climate change

Blog Action Day 2010

Artwork by Rose Fyson, made available by Oxfam International on a Creative Commons License.

Yesterday was Blog Action Day, an inspiring example of the power of coordination and generosity on the internet. Blog Action Day was founded by three bloggers in 2007 and asks bloggers to write about a single topic on a specific day. Last year took over management of the event. This year's topic was Water, following on from the environment, poverty and climate change over the past three years. You can see my contribution here.

Blogs are one of the the greatest example of how free time is now focused creatively and expressively, rather than passively, in the digital world. The cognitive surplus this produces is fueling the web2.0 world, driving innovations in  politics, media, arts and play. In everything. The internet has opened up so many options for our active participation in cultural production and community formation. But the thing that makes it really powerful is its capacity for coordination.

Blog Action Day is an example of generosity online, as over ten thousand bloggers, the vast majority volunteers, contribute the content which makes the day what it is. But it's the coordinated publishing of these blogs on a specific day that amplifies into more than a random collection of voices but rather becomes an event. Something worth paying attention to, worth the White House, Mashable, The Huffington Post, Official Google Blog, BlogHer, StumbleUpon and thousands of other blogs large and small, contributing to.

Water is a great choice of issue. How we share and manage water resources is going to be one of the defining issues of the 21st century. As climate change affects rainfall patterns conflict over water will grow, and new approaches will be required for human habitation to continue in many parts of the world, including areas of the United States and Australia.

Water is a local issue, intensely felt by the 1 billion worldwide who lack access to clean water, and to farming communities where the rain no longer comes, or the snow melt isn't what it used to be. But it's also a regional issue, as countries will increasingly squabble over shared resources with wars over water the likely outcome. And it's a global issue, a leading symptom of our changing climate, a warning that we need to do things differently.As the UNDP has written "water is the medium through which climate change expresses itself."

The universality of this experience (we all interact with water, and therefore water issues, every single day) makes it perfect for an event like Blog Action Day. We can each speak locally but together we express a global perspective: that the time for change is now.


Surviving on the driest continent on earth

Today is Blog Action Day. This year's theme is water.

Australia is the place which is being hit hardest, first, by climate change. It is the canary in the coal mine. Parts of Southern Australia have been in drought for 12 years, a drought without historical equivalent. At what point do we stop calling it a drought and just accept that the climate has simply changed? Tim Flannery has predicted that Perth, Western Australia, my home town (ish - Fremantle really), could "become the world's first ghost metropolis, its population forced to abandon the city due to lack of water."

As a result of this however, awareness of water conservation is growing and becoming second-nature in most of Australia. For a number of years now in Melbourne each suburb is assigned certain days of the week they can water their garden. If you want to water it on other days you must use water you have collected in the house. Visiting friends in Melbourne now it's common for them to ask us to collect our shower water in buckets, to use on the garden later. People wash their cars over the lawn. Gardens are being re-planted with drought-resistant native plants.

Dual-flush toilets are ubiquitous in Australia (seriously Americans, what's the deal with the lack of dual-flush toilets here? They were invented in 1980 and use 67% less water) and waterless urinals are being installed in many office buildings. People make a conscious effort to use less water and there's a growing acceptance that soon we will be recycling sewage into drinking water.

And this how it should be. Australia is a nation build atop the oldest, driest, most fragile continent on earth. Both waves of human migration to Australia altered the land indelibly. In the second wave starting in 1788 Australia was settled by a people who feared this alien landscape and fought to dominate it, to make it as close to home as possible. For 222 years we have cut down the forests, farmed the plains, irrigated the deserts, bred hard-hoofed animals, so ill-suited to the Australian environment, by the millions and reveled in our status as the world's greatest exporter of carbon.

Australia's first people's found a balance with the world they re-made, a balance that preserved through 60,000 years and covered some of the harshest and most difficult to inhabit places on earth. This is the world's oldest culture, a culture that has adapted to the unique environments of Australian, learned to read and understand its patterns, utilize its flora and fauna, adapt to its demands.

We are a people who do not adapt, we force the earth to change to suit our tastes. But we are reaching the limits of this ignorance as the world shifts in dangerous and unpredictable ways and we find the most basic resource needed for our survival, water, threatened. Australia's changing climate is forcing us to adapt to our continent, to figure out how to make do with the resources we have and protect the habitat we have left. If we are to survive on this incredible continent we have a lot of catching up to do and so much to learn.

It begins with water.

Photo by BouncedPhoton on flickr.

Earth Hour: Good idea, bad framing

So this Saturday is Earth Hour. For the uninitiated Earth Hour is call to action that asks people to turn of their electricity for one hour in recognition of climate change. Earth Hour was started in Sydney, Australia, in 2007 and has since been taken global by WWF.

Their website says:

In 2009 hundreds of millions of people around the world showed their support by turning off their lights for one hour.

Earth Hour 2010 will continue to be a global call to action to every individual, every business and every community. A call to stand up, to show leadership and be responsible for our future.

Pledge your support here and turn off your lights for one hour, Earth Hour, 8.30pm, Saturday 27th March 2010.

Now turning off your lights is a good idea and I encourage people to take part but the framing of Earth Hour has always bothered me.

