, inertia is inevitable. I write quite often that I’m not seeking answers at this time, merely trying to formulate the right questions. The question I think is most pertinent for this generation, for this era, is whether anyone seriously thinks the immeasurable juggernaut of consumerism can even change course, let alone be halted. Put simply, it’s been picking up speed ever since the industrial revolution. Many enjoy the fruits of consumerism; many more desire what we in the west already have. It is one thing to give up something after tasting its pleasures, another thing altogether to be denied even the most transient exposure. That is the message: the developing world can no longer aspire to catch us up, have what we have. There isn’t enough stuff to go around, not enough energy to fuel manufacture or transport, and the energy consumed by consumerism is rendering our climate anarchic.
In some ways, I feel the past decade has been the one in which consumerism has been prodded into action by the growing evidence of its own fallibility, weaknesses that are both inherent and unavoidable. The latest assault has just started, with the US congress clearly determined to placate the vested interests who finance their election campaigns at the expense of everyone else on the planet. This great beast is just waking up, taking climate change seriously now, but only as an enemy of profit, to be defeated by any and all means in a war everyone is going to lose. The juggernaut that is consumerism continues headlong into a dark night, headlights beaming out bravely as it hurtles, at full and unstoppable speed, towards the mortal chasm of its own creation.