My neighbour Trevor (name changed to protect the well-meaning) is a terrific bloke who cares for the environment he’s a card-carrying member of the Greens to prove it. Trouble is, his daily routine doesn’t always support his philosophy. So he drives to work every day, despite living three minutes’ walk from the train station. His addiction to the wonders of air-conditioning see his apartment super-heated in winter and fridge-like in summer whether he’s in residence or not. There’s not even a ‘No Junk Mail’ sign on his letterbox.
We all know a Trevor or two. Sometimes, there’s a little Trevor in all of us.
And it’s this thoughtless consumption that allows politicians to get away with framing the energy debate about new and dangerous sources rather than about demand and how to reduce it and limit the need for dirty fuels.
But is the answer really just different power? ‘Bite the atomic bullet,’ we’re told, or face blackouts. Monash University’s Professor John Price tells us that our constantly-increasing demands for power are around an additional 300 megawatts a year:
In a decade, that is the equivalent of the Loy Yang A and B power stations in the Latrobe Valley.
Why is no one suggesting the obvious idea of reducing consumption?
Maybe because talking about reducing demand drastically reducing demand, not just tinkering around the edges as with the Victorian Government’s new campaign to save energy by switching off appliances properly would be political suicide.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter told the American people that they worshiped self-indulgence and consumption:
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
His solution to the oil crisis may be more than a quarter of a century old, but it rings true today:
I’m asking you for your good and for your nation’s security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense I tell you it is an act of patriotism.
This ‘crisis of confidence’ speech was widely seen as politically inept and badly timed, and the American people in 1980 reacted to the sapping of their confidence by decisively passing power to Ronald Reagan who along with making Americans feel better about their rampant consumption promptly ordered the solar panels Carter had installed on the White House roof to be dismantled and the wood-burning stove to be removed from the living quarters.
These days, politicians and policy makers are far too savvy to suggest people need to alter their behaviour. Reagan vandalised the White House, George W Bush has spread the mayhem globally, with an adventurist foreign policy that’s led to $US70-a-barrel crude oil price and ‘solutions’ that include drilling for oil in national parks.
Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2006 will be remembered for the line ‘America is addicted to oil.’ But does any part of the solution include using less energy? No. ‘The best way to break this addiction is through technology,’ according to the President.
John Howard also believes in a technology fix that includes carbon geo-sequestration and the holy grail of clean coal power (which is the most unlikely ever to be achieved).
Carter’s political lesson has been learned all too well you can’t ask people to consume less.
We’re in denial. We resent the suggestion that we might put a jumper on if it’s cold rather than turning up the heater. Even the Greens the obvious political Party to run with the idea of people reducing their consumption wouldn’t touch this with a bargepole. To do so, would risk being pilloried in the News Ltd press and by the Howard Government as willing to let the economy grind to a halt.
Greens Leader, Bob Brown will urge the Government to start replacing coal with solar but it’s the same solution the nuclear proponents are spruiking just a different replacement energy. It’s a bandaid and doesn’t address the issue of ever-escalating demand. Sure, the Greens will tell us to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. But their energy policy only talks about demand reduction in terms of ‘waste avoidance,’ and doesn’t address issues of over-consumption at all.
Our economy is premised on the need for growth constant growth. We need to be constantly producing and consuming more of everything. There are obvious environmental limits to this process. In the end whether it’s tomorrow or in 500 years we’ll run out of the raw materials to keep making more and more stuff.
And does constantly consuming more make for a happier, healthier society? Perhaps like the King of Bhutan we need to talk more about Gross National Happiness, and less about Gross National Product.
Problem is, politicians who raise these ideas are going to be widely lambasted as idiots who don’t understand economics. The idea that ‘happiness takes precedence over economic prosperity?’ Mad. Mark Latham tried to suggest that:
the treadmill of work and the endless accumulation of material goods have not necessarily made people happier. In many cases, it has denied them the time and pleasures of family life, replacing strong and loving social relationships with feelings of stress and alienation.
Mad. People might be happier with less material goods? Mad, mad, mad.
If people start believing that endless consumption (‘affluenza’) is not the path to happiness, and start consuming less, what would this do to the economy? We’ve been trained to believe the economy must grow and that the effect of people finding alternate paths to happiness would be devastating.
The Government wishing to stay in power wouldn’t want to contemplate this. The Opposition wishing to gain power has already been tarred with the ‘bad economic management’ brush. Frightened and lacking confidence in their own ability to generate ideas, Labor has allowed Beazley and his boosters to huddle in the political space already comfortably occupied by John Howard.
And the Greens don’t want to be painted as any madder than they already have been. They’re also trying to convince the middle ground that they’re a safe alternative Lefter, and Greener, but still, ‘all about the economy, stupid.’
But is the answer dropping out? Nimbin is kinda full. And it’s hard to see Trevor ever being willing to exchange constant air-con for a couple of Samoyeds to warm his yurt.
We need to find ways to be accountable for our use of resources within our neighbourhoods. And we need to find politicians who will make the laws to encourage us.
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