When ‘functionally insane’ seems normal, time to worry

Every now and again I try to take a couple of hours out of life in La La Land (or was it Namaland?) to check in on the state of the real world. You know the one, it sustains all life, it’s the one upon whose well being all human hopes, dreams and plans depend. Yes, that one, the very one we’re collectively killing just as fast as we possibly can.

Of course, only crazy people see the crippling of the biosphere in the coming decades as a crisis. The grown ups, the politicians, the pundits who crowd around Marian Finucane on Saturdays and Sundays, the economists, columnists and assorted other soothsayers for what ails us have absolutely nothing whatever to say on the subject.

To be fair, for many of our humanities-educated commentariat this goes beyond just rank indifference and laziness; it is also generously leavened with quite spectacular levels of ignorance of even the most fundamental pass Leaving Cert science.

But meanwhile, back in the real world, Mary Robinson yesterday delivered a powerful address to the Institute for International and European Affairs (IIEA) in Dublin’s northside. Entitled ‘Protecting the most vulnerable: the role of climate justice’, it was wide-ranging, lucid, technically challenging and short on easy answers and quick fixes. The kind of story, in other words, our media just hate.

Still, it did get a single column piece on the left hand inside news page in today’s Irish Times; this was in fact the only Irish newspaper which deemed Robinson’s exposition of the tightening existential crisis that unrestrained climate change represents to be worthy of column inches. In contrast, the Times cleared two entire news pages to print the details of every last Tidy Towns winner – and there are literally hundreds of them.

Well, maybe Robinson is just plain too high falutin’ for ordinary folks to understand or care about what she has to say? Hardly. How’s this for good copy: “The truth is this: what we are doing is functionally insane. If we do not change this pattern, we will condemn our children and all future generations to struggle with ecological curses for many millennia to come.”

Here, she is quoting Al Gore from a recent impassioned and quite brilliant Rolling Stone article, ‘Climate of Denial’ but it is clear Robinson 100% endorses the sentiment, as well as feeling the anger, the outrage. “To me, “ecological curses” translate into serious threats to all human rights. Hence the urgency of acting now, and acting decisively”, she concluded.

Roll that tape again: Ireland’s former President, a distinguished former UN High Commissioner and the holder of America’s highest civilian honour, the Congressional Medal of Freedom (more on this below) tells a meeting in Dublin that society is “functionally insane” and is in the process of inflicting ecological wreckage that will blight humanity and the planet itself for millennia, and Ireland’s Paper of Record reckons its readers would be far more interested in the Tidy Towns.

What the hell is going on here? Well, I did warn you. We live in La La Land, and its denizens and commentariat are for the most part as atomised, disconnected and distracted from reality as it is possible to imagine.

Robinson had lots more to say: specifically, she placed climate justice “at the nexus of climate change and human rights”. She drew attention to the hideous injustice that the world’s 50 least developed nations account for less than 1% of climate-wrecking greenhouse emissions. Yet these are the very same people who are first in line to bear the brunt of climate impacts.

And it’s getting worse by the month. “By 2020, between 75–250 million people in Africa are projected to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change, particularly in the arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa and the rangeland systems in parts of eastern Africa… The sad reality is that this may lead to conflict and mass displacement of people”

Some of the world’s poorest countries are facing near term collapse in their ability to feed themselves. The frequency, severity and timing of extreme climate events are taking a growing toll. Droughts, flooding and increased risk of fire and disease outbreaks are all being fuelled by the ever-worsening climatic picture. “In some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% by 2020”, she told us, pausing for a moment to let the fact sink in that these calamitous ‘future’ projections are barely eight years’ hence.

Robinson went off her script to single out the “particular lack of (climate) leadership from the US and the lack of any prospect of this in future” – a clear slap at Obama’s humiliating capitulation to Tea Party fundamentalists and energy industry-funded Congress stooges. He was, lest we forget, not only our best hope, he was our last shot, and boy, has he blown it. Just last week, he pulled the plug on EPA efforts to improve US air quality by reducing toxic ground level ozone levels. Even the American Lung Association has given up on this guy and is re-launching a Bush era legal challenge against America’s great crusading president.

In the question and answer session at the end of her presentation, I took the opportunity to ask Mrs Robinson if, in light of Obama’s abandonment of his pre-election commitment to place the fight against climate change at the very heart of his presidency, was it perhaps time for her to consider returning the Congressional Medal of Freedom? Her response: “that’s very provocative of you, John, the answer is no”, but she did promise that “I’ll have a word in Obama’s ear” – to remind him, presumably, that the climate is not some election pledge that can be quietly jettisoned when the political wind is against it.

