The Rise of the Hypocrite 

Image credit: Chris Riddell, The Observer, 20/12/09

Once you become a…

Wait – what’s a punchy noun for this? “Green” is fine as an adjective but as a noun it sounds political. “A Frog In A Pot”? Well, no, because most people won’t know what the hell you’re on about and anyway it’s a better term for people who haven’t caught climatitis yet. “Climatitis” is good, saw that in the Guardian somewhere, but it’s not something you can be so much as something you can have.

You know what, I can think of one myself… I’m gonna go with “carbon-head”. All those in favour? Just me? Motion carried. So.

Once you become a carbon-head you start to think differently about everything. And it’s the strangest feeling, because to become a carbon-head is to understand that we don’t live in a sustainable society, and the use-by on the package is much sooner than some of us, or our children, would really like to live. At the very least we will absolutely lose our Western way of life; at worst we will all lose our lives altogether. In short, The End Of The World Is Nigh. Hey where can I pick up one of those sandwich boards?

But it’s very much like having Cassandra Syndrome, or indeed being one of those doomsday religious types (do we still have those?): you know that a serious global disaster is coming, of an apocalyptic scale, the gigadeath, even, but nobody else seems to know it or believe it.

There are two particular circumstances where I notice this most acutely. The first is when people talk about the future.

*

“I’m hoping to move back home to East Anglia eventually.”

“Are you crazy?! What about the floods? Where will your children flee?”

*

“I wonder what smartphones are gonna look like in 50 years.”

“Pretty bleak isn’t it? If we’re lucky someone might work out a way to power up the old Morse networks.”

*

“My pension is invested in oil and gas – they’re pretty stable funds overall.”

“Hahaha good one. Hahahahahahahaha.”

*

In case you didn’t get that joke, it’s funny because if those funds keep growing – if the Carbon Bubble never bursts – it’ll mean that between now and my friend’s retirement, humanity never gives up fossil fuels. That means colossal global warming, to the point that if we’re not all dead yet we might as bloody well be. Hahahahahahahahahaha.

But arguably much worse than badly thought out futurism is badly thought out, uh, presentism; because by definition it’s relevant right now. This is the second situation: where an obvious opportunity to counter climate change or at least discuss it appears, and everybody misses the cue.

*

“We have yet to decide whether Heathrow should have a third runway… Or we need another new London airport.”

*

“That was our correspondent reporting on the current situation in Europe. We now have Amber Rudd in the studio, cabinet secretary for energy and climate change. So, Amber Rudd… What do you think about the current situation in Europe?”

*

“For the foreseeable future, coal is the foundation of our prosperity.”

*

That last one was self-described “conservationist” Tony Abbott, Australia Prime Minister, in case you need his name on a list to give your kids when they ask you who fucked the planet.

So from your new, ethically-sourced ivory tower you may permit yourself a moment to laugh with incredulity at the cognitive dissonance of the world’s inhabitants… Until you realise that until like a week ago you were one of them. What car do you drive? Where do you buy your energy? Who did you vote for? Oh crap. The difference between cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy is self-awareness. Welcome to the fold. Maybe we are all frogs in a pot after all.

So it’s time to do something about this. First order of business: write your own name under Tony Abbott’s on that list to give your kids. Now. Let’s get out there and make a difference! Tomorrow. Or perhaps after the weekend…

Look, I am one lazy-ass frog. And I realised shortly after becoming a carbon-head that my sudden enthusiasm for the climate mission didn’t extend to a desire to make any actual change to my lifestyle. It took me a while pondering over this to realise that my problem is actually quite a lot more nuanced than that, and perhaps you can relate to it.

There are so many aspects of our lives that have a negative environmental impact that it becomes overwhelmingly difficult, if not impossible, to fully decarbonise your existence in a hurry. In fact, in the moment you realise that, you also start to understand why entire countries are struggling with it so much.

And much like the many nations of the world, the way you end up dealing with this is by abandoning the whole idea and carrying on as you were. You can’t switch to a zero carbon lifestyle just like that, because almost nobody is willing or able to make the level of sacrifice that would take.

