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Ideology and our responses to climate change

Now, let me just say up front, I am a believer. I ride my bike. I use low power light bulbs. I turn off lights. I conserve water. That brings me to Earth Hour. Now it is a lovely idea, a lovely symbolic gesture. But what really worries me about it is that it is something that people get all excited about, and for an hour turn off their lights – then an hour later they go back to their high carbon emitting ways feeling all good about themselves and what they have done for the environment. And then a year later, they turn off their lights again for an hour. My workplace participated in Earth hour – big effort there as pretty much only the crazy are at work where I work at 8pm on a Saturday night. And for one day they tell us to turn off our computers over night. Um, shouldn’t we always be doing that? Turning off the lighting on public buildings for one hour provides excellent front page vision for the Sydney Morning Herald, but why are those buildings lit up every night – wouldn’t one night a week meet the needs of tourists?  And why invent one non-sustainable event to promote awareness? At least when it is ride-your-bike day, that is something that people will do more often if they discover that it is easy. How often are people going to sit around in the dark for an hour? And really, isn’t it just preaching to the converted anyhow?

It is typical of the things that frustrates me most about our reaction to climate change. It is so replete with ideology – ideology in the Althusserian/Marxist sense – ideology which masks the realities of the situation. Just as turning off the lighting in our houses and on our public buildings for an hour each year is a pointless exercise which may be worse than pointless because it makes us feel that we are actually doing something noble for the cause, so to has been the governmental response to climate change. The approach has focused so strongly on placing the responsibility for lowering emissions on the individual – we need to change our light globes, we need to walk to work, we need to modify our houses – that it ignores the fact that the greatest emitters are business and the greatest levers of control lie not with the individual, but with the corporate world and the government itself. Doing something to stop environmental destruction is not a matter of individual responsibility it is a matter of community/collective/social action – and of the action of communities/collectives and societies which include companies and government. We can let them off the hook by focussing on purely individual action. I am not saying we should not “act local”, but we should not condone the individualisation of responsibility for that action.

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