As I write I can hear the excited voices of children playing on this perfect winter afternoon with snow crunching underfoot and the sun shining down from a crisp blue sky. The streets are bustling with smiling holiday faces as people complete their last-minute shopping and family members are at this very moment winging home from distant places to gather at the family hearth. What more could I want to put me in the festive mood? “Are you all prepared for Christmas?”, my neighbour asked me cheerily this morning and I replied with the usual light-hearted pleasantries.
Because some days it’s just too difficult to spoil the party anymore. The kill-joy conversations about the ‘love miles’ we must fly to maintain family kinship in these far-flung and separated lives of ours. The simple pleasures of giving and receiving tainted by awareness of the Made in China labels, the commercial Xmas jingles, the electronic beeping of cash registers, and the grinding of the waste-collection trucks as they carry our discarded gifts away to New Year landfill. And the knowledge of the failure that was Copenhagen as it passes from public consciousness in the frenetic retail run-up to Christmas. For in our modern virtual lives, “Peace & Good-Will To All Men” seems too much to ask of us, too demanding a shift in our cultural expectations for ‘meaningful’ celebration.
And so it has been with the outcome of the long-awaited climate summit. What Obama called ‘our ‘addiction to the status quo’ has proved impossible to overcome. We have failed to agree any common carbon reduction targets. We have failed to agree a legally binding treaty. All we have to show for more than twenty and more years of intense scientific investigation and political negotiation is yet another declaration of intent. Like the end-of-term report that casts its long shadow over the holiday, we have once again set only low goals for ourselves that we consistently fail to achieve.
So what did I expect? Well, truth be told, something like what occurred, but I still hoped against hope for so much more. I don’t even especially blame our Western politicians because, if nothing else, the summit has convinced me that they really do know how things stand. But they juggle the impossible dilemma of acting way beyond parochial interests to commit us to living within our means or else securing re-election by continuing to gratify our desires.
By all accounts our own Prime Minister and our Climate Change Secretary went out on a political limb to salvage even a weak accord between the 192 widely disparate nations assembled in Copenhagen. So I am much more disappointed by their lack of public mandate as the Daily Telegraph informs us that 50% of us still know better than the science. But given the disproportionate influence of scepticism in the media, why am I surprised? Sometimes I feel so foolish in my faith in common sense and it’s too painful to think about anymore.
So what hope is left? Well, it comes down to you and me now. Millions of global citizens took part in on-line campaigns throughout the summit and the views of many more were represented by hundreds of grassroots NGOs who assembled in Copenhagen. George Marshall, who is far from the political innocent that I am, tells of the NGO experience here.
But the dedicated efforts of NGOs to make our voices heard was not enough and believers like me can no longer fool ourselves that we might still come to hold the majority view. The powerful denialists have been all too effective in preying on public desire to trust in the infallibility of human progress. The dissembling of right wing media groups, the careful timing of hacked emails that ‘prove’ conspiracy, and the bias of much subsequent publicity have all reinforced sceptical public attitudes. Having what we want to believe affirmed for us is always preferable to having to think it out for ourselves.
And, barring miracles, we’ve now run out of time. For Copenhagen was widely stated by politicians, scientists and environmentalists as our last real chance to act politically to avert catatrophe. Even the most optimistic of community campaigners have now expressed their frustrations and their grief for the future. Ben Brangwyn, co-founder of the Transition Network, wrote last week from the the Danish capital of the personal accountability he feels for the suffering that Western indifference is inflicting on vulnerable nations. Dan Allen, a New Jersey high school teacher, apologises to our youngest generations for the dangerous lives they will inherit. George Monbiot has bid farewell on our behalf to South Asia and Africa and the glaciers and coral reefs and rain forests. And it has not escaped my notice that many of my environmental mentors are already cultivating rustic vegetables or else making plans to head back to the land. Perhaps it’s time that Louise and I tried again to return to our abandoned plot in France.
It’s now fifty years since Rachel Carson first warned of the damage industrial societies do to the natural world. And more than fifty years since Roger Revelle pointed out the planetary experiment we are conducting with global warming. Alvin Toffler raised the spectre of overwhelming technological shock way back in 1970; E.F. Schumacher proposed happiness above corporate profits in 1973; John Seymour and Herbert Girardet warned how far we had travelled from Paradise in 1983; and Bill McKibbin wrote his elegy for the end of Nature in 1990. The conversation has been taking place throughout my lifetime. Yet in those same decades our liking for the rewards of consumer capitalism has intensified until no part of the biosphere remains unaffected by human activity and life itself is subject to commercial patent.
During my own fifty year lifetime of collusion, consumption has nigh on triples, demand for energy quadrupled, and the global population grown from two and a half to nearly seven billion – and all of these still rising. Yet the quantity of fresh water available for all of us to share remains the same as it has been since the beginnings of life on the planet.
We in the developed world consume over two-thirds of all global resources and generate three-quarters of all pollution and waste. In the year of my birth the plastic bag first came into use and a mere 5 million tons of plastics were produced worldwide. However much we might congratulate ourselves now for recycling plastics, that total has grown today to over 100 million annual tons of oil derived dependency
We are rich beyond the dreams of sultans and potentates and emperors and feudal kings, but at what price happiness? In 1957 there were a total 150,000 beds in Britain’s mental hospitals and the first modern anti-depressants were only just being introduced to psychiatry. Today in the UK one in four people are treated annually for anxiety-related disorders and, quite apart from the mental health effects of climate impacts, depression is anyway predicted to be our 21st century epidemic. We know full well that material possessions beyond our basic needs do not make us happy and money won’t buy us love. But still we cannot decide between Mammon and Mother Earth and somedays it’s too painful to bear.
No amount of social marketing or moralising or statistics or scientific information has so far led us closer to understanding the depths of our predicament. With greenhouse gas emissions still rising, it seems that now only impacts will. So we in our Western ‘civilised’ world will keep on prioritising our own agendas as we abandon the ‘developing’ world to the unhappy fate we have decreed for it. And doubtless we will continue misrepresenting the facts, misunderstanding the issues, and blaming someone other than ourselves until the planet lets us know that we have no place here anymore.
Somedays it’s just too difficult to speak about anymore. And as this winter’s day fades into twilight and the world’s leaders have all departed Copenhagen, really what’s still left to say?What days have come to keep us far apart A broken promise or a broken heart Now all the bonnie birds have wheeled away…
From The Dimming of the Day – Richard Thomson