Monday 18 October 2021

Too Much Say, Not Enough Do.

When The Green Party Co-Leader Speaks, Does He Make Any Sound? James Shaw must know that neither New Zealanders, nor the rest of humanity, will ever take the urgent and transformative action that Science now deems necessary to stave-off climate catastrophe.

POOR JAMES SHAW: He’s the man this government sends out to tell us that the news is still bad. Worse still, he’s the man whose job it is to bring us, if not exactly good news, then at least some reassurance that it’s not getting worse. Notwithstanding the fact that he is New Zealand’s Climate Change Minister, however, poor James Shaw can’t even do that.

Do his colleagues from the Labour Party care? Not enough, apparently, to make the Climate Change Minister a full member of Cabinet. That decision, alone, strongly suggests that not only does Labour not care about the public credibility of the male co-leader of the Greens, but also that it doesn’t really care about Climate Change – full stop.

Why else would they be sending him off to Glasgow with next-to-nothing to show the world from New Zealand? Could it be because they know that whatever the major contributors to Climate Change may say, they’re not intending to actually  very much either? In spite of the Queen’s “irritation” at “too much say, not enough do” from world leaders. In spite of Greta Thunberg’s caustic refrain of “blah, blah, blah”. Our leaders know that the world’s leading nations cannot afford anything more expensive than “blah, blah, blah” without crippling their economies and/or (if they’re democracies) being thrown out of office – and neither can New Zealand’s.

So, off James will go with nothing in his attaché case but promises to do better Рwhich neither he, nor the Labour Government, are in any position to keep.

Will anybody, apart from the environmental NGOs and a few Climate Change swots, pay much attention to New Zealand’s dereliction? Well, the mainstream news media will certainly huff and puff for a few days. They’ll run Greenpeace’s media releases. They’ll commission plenty of op-ed commentary from the usual suspects. Then they’ll go back to publishing advertisements for SUVs and double-cab utes, and agitating for the “smug hermit kingdom” to re-join the world – especially by air.

“Will nobody think of the planet?!” For those deeply involved in the science of Climate Change, elevated anxiety levels will more than match the rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature. Their concern, however, is not really for the planet, it is for their own benighted species, and its apparent inability to recognise the enormous dangers bearing down upon it.

As scientists, they know “The Planet” has absolutely no thoughts on the matter.

Among under-graduates, the tree falling in the forest conundrum has always been a favourite. Everyone of a philosophical bent has heard it: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The answer, of course, is “Yes” and “No”.

A tall tree falling through the air and striking the ground with considerable force will indeed produce the physical effects that the human ear delivers to the human brain as “sound”. And not only the human ear and brain. A timber wolf, whose hearing is vastly more sensitive than any human’s, will similarly register the tree’s fall.

The point, however, is that (as far as we know) only the human brain is capable of formulating the original question. Moreover, only the human brain is remotely interested in the answer.

Planet Earth, which is, of course, our creation – since a ball of rock whirling around its star lacks the self-awareness required to name itself – has undergone numerous and massive changes in its four billion year history. Science tells us that the planet was at one time covered with ice from pole to pole. At other times it had a surface temperature equal to that of the hottest of hothouses, with an atmosphere so full of oxygen that dragonflies were able to grow as big as seagulls, and lizards larger than a double-decker bus. And, when an asteroid the size of Manhattan struck its surface – leaving a crater as deep as Mt Everest is tall – killing-off the dominant dinosaur species (along with just about every other species of animal life) the ball of rock was shaken, but not stirred. It had withstood bigger blows. There had been other extinctions. Life always found its way back.

Which is where we, the clever apes, enter the story. Or, rather, where the clever apes come up with the peculiar idea – unique to themselves – that they, other creatures, and even the material world in which they find themselves, have a story to tell.

An evolutionary adaptation of enormous utility, it would seem, this ability to insert oneself into an ongoing narrative. The past experiences of one’s long-dead ancestors become preservable – and, therefore, recallable – to the evident benefit of those living in the present. Did the human-beings who lived through the last ice age, when ice-sheets more than a kilometre high extended past the Canadian border, comfort themselves with the inherited memory of a warmer world? Did they pray for climate change?

Did Ice-Age humans pray for climate change?

Telling stories about the future, however, suffers from the considerable disadvantage that, unlike stories concerning the past, no one can be entirely certain how – or even if – they will turn out. Human-beings are capable of being motivated by promises of better things to come. They are less prone, however, to invest too much emotional energy in stories foretelling doom and gloom. The phenomenon of confirmation bias leads us to suppose that human-beings believe more readily in stories that have a happy ending.

Unfortunately, climate scientists seem less and less inclined to predict such an ending to the Climate Change story. This is, of course, a problem, since evolution has only equipped human-beings to respond to imminent threats that are within their power to meet and defeat. The howling of wolves will draw the hunters to the perimeter of the firelight. Hitler’s depredations will set the arms factories humming. Far-off threats, decades distant, are much harder to get people excited about.

In the dark watches of the night, James Shaw must know that this baked-in human weakness is more than likely to overwhelm all his plans. That neither New Zealanders, nor the rest of humanity, will ever take the urgent and transformative action Science now deems necessary to stave-off climate catastrophe. Perhaps he comforts himself with thoughts of some last-minute technological fix. Or, perhaps, he simply imagines the last surviving human-being looking up into a night sky awash with stars, and weeping, because, in his absence, the whirling ball of rock will not know, or care, how beautiful human eyes had made it.

Or how silently the trees will fall – when he has gone.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 18 October 2021.


Doug said...


Jack Scrivano said...

I think there are about 195 countries on our planet. When James Shaw sits down at the table in Glasgow with his empty bag, he won't be alone. He will have almost 200 'friends' there with him.

greywarbler said...

