The human impact on our environment on Earth has concerned me since I can remember. The issue was first raised in my family when I was six years old in 1973. I remember this vividly because of the car free sundays introduced by the Danish government in response to the oil cricis. Car free sundays from november to february meant no driving. I recall the excitement of walking through the abundant snow with my brother to the baker for breakfast rolls, playing out the scenes of Laura Ingall Wilder’s Little House on the Prarie that our mum was reading to us.
Granted, the oil crisis had nothing to do with peak oil or carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. It had everything to do with the USA supporting Israel in a war with Egypt and Syria, leading to other middle eastern countries to decide to block oil supply to the rest of the world. World leaders were terrified to run out of oil to fuel their growing economies. Car free sundays was one way to reduce private oil consumption in a little Nordic country.
But it was in the context of the 1972 United Nations Stockholm conference on the Human Environment, which promoted the idea of thinking globally and acting locally. Not unfamiliar with frugality and making do, my father promoted the idea through saving messages. Save on fuel, turn down heating, turn off the water, reuse more, consume less, save money and be gentle with the Earth.
Then in 1974 my father bought a colour television to watch the world cup. No need for frugality when it came to sport. The colour television brought me the colourful natural world of David Attenborough‘s documentaries and Jacques Cousteu‘s movies about the world hidden in the oceans. The impact of human activity on the environment was a recurring theme.
A family friend had a poster on the wall that challenged the received wisdom that the sea was able to absorb the effects of human activity. Its text read Havet Sletter Alle Spor (the sea removes all traces) across a photo of an ocean, where the artist had folded up the right hand bottom corner of the tranquil image to reveal a school of dead fish underneath, illustrating the flaws in this policy of gay abandon very clearly to me. When I later was learnt about the great eastern garbage patch in the Pacific, I realised nothing had changed.
In 1987, the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, was released by the World Commission on Environment and Development. It coined the term ‘sustainable development’ as a response to unshackled resource use for economic growth. I read it from cover to cover was excited to see people in power take the plight of the earth seriously. At university I chose to do a communications project with the Danish UN environmental program which sought to encourage local action on the global effects of human activity. Perhaps naively this project assumed that in the face of all the evidence, governments of the world would rush to create policy settings that made individual choices more sustainable.
Coming to Australia in the early 1990s was like coming to a vacuum of environmental debate and action. Here I experienced an abundance of fragile, prestine natural environments that spell bound me, but quickly learnt it was accompanied by a public attitude that these environments are here for human gratification and exploitation, rather than an intrinsic good, necessary for preservation of biodiversity. Granted there were some pioneers, but they were, and still are, largely branded as hippie-greenie-treehuggers who stand in the way of economic progress.
Fast forward to 2015. Our family still seeks to leave our mark on earth as lightly we can, using public transport, solar panels on the roof, sustainable housing design without aircondition, LED lighting, urban gardening growing food, buying local to minimise food miles, avoiding too much packaging, recycling and reusing what we can. Sadly, it turned out that as a country Australia is still to take real, concrete action on the international obligation to look after the Earth for all living spieces. And this fact still makes it difficult for the individual to make choices in the interests of the Earth.
But I see a groundswell of public opinion forming and perhaps now is the time. I was one person in the crowd of about 10,000 who marched at the People’s Climate March to End Dependence on Fossil Fuels in Brisbane on Saturday 28 November 2015, in preparation for the COP 21 Paris summit this week.
Some 40 years after the 1970s oil crisis world economies are still chasing economic growth through burning fossil fuels that have taken hundreds of thousands of years to develop through carbon capture in the ground. Releasing all that carbon in the space of a few hundred years is bound to have an effect and 97% of all serious climate science tells us it is causing anthroponogenic climate change to our own detriment. According to the President of the small Pacific island nation Kiribati, Mr Anote Tong, governments of the world agreed to this fact in 2007.
Is sustainable economic development a myth? Perhaps. Irrespectively, it is irrational to continue to burn fossil fuels in the race for economic growth in a world where we are terrorised by Islamic State that appears to be funded by: our dependence on fossil fuels.
We need a new paradigm for our communities, one that does not chase economic growth above all else because perhaps the Brundtland report was wrong, perhaps we know better today, 40 years later?