ConsumerismGlobal Warming/Climate ChangePeak OilSociety

Escaping the Matrix – Lifestyles Without Limits

How many of you remember having to share the bath water with your siblings? A few baby boomers may get nostalgic here, but younger ones will laugh, or shreak “eewww!”.

For us in the North, long gone are the days of little Johnny going in last, the days of gathering wood and doing your best to make it last the winter, the days of cold mornings and dimly lit rooms. Frugality has given way to frivolity, conservation to carelessness. For decades our collective psyche has looked to infinity and beyond. We’ve lived lifestyles without limits.

Last century the phrase ‘The Great American Dream’ was coined. Our dream was to live the rags to riches story, to be whatever we wanted to be, to reach for the stars. It was a pleasant fiction, and some of us even got to live it. Just some.

The dream, however, as dreams do, missed a few elements of reality.

The American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun. – Kurt Vonnegut, US novelist.

Cupidity. Covetousness. The dream was, ultimately, all about ‘me’. It was about idleness and excess, possessions and prestige. Nowhere in its charter were the fundamentals considered. The quest for riches has run roughshod over all – family, society, the laws of finiteness, connectedness, the laws of nature and of cause and effect. We’ve tried to bend nature to our will, but nature could only bend so far. Where nature wouldn’t accomodate, we bent our economies to compensate, and our dream began to be fueled at the expense of poorer nations. Colonialism and slavery continued within our modern economic framework, while we sat on the porch and sipped lemonade.

This new century we are being forced to face nature’s balance sheet – the invoice from hell, as it were. We’re starting to see the true cost of our lifestyles.

It’s a slow awakening. As with characters from The Matrix movie, the dawn of reality is an unpleasant one for many. Some of us just want to drift off back to sleep. We’d choose to surrender to the machines, even though we know it’s a facade, a farce, a computer-generated illusion.

George Monbiot published an article last year entitled ‘Another Species of Denial’ that brings this mentality to a practical head. Our leaders, under public and industry pressures and working within a long-established social and industrial infrastructure, want to keep living this impossible dream – at whatever cost.

George Bush proposes to deal with climate change by means of smoke and mirrors. So what’s new? Only that it is no longer just a metaphor. After six years of obfuscation and denial, the US government now insists that we find ways to block some of the sunlight reaching the earth. This means launching either mirrors or clouds of small particles into the atmosphere.

The demand appears in a recent US memo to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It describes “modifying solar radiance” as “important insurance” against the threat of climate change. A more accurate description might be important insurance against the need to cut emissions.

Every scheme that could give us a chance of preventing runaway climate change should be considered on its merits. But the proposals for building a global parasol don’t have very many. A group of nuclear weapons scientists at the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in California, apparently bored of experimenting with only one kind of mass death, have proposed launching into the atmosphere a million tonnes of tiny aluminium balloons, filled with hydrogen, every year. One unfortunate side-effect would be to eliminate the ozone layer.

Another proposal, developed by a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, suggests spraying billions of tonnes of seawater into the air. Regrettably the production of small salt particles, while generating obscuring mists, could also cause droughts in the countries downwind. Another scheme would inject sulphate particles into the stratosphere. It is perhaps less dangerous than the others, but still carries a risk of causing changes in rainfall patterns. As for flipping a giant mirror into orbit, the necessary technologies are probably a century away. All these fixes appear to be more expensive than cutting the amount of energy we consume. None of them reduces the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which threatens to acidify the oceans, with grave consequences for the food chain.

The demand that money and research be diverted into these quixotic solutions is another indication that Bush’s avowed conversion to the cause of cutting emissions is illusory. He is simply drumming up some new business for his chums. In his State of the Union address last week, he spoke of “the serious challenge of global climate change” and announced that he was raising the government’s mandatory target for alternative transport fuels fivefold. This is wonderful news for the grain barons of the red states, who will grow the maize and rapeseed that will be turned into biofuel. It’s a catastrophe for everyone else.

An analysis published last year by the Sarasin Bank found that until a new generation of vegetable fuels, made from straw or wood, is developed “the present limit for the environmentally and socially responsible use of biofuels [is] roughly 5% of current petrol and diesel consumption in the EU and US.” Bush now proposes to raise the proportion to 24% by 2017. Already, though the rich world has replaced just a fraction of one per cent of its transport fuels, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that using crops to feed cars has raised world food prices, with serious consequences for the poor(9). Biofuels fall into the same category as atmospheric smoke and mirrors – a means of avoiding difficult decisions.

But at least, or so we are told, the argument over whether or not manmade climate change is happening is now over….

…with George Bush’s defection, the band of quacks making these [denial] claims is diminishing fast. Now the oil and coal companies which support such people have changed their target. Instead of trying to persuade us that manmade global warming is a myth, they are seeking to divert us into doing everything except the one thing that has to happen – reducing our consumption of fuel. It is another species of denial. –

Should this not be our fear today? As we’re individually shocked into lucidity, will we adjust? Will our minds recalibrate to our surroundings? Or, will we push on with the same mindset we’ve always had – trying to have our cake, and eat it too? This tendency to resist change, to cling to the status quo, is arguably the biggest battle we now face.

Will we keep trying to bend nature to suit our lifestyles, or will we finally escape this absurd dream?

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  1. Great article. The Matrix does describe our collective somnambulance. It is also ironic that in that story, governments plunged the atmosphere and the planets life support systems into meltdown with a last ditch panic attempt at preventing their own AI creations from taking over. Futile.

    I recall 20 years ago as a high school student, lamblasting modern life in public speaking events, based on environmental evidence of the day. My ‘extremism’ certainly channelled passionate speeches and gained peoples attention (great for my narcissicus). And while I hope that it made a little dent in conciousness – for after all I was simply recirculating the information that needed to be heard, and adding deep criticism of a defunct and dangerous lifestyle – I know that any real change has been basically superficial. (Bunnings, Harvey Norman, Wars for Oil etc)

    It is depressing to know that the consumerist inertia in our culture is generations in the making, and it is chilling to think that it may take generations to deprogram these settings. Changes are clearly gaining momentum, but will it make any difference with a profoundly over-populated planet? We all need to switch off perhaps 80% of modernity and tend to the most vital things we can do – feeding ourselves sanely!! Permaculture is as radical as you can get. And yet will become so normal. Transform our backyards and grow our futures locally. And support and strengthen the real development across our world… Today I am blessing the living saints who make the Seed Savers movement a reality…

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