Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Why bother with green? - A young person’s perspective

I confess: I’m at best cynical, at worst apathetic when it comes to green issues. This might not be the expected position of a geography student, less one who is supposed to be a green officer in the Geography Society. My teenage years came at the height of the green craze; the ink was still drying on the Kyoto agreements, “global warming” was always a valid answer, and the cool kids pored over atlases to work out which major cities would end up underwater. My teaching was saturated with green issues, especially global warming. I was disappointed to learn that drawing diagrams of the greenhouse effect is not a recognised skill on LinkedIn, as this renders useless ten years of sitting through geography and double science.

But after years of indoctrination, I still don’t feel particularly engaged and energised by these problems, important though they are. Why? To make this article work, we’ll have to both assume that I convey the true feelings of my age group, and ignore the point that my disengagement is merely the natural apathy of the privileged polluter – this is itself a symptom of other problems. With that out the way, I’ll get on with my excuses.

Firstly, the hype surrounding “greenness”, the shorthand for environmental responsibility and awareness, has died down. The media machine has ground onwards to other topics, and now we discuss the economy rather than the environment. Why, as a student, do I care about the long-term environment when they’re raising my tuition fees and I’ll need a job? This is in response to, and supports, a changed political agenda and public discourse. Both have lurched from environmental crisis to security crisis to financial crisis.  I’ll try to resist being a typical student and referring to “a book that I read at uni”, but in each case the discourse of crisis has enabled governments to pass drastic legislation, and has normalised a state of crisis in the public imagination.

Secondly, the flaws in the entire project of limiting environmental degradation have become increasingly apparent. Carbon trading lets major polluters continue polluting, while geopolitical manoeuvring (the US at Kyoto, China at Copenhagen) makes global agreement on global issues seem impossible. I feel unable to influence policy at any scale, yet my personal contributions seem so small as to be meaningless. Who cares if I recycle that pizza box? The Chinese just opened another coal-fired power station!

The total effect is that green issues become less relevant, fading into the hum of the newsroom or buried in the cabinets of Whitehall. Despite more and more evidence of climate change (not the only, but the most dramatic, green issue), fatalism, cynicism and short-term outlooks prevail. Immediately, financial viability (read: cost-cutting) and marketisation are more relevant than sustainability. There is no easy cure. There needs to be a mature restatement of the absolute and crucial relevance of our environment, and the fact of our relationship with it. But even if this is already on-going, mature statements do not get attention – increasingly, larger debates about the environment take place only after crises. Public and politicians addressed nuclear fuel after Fukushima, industrial pollution and regulation after the Deepwater Horizon, climate change after Hurricane Katrina.
Meanwhile I, young person, am disengaged from the political power needed to make substantial changes, see green issues become irrelevant and ignored, and I am distracted by problems which are closer to home and easier to grasp. And, (to predict another crisis) it is my cynicism that could be the killing blow for attempts to sustain environmental debate and protection in the years to come.

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