Much of the language around the initiative is about 'taking responsibility', 'taking action' and 'showing leadership' but it seems enough to demonstrate this responsibility, action and leadership for one hour, once a year. If Earth Hour were framed as an opportunity to reflect on the immense challenge facing the human race, the need to alter our relationship with the planet and pursue a more sustainable path it would make a great deal of sense to me. It could be an environmental May Day, a chance to come together and prepare for the great work ahead.

Or if it were linked to political action and clearly identifying the necessary policy steps and roadblocks to action, inspiring people to increase the pressure on their leaders for reform, that would make a lot of sense to me.

Instead Earth Hour is framed as actually doing something about climate change. This is completely false conception, and very dangerous. False action which allows us to feel we are making a difference, that we are doing our part, makes it less likely that we will make a real difference, or give up anything beyond an hour of electricity.

Earth Hour is the perfect corporate-friendly initiative: many of the businesses in the Sydney CBD and other cities turn off the lights of their office towers for the hour. On 8.30pm on a Saturday. In return they get to claim a little bit of green cred. But the real issue is why are office lights on at 8.30pm on Saturday night in order to be turned off? Why do they need to be turned on again at 9.30pm? And after this completely harmless non-threatening non-disruptive event business continues as usual.

In 2008 we spent Earth Hour at a participating restaurant. The kitchen power remained on, I assume, as meals continued to arrive in the candle-lit restaurant. It was really nice, a treat. After an hour of enjoyable and romantic dimness the lights came up again. Immediately following the completion of the Hour a fireworks display unexpectedly began, to celebrate this wonderful city-wide event. Environmental protest as dining occasion, as public celebration, as symbolic feelgood vibes, man. Well done on going an hour without electricity - let's blow up some carbon! Woo!

Hard to reflect on our unsustainable culture, the sacrifices and adaptions we will need to make and the difficult road again when fireworks are busting overhead. Ooooh. Aaahhh.

So turn off your lights at 8.30pm this Saturday, but don't kid yourself that you've made a difference when you do so. Instead sit in the dark, or in a park on a rug with friends, or in your backyard staring at the stars, and know that we have huge challenges and changes ahead, and so much work to be done to sweep away the forces that would lead us to disaster if they can make a dollar more. And think about how your actions can lead us towards a better, more sustainable tomorrow. Then act.

Blog Action Day | The work that needs doing

Image courtesy of Brent Danely on flickr

Climate change is the over-riding challenge of our age. Even as I sometimes despair of our capacity to take action there is a small thrill in living in such a historic time. The whole of human history has come to this and we must make a choice as a civilization to adapt or, in all liklihood, die. In the very least there'll be hell to pay if we fail to rise to the needs of this moment.

As is often the case with complex problems we are challenged by climate change on two levels: adaptive and technical.

Technical challenges require the use of existing knowledge and skills to find a solution. The technical challenge here is political; we urgently require legislative action to limit and wind back our carbon expenditure. We must ensure that the price of goods reflects their true cost, not simply in the manufacture, distribution and marketing but also in the cost to the environment. We need an international agreement which has the developed world taking the lead but also the developing world following, with technology transfer to assist them along.

The only way we're likely to get this progress is through sustained organising and advocacy which will embolden far-sighted political leadership to facilitate a consensus. We did it with CFC's and can, and must, do it again.

This may be enough to prevent a catastrophe. The increasing cost of carbon and removal of government subsidies will make coal power increasingly uncompetitive and spur investment in renewable technologies.Cars will move through hybrids to plug-in electric vehicles and beyond. The cost of travel will rise and food grown locally will gain a cost advantage over that which prices-in thousands of miles of travel. The value of preserving forests for carbon credits will outweigh that of cutting them down, so much so that governments take their protection seriously.

We can progressively decarbonize in ways which will have surprisingly little impact on most people's lives, except those in the specific industries affected. No-one cares where their electricity comes from, they just want the light to work when they flick the switch. Likewise with cars, for most people they just need to work efficiently to transporting them from A to B. New cars invented in a carbon-conscious world will make today's internal combustion vehicles look like the dinosaurs they are.

However as we rise to the challenge of the climate crisis there is a second possible dimension we can address it on, as an adaptive challenge.

Adaptive challenges go beyond what we know how to do and require us to consider our values. Adaptive problems are often seen as threatening to someone or a group. There is often compromise and loss involved. In other words, adaptive problems are cultural, they force us to consider our values systems and priorities.

Climate change is an adaptive challenge because in addressing it we must consider our relationship with the planet. We must weigh profit in the present with environmental stability in the future; our wants against the next generations needs. We will have to give something up, from overseas trips to new appliances. For many it will cost them their job, forcing disorienting and frightening restructuring of communities. For some countries it may be the end of boom times as the world weens itself off coal and oil. While legislating is a largely technical exercise, reaching international consensus on action also requires adaptive leadership.

If we can manage these compromises, stand by those most affected both by the crisis and its solution, decarbonize our power and redesign our neighbourhoods,  the change to our civilization could be much more profound than simply lowered levels of carbon emissions.

We could reconsider our relationship with the earth, understand ourselves as a part of a greater whole, and live in way which honours this symbiosis, focused on stewardship, sustainability and respect.

This is the change we should be aiming for.

This post was written as part of Blog Action Day 2009. Blog Action Day takes place each October 15 and united bloggers around the world in posting on the same theme, with the aim of sparking discussion of an issue of global importance. This year's theme is climate change.