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Philosophy of climate change inaction

By Kellie Tranter - posted Monday, 21 January 2008

We will look for leaders who "pretend to act" so that we get moral satisfaction of saying what we know to be right, without the discomfort of doing it. George Monbiot.

Recently I wandered the halls of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, looking at the relics of civilisations that have long ceased to exist. Each room represented a different era in human "civilisation" but it seemed to me that from the Stone Age on history kept repeating itself. Dug up from each bygone era and occupying each room were the utensils, means of travel, weapons, musical instruments, writing tools, trinkets and trophies of each society that rose and fell. It made me think. Why is it that humans can carve trinkets that survive millenia but societies can't save themselves? Are humans capable of creating a vision for the planet that extends beyond their own existence or self-interest?

Unfortunately, we seem to behave like pathogenic micro-organisms or tumour cells: as our basic living conditions are satisfied we multiply and we develop further expectations and needs; once they are satisfied the larger population develops even greater wants, and the process continues to increase exponentially until the combination of increased population with increased expectations exhausts or overwhelms the resources available and kills the host.


Unless their hand is forced most humans seem to be incapable of giving things up or cutting back or living only with what they need. And at an individual level humans fail to recognise their own personal contribution to the overall problem.

Even our world leaders use language like "We as a nation must ..." instead of "I, like you, must ..." As Jared Diamond has said, "In societies where the elites do not suffer from the consequences of their decisions, but can insulate themselves, the elite are more likely to pursue their short-term interests, even though that may be bad for the long-term interests of the society, including the children of the elite themselves".

The plunder of the earth is legitimised if a resource has a market and can be owned. To balance this, many who care about the planet have suggested forcing decision makers to consider the planet's plight by imputing various costs for national income accounting purposes, but it hasn't happened and probably won't. Decisions that affect the planet are made by and for people with manifestly myopic worldviews, who profess to rely on economic data that they clearly don't fully understand and who lack the personal courage to expose themselves to vulnerable positions, like defending a forest or unpolluted river if a treasury's skewed cost-benefit analysis recommends development.

But how do you tell humans to shrink and share? How do you convince people that the methodology of modern economics ignores man's dependence on the natural world? I guess the answer, dear Henry, is that you can't. A good friend of mine described this phenomenon in this way, "Society, Kellie, is like a wrench ... it is designed to go only one way ... you cannot turn around the climate change supertanker unless humans discover how to deconstruct".

So what would it take to deconstruct? That is to say, what is the solution? Well, I'm not a scientist but I do know that self-interested attitudes of all of us - including you and me - make our governments afraid of making the tough decisions that are in the best interests both of the planet and of all people in all parts of the world. And it still holds true, as author Marilyn Waring wrote in 1988, that "... governments are controlled by the brothers of the men who control the corporate businesses, so governments are unlikely to decide optimally".

We all know the problems but individual selfishness means we are not prepared to become part of the solution.


Imagine the popular reaction to a leader who said we can save the planet but we will need, among other things:

  • a new model for economics that values natural capital;
  • constitutionally enshrined protection of the environment;
  • a polluter pays system that incorporates the real cost of pollution;
  • to restrict advertising to “information” rather than “creating desires to consume”;
  • population control;
  • to tax vehicles that do not meet environmental standards;
  • to remove cars from cities;
  • to immediately include the pollution from aviation, shipping, overseas trade and tourism in official pollution figures;
  • to decarbonise energy supplies;
  • to encourage new ways of living;
  • institutional restructuring;
  • to change basic systems of production and consumption;
  • to design new systems of housing and transport;
  • compulsory environmental labels informing customers of the environmental consequences of their purchases;
  • industry wide standards in packaging and energy efficiency; and
  • to invest superannuation monies in environmentally sustainable infrastructure and adaptation plans.

It would not be well received because we don't like change, we don't like discomfort and we try to avoid personal consequences. That is why governments still approve the opening of new mines and coal fired power stations, that is why outdated figures are used in and exclusions made from non-binding global emission targets and that is why, in time, the relics of our civilisation will take their place in some future Hermitage where visitors will marvel at how humans learned so little from their own history.

They will see the room containing our relics and wonder why with the means at our disposal we didn't take the obvious steps to save ourselves.

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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