Saturday, 22 August 2009

The Age of Stupid


I went and saw the documentary The Age of Stupid the other night. It is good. You should see it. And yes, I cried (for me it was the bit about the Nigerian village that did it). The film was at its best when showing how climate change is already affecting peoples' lives. The most shocking statistic for me was that while only 1% of scientists don't believe climate change is real, 60% of the general public remain unconvinced. (Interestingly, I read a statistic when I was in Australia a while ago that said that a large number of Australians do believe it is real, no doubt because people there are experiencing the effects on a national scale to a greater extent than elsewhere).

The film's Kiwi producer, Lizzie Gillet, had this to say in a NZ Herald review posted on the movie website:
"We wanted to make a film that had an impact," Gillett says "We didn't want to be preaching to the converted. More importantly, I think there is a lot of research out there and people know about climate change but are just not doing anything, so we tried to make a film that engages people emotionally more than intellectually ... to persuade them to do something about climate change.
I agree that the science is compelling, however, the one thing that disappointed me about the film is that it felt very light on what that something is that we need to do about climate change. We saw people from the rich world growing their own food, attending protests, thinking about how they can reduce their carbon emissions on an individual level. One man who was interviewed, the wind farm guy, referred to taking action on climate change as a "moral issue". I think that this misses the point; the best chance we have of addressing climate change at is by facing it as a political issue that can be addressed at the national level.

By talking about climate change as either an individual moral problem, or a global crisis, we miss the point that it is governments that will make a difference here with initiatives such as taxing pollution so that the real costs associated with production and distribution are being included in prices. Again, in Australia last week the news was full of the fact that food prices will be affected by their recently announced emissions targets and there was well-placed concern about the effect that this would have on the poor. To deal with this real problem the Rudd government announced that they would target social assistance to those families affected by increased prices. This is the approach we need to take here in New Zealand as well.

I recommend the film and hope you will have the chance to see it. However, changing behaviour on an individual level to seek to address climate change may feel good morally but what we need to do is to really make progress on this is to take this on collectively through our political processes.

18 comments:

Boganette said...

The title kind of irks me. I wonder how many people who don't believe in man-made climate change (or are unsure) will see it. Given that it sounds like they're saying said people are 'stupid' (only going by the title there).

Mind you I do think climate change deniers are wrong.

And there's not much point to the movie if the only people who see it are those sold on man-made climate change.

Hugh said...

Very good point Boganette.

The 60%/1% thing doesn't surprise me. Hell, 90% of people think you can catch a cold by being out in the rain, and 0% of doctors believe it.

Anna, I think you've missed the point about raising food prices. The whole reason that taxes on climate-unfriendly foods are to be raised is to stop people buying them. If we then target assistance to the poor, it becomes just as easy as it was to buy them before, thus meaning the incentive not to choose climate unfriendly foods vanishes for everybody receiving the assistance - and given that the poor make up such a huge part of the population, it means you're left with only the middle class eating climate friendly food... which is the current situation.

Boganette said...

For the record I'm convinced you can catch a cold by being caught in the rain. Lol.

Hugh said...

Well, don't worry, I won't call you stupid!

the Scarlet Manuka said...

2 points @Hugh:

The poor are more likely to price discriminate. You can rely on them spotting, say, that bananas just got way more expensive but apples stayed a similar price. Social assistance addresses the average price, but does not hide the individual prices.

Secondly, although the poor make up a large proportion of the population they represent a lesser proportion of food consumption and even less of total consumption. They do often have to drive, given our poor public transport, but fly a lot less than the rich. Crunch those numbers (compared to food) and you will find that the structural change would be well worthwhile even if the poor were magically immune to it.

Hugh said...

I realise that Manuka, but it doesn't change the basic equation. If the price changes do affect the poor, then you're soaking the poor during a recession. If they don't affect the poor, then there's no incentive for behaviour change - no matter how eagle eyed the poor are, they won't stop buying something if the price hasn't changed.

As for it being worth it even if doesn't effect the poor, potentially, but the middle class are, as you've pointed out, both less likely to spot a price difference and less likely to care. Given that voluntarism on environmental issues is already sky-high among the middle class, I'd question whether it won't simply be rewarding them for what they're already doing - which, as we know, is insufficient.