And even if you did, you still wouldn’t be carbon neutral because you live in a society that very much isn’t. The moment you need anything from anyone, or use any facility or tool that exposes you to the outside world, you lose control over your carbon footprint. Bam! Suddenly you find yourself, metaphorically, casting a lit match into a warehouse-sized vat of unleaded petrol. Could be worse, you’ll think to yourself. At least it’s unleaded.

It feels like there’s only two options. You’re either green, or you aren’t. You can’t do things by halves. You can’t make more effort to recycle if you still drive to work. You can’t buy Rainforest Alliance certified coffee if you buy products that contain unsustainably sourced palm oil. You can’t even campaign for action on climate change while you’re still running a gas boiler, buying mail-order from abroad, or even just keeping an account with a bank that invests your money in the fossil fuel industry (also known as “a bank”). Because to do any of these things would make you a hypocrite.

You were a hypocrite already, of course, ever since you’ve been committing all your carbon sins in full knowledge of the harm it’s causing. But if you want to avoid anyone noticing what a hypocrite you are, it’s much safer to do nothing and fake ignorance of the problem. Better to be an ignorant fool like everyone else than make a half-arsed effort at making a change and be called out as a fraud.

I know exactly how you feel. Before my “revelation” I had two false starts. Both of them triggered by comics, oddly enough: one in The Observer years ago, which I’ve used as the main image for this post (mimics a famous WWI propaganda poster – perhaps an odd choice considering its post-war regard but there you go), and another last year on XKCD. Despite the impact these had on me at the time – you know the one, that nausea, that accelerating pulse, that aimless guilt and fear – it never lasted. And the reason it didn’t was because, when I looked at what I’d have to do to decarbonise my lifestyle, I felt quickly overwhelmed. A large number of the options were either impossible, horrendously difficult, (ironically) unsustainable or would simply change my life far too drastically for me to be comfortable with it.

So what did I do? I got used to it. I guiltily carried on living exactly how I was, I kept my mouth shut, and eventually that uncomfortable guilt and fear finally melted away, and I carried on my life the way I always had.

So why is this time any different? Because I realised a very simple point: that it’s far better to be a hypocrite than to do nothing at all.

This realisation changed everything for me. It means never again having to give up on my good ecological intentions the moment I fuel the car at the Shell garage that just happens to be the closest to where we live. It means not giving up on this blog after going more than a month without posting anything (guys I been busy, ‘kay? Jeez).

It means, in fact, doing whatever it takes to make sure I keep the zero-emission flame burning. Because no matter how little I do to reduce my carbon footprint, as long as I do something then I’m helping to make things a little better than they were. I can feel good about that. And feeling good about stuff is a great motivator.

So if the risk of hypocrisy is what’s holding you back, don’t let it stop you. Embrace it! Be a hypocrite, let’s all be hypocrites, and be proud because together we are legion, and we will change the world. Even if the best you can muster on your personal path to green living is reusing your carrier bags or something, go for it. Once you’ve taken one step in the right direction, you can let the change bed in then take another step. Give yourself time, don’t worry that you aren’t carbon free yet. And don’t worry that you probably never will be. Life is a journey, after all. So long as you keep going.

But whatever you do, be honest with yourself. Because as governments the world over have shown: there’s hypocrisy, and then there’s being a fucking liar.

Revelations

But then, something changed.

Look, I know there’s a lot of people like me out there. We know what climate change is, and we know we’re causing it with carbon dioxide emissions, but the only way it manifests in our daily lives is at most a vague feeling of helplessness and a generous extra helping of MEDC guilt. But that’s alright because our elected leaders know about the problem, so let’s leave it with them and get on with our lives. It’s up to them to deal with it. Everything’s going to be ok.

But after 30 years of believing that, it abruptly dawned on me that everything kinda probably won’t be ok at all.

What woke me up from this gentle dream was being drenched with this bucket of cold reality-water. In case this blog post is the only article you planned to read today (my humble thanks for that honour), Randy Malamud in The Huffington Post has drawn a connection between what is, let’s face it, a routine and uninspiring bit of climate change news in the New York Times (another article? Wow, sorry) and a scene from The Newsroom on HBO. In this scene, a live interview with a climate scientist gets progressively more awkward as he flatly declares that it’s too late to stop global warming, and humanity is basically done for.

