If you knew you were burning down the house around you, and you could stop it, wouldn’t you?

Before the pandemic sucked the air out of the conversation, protests against climate change were much in vogue.

Nonetheless, the excerpt below came as somewhat of a surprise. Not because of the profundity of its message, but because of who wrote it:

Above all, we understood we went too far. Our reckless actions have burned the house we live in. We conceived of ourselves as separated from nature, we felt cunning and almighty. We usurped nature, we dominated and wounded it. We incited Prometheus and buried Pan.”

You might think this was written by an environmentalist or a climate activist. But no, this profound declaration — a testament to our extravagant lifestyles of the last half-century — was written by one of the world’s premier fashionistas, Alessandro Michele, the Creative Director at the Italian fashion luxury house, Gucci.

“We felt cunning and almighty. We usurped nature, we dominated and wounded it”

The underlying story is Gucci’s changing philosophy to dispense with costly and wasteful fashion extravaganzas that are usually conducted across all four seasons. Other luxury fashion brands appear to follow suit.

It’s a humble admission of truth — a rarity in a world dominated by denial, political polarisation, and arbitrary expertise.

The true cost of our fashion-conscious lifestyles

Perhaps Oscar Wilde, himself an avid fashionista, best sums up our love-hate relationship with fashion in this satirical spoof: “A fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months!”

10 per cent of global carbon emissions come from the production of apparel, which is more than the emissions from maritime shipping and international flights combined

Mindful that our desire to remain uber fashionable — we are what we wear — comes at a cost. Not only to our pocket but to both the natural and built environments.

A report last year by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) revealed that 10 per cent of global carbon emissions come from the production of apparel, which is more than the emissions from maritime shipping and international flights combined. This is projected to increase by more than 50 per cent by 2030.

The fashion industry globally also uses 93 billion cubic metres of water every year — enough to meet the needs of 5 million people — and 20 per cent of wastewater comes from dying and treating fabric. 

But the true cost of our fashion-conscious lifestyles doesn’t stop there. More than 450 million tonnes of plastic microfibres end up in the ocean — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles — that cannot be extracted and end up in the food chain.

Selling a pair of Gucci sneakers is like selling the dangers of climate change — or is it?

Like Gucci, getting someone to buy into what your selling, whether it’s a pair of Gucci sneakers or dangerous climate change, entails some creative marketing.

The climate science says we would end up with a brand-new beachfront, several kilometres inland from our current one

For instance, what would it take to convince our political leaders that a complete meltdown of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets — which is well underway — is a genuine science-based possibility?

And what would this do to the built environment along our heavily-developed Eastern seaboard?

The answer is we would end up with a brand-new beachfront, several kilometres inland from our current one.

What the science says

To begin with, Australia holds the unenviable title of the world’s lowest continent with an average elevation of only 330 metres above sea level.

The science tells us that Arctic annual temperatures will rise about 2.5 times faster than the tropics. 

After moderately low ice melt in 2017-18, things started heating up in 2019 with a near-record summer ice mass loss.

Australia holds the unenviable title of the world’s lowest continent with an average elevation of only 330 metres above sea level.

But most ominous is that the complete disintegration of the Antarctic ice sheet would raise sea-levels by more than 58 metres. Which would inundate several of the world’s megacities and densely populated coastal settlements, including our own.

The other great ice sheet of Greenland has also been losing mass at an accelerated rate.

Models indicate that complete disintegration of the GIS would add more than seven metres to sea levels.

Reimagining a brand new beachfront

So, a total collapse of both ice sheets would raise the level of the oceans by about 65 metres.

Think about the house you live in, then reimagine a brand-new beachfront; say, about 10 kilometres inland!

Projections indicate that this will occur at a mean surface temperature rise, above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900), of 0.8 – 1.0 °C to 3.2 – 4.0 °C, which might take a millennium or two — or not!

We’ve surpassed 0.8 °C, so we’re now on thin ice.

And the nonlinearity of the climate system means that things could awry much faster, resulting in abrupt climate change, called Dansgaard/Oeschger events.

Which means that sea-level rise is governed by temperature, not time. In fact, time is incidental.

Because time is incidental, it’s also of the essence!

Take Sydney, for example, by 2050 coastal flooding is expected to occur on average at least once a week. 

By 2100, if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, flooding will occur every day.

But this has not deterred Sydneysiders from investing in that beautiful beachfront property.

Who could blame anyone in pursuit of the great Aussie beachside lifestyle?

The difficulties in selling the science

Sydneysiders aside, apart from the persistent efforts of climate denialists, and a constant wave of disinformation from those with an economic agenda, selling the science has been an onerous task.

First, how to explain alarming truths without sounding alarmist.

Although denialists are steadily melting into the background, albeit reluctantly, they persist in pockets of powerful resistance that are hard to crack.

Second, how to overcome the growing resistance to bad news. I mean, with a full-blown pandemic unlikely to end anytime soon, who has time for another crisis?

And third, how to keep pace with the ever-worsening truths about environmental degradation. Our interconnected world is changing at such breakneck speed it’s impossible to keep up, irrespective of the medium.

Selling the fear of a lifestyle change

Selling the fear of a lifestyle change — an interruption to one’s much-loved routine — is a political ploy regularly used to counter an opposition’s policy. 

Take Scott Morrison’s “war on weekends” slogan, used in his 2019 anti-electric car campaign to attack Labor’s target of 50 per cent new vehicle sales to be electric by 2030: 

An electric vehicle “won’t tow your trailer. It’s not going to tow your boat. It’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family.” 

In short: electric cars will put an end to your fabulous weekend getaways: a “Trump-style” marketing ruse proven to be without foundation.

Sustaining the unsustainable: infinite growth on a finite planet

But even if we managed to sell the science and change minds and attitudes, it’s often not reflected in our behaviour. Our long-held lifestyles override our part-time impulses.

We might feel guilty after scoffing that packet of Tim Tams, though the guilt is usually short-lived.

But the veracity of the enormity of the task is reflected in our everyday unsustainable habits, like filling our wardrobes with pollution-producing fashion items that we never wear and often end up as landfill.

It seems that changing our unsustainable lifestyles and replacing them with sustainable ones is tantamount to reinventing our concept of planet Earth as something to be infinitely exploited. 

As fashionable as that might seem, it simultaneously defies the logic of a finite planet.


Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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