In response to another question from the floor, this time on the share-out of the world’s ‘carbon budget’, she replied: “we’ve (in the developed world) been greedy and overused  it ourselves”. She added that the putative 100 billion dollar annual transfers from rich to developing countries to assist them with climate adaptation by 2020 was “nowhere near the cost of adaptation”, which she reckoned is closer to 700 billion dollars. This sounds like a mountain of money, but the US alone will spend well over a trillion dollars in 2012 on its military.

It was now time to leave this bubble of ecological reality that had temporarily inflated over No. 8, North Great Georges Street and return to La La Land. In this land ‘Ireland’s Next Top Model’ and ‘ICA Bootcamp’ would jostle with RTE’s announcement of its ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ line-up and a sweet, sweet old priest who has been involved in not one, but three successful Tidy Towns competitions would dominate the TV news and the front of the Irish Times. Aaaah bless!

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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7 Responses to When ‘functionally insane’ seems normal, time to worry

  1. Theresa Carter says:

    Slightly angry? Cynical? Sick to the teeth of how insignificant climate change is continuing to be viewed? The fact that reality tv is given more thought than the future of our children is one fairly key point that needs to be seen for what it is – insanity. Nicely put John! Makes me wonder what can ever be achieved when the parents of the victims-of-climate-change-children are too busy speculating and living on the nerves of the next John Travolta.

    We are a doomed species because we are happier to switch off and go into la la land. Perhaps that’s what we should be focusing on teaching our children and the children of Africa – how to switch off. It would probably be a better use of class time than what they are learning at the moment – all about climate change, the effects of fossil fuels, the impact of human activity on the climate, what we need to be doing to mitigate the worst effects – all that preventative, how-to-counteract-the-destructive-actions-of-your-parents lessons they are currently studying. Maybe we need to teach them how to switch off so that they may starve to death while they go la la in denial. It may ease the pain somewhat. Who knows?

  2. Thatcher says:

    Well John’s Lala land is a welcome relief after last night’s Primetime journey into madness aka Namaland and all the crazy SOBs who reside therein. It never ceases to amaze me how we can take made-up stuff like religions so desperately seriously and yet dismiss and cast from our minds the meteor-sized climatic reckoning that is hurtling towards us all.

    Maybe it’s just too unpleasant, too frightening, to think about. Still, standing here and staring like rabbits stricken with myxomatosis into the headlights of our own collective demise does sound pretty nuts too. We wait for our leaders to lead us. They wait for the focus group reports and polling numbers, and since the climate crisis/catastrophe barely gets a look in here, the politicians and policymakers just ignore it. How’s that for leadership!

  3. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    It’s largely absent from the national conversation because, well, we are not talking about it. I have always made the point of expressing my concerns about climate change as I believe that no decision involving personal and domestic energy use should ever be made without weighing up its impacts.

    Instead, we have a society that remains largely silent on the issue, and therefore many who remain totally ignorant about it. Many, perhaps most, people have not internalised the conservation and sustainability message. Why would they, when the media don’t keep them informed, no one remarks on their extravagant 4WDs or their holidays in New Zealand, and there is no pressure on anyone to do the right thing. (As you can see, I am a serious party pooper.)

    Al Gore has the exact same view on this. In Climate of Denial (which John mentioned above), an essay he issued in June as a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore spells out how criticial it is for everyone to talk about the problem and get involved personally in solving it.

    I haven’t read it for some time, but I think he says we cannot sit and wait for the world’s leaders to solve the problem; they won’t act until we, the people, all of the people, demand action. Silence is not an option. We have to internalise the sustainability message so that our entire life is informed by it. And we have to speak up so that everyone else’s life is similarly informed by it.

    This could mean writing to Vincent Browne, Pat Kenny, Miriam O’Callaghan or anyone fronting a current affairs show, or their producers, and asking them why they are not featuring climate change on their programmes regularly and repeatedly. It is the most critical topic.

    Write to local TDs, senators, government ministers, An Taoiseach, An Tánaiste, state agencies. Write to Michael O’Leary, Bill Cullen, John Bryan (president of the IFA) and any other businessman who has clearly not internalised the message.

