This article first appeared in the February 2011 edition of The King’s Tribune.
There are really only two hard and fast rules in our household. Firstly, Mum is always right. Secondly, there’s no such thing as Star Wars episodes one to three, or anything called a “Special Edition”. And to be honest, the first rule doesn’t always go unchallenged.
For years I refused to buy George Lucas’ desecrations of my favourite childhood movie on DVD, preferring instead to watch laser-disc rips of the original that were passed between true believers. This was how I introduced one of the best known movie franchises of all time to my son and over the intervening years I’ve had to come up with more and more elaborate explanations to dismiss all the evidence of anything that doesn’t fit my definition of the “real” Star Wars.
All of us lie to our kids, whether as part of an attempt to add some joy to their lives, like stories of a jolly man in a red suit, or as a way to avoid difficult or uncomfortable truths.
But how much of our lifestyles and attitudes are also lies to our kids and to ourselves, about the world that they’ll be growing up in?
Just as my young son will one day be confronted with the horrors of Jar Jar Binks and Greedo shooting first, he’ll also be faced with the realities of peak oil and the impacts of climate change, yet we as a society seem intent on continuing the lie that our lifestyles and patterns of consumption are sustainable. How else can we describe our reluctance to seriously address carbon emissions, or the ongoing trend of building oversized houses on undersized blocks near city fringes?
It’s a natural instinct to want to provide for all of our children’s needs – both emotional and material. It makes us inclined to shield them from unpalatable truths and to buy a long list of things designed to keep them safe, happy, healthy and entertained. This is fine for a while but the problem is that we don’t ever seem to reach a point where we admit to our kids, or ourselves, that there are limits to the way we can live our lives.
At a personal level this continuing delusion can be seen in the way that so many of us manage our personal finances. We get the things that we can’t afford on credit and when we can no longer afford our debt burden we re-finance it away by consolidating our loans or by using some of the equity in our homes to pay for our past indiscretions, then we inevitably repeat the process.
Collectively, we are even worse. The housing bubble in the USA that helped precipitate the Global Financial Crisis was a perfect example of what happens when there’s no equity left in our homes to keep re-financing our lifestyle.
Yet in the wake of this disaster, one that will adversely affect many families for the next decade, there seems to be very little desire to examine whether or not our need for continual economic growth is realistic in a world of dwindling resources.
Even those of us who are determined to “do something” about issues like climate change often find ourselves unable or unwilling to do much more than install some government subsidised solar panels, or buy a horrible hybrid that we’re not entirely sure is any better for the environment than just hanging on to our old car. Meanwhile, any chance for rational debate is undermined by people whose investment in the status quo means that they will not countenance the possibility that “business as usual” simply cannot provide solutions for the problems that we face.
What will bring us to the point where we are willing to face the unpleasant fact that the children filling our kindergartens today may not be able to experience the standard of living that we currently have once they reach adulthood? It’s a cruel paradox, the harder that we try to ignore the need for change in the short term, the more difficult it will be to recover when we reach the limits of our easily available resources.
In December last year the Planning Institute of Australia released a special issue of their journal, Australian Planner, that was focussed on our nation’s capacity to deal with the issues that surround peak oil. Worryingly, they found that “current policy and planning prescriptions are simply not adequate to protect our cities from the effects of petroleum supply constraints.”
This is not a fringe issue being trumpeted by a bunch of hippies, it will quite likely define whether our cities and towns can transform into livable spaces in a low energy world, or end up as the dystopian slums predicted by peak oil pessimists like James Howard Kunstler. The challenge for us and for our elected representatives who will be responsible for setting the policies that will define our future, is how to reconcile our desire for a continually improving quality of life with the realities of climate change, energy scarcity and the global financial instability that will undoubtedly follow.
The big question when it comes to this issue in Australia is whether the politicians and lobby groups who’ve done their best to limit action on climate change will behave similarly with regards to peak oil? Both issues have strong scientific evidence supporting action. Both issues can be ameliorated by changing our energy usage to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and neither of the issues will go away if we simply ignore them and try to paint people who try to raise awareness as alarmists.
Transportation, city planning, agriculture, manufacturing and many of the assumptions that underlie our modern economy will all need to be modified to cope with a world where oil is no longer cheap or plentiful. It’s time that we stopped lying to ourselves about the long term consequences of our current consumption patterns and started preparing for the changes that will be needed to ensure that we can give the next generation of Australians a high standard of living.