Left to right: Anna Rose, Naomi Oreskes, (See wikipedia.org/wiki/Naomi_Oreskes) and Nick Minchin

3 May 2012 – OK, OK, it’s a week old now, but why can’t I get that program on the ABC that had Nick Minchin and Anna Rose head-to-head trying to change each other’s mind on global warming, and the associated Q&A program with a host of others with strong and not so strong opinions?  You can still catch the program here and the Q&A here

On one level it was simply good entertainment.  But that’s not it.  There is more.  So much wrapped up, stuff that is deeper and more disturbing; in what we saw.  Why, for something we need to get right one way or another, is there so much misdirected energy and angst and point-scoring?  Can’t we do better than this?  It is one thing to disagree, and say so, and go our separate ways.  But that is not what is happening here.  Yes, that’s what is really scary – there was, if not anger, so much virulence.

Trying to put just one “take” on it, to find one answer to fit all that it says about us is difficult.  And perhaps not really very sensible and maybe trying to do so is part of the problem.  Reducing complexities to simplicities again and thus not getting the right answers or directions we need.  But one does start to wonder whether what we saw is not really just about ‘climate change’ or ‘the environment’ or ‘sustainability’, but has a wider meaning.  A description of what our time is really about, of where we are really at as a society.  A wider malaise where we are prepared to put aside such a pressing issue and instead direct our energies to, to, to… well, what exactly?  Where does this all come from?

Let us speculate for a moment that it is almost like a projection, born of an irresolution to that eternal question, the biggest issue of all:  how shall we live – with ourselves and with each other and with our planet?  A dissonance.  Let us also speculate that really, we do know what we should be doing.  The researcher on the program, Rebecca Huntley, seemed to provide evidence for this from her qualitative discussions with the populace at large.  We are after all an inherent part of the natural world, if alas somewhat disembedded from it.

Our sensing bodies do still tell our minds things it might not want to know (hear or see or feel).  And yet we do not act.  Is that what leads to a frustration, indeed an anger, within ourselves?  For some it is a knowing that is on the surface, being faced.  For others it is a little deeper, but recognised.  Perhaps for others the knowing is far, far down – but we still know.  We still know that we are doing wrong.  We are grabbing more than our fair share and using cheap and easy but dirty technologies but like an addict it is just too hard to give up.  Especially if so and so, who you know, is charging along, conspicuous in their consumptive success – you’ve got to keep up!

And so then the cognitive dissonance thing kicks in – that particular and well-developed ability we have as humans to, when we know that what we are doing is not what we should be doing, change our mental explanations and justification for those actions and behaviours rather than change the behaviour itself.  We are particularly adept at finding all sorts of explanations, indeed excuses – wild and fanciful; or measured and full of data (often paraded as facts even when they are not); or given strength as beliefs, philosophical or ideological (like the communal over the individual, or big government versus small, or vica-versa, etc, etc) – to assist us to avoid the hard yards, the necessary change of consumptive habits etc.  Our patterns!

Yes, I think we saw lots of that the other night.  Have a look also at the results of the online survey the ABC has been running since.  Scary.  I’m alright Jack (most of us are, living here in Australia), so let’s not think too hard about those doing it tough.  It’s their fault anyway, for not trying hard enough in this land, world, of opportunity.  But then that deep down knowing that we in the West do need to reduce our consumption levels.  It is totally naive to suggest that the millions in China and India etc can ever have the consumption we have.  There just isn’t that much to go around.  But they do need to have their wants and needs better met.  And to do so, we need to reduce.  As we know.  But will we do it?

And so we come to the idea of transactional and transformational change.  In relation to sustainability we can see transactional change all around us.  Wacking on some solar panels or a water tank onto a bigger-than-really-necessary house.  Or perhaps some (expensive) smart glass to cut the heat loading on those bigger-than-really-necessary windows.  You can see it too on garbage night.

The jam-packed garbage bins and the jam-packed recycling bins that have just become another easy way to get rid of our bigger-than-really-necessary piles of waste.  Whatever happened to reduce, reuse and (only then) recycle?  And perhaps transaction is simply too what the “middle ground” that Nick apparently came to in relation to green energy (and which Nick wrote about in the following morning’s Sydney Morning Herald).  Only to be adopted when the dirty stuff runs out.

And why can’t we have some of that well-known and well-honed other human trait of “risk management”?  Act now as if those predictions might indeed come to pass. If it wasn’t really necessary after all – then it doesn’t matter.  We’ve improved our environmental outcomes in other areas that we know we should be addressing anyway in the process.  And if it was necessary – hopefully we will never know because we will have averted it and so will not have to experience it.  It depends I guess on the sense of urgency you feel, and so we go round…

Greg Paine is a Sydney resident