    Write to newspaper columnists such as Fintan O’Toole, John Waters, David McWilliams, Matt Cooper, Terry Prone, Vincent Browne, Bruce Arnold, Fionnan Sheahan, Anne-Marie Hourihan, the list goes on and on. Ask them why they are not dealing with this topic all the time. One good article by a commentator can have a huge impact on public opinion. One tetchy and derogatory article by Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times forced Gay Byrne out of the presidential race, while John Waters may have precipitated David Norriss’s withdrawal. The power of these writers is unbelievable, and yet half the time they are struggling to get to grips with what’s going on themselves.

    Write to newspaper and broadcast editors and ask them why they don’t have staff dedicated to the environment portfolio, including climate change and other related environmental issues such as habitat loss, biodiversity extinctions, deforestation, fisheries collapse, soil erosion, desertification, water resources, acidification of the oceans, melt of the glaciers, and so on, and on.

  4. Mike Walker says:

    Sorry John,

    It is a good piece but I fear that the real world of which you talk is not a world of, “urgency of acting now, and acting decisively”. It is a world of (un)tidy towns; it is somewhat of a contradiction to imagine it is a world of urgent action and sensitive responsiveness, for it were we would not be in this pickle in the first place. Furthermore, President Obama was elected in a very real world, although perhaps by many who believe they live in another.


  5. seafoid says:

    It is truly insane. On the one hand the US spent over $3 trillion fighting a war following the killing of 3000 Americans 10 years ago. The US was entitled to go to war on 9/11 says the FT.


    And the economic system, the suicide machine that is in nobody’s interest,is on track to trash the planet and will kill billions. But this is unavoidable


    Maybe the banks will destoy capitalism in time.

    Who is going to fight for the future generations? At what point does murder in their name become acceptable ?

  6. seafóid says:

    Very interesting , Chris Hedges on rationality in the face of despair


    The south tower went down around 10 a.m. with a guttural roar. Huge rolling gray clouds of noxious smoke, dust, gas, pulverized concrete, gypsum and the grit of human remains enveloped lower Manhattan. The sun was obscured. The north tower collapsed about 30 minutes later. The dust hung like a shroud over Manhattan.
    I headed toward the spot where the towers once stood, passing dazed, ashen and speechless groups of police officers and firefighters. I would pull out a notebook to ask questions and no sounds would come out of their mouths. They forlornly shook their heads and warded me away gently with their hands. By the time I arrived at Ground Zero it was a moonscape; whole floors of the towers had collapsed like an accordion. I pulled out pieces of paper from one floor, and a few feet below were papers from 30 floors away. Small bits of human bodies—a foot in a woman’s shoe, a bit of a leg, part of a torso—lay scattered amid the wreckage.
    Scores of people, perhaps more than 200, pushed through the smoke and heat to jump to their deaths from windows that had broken or they had smashed. Sometimes they did this alone, sometimes in pairs. But it seems they took turns, one body cascading downward followed by another. The last acts of individuality. They fell for about 10 seconds, many flailing or replicating the motion of swimmers, reaching 150 miles an hour. Their clothes and, in a few cases, their improvised parachutes made from drapes or tablecloths shredded. They smashed into the pavement with unnerving, sickening thuds. Thump. Thump. Thump. Those who witnessed it were particularly shaken by the sounds the bodies made on impact.
    The images of the “jumpers” proved too gruesome for the TV networks. Even before the towers collapsed, the falling men and women were censored from live broadcasts. Isolated pictures appeared the next day in papers, including The New York Times, and then were banished. The mass suicide, one of the most pivotal and important elements in the narrative of 9/11, was expunged. It remains expunged from public consciousness.

    The “jumpers” did not fit into the myth the nation demanded. The fate of the “jumpers” said something so profound, so disturbing, about our own fate, smallness in the universe and fragility that it had to be banned. The “jumpers” illustrated that there are thresholds of suffering that elicit a willing embrace of death. The “jumpers” reminded us that there will come, to all of us, final moments when the only choice will be, at best, how we will choose to die, not how we are going to live. And we can die before we physically expire.
    The shock of 9/11, however, demanded images and stories of resilience, redemption, heroism, courage, self-sacrifice and generosity, not collective suicide in the face of overwhelming hopelessness and despair.

  7. John Gibbons says:

    @ Seafoid
    Stunning piece by an excellent commentator. Curiously, in the recent 10th anniv. Coverage, I saw a lot of footage of ‘jumpers’ that had clearly been censored back in 2001. And I can sort of see why. It feels real, and that’s the scary stuff.

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