Ever had the feeling you’ve been asleep or even dead—and woken to a world that’s changed beyond belief?
I have died a few times, but only for short spells. The official record is 47 seconds (I have the hospital printout showing the flat-line recorded in intensive care), so not enough to give that Rip Van Winkle Effect. Why is it, then, that I am so shocked nearly every day by a sudden lurch into what seems like Blade Runner Country? Why does being awake now seem like being stuck in a bad dream in 2050?
It isn’t only the sight of young folk walking along streets bent over their screens oblivious of everything around them, even of traffic. Nor is it just the preposterous politics, here and abroad, with people we would normally have locked up or sectioned ruling our lives. No, what’s utterly surreal is how we sail towards catastrophe with hardly a shrug, as if subdued by a Constant Valium, cutting off our sense of survival or basic prudence, what used to be a sensible awareness of what it takes to sort out what counts.
The Great Barrier Reef, a wonder the size of Italy, has been pronounced on the way to extinction by the best scientists in the field. The clearing of forests in Queensland was reported (in the Economist of all temperate journals) as being on a worse scale than in Brazil. Chainsaw Central, they called it. More than 8 per cent of bird species are on the way out. And then there are the fish in the oceans of this Planet Water—90 per cent of them are gone and have been replaced by floating stretches of plastic larger than France plus little bits you cannot see. Oh, and then there is the notion that teachers should not have a salary increase but be made to carry guns.
It’s a bit like being put into a deep sleep for an age and on being woken by the cast of The Handmaid’s Tale in whitecoats instead of red, to be told a plague wiped out humanity in Africa, Justin Bieber is now president, and we’ve landed on Uranus.
To go back to the beginning: when I broadcast Science Show No. 1 in 1975, I interviewed energy expert Lord Ritchie Calder. He was worried about climate. This articulate, enormously energetic politician told me the weights of gases emanating from burning fossil fuels and therefore the catastrophic effect they were likely to have on climate. ‘We warned them at the United Nations in 1963 of this danger,’ he told me, and the audience, ‘and here we are in 1975 and no-one is doing anything about it!’ He smacked his open palm with a clenched fist.
I wasn’t unduly alarmed by his concern but assumed it was sensible advice warranting bipartisan action.
Then in 1988 at the Commission for the Future, an outfit set up by then science minister Barry Jones, we ran an educational campaign called Greenhouse ’88. It was so impressive that we scored an award from the UN for our public-spirited efforts. All this was still devoid of ideological taint. Here was a worry like an earthquake or likely asteroid impact, and we were advising sensible remedies.
It wasn’t until Al Gore’s film Inconvenient Truth and Tim Flannery’s books that an organised backlash erupted, led by the likes of Nigel Lawson and Tony Abbott. They, according to Professor Naomi Oreskes in Harvard, were willing to discount solid science in the interests of avoiding proliferating regulation leading to World Government. Some of the ‘deniers’ have actually said so.
But here I’m concerned not so much with arguing the case for the strength of the science, but more to see what can be done to lift the bewildering inertia so many feel when being hit by a global threat multiplied by an ideological spray saying it’s all pointless bothering.
What can we do? Well, the first step, having accepted the mountains of science, is to think locally. No single soul, however brave, can deal with global worries (unless you’re Tim Flannery writing The Weather Makers or Atmosphere of Hope). You know your precinct, or parts of it, and have a fair idea of changes that could make a difference where you live.
Paul Hawken is a writer and editor of Drawdown, a book published by Penguin that lists 200 practical measures that can be applied to alleviate the pace of climate change. Each example registers cost plus likely impact. It has the numbers and analyses that hard heads require and businesses can deal with. The book, published in April 2017, went to No. 9 in the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for many weeks. It is now in its seventh printing and the outfit likes to show a photo of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, in a meeting with Drawdown in front of him. Other books, such as Flannery’s latest on the merits of farming the brown seaweed kelp, offer plenty more ideas.
And there’s vast room to move effectively. Whatever the sales of those books, I am continually appalled by the indolence of Australians, whatever their green hand-wringing pretensions. When I go into work, before dawn, you can guarantee most lights are blazing, computers left on and bins spilling with recyclable non-rubbish. Water bottles often half full or more are chucked in the trash (why buy bottled water in the first place—you’re not in Rwanda); those computers grinding away (don’t people listen to the fans next to the keyboards working away for days on end for no purpose?); grown men, usually young ones, take lifts down one floor—don’t they know or care that a 15-second lift journey uses as much electricity as a 60-watt lightbulb does in an hour?
There are so many ways every minute, every hour, to reduce waste. Then there are ways to make a huge difference to the metrics of our impact. Having fewer kids is one. Whatever the misdeeds of everyday life it’s much worse when you multiply by 9 billion instead of 7 billion.
But it’s also fun making a positive difference. You can now monitor the energy state of your house remotely. Kids can spot, wherever they are, that gadgets have been left on at home. Glancing at a phone app from 500 kilometres away, they can switch off the air-con, lights or whatever’s needlessly working. The game is to cut the bills by 10–25 per cent and be rewarded by extra pocket money (to be spent wisely) for being diligent.
Suddenly young people feel in control, they can tell their friends; their numbers accumulate and start to make a real difference in a willing population. Households begin to make their own power and export it to the grid. Cars are hired or borrowed. Planes are replaced by fast trains, waste is eliminated and the effects add up. Soon you are in reach of the once-distant target. An extra effort and smart innovations can get you there. The global crisis has been met by umpteen local triumphs.
Each place, you see, is different. The acidity of sea water is greater off the coast of parts of New Zealand than it is in Australia. The heating of the atmosphere in the Arctic is much more than here in the south. Mangroves and sea grasses are vitally important off our coastline in ways that can be quite staggering. Know your locale and see what’s possible. Scientifically minded people in the district know what can be done—each has their own number one item.
My partner, Dr Jonica Newby, is doing it with snow. She loves this white stuff—despite having grown up in Perth where it is entirely absent. She loves the role of snow in our fairytales and culture—did you know that skis were the first major technology enabling us to travel fast—preceding the wheel by centuries? Yet now our snowfields are disappearing. At the same time climate change has slowed the winds above the North Pole, sending loops of Arctic weather to torment North America and Europe in winter—the Beast from the East. The cost of these weather monsters is vast. Jonica wants to make a film about Saving Our Snow, giving us back winters as they used to be. Making a difference.
We have lived through the Age of the Individual, of cowboy culture, and now we need to regain the village. The philosopher John Gray put it well in an essay in the Times Literary Supplement about, of all people, John Stuart Mill, the supremo of liberty. Gray wrote:
In the past, liberals have struggled to reconcile their commitment to liberty with a recognition that people need a sense of collective belonging as well. Mill balanced the individual of On Liberty with an understanding that a common culture is necessary if freedom is to be secure, while Isaiah Berlin acknowledged that for most people being part of a community in which they can recognise themselves is an integral part of a worthwhile life. These insights were lost, or suppressed, after the end of the Cold War.
You cannot wake in the morning (especially from your near-death-experience) and be expected to solve global problems before breakfast; even before dinner. The scale of the constant turmoil is making us anxious, hopeless—and giving the next generation no sense of a future (I’ve asked them). Once we’re back in the village we’ve reconnected and, as the old adage insists, we’re acting locally, with the buzz of achievement we can think once more of the Globe.
Robyn Williams has been the presenter of ABC RN’s Science Show for 40 years. He is Visiting Professor at UNSW, was a visiting fellow at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1995–96, and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.