Climate change symptomatic of our wasteful system


This recession does not have to be the end of the world, just of an unsustainable way of living in it, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

THINGS CAN change for the better. The celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall remind us of that fact. A regime that seems impervious to challenge can topple, sometimes at astonishing speed.

When change on this scale occurs, it is usually because of a confluence of factors that seem unrelated and often insignificant. Small shifts happen, almost invisible at first. Unlikely candidates for heroism, such as shipyard workers, can inspire others to have courage. Unlikely allies, such as churches and left-wingers, can find common cause. Energy begins to build, where once there was only fear, frustration and fatalism.

Of course, no Utopia results, but neither does deadness and stagnation persist. Environmentalists and climate change campaigners may wish to hold on to that thought, as they wait for the UN talks in Copenhagen. These are depressing times for those who have their eyes not just on the impact of the last economic tsunami, but on the truly monstrous wave that will engulf us if we do not take action now.

Having witnessed the results of ignoring the prophets who predicted the current disaster, one would think that there might be a desire to heed the warnings of those who are campaigning for action on climate change. On the other hand, frightened and cynical people have very little appetite for change of any kind, much less radical change.

Most people don’t want to believe that our system is absolutely unsustainable. People want the current system to be fixed up, so that we can get back to where we were before the crash, happy little consumers who think that the tide going out so rapidly is just going to give us more beach on which to sun ourselves.

Our economic system is based on ever-increasing rates of consumption. It is, quite frankly, bonkers. If we lived on a planet with unlimited resources, it might make sense. However, we don’t.

Climate change and damaging emissions are just symptoms of a system that relies on utter wastefulness. The jury is out on whether Victor Lebow, writing in 1955, was describing a reality that shocked him, or suggesting it seriously as a prescription for economic success, but either way, he described perfectly what our economies are based on.

“Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption . . . We need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.” Much of our discussion of our present crisis suggests that we need to restore “consumer confidence” and encourage people to go out and spend. Few point out that that is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place. Still fewer remind us that as a long-term strategy, it is akin to merrily sawing off the branch you are sitting on. No, it’s more like sawing off the legs you are standing on.

It is not just about fossil fuels. We extract 60 billion tons of raw materials from the crust of the earth each year. Environmental degradation and instability result, not to mention extinction of species and harm to humans.

A United Nations university (Tokyo) study in 2004 into the environmental impact of personal computers, found that to manufacture one desktop computer and monitor requires at least 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of chemicals and 1,500kg of water.

In terms of weight, the total amount of materials used is about equal to that of a mid-size car. Even though manufacturing methods have improved, the shocking fact is after all that, many PCs wind up in landfill.

At the moment, a healthy economy relies on people buying lots of goods that they do not really need, that are designed not to last and that use finite resources and pollute our planet. If that is not a definition of insanity, what is? Already, water is becoming more precious as a commodity than oil. Ensuring that even wealthy nations have enough food to feed themselves is no longer taken for granted.

It is encouraging to see the Irish bishops producing a pastoral letter on climate change, The Cry of the Earth, which promotes values such as distributive justice, and solidarity with the poor. It uses the evocative word “creation” rather than “environment”.

Creation has a dignity and magnificence which must be respected and protected.

In Poland and East Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Catholic and Lutheran churches respectively played a central role. Sadly, the Irish Catholic Church, in the wake of scandals and with more revelations still to come, has scarcely a fraction of the credibility of the Polish Catholic Church of the late 20th century.

However, Irish churches are still a significant influence on many people. Alternative sources of energy are vital in the physical world, but another, less tangible source of energy is needed if people are to overcome inertia and take action.

Spiritual values can provide that energy.

Already, primary schools under religious patronage, that is, the vast majority of primary schools in the Republic, are enthusiastic supporters of the Green Flag programme. Small changes are happening.

The good news of Fr Michael Sinnott’s release is a reminder that many missionaries working abroad where environmental degradation is a huge issue have become vocal advocates for the poor and vulnerable who, as usual, suffer most.

For example, it was after working among the T’Boli people in the Philippines, and witnessing the impact on these indigenous people of the destruction of habitats there, that Fr Sinnott’s fellow Columban Fr Seán McDonagh began his lifelong commitment to environmental issues.

The irony is that a green economy also presents the greatest possibility of recovery from our current crisis. In fact, it is the only feasible way forward, if only because we cannot continue to be completely reliant on imported fossil fuels that will become increasingly scarce.

Things can change for the better. We don’t have to continue to seek our spiritual and ego satisfaction in destruction, consumption and waste.

This recession does not have to be the end of the world, but just of an unsustainable way of living in the world.