You came up with a good word Chris - dereliction.
Is there to be seen in NZ direction or dereliction? Interested observers watch and expound while Labour go bravely on facing a bemused* and growing hostility, unready to try to turn back the sea - they have already tried to handle that foreshore situation! Ethelred the Unready lives again. For a number of years, how many NZ could take a bet on? It would be more interesting to NZs to have a stake in the money pool from an official bookmaker - our version of the Club of Rome clock.

Going through a ritual funeral and leave-taking for the world and our country would be more gripping than working to alter that end by denying consumer desires; not buying any more damned 4WDs still being churned out, now with batteries. They enable the hearty farties to ride all over the country and up rivers showing that as an ad on Tv ad like something to be proud of. We have seen how self-centred the rural handyman/bushman can be recently. No sense of society there.

*The Club of Rome's model for global development was constructed to investigate five major trends – accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment (see also Environment and Development; Limits to Growth).
Club of Rome - an overview | ScienceDirect Topic

Barry said...

Its way past the time when anyone takes the subject seriously. Following stupid claims by extreme scientists eg: in the UK the proposal that climate sceptics should be subject to a criminal charge, and the recent activity by Rebellion Extinction and Climate Emergency and Insulate Britian activists I have to say that I have totally lost interest in the subject.
As has happened throught out history the catastrophe we are expecting is almost always not the catastrophe that arrives. Councils declaring an emergency simply debases the word 'catastrophe'.
Yes, climate is changing. Its almost certain that solar panel farms and windfarms will do little or nothing change anything substantial.
In twenty or more years there might appear some viable solutions to a problem - the true size of which is uncertain.
I will hurry up and wait patiently..

sumsuch said...

My feelings exactly, Chris. Reason and rationalisation were the Cain and Abel of our conscious species' first step. Trump isn't strange at all, he's the rule. This however is the end of the planet's resources. As a descendant of many generations of finitely limited people, and aware of it, I enjoy this rich last scene in our play.

The stress of our near end does 'kill' me however.

To prevent that requires major steps down, whereas democracy is all about shavings off here and there. What could have prevented that? All the talk of the original Labour movement only resulted in power in the most desperate decade.

To the Left brains who came up with the brilliant 'living wage' what's our angle here?

greywarbler said...

James Shaw has argued his corner over many years swaying thought from pure green towards business and economic practicality. Greens have got the town dwellers into the country, got business into recycling reducing energy.and low income people nearer the front and then the publicity got overwhelmed by the women's fetish about the 'c' word and the age old repeat of 'not fair'. Shaw sticks through it, despite being dished a punch on the jaw, the man is a saint.

greywarbler said...

Doug you bring the gin.

sumsuch said...

I don't know where 't'Cause', for which you sacrificed your whole adult economic life, can go to from here.

Funny, but I'm still agin the 84ists. Not a good start point I admit.

David George said...

Quite so Barry, after thirty years of "ten years to save the planet" its all getting a bit like the boy who cried wolf. Has anyone any faith at all in the media and their relentless propaganda campaign? The dragging out of climate disaster porn? There's always somewhere in the world with some extreme weather event and always has been, they're not getting any worse but the cause is religiously claimed to be "climate change" - or whatever they're calling it this week.

Meanwhile Boris and the Brits face a winter of blackouts and grannies frozen to death thanks to their decision to shut down fossil fuel power generation with no credible plan for a base load backup. Same as Shaw, no proper plan, no new generation capacity before pulling the pin on gas. He should stick around in the UK and see for himself though it's unlikely he'll learn a thing.

greywarbler said...

I don't understand your ideas either sumsuch. But prior to 1984 we had warped unionists thinking to live in a moneyed society which they would hold to ransom and not caring too much about conditions for people not in their close society, often women being left out. But we still had ideas about a people's state. I see Shaw trying to carve out a way for the ordinary person, make changes for climate assisting the country, but with the need to care about all, the terns and the humans, more for the everyday than the lately. personally sensitive.

Important is the water being kept clean and away from control of grabbing rural councillors, smart deals for export and finding a way to shorten terms for current licences (renewals??) wary of highly paid bureaucrats.

A great water story about a dedicated civil servant in the fictional Pompeii as told by Robert Harris,

John Hurley said...

Chris I walked to the supermarket and bought The Press (something I never do as I don't want to help pay their wages).
What sent me down was the new density "solution". Clearly NIMBY's are bad people (although I would have thought they have a bit in common with "tangata whenua", being people who appreciate hebe bushes with bumble bees buzzing.
Not once in the articles by Henry Cooke or the anonymous editor did I see the question of sunlight mentioned. Would that be because no one would blame a "NIMBY" for not wanting to loose sunlight; in other words we would see who is obviously wrong?

David George said...

I recently read a very good book on viable environmental strategies by environmental activist Michael Shellenberger - Apocolypse Never. How to mitigate CO2 emissions, ensure environmental improvements in other areas and lift the worlds poor out of poverty. Far more practical and multidimensional than the deluded and dangerous ideas being floated by much of the green lobby, including the ill thought out "strategies" coming from our own Green party.
Here's a fascinating recent interview with him:

sumsuch said...

Greywarbler, someone needs to both say and/or do the truth. The Green leader is indeed a nice guy.

The politics of this moment won't even allow us to address our early deaths , let alone sundry descendants. We rely on a surprise technological innovation, which will probably just push off the end a few years. Chris is pointing out this black dark silly situation.

sumsuch said...

James is a creature of '84, he will not break that shit up and that shit is the problem. I canne quite remember but did Sue Bradford compete with him for the leadership? She knew.