Will There Be Anything Left For Us?

Words : Molly McLaughlin

Being young has always been a terrible, beautiful mess.  In 1967 Joan Didion wrote, “One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty one and even twenty three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened before." From the Vietnam War protests of the 60s and 70s to the emergence of third wave feminism in the 90s, young people have felt and continue to feel ignored and powerless in the face of an establishment that could never understand us. But this time, something is different. As we race towards irreversible climate change, humanity is facing the biggest existential crisis of its history, not to mention a variety of other urgent social justice issues. And while young people are yelling and screaming and begging for radical action, no one with the power to do anything about it seems to care. 

The science on climate change is clear, despite the protestations of certain politicians and those with vested interests. With the rapid bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and deadly increase in bushfires over recent summers, in Australia we are beginning to see tangible signs of what has been forecast for at least a decade. This planet is getting warmer and it is partly Australia’s fault. According to the WWF, Australia has one of the world's largest ecological footprints per capita, requiring 6.25 global hectares per person.

Australia’s ecological footprint is made up mostly of carbon emissions, followed by the biologically productive area required for cropland and grazing. If the rest of the world lived like we do, we’d need the regenerative capacity of 3.6 Earths. Critically, we also export our coal to other countries. Add the emissions from rapidly industrialising nations like China and India, and a change in the climate begins to look inevitable. In the fight against climate change, to quote author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, “World War III is well and truly underway. And we are losing.”

My dad took me to see An Inconvenient Truth at IMAX when it came out in 2006. We were in Sydney for the weekend from our home in country NSW, and of all the overwhelming things we did, like eating Thai food in King’s Cross and shopping at David Jones in the city, the film still stands out. I was twelve, and afterwards it weighed heavily on my fledgling conscience. I still remember the red line of predicted C02 emissions soaring upwards, as Al Gore follows it up in a cherry picker. Back then, ten years ago, my dad was adamant that something had to be done. Laws would be passed and changes would be made. Human ingenuity, the very thing that separates us from the rest of the animals, would save us from this disaster of our own making. When I spoke to him last week about the latest scientific data, he was resigned. “It’s too late,” he told me.

When the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth surveyed 3,369 Australians aged between 12 and 25 earlier this year, it asked young people to identify the three topics they most wanted addressed during the 2016 federal election campaign. Unsurprisingly, social issues were at the top of the list. Australia’s inhumane and illegal treatment asylum seekers was identified as the number one priority by 21 per cent of respondents, followed by legalising same-sex marriage at 19 per cent, and action on climate change at 16 per cent.

However, during the 2016 election campaign and after the Coalition’s underwhelming victory, young peoples’ concerns have rarely been addressed as both the major parties are in agreement on these issues. A narrow focus on the performance of the economy for the extent of an election cycle has meant that the status quo remains safe, and our democratic system is failing to provide for the possibility of short-term costs for long-term benefit.

That is not to say we, as young people, don’t care about the economy. We definitely do. We need jobs to survive just like everyone else, perhaps even more so. For us though, climate change is the essential issue that encapsulates everything else we are demanding in Australia and around the world. As Naomi Klein explained at the Paris Climate Conference in 2012, “At its heart is the argument that if we take the imperative to rapidly build a post-carbon economy seriously, we have a once-in-a-century chance to transform our economy to make it far more equitable, so that it works for many more people. This would be a clean economy with many more good unionized jobs that pay a living wage. With better public services that are more equitably distributed.”

Currently, the top 20 coal oil and gas companies in the world have in their reserves enough carbon to exceed the agreed-upon limit of two degrees global warming and they have no intention to leave those reserves unexploited. For the rest of us, disregarding the dangers of climate change is an exercise in reinforcing economic inequality that seems wilfully ignorant.

The major labour market issues that affect young people are underemployment, the rise of freelance careers and the so-called ‘sharing’ economy. We are also facing a housing bubble, specifically in Sydney and Melbourne, and a global atmosphere of economic uncertainty. But all of this is framed within an environmental-social context rather than a purely economic one.

In the September 2012 issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissmann dubbed American Millenials ‘The Cheapest Generation’. In a discussion of falling rates of car and home ownership, they wrote, “If the Millennials are not quite a post-driving and post-owning generation, they’ll almost certainly be a less-driving and less-owning generation.” If anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, Australian Millennials are also rejecting traditional markers of economic success. What is the point of growing our economy if that also means growing inequality and destroying our planet? What is the point of the ‘lucky country’ if we can’t share our luck with those who seek our help?

Sometimes I have to stop myself from thinking about how unfair it all is because otherwise I would just give up, crawl under a doona and accept that rising sea levels, droughts and food and water shortages are the inevitable consequences of the lifestyles of the so-called developed world. Of course, I don’t feel that this situation is unfair for me specifically, because I am a well-educated, white Australian, but for everybody. We fucked up.

We believed that we could control our environment and exploit its resources without consequences. In the beginning, we just didn’t know the harm we were causing. Now we know, but we continue to destroy the only home we will ever have. It’s depressing and exhausting to care so much, but we have to. We have to look straight into the storm that is coming for us because even if we don’t, it will still come.

