Are We Hurting Yet?

on the rack image

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We have been repeatly told that fixing the environment wasn't possible because it would upset the economy too much. It seems that greed did a better job of making the economy go weak at the knees, than tackling global warming might ever have done.

I've just finished watching the Special Broadcasting Services (SBS) TV program, Insight, which this week focused on looming growth in unemployment, as a result of the global financial crisis. [It's now available online.] What struck me most was the discussion on the so called stimulus packages initiated by Australian ($7 billion USD), Chinese ($586 billion USD) and other governments. Their intent is basically to inject the economy with copious money, so folk can rush out and buy more goods and services. But wasn't it rampant consumption that got us into this mess in the first place? People spending beyond their means. We are familiar with the concept of an Ecological Footprint, an approximation of the total land area require to provide for our needs. We often told that if every person on Earth were able to live in the degree of affluence Westerners enjoy we'd need a few more planets to provide for that level of consumption. It seems to that current fiscal conundrum is a case of us overstepping our Economic Footprint. We've taken what we can't afford.

After watching the Insight television program, I happened to read Lloyd's post on the Re-Imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil conference, where he was perturbed by the lack of urgency about the issue.

writing on the wall photo

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I found these to be related matters. As it reminded me of when I began working almost exclusively on environmental issues, over 13 years ago. People would ask me, "If the writing is so plainly on the wall, why aren't we doing more to solve these problems?" For a time I too wondered this. But then I realised we are a very adaptable race. We can fly, travel underwater, live on the ice, in the desert and in rainforest. When our circumstances change we adjust with them. Yet, unlike the squirrel, we aren't particularly adept at planning for lean times. My answer then to questions of why humankind was not mobilising itself to head off, or batten down for, the approaching environmental storm was simply, "We aren't hurting enough."

We would need more pain before we'd find the impetus for change.

One simple example of this springs to mind, as I remember when Australians complained bitterly about paying 50c a litre for fuel, but they still drove everywhere. It seems that only when petrol reached $1.70/litre earlier this year, did it really become a little too painful to drive quite so much. Vehicle sales are down 11.4% on this time last year and the finance arm of General Motors, who provide up to a third of all vehicle credit in Australia announced in October they were closing up shop in Australia. So the government steps in with $6 billion AUD to try and prop up the automotive market for the next decade. Admittedly the package does include some assistance for a new green car industry, but is it too little, way too late?

And just as Lloyd was pondering with regard to city design, is there really a changing mindset?

holden commodore photo

I think not. Look at the government's own Green Vehicle Guide website, and unless I'm mistaken, not one of the 20 greenest cars currently sold in Australia is made here. The best selling car in Australia is Holden's (General Motors) Commodore (shown above). A 60th year anniversary model was released this year, which has more than twice the fuel consumption of a Toyota Prius. It spews out 252grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre, where as the Prius is a far more modest 106 CO2 g/km. So clearly the mindset of Australian car buyers and manufacturers has been very slow to plan for a brave new world.

Could this recession/depression we are teetering on the edge of, be the best thing that could've happened to reduce unchecked growth and limit greenhouse gas emissions?

It sure isn't going to feel like the best thing for many people caught up in its every expanding web. And I'm reminded of the words in a Sarah McLachlan song World on Fire: "The more we take, the less we become. The fortune of one man means less for some."

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