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It's Hard to Explain, Tom, Why We Did So Little to Stop Global Warming
Published on Monday, November 6, 2006 by the Guardian / UK
It's Hard to Explain, Tom, Why We Did So Little to Stop Global Warming
Looking back, 40 years on, we were intoxicated with an idea of individual freedom that was little more than greedy egotism
by Madeleine Bunting
 

Poor you - they've set you a difficult question for your school essay. I'll try to help, although I still find it difficult to understand myself, let alone explain to a grandson, why we were so slow in tackling climate change. I would love to be with you to talk about it all because I think about very little else now, but I don't have any carbon allocation to travel to the new settlements in Scotland, so here I sit in the library by the window overlooking a London I don't recognise these days. I've taken a day off our senior citizens' vegetable plot to walk here and queue for my internet slot.

Looking back, Tom, I remember that 2006 was the time when climate change really became a mainstream issue. There was a film by a US politician and a report by the Treasury - and, of course, David Cameron first began to take up the issue that was to define his political career. The mistake at that point was obvious even at the time: the politicians were still pretending that tackling climate change wouldn't require a big change in lifestyle. Ken Livingstone, the great London mayor, said as much: "Nothing we are doing means that anyone's quality of life needs to change." The politicians were terrified of making environmentalism seem like sackcloth and ashes. David Miliband tried to tell us that seasonal, local vegetables were tastier; it was as if we would abandon strawberries at Christmas and our Kenyan beans for turnips and swedes out of a sheer love of root vegetables. (Yes, unbelievable but true, we had flowers and vegetables flown from Africa.)

For a long time the politicians were understandably reluctant to spell out the kind of state intrusiveness and personal self-denial that was going to be necessary. Miliband, I remember, would not use the word "rationing" for carbon allowances; he said it had the wrong associations. He changed his tune eventually - in 2024 he brought in the first comprehensive rationing system and we were all allocated carbon swipe cards.

Around 2006 they began to impose light penalties on those huge cars. The drivers complained: one woman, her mouth a little moue of indignation, insisted that she had three children to get to school, I remember. It was absurd, the effort she was making for these children that at the same time was contributing to the destruction of their future.

But none of us can claim to be guilt-free. The generational truth and reconciliation inquiry made that clear. You found details of a rally on November 4 2006 of 14,000 and asked if I was there? Well no, I wasn't, and I don't have much excuse - "too busy" seems pretty pathetic now. How can I explain to you why I drove thousands of miles every year, and lived in a draughty old house that pumped central heating on to the pavement? Why weren't we all clamouring on the streets for the politicians to do more, demanding that our government impose sanctions and launch boycotts of the countries refusing to collaborate in cutting emissions: all of this eventually happened, but by then it was too late.

I suggest a couple of ideas for you to consider. I remember an event in October 2006 to launch a big programme of academic research into people's behaviour and environmentalism. A debate developed between those who believed it was possible to change our lifestyle without pain - that we could be seduced into changing our ways - and those who disagreed, arguing that this was a moral issue and that it would involve concepts such as self-denial and self-sacrifice.

The latter were deeply unpopular - even alien - to a consumer culture built on entitlement. "Because you're worth it" ran an ad slogan, and we really believed we "needed" the foreign holidays and the repeated buzz of consumer novelty. No matter that such entitlement required an endemic cultural blindness to inequality (no one could ever explain why one-fifth of the world's population was entitled to such a gigantic share of its natural resources).

The problem was that we were intoxicated with an idea of individual freedom. With hindsight, that understanding of freedom was so impoverished that it amounted to little more than a greedy egotism of doing whatever you wanted whenever. We understood freedom largely in terms of shopping and mobility (we were restless, and liked travel of all kinds). The idea that the most precious freedom of all was freedom from fear gained force much later. I don't blame the politicians as much as all of our collective madness. Look what happened to the ambitious proposed programme of carbon cuts in 2011 - it destroyed Gordon Brown's political career (you may not have heard of him), the government fell, and at the next election he got voted out.

Fear in the end was the only mechanism that was able to cut through the complacency and force the cultural change, the political pressure and the global cooperation necessary. We are all haunted by the fact that human beings were unable to use the benefits of our own intelligence - we had the knowledge - to avert disaster; that fact has generated a terrible self-loathing. In the end it was catastrophes, the great floods and eventually the loss of London and the depression, that prompted change. But, as you would point out, by then it was too late for the millions who died in Africa's drought years and in their terrible great exodus in the 2020s. No one can think back to those years of barricaded Mediterranean ports and boats sinking under their starving freight without an awful shudder of shame.

We have had to sacrifice a lot for survival - freedom, privacy. We grumble about the state's regulation and surveillance of our carbon usage, but we put up with it in a way that would have astonished me in my 40s. The idea that the local carbon usage committee would determine how many times I could boil my kettle or turn on my heating! The irony is that my generation heard stories from their parents of second world war rationing and we have lived to experience an even more draconian version ourselves in old age.

One of your set texts is Jared Diamond's Collapse, charting how different societies through human history collapsed because of their failure to manage their environmental resources. The Mayan Indians, Easter Island - it's not as if the precedents weren't there. He had one paragraph that haunted me in 2006 as he tried to explain our apathy: he quoted research into the levels of fear among residents living in a narrow valley just below a dam. Not surprisingly, fear of a dam burst increased the closer the residents were to the dam, but then stopped, and those living within just a few miles of the dam indicated no fear. It was a classic illustration of how denial works. The only way to maintain sanity when living in the shadow of this dam was to ignore it. That just about sums us up in 2006, Tom - the scale of what lay ahead was simply too vast.

At least I can take consolation that all of you were relocated, though it's strange living only with oldies on the shores of a flooded city - generational justice has been harsh (though deservedly so in my view). I've got to head off home now - lights out tonight at 7pm, I've been told.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006

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