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Green is the new black

After years of ignored warnings, when predictions of imminent ecological cataclysm were dismissed as fringe opinions of feral dissidents, environmentalism is now all the rage.

Spurred on by the immense success and world-wide appeal of Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, environmental issues have dominated the airwaves and print media over the past eight months, tapping into the public’s latent green sympathies, and sending corporations scrambling to acquire ‘green friendly’ endorsements and logos for their products.

Even Vanity Fair, the undisputed barometer of all things chic and fashionable, devoted its May 2006 issue to profiles of significantly green celebrities and designer labels.

Sensing a shift in the popular mood, many politicians who formerly claimed that the ‘jury is still out’ on a direct link between climate change and the concentration of anthropogenic (or man-made) greenhouse gases (GHG) now seem only too happy to assert their green credentials.

Indeed, the renewed push for a reassessment of nuclear power in Australia has been greenwashed by the newly conservationist Coalition – “Nuclear is clean and green!”

But the deeper question – leaving aside the still contentious issue of the actual science of climate change, the effect of CO2 build-up on global weather patterns, concerning which there remains considerable debate – is this: Why now? Why are these environmental concerns suddenly centre stage?

After all, the predicted consequences of a ‘business as usual’ approach to development and energy consumption are far from new, and very little additional hard data has been presented to warrant such a radical shift in public opinion and Federal policy.

In a time such as ours, which is remarkably devoid of any altruistic motivation – the willingness to make a decision on the basis of its inherent rightness, irrespective of personal gain or indirect benefit – it would not be surprising to discover another, more self-absorbed impulse behind this sudden environmental concern.

Paradoxically, the Federal Government’s current stance is the logical correlate to its refusal to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, despite the extraordinary concessions granted to the Australian delegation (including permission actually to increase its GHG emissions by eight percent until 2012).

At that time, the expressed reason for its refusal was not the failure of climatologists to demonstrate a direct correspondence between global warming and carbon emissions, but rather an unwillingness to act against “our unique national interests.”

In other words, environmental sustainability would not be allowed to take precedence over robust economic growth.

But now that a political and economic climate exists that makes heightened environmental awareness expedient, even profitable – fuelled, in part, by the immense economic potential of a broadened nuclear industry – the Federal Government seems willing to acknowledge the need to actively explore alternate energy models.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that the greatest ethical travesty is to do the right thing, but to do it in the interests of personal reward. If this is true, then what often passes for public morality in our time, being a responsible global citizen, is in fact little more than a thinly disguised, particularly vile form of self-interest.

This kind of fake morality was displayed prominently in a document that marked the turning of the political tide late last year: The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.

Its approach – both to highlight the economic consequences of failure to curb GHG emissions and to outline cooperative strategies for climate stabilisation that will not adversely affect economic growth – is a troubling indication of our unquestioned assumption that everything must ultimately be weighed up against the dominant economic realities of our time.

Further, while stressing the need for “international collective action,” The Stern Review effectively condones national self-interest by offering the reassurance that, through technological innovation and a complex series of financial incentives, “stabilisation of greenhouse-gas concentration in the atmosphere is feasible and consistent with continued growth.”

Despite all this dialogue and debate carried out under the constant scrutiny of the public eye, the one possibility that must be considered – altering the seemingly immutable laws of economics themselves, which means curtailing the very excesses we call ‘freedom’ – is never considered.

We have no choice, it seems, but to place everything in the service of the ebbs and flows of the global economy. This is reminiscent of the prophet Isaiah’s blistering critique of idolatry. The one who fashions an idol from a block of wood, he says, is then incapable of saying, “Is not this thing in my hand a fraud?”
But before we hurl too many invectives at the Federal Government for being out of step with the public on the sincerity of its commitment to environmental issues, perhaps the Government is just mirroring back to us our own insincerity.

For many people, it is fine to indulge moderate green sympathies, but only once the effects of climate change touch us directly, and only up to the point that we have to pay some personal cost. George Megalogenis has made a particularly chilling observation regarding such self-serving environmentalism in his book, The Longest Decade:

“Even support for the environment, the ultimate expression of altruism, can be traced back to house prices. Labor pollsters Hawker Britton found in early 2004 that concerns for green issues were greater in those suburbs where property was more expensive. In other words, the ordinary Australian who favours protecting the environment can source his or her green values to the selfish calculation that more development in their neighbourhood equals fewer trees equals poorer views equals lower house prices.”

So, over against Al Gore’s slick advocacy, pop environmentalism is in the end the convenient lie of our time: a way of baptising lives that are already excessive, self-seeking and idolatrous with a sickly green tinge; of not changing our consumption habits, but feeling much better about them (rather like drinking Diet Coke).

Given the similar function of religion in our culture, maybe Michael Crichton wasn’t too far off the mark when he called environmentalism “the religion of choice for urban atheists.”

Scott Stephens is an author, theologian and minister at Chermside Kedron Uniting Church. He teaches ethics at Trinity Theological College and is a regular contributor to Journey.