The etiquette of “after you” planet-saving

GREETINGS fellow climate change deniers/sceptics/believers-but-smelters-of-far-too-much-aluminium-to-admit-it. As you know, one of the best things about our position is the ease with which we can clear-fell our opponents.

When faced with shiny, happy hustles such as last weekend’s Hour of No Power, for example, it’s all too cinchy to accuse participants of self-righteous tokenism.

“Instead of sitting in the dark like a bunch of champagne-sipping peasants from the planet I Hate Progress, those candle-wielding slacktivists should be forced to spend some time contemplating the joys of human achievements,” we shout, deliberately chucking a plastic bottle in the non-recycling bin and releasing a sally of methane-laden flatus to underscore our point. “Human achievements like TVs the size of highway billboards, R2-D2-shaped novelty soy sauce dispensers and the ability — nay, the basic human right — to leave lights blazing in rooms we have no intention of ever returning to again.”

Obviously our credibility will weaken if we then begin cackling insanely and stroking invisible beards, but you get the general idea: populist initiatives such as Earth Hour, Dirt Minute and Permafrost Fortnight are easy to disparage on the grounds that they don’t do nearly enough.

But what of harder-nosed proposals such as emissions trading schemes? These are hardly exemplars of feel-good tokenism.

In fact advocates aren’t likely to feel very good at all once the costs of petrol, electricity and R2-D2-shaped novelty soy sauce dispensers soar.

Fortunately formulating a withering response is, once again, a walk in the industrial park.

“Instead of trying to gut the Australian economy with so-called science from the planet I Hate Fiscal Growth, these dark green eco-flakes should spend some time contemplating the joys of primary sector-led prosperity,” we shout, extracting energy from some coal as filthily as possible to underscore our point. “Joys of primary sector-led prosperity such as bulgiferous budget surpluses, freakishly expensive Perth houses and the ability — nay, the basic neo-liberal capitalistic right — to pretend the future does not extend beyond this financial year or the activation of one’s six-figure-hugging golden parachute.”

Obviously our credibility will weaken if we then begin feasting on baby whale fillets roasted on endangered rainforest orchids, but you get the general idea: calls to cut Australia’s carbon emissions by anything more than zero by any year other than 2000-and-never are easy to disparage on the grounds that they do far too much.

Once we’ve dismissed all Earth-saving suggestions as outrageously inadequate or unforgivable excessive, it’s common practice for the icecap-hugging neo-hippies to ask what we propose. At which point we simply cite what philosopher economists call the free-rider problem (and what spotty schoolyard dwellers refer to as “you go first”).

“Why should Australia go out of its way to reduce its greenhouse gaseousness if no one else does?” we shout (perhaps releasing a second round of exclamatory farts to distract from any blatant vested interest we may have in maintaining the “get oil riggy with it” status quo). “If we go it alone on climate change, we’ll simply become the whipping continent for the rest of the world, which will suck the guts out of our big-earning industries like some sort of gut-sucking, big-earning industry sucker.”

Under normal circumstances, suggesting that one’s sins don’t count if they have only negligible global impact or that one shouldn’t have to behave properly until everyone else does would raise all sorts of sticky ethical questions. (Is it OK for Australia to legalise homicide so long as our overall influence on international murder rates remains trifling? And would Jesus have received such kudos for the whole crucifixion gig if he’d said, “After you”?)

Fortunately, no one seems interested in the ethical cravenness of the you-go-first position when it comes to international pollution politics. Which means that so long as we all agree on the need for someone else to go first, no one will have to go at all. All the nations of the world can huddle indefinitely in a big, giggling group at the edge of the climate change policy cliff, digging each other in the ribs and saying, “You jump!”, “No, you!” as the glaciers melt, the reefs fade and the last one out of Tuvalu turns off the lights.

- originally published in The Australian on 02-04-2009.

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