Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Tale of two crises born of one disease: greed
The Wall-E parable isn’t just the usual sappy greenwash. That’s the story’s surface, littered with its skyscrapers of compacted trash. Beneath this rusty crust, though, is a subtler, layered allegory about the flubbery human mind (the Captain) locked in mortal combat with its business-as-usual auto-pilot. About the importance of overriding both gloss and fear (the two iterations of the on-screen Buy n Large president), about the courage to defy convention (the robots find their autonomy) and about self-denial for the sake of the big picture (Wall-E’s final act).
It’s the same moral that emerges from both the climate crisis and financial crisis. The financial crisis movie opens with a poor, white-trash family signing up to a housing loan several times their collective annual income. From this clearly nonsensical presumption that even the most income-challenged can become the proudly propertied, it proceeds to the captivating irony of dull old socialism being called upon to bail out exuberant, free-wheeling capitalism.
The climate-change crisis begins, similarly, with the fond belief that we can all live four times plumper than most historical royalty, and builds to the point where only the tyranny we will never accept can save us. Nice twist.
That these two crises should coincide like this looks, at first glance, like jolly bad luck. Bad luck worsened by the way, as Kevin Rudd argues, financial meltdown makes climate clawback that much harder to sell. But a second glance reveals that the moral – the Wall-E moral – is more than just a common theme. It’s a common etiology. Climate catastrophe and financial fiasco are symptoms of the same disease: greed.
The nexus between the two crises is housing. Housing matters because of its ubiquity and because it so neatly symbolises the tension between the self and the collective, the now and the later, the right thing and the easy thing.
Rudd could be right. The world’s financial woes could shift our focus off climate change long enough to lose what may be our only chance at recovery. But there are three factors that could yet tip the net result in sustainability’s favour.
First, the world is suddenly a-flutter with money looking for a roost – and what better investment opportunity than renewables? Second is that growing concern about security of supply, on the fuel front, reinforces the attractiveness of renewables. And third is that the huge financial bail-out, which if it happens will be the biggest nationalisation exercise in US history, makes at least half of America’s housing stock suddenly government property – and what better opportunity for a mass retrofit?
Enviro-engineers speculate wistfully as to what might be achieved if $800 billion in public money was pumped into climate, rather than banks. But governments are markedly less eager to apply the poultice of public responsibility to the environment – our biggest shared asset – than to the very sector that has generated most anti-public rhetoric. Australian governments, especially.
In Britain, the Peabody Trust’s 87-dwelling zero-carbon BedZED estate, completed in 2004, has blossomed into Gordon Brown’s controversial Ecotown program, which proposes 10 zero-carbon, water-neutral and car-curbing settlements of 5000 to 20,000 homes each by 2020. California lowered its energy addiction after the 1980s scare, and kept it down, even while growing productivity. It can be done.
But in Australia, a big country devoted to the very small picture, we respond to security of supply issues by frantically seeking new sources of oil. We answer climate change by insisting that emissions trading mustn’t harm, wait for it, the coal industry. And we frame the financial crisis in terms of its impact on our mortgages and petrol prices.
Australia’s buildings, says Garnaut, produce 23 per cent of our greenhouse gases, more than half of these from dwellings. And that’s ignoring materials, construction, renovation and demolition. Worse, by 2050, predicts the Centre for International Economics, it will have almost doubled, with commercial building emissions increasing by 154 per cent.
This is partly because, though our population is growing quite slowly, our house numbers are increasing much faster due to household shrinkage. By 2026, the Australian Bureau of Statistics predicts, 3.1million people will live alone, almost two-thirds of them in detached houses.
As if this weren’t scary enough, the houses themselves are swelling dangerously. More, bigger rooms and, as teenagers sit alone and screen-side, higher energy use per room. That’s before we even get to plasma. The emissions curve is exponential, upwards.
Garnaut, softened by politics, recommends 10 per cent cuts (on 2000 levels) by 2020. Most international scientists are recommending more like 60 or 70 per cent by 2015. Our own scientists are pushing for 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2015.
But Australia charges blindly off in another direction, happily expelling more and more carbon dioxide, like Wall-E’s screen-bound space-floating fatties. Still, they learned to walk again, on their own pudgy feet. Perhaps we, on a new low-carbon diet, can do the same?