Monday, April 16, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I do not believe in the destruction of the planet by the use of fossil fuels. That’s why I don’t drive a car. We should all live simply, consume as little power as possible and leave the smallest possible carbon footprint on the planet. That is how Flora and I are trying to live. We have a lifestyle block. It’s beyond the green belt, so we’re not adding to the congestion of the city. It’s about 50 kilometres from here. Yes, it can be hard getting in to things like this, but our daughter drives out and picks us up each week to do the city things we have to do. She’ll be driving us back after the speeches are made tonight, though it is a long drive for her each way. By the way, she showed us where we can get some really good opera DVDs. We make Friday our special opera night up on the farm.

Compressed a little bit that, or at least something very like it, was overheard by me at a book-launch in the heart of Auckland city about a year ago. It’s very naughty to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations and it would be even naughtier to fall over in a public place, convulsed by barking incredulous laughter, in response to them. But that is what I almost did when I overheard this piece of naïve and unselfconscious irony.

There are times when I’m tempted to characterise ostentatious Greenies as the Harold Skimpoles of our age – the people who make a virtue out of their supposed naivete while in fact living very comfortably off other people’s efforts.

To spell it out, you are not saving the planet if you’re making your daughter burn fossil fuel in two 100 kilometre drives in one evening. You are dependent upon the very same advanced (and fuel-guzzling) technology you claim to eschew.  Your pastime pleasures are also dependent upon fuel-consuming industrialised hi tech. (DVDs are not produced on lifestyle-block farms).

In such circumstances, to pretend that you are not as implicated in industrialised modern society as the rest of us is like being the Mafia boss who claims he’s not guilty of murder because he doesn’t do the actual shooting.

From this one anecdote I would now, if I were an op-ed writer on a newspaper, slip into a diatribe about the hypocrisy of Greenies and what a useless yoghurt-knitting bunch they are and how they should all get a good haircut and a decent job and start contributing to the GDP.

But I’m not going to do that.

I’m fully aware that the sort of silliness I overheard, though not a unique case, is not what is best about the whole ecological and conservationist movement. People who encourage us to save the planet, by seeking alternatives to current technology, have a very good case to make. So do people who worry about bio-diversity and want to save endangered species from extinction.

Sure, parts of what is loosely termed the Green Movement are bedevilled by, or confused with, the N.I.M.B.Y. impulse. (People protesting against the building of a new power plant may appear to be ecological idealists when in fact they’re concerned only that it will be an eyesore in their neighbourhood. They’d be perfectly happy if it were constructed somewhere else.) But this doesn’t compromise the integrity of the wider argument. You don’t rationally assess any ideology by picking on distorted versions of that ideology. That is the way of the propagandist.

So, bypassing N.I.M.B.Y.-ists and naïve hypocrites, what rational things can be said in criticism of ecologists?

As I see it, there is a big and ongoing tension between meeting human needs as they are now constituted, and attempting to save the planet. Too often, it seems to me, even the most rational Greens brush aside, Thoreau-like, the products of industry upon which we have all come to depend, and assume it will be an easy matter to construct a low-tech future that will still service our needs. In countries that are only beginning to industrialise, the movement can thus seem an indulgence by people who are already well-off and already well-served by industry. (“You’ve got your cars and flat screen TVs and mod cons and now you’re saying the planet will be ruined if we have them too??”)

This isn’t a call to ignore what Greens are saying. It’s a call to balance human needs with the needs of the planet. Applied science cannot and will not be unlearned. Cities (where the overwhelming majority of the human population now live) will have to somehow been maintained and sustained. This will not be achieved by appeals to a pre-industrial, sylvan, pastoral future. Advanced technology will have to play its part and be part of any rational Green planning.

Perhaps the thing is to get rid of the lifestyle block or rural retreat as the template for healthy ecology-conscious living. The real template should be the suburbanite who switches off unnecessary lights, buries organic rubbish in the back yard and above all tries to prevent waste.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a 'lifestyle blocker' and would find it difficult to return to suburbia after having been completely seduced by the sylvan vibe.
    But in the spirit of 'think global act local,' the suggestion of environmentally responsible suburbanites is a good one, and would be improved upon further if we had as efficient a public transport system as they enjoy in many overseas cities. Better still, suburbanites could develop what permaculture guru David Holmgren suggested and spend far less at the supermarket paying for food miles by developing local swap markets (now bordering on illegal because not subject to OSH-type regulation) where a diversity of produce from eggs and honey to fruit and veges can be produced in small city plots.
    A green agenda can't ignore what our industrialised society has become but I feel that people are becoming more aware of its key principles, such as sustainability, because the image of the greens is now be-suited and 'neutral' - no sign of horny toenailed trolls doing odd bonding dances in the Coromandel for instance.