Arguably my Damascene moment should have come either from the news piece or the TV show, but I hadn’t seen either of those things before. And even if I had I still think it would have taken Malamud’s advance to pierce my climate-proof carapace. I’d seen fictional climate dystopia stories before, and I’d seen so many negative climate change news stories that it had long since become a background hum I could no longer hear. But the simple thing Malamud did differently from anything I’d come across was to take the climate dystopia idea and apply it to modern day reality; declaring the end of the world, right here and right now.

For a while it made sense […] to cling to a thread of hope in order to motivate reform and prevent people from descending into a paralyzing sense of helplessness. But now it’s time to accept our impending demise. Those are profoundly difficult words to write, but they are necessary: Our times demand a new rhetorical honesty. It is deceitful and irrelevant to sustain the charade that things may improve. Instead, it’s time to start talking about how we will die.”

Christ son that there’s some grim tidings. Is “malamud” Greek for “despair” or something?

My wife – who reads – was the one who found that article and sent it to me. It was powerfully timed: my 30th birthday had just passed, and my son’s first birthday was just around the corner. Both of these are reflective times in a man’s life, plus the latter milestone also marked the end of that notoriously impossible first year of parenthood. My wife and I were just about ready to stick our heads a bit above the parapet and find out what was happening in the world outside our little bubble.

Upon reading the article my initial reaction was, I guess, one of unreasonable anger at the columnist:

 Picture

I mean, I said some other stuff as well. Largely along the lines of acknowledging he may be right, but even if he is, throwing in the towel like that is really unhelpful. Broadly speaking I stand by the comments I made at the time, but for me personally it turns out that the angle he took was incredibly motivating.

I’ve seen it argued that one of the reasons so many of us don’t engage with climate change as an issue is because those who are trying to engage us keep doing so in the same way. To me it looks like this: campaigners present facts and a warning of a bleak future, some people are converted and begin to engage with the problem. But it’s not enough, so campaigners present more facts, more warnings, all the same stuff that worked for them. But we’ve heard it all before and so it falls on deaf ears.

The failure then of the environmental campaigners is not to change tactic. They keep saying the same stuff, over and over, while us plebs unconsciously get better and better at ignoring them. It’s like trying to get out of quicksand by struggling harder.

So the secret to getting people to engage with climate change is talking about it in a different way. In lots of different ways. Try something new so it isn’t ignored, and try a range of different things because nothing works on everyone.

Apparently what works for me in terms of getting me to give a shit about climate change is other people giving up and proclaiming the end of the world. So well done, Malamud! But I still think you’re an asshole.

My revelation left me with two resolutions. One, that after 30 years of deliberate ignorance I was going to look this issue square in the face and find out exactly how right or wrong Malamud was. Two, that I was finally going to step up and try to do my small part to address climate change. However bad the situation really is, it’s bad enough. And I have my son’s future to think of.

So I did some research and the consensus seems to be this. At our current emissions rate, and the rate it’s decidedly not decreasing, we’re basically screwed. CO2 levels are going too high, too fast, and not enough is being done to stop this. There’s a certain minimum amount of climate change that we now can’t get out of, so expect plenty of storms, desertification and rising seas in the future. This is already well underway (oops that’s a whole lotta articles right there, it’s like I can’t help myself).

But the good news is that all is not yet lost, despite Malamud’s malefic musings.  If everybody who’s as apathetic about climate change as I was starts paying more attention to it, we still have a good chance of minimising the disaster and avoiding the worst of it. This is a bloody relief, because “the worst” is pretty hideous by all accounts.

Here’s the thing. There are no superheroes, nobody who’s gonna drop out of the sky to fix this problem for us. Big companies who contribute the most CO2 only care about the money they get out of us, and our governments only care about what wins them votes. That means that far from being helpless, not only do we have all the control but all of the obligation. If we care about climate change, they will be forced to. So if we want this thing to get better, we’ll have to get off our arses and make it happen.

And if we fail, well, those of us who tried can at least feel like it isn’t our fault as the temperatures ascend through the rest of the century.

So in real terms, what can us layabouts really do about all this? That’s where it gets more complicated and something tells me that 90% of the posts I write for this blog will be attempts to answer that question. Hopefully we’ll figure it out as we go. Stay tuned.

