Blog Action Day

by Brendan Strong

Originally, from the Other Place

It started simply enough – one of my best friends emails to let me know about Blog Action Day. Bloggers around the world (12,316 at last count) are going to devote a post on Monday, October 15th to environmental issues. I joke immediately – So, tens of thousands of bloggers are going to switch on to blog about environmental issues, drawing on the world’s ever-jaded energy reserves. It was twee, I’ll admit. It’s also a cliché at this stage, a cynical (or, I would believe, more cruelly sceptical) pass-remark used over and over in relation to Environmental awareness (remember the criticisms (see controversies and criticism) of Live Earth?). But, then I started thinking: in light of the fact that this is a cliché, is there a need for more awareness of Environmental issues? Or, is the awareness that has been generated actually doing anything?

Awareness or Engagement? Which is the Real Need?
The problem with the ‘Environmental Question’ (as with all issues that seem to divide along Liberal/Conservative lines) is that generating awareness is often a question of preaching to the converted. People who want to be aware tune in. Or, those who want to be true partisans for their political or ideological viewpoint will actively seek out this information. So, we end up with those who always thought it was important telling us it’s even more important now. There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, it’s working in a vacuum. Second, in possibly 8 cases out of 10, all that happens is attempted persuasion (nothing actually gets done, nothing changes).
Working in a vacuum is a common problem with political discourse in many western countries today. Essentially, you’re talking about a political system divided along two lines: Left and Right. Left and Right mean different things to people from different countries, but they run something along the lines of this: Left thinkers believe the State has a duty to its citizens, generally financial, but also in terms of taking responsibility for social issues (behaviour, culture, etc.). On the other hand, Right thinkers will emphasise the need for individual, personal responsibility to be taken for financial and personal well-being. Yes, this is over-simplified, but it provides a rough compass for the purposes of this argument.
The problem in political discourse at the moment is that the Left argues among itself about how Left it should be (meaning different things in different countries), and the Right does the same. When an issue like The Environment arises, each side will agree on its position (We need to worry about it/We don’t need to worry about it), but for different reasons. So, off they go, arguing about why their position is correct, rather than whether it is correct. It’s anecdotal, but a good example (or, more correctly, series of examples) of this is recent discussions I’ve had about the environment:

  • Arguing about the Environment has become a point-scoring exercise for the Left, in terms of who knows most about the damage being done. Sometimes, it will include who suffers most from the damage being done.
  • Arguing about the Environment has become a point-scoring exercise for the Right, in terms of who knows most about why no damage is being done. Sometimes, it will include who understands the most about cosmic rhythms and pre-historic ice shifts.
  • Arguing about the Environment rarely occurs between the Left and the Right. So, the Right don’t hear (whether they refuse to, or whether they are ignorant of it) the Left’s point of view. The Left don’t hear (ditto) the Right’s point of view. Each side listens to the scientists that espouse their own point of view.

What is really required in the Environmental (and many other) argument is an ability to engage with the other side. What is also required (and sadly lacking in all aspects of human endeavor) is a willingness to be rational, and communicate properly during such an engagement. It’s easy to say “I’ll engage!” but then say “I engaged, but they’re all mad! You won’t believe what they say (because I certainly didn’t)!” An open mind, armed with rational thought, is the only way forward. But, of course, this is someone on the Left talking. So, many on the Right would say this is hippy talk, at best, and hysterical at worst.
The scientists will bash it out, anyway. Armed with test tubes, spectrometers and research grants, they line up their armies, take aim and prepare to fire interns and research grads at each other, like so much cannon fodder. The columnists will take the information they get from their generals (or, more commonly, disregard any information that has the slightest relationship to fact) and grab our attention. We, then, go to the pub and say “I was reading today in the — about the Environment. Their columnist is very good, you know.”
Only to be told either:

  • “Well, I read in the — that polar bears have turned gay because the warming of the environment has tricked their brains into thinking that other bears are of the opposite sex. It’s based on research into the effect of alcohol heating up the human brain.”
  • Or, “Well, I read all polar bears are turning gay because they’ve over populated. It’s very common and occurred no less than 35.7 million years ago.”

Either way, we’re talking about the opinions of columnists in the — or the —, who espouse what we believe, and so further our need to be more ‘informed about the fact’ (a great irony of modern life – we all want to be more informed, but prefer to disregard what those who disagree with us might say). But, we never appear to get more informed than the facts and opinions provided by those we agree with. The problem we face will require engagement of the ‘Other side’ before anything gets done. This thought terrifies me.

A Time for Awareness or a Time for Action?
Al Gore, accepting the Nobel prize awarded to him and the IPCC (See the BBC News website for more details) said “I will be doing everything I can to try to understand how to best use the honour and recognition of this award as a way of speeding up the change in awareness, and the change in urgency.” But what does this mean? Are we to hear more spokespeople on the radio, more articles in the papers telling us how much of a problem global warming is? I don’t mean to be cynical, but in fairness, if this is what it means, then we can also expect more spokespeople on the radio, more articles in the papers, telling us what a load of cobblers the ‘global warming threat’ is. While I believe something should be done, I would sing along with the Live Earth critics – what is this awareness doing? Of the people I know that would mention the Problem of the Environment (usually mentioned in passing), only one has actually done anything. She has stopped using hazardous chemicals when cleaning her house (e.g. bleach), takes public transport despite having a usable driver’s license, tries to choose ‘environmentally friendly’ options in every minutiae of her life. The rest of us wring our hands and wonder, what can be done?
And indeed, what can be done? Turning off light bulbs and TVs is probably a good idea, but is also probably much less than a drop in the ocean. Fifty years ago, the same was being done, but for different reasons (war, rationing, etc.). Climate issues have continued apace. What is required now is real political action – and worldwide action.
What is missing is, at best, real political belief. At worst, we’re missing real political dedication. Grants for alternative fuels and other ‘green’-based activity would appear to derive more from concern for the future of fossil fuels than the need to address the environmental issues. But what political force will really address environmental issues? I thought this a great way to end a paragraph, so that I could provide my end-of-discussion conclusions. But, man plans, God laughs. This coming from an agnostic. The thought terrifies me.

So Where Do I Stand?
In Straw Dogs, John Gray (School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics) argues the point perfectly. My take of his argument is as follows:
Our problem is one of perception. We believe we have responsibility for the planet, thus inferring we are masters of the planet. But this is incorrect. We have a parasitic relationship to the planet, taking what we need and replacing what we feel is ‘right’. Generally, we plant trees to make up for the burning of fossil fuels, rape of women in war torn countries, McDonald’s, oil, war and human intolerance for other humans. So, in one sense we over-compensate for what we feel we have inflicted on the planet. Hooray, us!
However, if we understand ourselves as dependent on earth, we start to see that trees generally plant themselves. We can (and do) intervene, planting trees ourselves. But, left to their own devices, they would plant away, propagate, grow, die. Such is life. We humans have rational thinking among our talents. This lets us take things we find around us, and make other things with it. We move matter from one place to another and generate billions in revenue in the process. We really are brilliant. But we really are parasites. Our existence depends on the earth – the earth isn’t depending on us. Unfortunately, this is our relationship with our own existence. Which means, we have to do something. It’s not a question of being ‘responsible’ for ‘Mother Earth’ or ‘Mother Nature’. It’s a question of ensuring our own survival on a planet that can destroy us, should it need to, so that balance can be restored. Not new-age ‘balance’. This is a balance based on physical, chemical and biological sciences. Once we over-tilt, we fall over the edge. Like any other parasite, we will be destroyed before the body we inhabit.