By Rowan Sylva
Growing up, discussion of climate change was all around me. And my world view was shaped by the idea of entering a 21st century defined by cataclysmic climate change. I came to view climate change in an almost messianic way: it was humanity’s destiny to go down among rising waters, fires and droughts. These thoughts gave me a kind of bitter satisfaction, but also a curiously inflated sense of my own self importance; I, after all, would live through the final years of human civilisation – its pinnacle, its hubris, and its fall.
As I grew older my view of climate discourse changed, formed inlarge part as a reaction of discussions with my brother. My brother referenced the work of James Lovelock, and liked to postulate that Earth was likely to become lifeless given the uncontrollable feedback loops, which once kicked off by humanity, as were certain to do, wouldlead earth’s climate into a runaway green house effect. This in turn would generate a venus like atmosphere. Ceasing to emit, my brother further claimed, would not help. Because of the effects of global dimming, an immediate cessation of emitting would in fact herald a rise in warming, as pollution helped mask the real extent of the greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere.
These discussions no longer gave me a sense of messianic purpose; rather I saw them as a cynical train of logic, intended to abdicate all moral and personal responsibility, a kind of vindication of extistential nihilism. I became resistant to climate change discourse. And turned my attention to environmental issues that I felt to be within the reach ofeveryday action. Localisation of food production, reforestation and biodiversity issues. These I found emotionally easier to engage with and ultimately did more in my view to combat climate change than flawed emissions trading schemes.
My research went into environmental texts such as the Limits to Growth Thesis which focused on ecological degradation and resource boundaries. Such a focus gave recourse to hope and a possibility for change which was absent from the discourses surrounding climate action. When I did consider climate change I tendedto view itas a moot point. Yes the climate was changing. Yes we were causing the changes. Yes the changes would be catastrophic. But what could individuals realistically be expected to do? It was better to focus on changing society and those changes would come about from knockingup against ecological boundaries. A sustainable society was necessary; but climate change was not necessary to the creation of a sustainable society, rather it detracted from it by casting into doubt its viability. This was the position I took in the university groups and grassroots organisations I was part of.
During the three years I worked as a street campaigner for Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society, my view on climate change discourse shifted again. Climate change was becoming an ever more central issue for the organisations I worked for and raising awareness on it was part of my job description. I came to realise that climate change provided to many people a powerful incentive to support environmental action and recourse to climate change was the strongest argument for people who saw the world in purely economic terms. It allowed me to make connections between things like australian wild fires and deforestation in Tasmania. Thosewho didn’t value protecting an ecosystem from being turned into a coal mine, could understand the value of keeping the coal in the hole. I began to view climate discourse pragmatically. It was a powerful weapon in the green movements vocabulary that added urgency to other environmental causes. It was rallying cry . And became involved in radical protests and clashes over climate in Melbourne.
Today I feel a sense of alarm and dread. I read scientific reports of rising temperatures, hottest years ever, retreating ice, and climate catastrophes. I Fear. I had hoped by 2014 that the transition to a sustainable society would be more visible. Instead the increasing reliance on tar sand, the regressive action of governments, particularly the pariah states of Australia and Canada, has left me feeling jaded, though not without some hope. Photos by Daniela Gast.