To be frank, if the climatologist consensus is to be believed, 'better than nothing' isn't good enough.

Anna said...

Am I the Anna referred to here? I'm not actually the author this time. :-)

katy said...

Hugh, I will take that you thought Anna was the writer as a compliment!

In terms of prices, the cost of goods is currently distorted because it doesn't include the true environmental cost of production (including labour) and distribution. In Japan, for example, the cost of disposing of an appliance at the end of its life is built into the purchase price; this becomes a cost that is borne by the consumer rather than the community. I wish that price was a better reflection of cost.

Hugh said...

Sorry Katy, Anna, don't know how I got confused there.

moz said...

Hugh, the point is that the price compensation is not specific. So a poor person will say "ooh, neat, I get a little more in my pocket each week" but is still likely to buy cheap apples, rather than saying "aha, I have a little extra money to allow me to buy expensive bananas instead of cheap apples". Some will no doubt use the extra money to fly to Rarotonga for a holiday, but no system is perfect.

The price distortion argument is valid but also interesting because it doesn't begin and end with climate change. It also applies to other pollution, resource degradation, human rights and so on. In fact the easiest purely market-based argument is the one against slave labour - if a company uses cheap labour supplied by prisoners or other slaves they have an advantage in the market. Correcting for this by taxing slave-produced products is a simple, reasonable idea to most people. But once you get that concept, it's easy to extend it to less directly money-based costs.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the movie but I wonder if it mentions the U.S military, the single greatest contributer to the world environmental crisis

Anna said...

Interesting comment, Anon - can you say more? Is it because of oil consumption and manufacturing munitions, or more indirect stuff?

Moz said...

Anna, if nothing else it's likely because the US military is the most expensive in the world by a large margin and that has huge implications for US spending as well as feeding into everyone's defence and foreign policy. The US could shave 10% off their military budget and use the savings to go carbon neutral. Or provide universal free healthcare to their own population. It's a lot of money.

There are secondary effects - their wars for oil, drugs, terrorism and so on both create a lot of emissions (remember the burning oil fields in Iraq and Kuwait when the US and its puppet fought over Kuwait?) and prevent other people doing obvious stuff to reduce or prevent them (nuclear power in Iran, for example). The huge military R&D engine also sucks researchers and money out of more productive endeavours.

Anonymous said...

There are numerous ways in which the Pentagon is contributing to climate change and environmental disaster in general. The first is their own staggering consumption of petrochemicals.

Barry Sanders has written a book "The Green Zone: The Environmental costs of Militarism." which I haven't read yet but details how militarism produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Also you can check out these links to Michale Klare articles about the Pentagon's dual role as consumer and protector of oil: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/157241/klare_the_pentagon_as_an_energy_protection_racket;
http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174810/

Add to this the fact that all of the energy consumed in building weapons is ultimately put to the end of destroying stuff, which must then be rebuilt (by gas-guzzling friends of the Pentagon in general).

Also I would say that the military, along with institutions like the IMF and WTO enforce a system based on comumption of mass produced commodities and destructive of subsistence or other alternatives. I think without real democracy we can't look after the planet, and I think the environmental movement should be one and the same as antiwar/global peace and justice movements.

Anna said...

Thanks, Moz and Anon!

Hugh said...

I'm sure every good environmentalist looks forward to the day when American tanks run off solar power and biofuel, and fire shells that harmlessly break down after they'be blown somebody's head off.

Random Lurker said...

The US navy are working on making fuel from seawater (with success so far).

Fe said...

In terms of the links between militarism and environmental disaster - through the massive tying up of funds in armaments as well as the idiotic technlogies used - I hope someone makes this connection in the Peace Conference happening in Wanganui on Sept 20 21 and the Global March for Peace and Non Violence, starting in WELLINGTON on October 2 - by the Gandhi Statue beside Wellington Station.
I liked the film because it showed such realistically mixed up people - made the point (I think) that we need EACH OTHER if we are to have any chance of moving out of stupidity...