Wherever you look…

It is now possible to buy capsules filled with 24-carat gold leaf which, when swallowed, make your excrement sparkle. Created by the New York designer Tobias Wong, the gold pills are promoted as a signifier of excess and a means of ‘increasing your self-worth’ – although presumably for only as long as the digestion process takes.

The quotation from Clive Hamilton‘s, Requiem For A Species (of which more later) just about sums up my week, which has not been a good one for the child of the Cosmos. A cursory glance around the tiny pocket of space-time that we call home is enough to confirm our determination to render it uninhabitable for what might well be the only species conscious of its own consciousness in the whole Universe. As children, barely out of the cradle, we started playing with dangerous grown-up toys, unsupervised, and now it looks increasingly certain that we won’t give ourselves the chance to evolve beyond the petulant, quarrelsome young teenagers that we are. 

A few weeks ago the media circus assembled in Yokohama for the IPCC to trundle out the 1,600 pages of its latest report — and no one noticed. Today you won’t find any trace of that report on the front page of the Guardian’s environment section. In Le Monde (under Planète) there’s an article on an initiative by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network which includes a link to a piece on section 3 of the IPCC report. This is hardly the seething debate of revolution. In any case IPCC #4 was out of date before it was printed: hardly a week goes by without the publication of new research or yet another book condemning the IPCC for its hopelessly optimistic numbers and lack of plain language. In fact the IPCC has become part of the problem because — woefully inadequate as it may be — it is the benchmark. With admirable scientific correctness all its numbers are expressed as averages within a range of probabilities, so the politicians have no difficulty picking the lowest possible numbers; and that’s before they start watering them down.

Meanwhile, UK shale gas exploration company Cuadrilla has been given the green light to test oil extraction in Balcombe, at the prime minister’s insistence: 

Why has it taken so long in the UK and Europe, compared with the US? We can ponder that, or alternatively we can just do what this government is doing, which is to roll up the sleeves, simplify the process, make the permissions easier, getting on with getting some wells moving. By the end of this year, there should be some unconventional gas wells up and running that we can demonstrate, and I think the enthusiasm for it will grow. So I’m confident we’ll win the argument, not least by sort of demonstrating that this is a good technology that will be good for our country.

Thus said Cameron in March, wilfully and completely missing the point: at a time when everyone agrees (or at least pretends to) that CO2 emissions need to be reduced radically and very quickly, it makes no sense to open up a whole new industry sector to provide even more of the stuff! That surely ought to be a no-brainer.

In fact the UK’s decision over fracking is a perfect illustration of the way climate change as an issue is being tackled everywhere: i.e. arse-about-face, as a function of the existing, totally inappropriate economic structure and not — as it should be — in terms of ethics. This is one of the salient points to emerge from Hamilton’s book, which incidentally is subtitled “Why we resist the truth about climate change”. Corporate cynicism knows no bounds, half truths are their stock in trade. Take “clean coal” for example: the idea is that the associated CO2 emissions have been captured and stocked underground. The industry claims it has:

…invested more than $50 billion in emission-reducing technology over the past 30 years. The emissions reductions in question [however] have nothing to do with climate change but are a response to government regulations requiring reduction in air pollutants like sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide.

Clean coal technology is still on the drawing board. Then again, when growing sales of SUVs began to produce a backlash of complaints about excessive petrol consumption General Motors produced an advert with a shiny new SUV sitting on an icefloe surrounded by happy-looking polar bears, penguins and whales. In 2004 the Wall Street Journal lamented that “many affluent Europeans just do not want to spend their spare time shopping” (p.72). Consumers can express their preferences through their choice of product — never mind that citizens might prefer to express themselves by voting a bunch of duff policy makers out of office. And so on and so on. The blurring of the lines between citizens’ right and consumers’ obligations is deliberate, relentless and successful.

Another major point raised by Hamilton is the extent to which the consumer society has spun out of control:

Over the last two decades the fastest growing segment of US commercial real estate has been the self-storage industry. […T]he number of self-storage facilities around the country grew by 81% in the six years to 2006. (In Australia it grew by 10% a year […] and in Britain by an astonishing 35% annually.)

Why? So diligently have people bought into the idea that spare time is shopping time, so incredibly, stupidly enthusiastic have they become about buying, buying, buying that they own more damn stuff than they can get into their homes!

I have yet to read Hamilton’s chapters on The four-degree world and Reconstructing a future but I can guess where he’s going. As he says in his preface:

After a decade of little real action, and even with a very optimistic assessment of the likelihood of the world taking the necessary action and in the absence of so-called unknown unknowns, catastrophic climate change is now virtually certain.

Requiem For A Species is an attempt to understand how we reached the present situation in which the extinction of our own species has become a very real possibility. It’s as fascinating as it is appalling. I just hope there will still be people to read it a hundred years from now.

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