For all the late nights I find myself staring despondently at my computer screen as yet another article about another person who should know better denying the science of climate change pops up on my newsfeed, there are some things that make me believe we can do this. In desperation at government inaction, Australian authors Jane Rawson and James Whitmore wrote The Handbook: Surviving and Living With Climate Change. It details practical tips on how we can be more prepared for the environmental, physical and psychological effects of climate change. Rawson said, “We’re not saying it’s time to give up on stopping climate change. It is time to give up on stopping it altogether, because we’ve left that too late. But we can still choose between ‘things are a bit rough, but I can handle it’ climate change and ’I don’t want to live on this planet any more’ climate change.”  That is a choice I can deal with.

There are other ways to fight against this overwhelming nihilism. Despite knowing that my personal food consumption makes an insignificant difference to greenhouse gas emissions, I choose to eat a low impact, plant based diet and attempt to minimise food wastage. This is mostly a selfish choice, because it makes me feel better, although it also generates conversations with friends and family who may not have considered the impact of their diet on greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013 Roy Morgan research identified a slow but steady trend towards meat-free (or at least, meat-minimal) living in Australia, especially among young people.

The rise in popularity of zero waste lifestyles is similarly encouraging. Recently reaching fad proportions on social media, ‘zero waste’ is the simple concept that reducing unnecessary waste is a prerequisite for continued life on earth. Movements like Meat Free Monday and Plastic Free July are increasingly entering the mainstream. While statistically irrelevant, this shift in thinking gives me hope that maybe sustainability is no longer just for hippies like me.

However, there is only so much that we can do as individuals without broader political movement, and young people are realising this with every post-election broken promise and political back flip. Disengaged with traditional politics, we are searching for the tools to influence debate about the environment and other social issues. It is no coincidence that the Australian Youth Climate Coalition is one of the most prominent organisations in climate activism in this country.

We are often derided as ‘slacktivists’ because we sign and share petitions on social media and nothing changes. But then we put up posters at our universities and schools and nothing changes. We attend protests and nothing changes. We even vote for candidates in state and federal government elections that have progressive climate change policies and nothing changes. We know that in the very near future, things will change because they have to; now it is just a matter of how much.

Record high temperatures and once in a lifetime extreme weather events are happening every year in Australia. Finally, public sentiment is beginning to shift against fossil fuel companies and their interests as the extent of their political influence through lobbying becomes obvious. Earlier this year, a coalition of environmental action groups blockaded the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle, NSW, shutting down operations for a day. Thanks in large part to student protests, La Trobe University became the first in Australia to commit to divesting from fossil fuels. China has placed a moratorium on new coal. 193 countries signed the Paris climate agreement.

There is scientific consensus on what governments of countries like Australia need to do. For a start, we need to regulate to keep fossil fuels in the ground and instead exploit Australia’s natural resources of wind and solar. These structural changes in the economy will present difficulties for the labour force. Predictably, the transition will be most challenging for those who are least equipped to deal with it, causing unemployment and financial hardship.

That’s where government support comes in, providing incentives to sustainable businesses for retraining older workers that can be funded by a tax on carbon emissions. There is no shortage of scientists and entrepreneurs in Australia attempting to devise efficient solutions to all kinds of problems that stem from reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, if only we would invest in their ideas. Rather than distorting the market, these economic regulations will internalise negative externalities that have been ignored for too long and have allowed individuals to profit from polluting common goods like clean air and water.

If it seems like I’m unnecessarily making the issue of environmentally sustainability into a debate of us vs. them, maybe I am. Old vs. young, rich vs. poor, powerful vs. powerless. As we all know, young people are and have always been idealistic dreamers, so of course I’m oversimplifying. I know that many of the leaders of climate activism are older than me. But this is what it feels like. It feels like we are already slowly drowning under rising sea levels while the Baby Boomers cruise around on jet skis.
Look, I get it. For people like my parents and grandparents who grew up during the golden age of consumerism and believe in the temporary rewards of capitalism, it must be difficult to accept that everything they have built their lives on could mean the end of existence as we know it. Just like skin cancer, baldness and the lawn that needs mowing, ignoring this problem will not make it go away.
Over fifty years ago, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. It remains eerily prescient, although we are now no longer facing only a silent spring but a silent and empty future. “We stand now where two roads diverge,” she wrote. “But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

In response to Carson’s work, President John F. Kennedy established a presidential committee to investigate pesticides in 1963. After her death, she was credited with influencing many early achievements of the environmental movement in the U.S., from the Clean Air and Water Acts to the establishment of Earth Day to President Nixon’s founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970. Rachel Carson proved that social change on environmental issues could be fast and effective, a lesson that we have long forgotten.

Australia has not always been so late to act on environmental issues. The United Tasmania Group was the first Green party anywhere in the world when it ran candidates in the 1972 election. Australian environmentalists such as Judith Wright, Bob Brown, Peter Garrett, Tim Flannery and David Fleay have changed the way we see our planet.
According to Fairfax Media polling in May 2016, more than half of Australians surveyed thought the government was doing not very much to combat climate change and 14 per cent said the government was doing nothing at all. Only 6 per cent thought governments should take no action, while others wanted to balance concerns for economic growth and the environment. This is a clear mandate for political change. We have a chance, and more importantly the economic and natural resources, to create a world we can be proud of.  

It’s going to be hard. Really hard. Effective action on climate change will require more than just bringing your own bags when you drive to Woolworths to buy steak and imported cucumbers. Within Australia and across the world we are going to have to alter every aspect of our lives and work together to create a society that exists in harmony with, rather than taking advantage of, the natural environment. But if that means there will something of this Earth left for us, the children that people keep asking you to think about, then won’t all those sacrifices be worthwhile?