For all the progress made by the climate movement, the majority of us "do" nothing. Australians are disinclined to use public transport. Not many of us cycle or walk to work. We don’t recycle much and we do use a lot of water. We haven’t reduced domestic energy usage and we can’t stop shopping.
These are the findings of the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report Greening Household Behaviour which compares environmental behaviour from 10,000 households in 10 member nations. Australians are among the worst polluters per capita in the world — but the OECD report indicates that almost a majority of Australians are "very concerned" when it comes to various issues around the environment. We are also among the least likely to believe that taking individual action is worthwhile.
Should we look to government, science and technology, or to the environmental movement for action on climate change? Would we be better placed for action if we reflected on who we are as individuals and how we come together as societies. To progress, we need to understand ourselves and what we make together. How you see your place in the world is fundamental to whether or not you perceive climate change as a threat to humanity — and therefore how you advocate and pursue collective and individual action.
We’ve heard plenty about the science surrounding climate change and we’re beginning to understand it. We hear the pleas from various corners and realise that as close to a scientific consensus as possible has been reached. We become "very concerned". We make an assessment of all the available information — and the majority of us decide that we will not do anything. For a long time this was understandable — the science was complicated and forever different in its conclusions and dire predictions. But now, excuses begin to dry up.
Since the 1970s we have been learning more about our world from an ecological viewpoint. In what was a watershed in environmental and social studies we finally understood that humans were not "exceptionalist" as far as the environment is concerned. What developed was an awareness that the natural environment and our human society co-exist in a dynamic relationship. And the links began to emerge between individual and group excesses and our ecological demise.
A new global awareness was built on the back of this understanding. We were asked to "think globally, and act locally". To understand local and global processes. To take more interest — and perhaps to read between the lines of our actions. As the world moved we had to move our understanding with it to interpret and survive. Environmentally we saw that our waste damaged precious ecosystems, that our run-off polluted our beaches, and that in general individual actions could have far reaching consequences by themselves, let alone when combined with the weight of the nation or humanity.
Yet the difference between climate change and all other environmental problems is that climate change tests our cognitive ability to de-situate ourselves from our local environment. It challenges our "sense of place". By cutting to the very core of who and where we are, climate change forces us to rethink our place in the world. Effectively, we need to expand our "imagined community" beyond the local and the nation state to the global. "You must all be global citizens," says a changing climate, "if you are to have any hope of conceptualising this problem and pushing for action". Because ultimately if as individuals, no less than as societies, we want to take action on climate change, we need to see the world as one place and everything within interconnected.
And this is the hard bit.
By and large Australians understand the problem and are "very concerned" but we struggle to imagine the global as "local". It is no fault of our own however because for too long we have known isolated weather systems and not interconnected climate. We have understood the day to day processes, the tangible aspects of the physical environment. And we have understood ourselves as Sydneysiders, Novacastrians, "locals" and Australians. We are individuals and we have lives to get on with, bills to pay and careers to forge.
But this problem of climate change demands more from us. It demands that we at least try to understand that each of us matters. It demands that we think beyond what we know. And ultimately it asks us to imagine the world as our local community.
As the government makes a push for legislated collective action to deal with the global problem of climate change the rest of us must do our part. In what many argue, perhaps rightly, is a time too late for individual action, we must actively reflect on ourselves. The individual action we must take now is to recognise that all of us can see ourselves as global citizens. And by doing this hopefully it will make that collective action all the more easy.
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