The Reluctant Activist

This blog is supposed to be about climate change from the perspective of a complete novice, but in the interests of full disclosure I have to say that I do have some prior experience in environmental campaign work. Here goes…

I.

When I was about ten years old I was my primary school’s Junior Recycling Officer.

I didn’t ask for it, but by virtue of being a smug, conscientious little brat the gig was mine by birthright. They gave me a hideously garish primary coloured rucksack; and there wasn’t a Senior Recycling Officer, so I basically ruled the roost.

Every second Friday I stood in front of the whole school in assembly and informed all and sundry of the reasons why they should recycle, which I forget, and where they could do it, which I think is now obsolete. I learned from the first lecture to keep it brief, after my laughing headteacher regained the floor thanking me for my “thorough” introduction. Besides, by the third week I had more or less run out of content. The rest of my year in office was spent giving updates on the innumerable poster competitions that the organisers put together just to give us little eco-warriors something to talk about.

But I did (to my amazement) get through to at least one little boy, maybe six years old, who approached me on the playground. His exact words I forget, so I’ll paraphrase.

“I like your talks and I think it’s really important to recycle.”

“That’s… that’s great! So are you going to recycle more plastic bottles and cans?”

“No.”

“Oh, ok.”

“My mum doesn’t want to.”

“Ok, well, never mind.”

The Cycling Proficiency Officer didn’t have to put up with that shit.

II.

A mere eight years later I was at university, studying electronic engineering – at best an eco-neutral profession, let’s face it. Evidently the faceless orchestrators of my pre-pubescent environmental protection post can’t claim to have had any lasting influence even on the youthful instrument of their message. May they hang those faceless heads in shame.

After primary school, the first significant brush I had with environmental issues was Environmental Issues, a lecture course in my third year. Again I didn’t choose this so much as it chose me – that is to say, I did choose it, but only because the other option was even worse.

In hindsight it was a course that didn’t have all that much to say about climate change, which is way up there as far as Issues go that are Environmental. What it did have was an awful lot about landfill sites, industrial cleaning and water/energy wastage. But don’t get me wrong, it was hella fun when he made us count our toilet flushes for a fortnight.

III.

One year after that, my final year, I was talked into joining in with a group of friends and entering the Npower Challenge. I regretted it immediately and my regret increased daily. It was already a very busy year, stuffed with exams and coursework, and the time and mental bandwidth I had available was zero.

The Npower Challenge was (is?) an annual competition organised and funded, of course, by Npower. Teams of final-year students from several institutions performed group presentations on a particular topic, competing in regional heats followed by a national final in London that I desperately didn’t want to go to. That year’s topic: How would you solve the impending crisis of energy shortage in the UK?

How indeed. Other topics I was addressing around that time included: How the hell was I gonna finish all this coursework when these guys were relying on me to keep the lights on for another century? Of course the “correct” answer is along the lines of improving efficiency in generation and use of energy, prospecting for new oil sources, expanding the nuclear share in our energy portfolio, and adopting new and emerging technologies to harvest previously unreachable burnable resources (fracking). Oh and investing in renewable energy sources, because, you know, environment or whatever.

We, however, didn’t submit the “correct” answer. Instead, we strode in with a tangential idea, focusing on the energy wasted in unnecessary transport and travel. We knew this wouldn’t solve the crisis, but it would be something that nobody else would touch on. In my opinion we pitched it perfectly, finishing fourth where the top three places won a ticket to London. Just think of all the fuel we saved.

*

A further eight years after graduating, the present day. Predictably, I’m now an electronic engineer, developing microchips for radio systems. I like my job, and I love my wife and 1-year-old son. I have a penchant for stylish cutting-edge consumer electronics I can’t afford. I play guitar and video games. I like films and addictive American drama series. I eat meat and far too much chocolate. I drink single malt whiskey and black coffee. I drive a small Hyundai family car. I recycle paper and plastic to save space in the black bin. I have a short, full beard. My greys are starting to show through my Beatle-black hair. I’m just over 6 foot tall, scarecrow thin, and I never, ever think about climate change. Just like you.

But then.

IV.