In his 2004 book entitled Conspicuous Compassion, Patrick West claimed that affluent societies had become shallow and insincere in their attitudes towards other people and the serious problems facing the world. He argued that people were reducing themselves to acts of conspicuous compassion: acts that generated a high public profile while showing participants’ emotional commitment to actions that ultimately were of little material benefit in solving the problems or issues about which people claimed to be compassionate over.
In the environmental field, recent years have seen similar acts of conspicuous compassion. Examples include bans on disposable supermarket plastic bags; public campaigns to stop the cane toad from reaching the Kimberley region of Western Australia; and now Earth Hour where we turn off our lights for an hour in March to show our communal support for action to reduce global energy consumption. Sadly, each of these conspicuous acts has failed and will continue to fail.
The reasons for these failures are similar: the goal of each action was not to make an actual difference to the issue of concern but to make people feel good while they very publicly proclaimed their awareness of the issue.
Disposable plastic bags were replaced by bright green or blue plastic bags which shouted the message that I’m more environmentally friendly than you. At the same time, the sale of plastic bag products from supermarket shelves reportedly increased as people were forced to find replacement bags for their kitchen rubbish bins and other uses for which the free bags were no longer available.
Cane toads continued to hop towards the Western Australia and Northern Territory border, as herpetological researchers, hoping to find biological or other controls that would reduce cane toad populations throughout Australia, were starved of funds because of government misdirection of money to Toadbusters and other high profile but totally ineffective feel-good campaigns.
And now we have Earth Hour, where parties are held around the world to celebrate in a very public way the commitment of party goers to symbolic recognition of their understanding of the serious problem of anthropogenic climate change, while actually making no difference to energy consumption in either the short or long terms.
For each of these examples, conspicuous but effective actions could have been devised to make a real impact on the underlying problems. Supermarkets and other outlets should have been required to sell disposable plastic bags at a price reflecting the actual costs of their production, litter collection and landfill disposal or recycling. The public could still have bought the green or blue reusable bags to use on their weekly shopping outings, but people would have been forced to make rational economic decisions about whether to pay, say, 10 cents for the previously free bags or to pay a little more for bags able to be reused 100 times.
Cane toad researchers should have been fully funded to investigate biological and other science-based options for toad control, provided that their research programs included public awareness activities and information dissemination to communities such as Kunnunnurra which were next in line to be invaded by the toads.
And can Earth Hour be improved? Of course. Rather than having throwaway symbolic gestures lasting just one hour a year, groups involved in Earth Hour should decide upon just one important energy saving action (such as installing solar hot water systems or low flow shower heads or buying fuel efficient motor vehicles or using public transport) and then spend a full year informing governments and communities of the real difference that people could make by adopting that year’s action.
Does the wearing of pink clothing or ribbons make a real difference to community support for breast cancer research? Probably not. Does Glenn McGrath’s personal appeal to governments and the community to fund cancer research make a difference? Absolutely yes, so it’s a great pity that his personal tragedy was somewhat trivialised by campaigns encouraging people to wear pink ribbons.
Did the cane toad campaigns in the east Kimberley region of WA enthuse large numbers of local people? Without doubt, but what a shame that their preparedness to do some hard work was not directed into actions that could have produced significant improvements to the Kimberley environment such as revegetation of wetlands, feral cat control or improved fire regimes of natural areas.
Earth Hour is a con, a fraudulent excuse to show we care while doing nothing useful to make a difference. As members of Alcoholics Anonymous are required to do, we must admit we have a problem with Earth Hour and commit to turning it into a campaign that will achieve real environmental outcomes.
Let’s leave symbolism to the politicians. Surely the community can operate at a higher level than people who are self-seekingly attempting to get re-elected every three or four years. Clean-Up Australia is removing thousands of tonnes of rubbish from our public lands every year at the same time as it changes public attitudes about littering.
Earth Hour has similar potential to achieve the two important goals of making a real on-ground difference while also changing public attitudes, but it needs to leave its symbolic gestures behind. Instead, it should agree to focus on one effective action to be highlighted each year, with that action capable of being adopted by the broader community.
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