The Fifth Estate’s holiday reading guide
Willow Aliento | 18 December 2014
Don’t even think about it – why our brains are wired to ignore climate change
George Marshall embarks on a sociological, psychological and politically nuanced exploration of why it is, against all observable scientific evidence, climate change is generating more hot air than concrete and decisive action.
It’s a serious, thoroughly provocative book that tackles all the different ways in which the human mind, social mores and habits interfere with knowing and acting.
The mind, he explains is forever prioritising all the various inputs it receives – and will choose to disregard those that are not perceived as an immediate threat.
Then there are other layers to the mental barriers, such as our willingness to believe comfortable lies, the way responsibility has become diffused, or the whole problem deemed too difficult.
Then there is simple our reluctance to engage with topics that seem too much like doomsday, too pessimistic or simply fall into the wide abyss of the “social silence” – the things we as a culture don’t talk about. Marshall illustrates the social silence extremely well be recounting occasions when he has, as an experiment, introduced climate change into an everyday interaction. People go quiet, or quickly change the topic or even simply turn away. Unlike political corruption, tax policy or property prices, it’s simply not considered a fit topic for conversation.
There’s some wonderfully entertaining moments, such as Marshall’s narration of his meeting with leaders of the US Tea Party faction to ask, “Why don’t you guys believe in acting on climate change?” Yes, he does escape the meeting unharmed, and finds a surprising degree of common ground with them.
The book ends with a clear map for taking charge and opening minds to the importance of taking the discussion out of the politicised realm and into the realm of concrete, achievable and immediate action.
The Sixth Extinction – an unnatural history
Among the many adventures Elizabeth Kolbert embarked on to research this book, she spent nights looking for rare frogs, days creeping through plots of mountainous rainforest and embarked on a rowboat adventure off the shores of Iceland to see where the last of the Great Auks was killed. These colourfully told tales are what prevent this book from being heart-achingly sorrowful as she examines first-hand the evidence of what the Anthropocene age is doing to all the other species that share this planet.
Woven through her case studies is extensive research into evolutionary biology, the fossil record, climate, ocean acidification, ecosystems, forest composition, extinction rates, and interviews with many leading scientists across disciplines including forest ecology, climate, fauna and palaeontology.
She goes to zoos to look at the species preservation work being done, visits DNA storage facilities, Manu National Park in Peru, the bay off Castello Aragonese in Spain and One Tree Island on the Great Barrier Reef.
Each case study adds further evidence to the book’s core premise – that modern humanity is fast undermining the genetic diversity of the world, and that there are pathways that can be taken to slow down what scientists are calling the sixth great wave of extinctions.
Kolbert writes in a way that is frank and without rancour, openly sharing some of the ways in which the research has an emotional dimension both for herself and for many of the researchers engaged in attempts to halt the destruction of species. To read about people watching their local frogs die en masse, and how they attempt to save whichever species they can from total genetic oblivion, is both saddening but also in some small measure heartening – because it illustrates the degree to which individuals can be moved to act with a sense of stewardship.
Alternative Interventions – Aboriginal Homelands, Outback Australia and the Centre for Appropriate Technology
Looking at the way in which the Centre for Appropriate Technology has worked to develop appropriate, sustainable housing and domestic technologies with and for remote Indigenous communities, Alan Mayne gives a set of insights into the needs and abilities of Aboriginal people that is worlds away from the mainstream headlines. It also ground concepts such as energy efficiency, water efficiency and appropriate housing that are familiar in urban policy in a whole new way.
Outback, a project like the solar-energy driven BushLight program makes an immediate difference to quality of life while leap-frogging the carbon-intensive options the city areas are currently struggling to surrender.
Mayne also draws out some useful observations about considering the context in which an item will operate before specifying it. Doorknobs designed for city homes, for example, do not cope with the conditions of a desert community with “up to 30 kids” running in and out of the house and slamming the doors. The conventional phone box also is not built to handle desert dust, as coin boxes rarely got emptied so coin slots jammed, keypads clog with sand, phone cords break and handsets get fractured. CAT designed and patented a desert-appropriate community access phone, and Telstra purchased the IP and then installed them across 200 locations using Community Development Employment Programs funding to train residents in operations and maintenance.
Traced through the narrative of CAT’s evolution and the political and governance framework within which it operates, the organisation’s activities are also a microcosm that is reflective of the broader policy approaches to Aboriginal people, their land and the provision of infrastructure, services and economic opportunities for them on their land – as opposed to those they can access if they surrender residence in their own country and relocate.
Best Australian Essays 2014 – edited by Robert Manne
This diverse collection of non-fiction prose works is pure intellectual indulgence, with enough politics, culture and big name writers to make up for a month of missed Sunday supplements if you are having a break from newspapers over the holidays.
Pick of the essays in terms of a relationship with sustainability are Tim Flannery’s piece on the Great Barrier Reef, Rachel Nolan’s Men of a Certain Age, and Tim Winton on the way the Australian landscape shapes us and how climate change is intensifying the degree to which the environment we inhabit is affecting life in our cities. Politics is well-covered from Christos Tsiolkas on the shift of the left to the right, Noel Pearson examining the policies around Aboriginal people and how they were shaped by theories of evolution and empire, and David Marr on Tony Abbott’s idea of freedom.
There are also essays on refugees, pressures on the medical profession, mental illness and its impact on families, Doris Lessing, Pete Seegar, Walt Whitman, sport, life in the 1940s and why his executors ignored Patrick White’s dying wishes his unpublished writings be destroyed.
It’s a bit like a mental plunge pool – dip in, paddle about for a while amidst the refreshingly fine writing, and jump out again feeling refreshed and with some new thoughts to play with.