Making Our Environment Matter (Again)

30 04 2010

After a week away from blogging it now seems clear that this has not been the “green election” that many had hoped for. Neither has it been the first “internet election”. The campaign has been dominated by television and presidential style debates.

At least the news hasn’t been dominated solely by election coverage. The Icelandic Volcano eruption of a fortnight back provided many of us with a welcome distraction from the endless speculation over things like what colour tie David Cameron would wear for the big occasion and the meaning behind Gordon Brown wearing purple. Until at least the Volcano started to get a bit boring tooo. This article in the New Statesman by Slavoj Zizek provokes some serious thought. Zizek writes that there is:

[S]omething deceptively reassuring in this readiness to assume responsibility for the threats to our environment. We like to feel guilty because that suggests everything depends on us – if we pull the strings of the catastrophe, then we can save ourselves simply by changing our lives. The ongoing volcanic outburst is a reminder that our ecological troubles cannot be reduced to our hubris, to our disturbing the balanced order of earth.

Nature is chaotic and prone to wild, unpredictable and meaningless disasters, and we are exposed to its merciless whims – there is no Mother Earth watching over us. Indeed, in the case of a volcano, the danger comes from inside the bowels of the earth; from beneath our feet, not from outer space. We have nowhere to withdraw.

These three short paragraphs summarise a great deal of how many, myself included, see the challenges ahead and how to best deal with them:

Even if we blame scientific-technological civilisation for global warming, we need the same science not only to define the scope of the threat, but also, often, to perceive it in the first place. The “ozone hole”, for example, can be “seen” in the sky only by scientists. That line from Wagner’s Parsifal – “Die Wunde schliest der Speer nur, der Sie schlug” (“The wound can only be healed by the spear that made it”) – acquires a new relevance here.

How much can we “safely” pollute our environment? How many fossil fuels can we burn? How much of a poisonous substance does not threaten our health? That our knowledge has limitations does not mean we shouldn’t exaggerate the ecological threat. On the contrary, we should be even more careful about it, given that the situation is extremely unpredictable. The recent uncertainties about global warming signal not that things are not too serious, but that they are even more chaotic than we thought, and that natural and social factors are inextricably linked.

Either we take the threat of ecological catastrophe seriously and decide today to do things that, if the catastrophe does not occur, will appear ridiculous, or we do nothing and risk losing everything if the catastrophe does take place. The worst response would be to apply
a limited range of measures – in that case, we will fail whatever happens.

A call to action indeed. This is not a time to sideline our climate for short-term populist point-scoring over issues such as immigration and marginal national insurance increases. Whichever party wins the election must act decisively and commit to confronting difficult decisions relating to climate change head on.

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