Monday, February 2, 2009

Real action is the only hope for our planet

  • Reverend Alistair Macrae
  • The Age, February 3, 2009

We must demand better of our leaders than just mouthing platitudes.

I WAS struck by the power of the photograph and accompanying story in The Age (January 31) of a Brunswick resident dismantling part of his roof-top domestic solar panelling.

Peter Allan had installed, at considerable expense, a system large enough to make a significant difference to his family's reliance on coal-generated electricity provided by the grid. He then discovered that the rebates designed to encourage such responsible investment are capped at a lower level and that to qualify for them he needs to return his system to more tokenistic proportions.

The ludicrousness of this situation, one hopes, is not lost on most of us. Sadly we are becoming accustomed to mixed messages from our state and national leaders. Easy environmental platitudes are mouthed with disturbing frequency but the policies to expedite them are absent, inadequate or inconsistent.

The power of this particular story, however, is Peter Allan's threat to engage in a public act of protest — namely smashing the redundant solar panels on the steps of Parliament House if the rebate caps are not raised to meaningful levels. This would be an act consistent with a long line of prophetic actions to stir complacent leaders or citizenry into action.

The biblical prophet who perhaps used symbolic action to greatest effect was Jeremiah. He traversed his country wearing a crude yoke around his neck as a prediction of impending exile for his people. He bought a plot of land in a place that would surely soon be overtaken by Israel's enemies as an act of defiant confidence in the future. Jesus, in a famous fit of indignation overturned the tables of commerce in the Temple.

Peter Allan's possible action is in this creative, non-violent but passionate tradition of truth-telling and social justice. It promises to reveal an unsustainable disjunction between public rhetoric and policy.

Maybe his example will inspire other such creative actions to reveal the truth of our situation in relation to this fragile Earth. Our continuing reliance on brown coal-generated power is demonstrably unsustainable. Governments are culpable for not doing more to explore and encourage alternative sources of power. But no less are we, ordinary citizens, culpable for our political lethargy and our extraordinary refusal to make substantial and sustained changes to our power use.

How we use water is another obvious example. We watch with dismay the depleting resources of our water supply, study the weather predictions in vain for the deluge that may restore the stocks, but will we make the necessary substantial changes to our water use? Apparently not.

Instead, solutions are proposed to desalinate water at enormous expense financially and environmentally. By addressing one problem we will compound others. To secure the urban water supply, massive pipelines are being constructed to carry water from already water-deprived rural areas to the city.

What might be the prophetic action needed to hold such truths before our eyes? Or, more accurately, what would help us see them?

In such a situation what is needed is a paradigm shift in the way we think about how we live in and with the environment.

Fresh water, essential for life, should be treated with a new reverence. Maybe such a prophetic attitude was offered to us by South African batsman Hashim Amla. Whenever he drank water during the cricket matches here he knelt to one knee, presumably as a mark of religiously inspired gratitude for the gift of water. It was a moving and powerful gesture that speaks to our situation.

There are few easy solutions to the challenge of living sustainably on earth. But we are not helped by the mixed messages given to us by our leaders. At a time when it is clear that human consumption of resources is laying waste to the very sources of our survival, our governments, responding to an economy that is imploding through greed and avarice, offer incentives for us to increase consumption. It is becoming clear that such tweaking of our social and economic settings will not address the more fundamental issues but may, in fact, make things worse.

What is needed is a major shift in our expectations of life, particularly in the advantaged West.

If our economies shifted from being predicated on continued economic growth to a focus on equitable distribution of the earth's abundance, I suspect the world might turn in a more just, peaceful and sustainable direction.

Again, what symbolic actions might be needed for such a fundamental shift of consciousness? I don't know.

For now I will go to my shed, pull out a hammer, and offer Peter Allan of Brunswick my assistance should it be needed.

Reverend Alistair Macrae is president elect of the Uniting Church in Australia.

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