Saturday, March 28, 2015

How many fossil-fuel enthusiasts does it take to change a light bulb?

Together in electric dreams (2012) Kodakotype by Pants

I googled 'I hate Earth Hour' and came up with surprisingly little. 'Surely,' I remarked to The Question Why, 'I can't be the only person who thinks this cynical and frankly pathetic gesture is worthy of at least a couple of kilowatts of scathing commentary.'

Earth Hour originated here in Australia. We excel at hypocrisy, glazed in pointlessness with a cherry of irony on top. Today, many of us will rush to our dazzling strip-lit mega-stores in our gas-guzzlers to purchase solar lamps recently arrived on container ships from China via a bit of recreational coral crushing on our endangered Great Barrier Reef. With these, we will illuminate our concrete patios where we will char energy-intensive bits of meat on grills fired by bottled gas.

Tonight we will want all of our neighbours to know that we care about the environment so much that we are prepared to sacrifice all common sense to tokenism. This, friends, is what makes us Australians. From our bogus foundation myths to our collective self-delusion that we are a fair-minded and compassionate people, we go to remarkable lengths to project the illusion that we are the polar opposite of our true selves. I often think it would so much easier just to do the right thing in the first place.

Even as we bask in solar-powered self-congrats, our political 'leaders' are squabbling over how low a Renewable Energy Target they can set and still keep a straight face while intoning, 'we take our environmental responsibilities very seriously.' Now, to TQW and me, this is a bit like arguing over how few children you can get away with educating or how many tonnes of raw sewage you can dump in Sydney Harbour before someone cries foul. Why would a government even go there when most voters were happy with the original target which, incidentally, said government had made an election promise to retain? In any sane domain, a wealth of free renewable resources coupled with a high youth unemployment rate and enthusiastic consumer demand would add up to a very big business opportunity. This conundrum so perplexed us here at Seat of Pants, that The Question Why and I decided to do a little non-extractive digging of our own.

According to a study conducted by researchers from Oxford University,  our 22 dirtiest coal-fired power stations account for nearly one quarter of our total carbon emissions. Half of these power stations are owned by just four companies. And surprise, surprise, the heads of these companies have been very enthusiastically contributing to the 'review' of the Renewable Energy Target. If they cared as much for the futures of their grandchildren as they appear to do for their potentially stranded assets, we might be in with a chance of saving the planet - something we apparently care just enough about to turn off our lights for one whole hour once a year. Gaia love a committed people.

TQW and I have both recently read Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything. We wish. Klein clearly hasn't been to Australia or she might understand that change seems as likely as snowballs hitting the sun. All it takes to screw with following the sensible and moral path to clean energy, which most of us actually want, is a couple of very bad people waving wads of cash and empty threats in the faces of our brainless, spineless politicians. So we content ourselves with distractions like Earth Hour.

Klein reminds us of the devious activities of some of the most gross, pilfering mega-wealthy who, not satisfied with fleecing us, are now determined to pull the wool they stole from under our eyes right back over those eyes. Back in 2007, 'Sir' Richard Branson launched Earth Challenge, offering a US$25 million prize for a technological climate fix,

'Could it be possible,' he pleaded as he playfully tossed a plastic globe up in the air, 'to find someone on Earth who could devise a way of removing the lethal amount of CO2 from the Earth's atmosphere?'

(Sure Richie Rich, don't put it there in the first place. Cayman Islands bank account details winging their way to you now.)

It did not surprise us to learn that the $25m prize money is as Virgin as the day it was minted. We are also reminded of Branson's 2006 pledge to spend US$3 billion over the following decade on new technologies to tackle global warming,

...  so that we can hopefully reverse the inevitability of, you know, of destroying the world if we let it carry on the way it's going.' (Klein, P231). The money would ostensibly come from 'the profits generated by Virgin's fossil fuel-burning transportation lines.'

Eight years later, we learn that less than $300 million has gone into saving us from, you know, destroying the world. Oh well, shit happens and all that. Of course, Branson might argue that he did specify the money would come from the 'profits' of his CO2-spewing conveyances rather than his personal wealth, (US4.9 billion currently according to Forbes). Having to rough it on a mere US$1.9 billion vs. inevitable, you know, destruction? We can see that would be a tough choice. P.S. if you've ever flown on Virgin and paid for a carbon offset - you've been, you know, had.

We at Seat of Pants count ourselves among the sceptics who have concluded, 

'Branson's various climate adventures may indeed prove to have all been a spectacle, a Virgin production, with everyone's favourite billionaire playing the part of the planetary saviour to build his brand, land on late-night TV, fend off regulators, and feel good about doing bad.' (Klein P251)

Which brings us back to Earth Hour. It strikes us as grossly unfair that everyone is expected to make the same, er, sacrifice no matter how much CO2 they emit. We don't much like the inference that we are all equally and individually responsible for the parlous state of the planet. According to a longitudinal study of 300 countries over a forty-year period, the top 500 million richest people are responsible for half the world's polluting emissions. On our fairness calculator, that means the Bransons of this world should probably live in darkness for the rest of their days and we heartily wish they would. Meanwhile, those of us who bother to watch what we consume all year round deserve to go on burning our single, energy-saving light bulb right on through 8.30-9.30pm tonight - and we will.

We have also recently read Linda Tirado's Hand to Mouth:The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World. It is a terrific, defiant and often hilarious book about which we'll write more another time. Tirado resists being guilt-tripped into pointless environmental gestures which she rightly identifies as a middle-class vanity,

'... being poor means that you are inherently unwasteful. Poor people can't afford to buy a ton of extraneous shit and then throw it away barely used. So I don't really see the need to make the environment My Issue.'

We agree. We are far from poor but neither are we flush, (Barney has had a punishing week on the Futures market). We do know that poor people tend to pay much more for electricity and gas. If you are moving around between rental properties or you have a bad or non-existent credit history, you may have to pay security deposits for utilities which may be difficult to get a refund on. We have lived with coin gas meters and pay-in-advance electricity and done our washing at laundrettes so we know how much more expensive it is to live without savings. Financial stability is cost effective. There are substantial discounts for paying utility bills on time.

On the face of it, we seem to have gone off topic. Allow us to draw the threads together and hopefully affect a, you know, conclusion. The 'this' that changes everything of Naomi Klein's thesis is the vital and urgent need for the global majority to wrench back the levers of political influence from the capitalist puppet masters who would send us all to hell in a coal wagon. Klein contends that the clear and present threat of irreversible climate change could be the unifying motive for mass action to reset our political systems and in that sense, could be a gift,

'We know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backward; it behaves as if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels, and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions), while insisting that there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible; the financial resources that human institutions manufacture, and that, if imagined differently could build the kind of caring society we need... a broken bank is a crisis we can fix; a broken Arctic we cannot.' (Klein P347).

Let's change that, as opposed to the climate. Rather than observe Earth Hour, we've joined 350.Org's Go Fossil Free Campaign and signed The Guardian's Divestment Petition. We already have a 'green' energy supplier and we will get solar panels if and when the political goal posts stop moving for long enough for us to analyse the cost/benefit - given that we use so little electricity anyway. Just like every other day of the year, we won't be wasting electricity or water or food or anything else for that matter.