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What are our human obligations?

By Kellie Tranter - posted Tuesday, 30 June 2009

“Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” Groucho Marx.

There’s something perverse about the ongoing climate change debate. Just turning my mind to it makes me want to light a cigarette … but I don’t smoke. Hit the bottle? But I don’t drink. Call on God? I’m not religious, so that's not an option either.

The issue has lapsed into a cognitive dissonance shemozzle. Apathy, intolerance, denialism and close mindedness reign supreme. People speak in generalisations and argue in wide ranging general assertions, pregnant with opinions and value judgments, but seldom based on stated factual foundations and seldom disclosing any logical process. Semantics comes into play, and definitions go unchecked, which further hinders any true debate. Truth becomes harder and harder to grasp.


Derogatory labels - “radical”, “greenie”, “lefty”, “lunatic”, “alarmist” are applied to people on one side, and at the same time assumptions and accusations are made about the seedy ulterior motives of the other. All this noise conveniently shields the people who wish to avoid answering questions or engaging in open and logical discussion or argument.

Competing reports from both sides of the climate change divide confuse the psyche and public paralysis sets in. If everyone has a different view of the way forward, there is no way forward.

Absent common ground or clarity, but guided by individual realities and perspectives, people look to their leader or leaders for answers, direction and position. But we common people don’t see loin-cloth clad political leaders engaging in self-discipline and sacrifice in their quest for the common good, and we certainly don’t see leaders who are even remotely credible climate change messengers. What we see are people who are parts of an exclusive higher-level organism. People who say their words are truth, not opinion. Who rightly or wrongly represent climate change hypocrisy every time they enter their chauffer driven air-conditioned cars to be driven to their air-conditioned parliament to later board their air-conditioned flight to their air-conditioned five-star accommodation to conduct meetings with faceless top-down persuaders behind closed doors.

American moral philosopher John Rawls once said:

Imagine you were a member of a formal committee whose job was to work out all the laws of a future society. The committee members need to think of absolutely every eventuality because, once they have reached agreement and ratified all the legislation, they will all drop dead. But after that they will all immediately wake up again in the very society whose laws they have written. But - they would have no prior knowledge of what position in society they would occupy. Nor would they know their ethnic or religious background, or if they were going to be born a boy or a girl. A society like that would be a just society - simply because it had been formed by equals.

How different would things be if our governments acted like Rawls’ committees?


One can hardly criticise political leaders for lacking intuitively the perspective of an Inuit eskimo, or a Tuvalu islander or an Indigenous Australian, but that lack of perspective should not be excused or tolerated when they have resources available to educate themselves. After all, our elected representatives do not excuse or tolerate non-compliance with their laws or the non-payment of taxes on the grounds of ignorance or laziness. But the unfortunate fact is that our elected leaders just don't take personal responsibility anymore.

And so what is left is a populace that by virtue of calculated consumer psychology and a manipulative mass media has become so detached from reality and so worked over, duped and manipulated that the only climate change messengers who would have any credibility would have to be bicycle riding, basket weaving multi-millionaires, living in a straw hovel and eating native yams and nuts and at the same time radiating self-satisfied fulfilment. But even then scepticism and cynicism undoubtedly would find a way of taking hold!

Even if people who put first the interests of long-term sustainability were able to gain enough popular support to cajole our leaders into action, there would still be a long and difficult struggle. Those with vested interests will personally attack any iconoclast and attempt to ridicule what they say: they will marshal the forces of mass media to do that relentlessly and they will brand them as radicals and lunatics. Silencing the iconoclasts is the ultimate aim and, unfortunately, usually the result.

So we end up living our singularly selfish lives in quite peculiar times. A time when the actions of many are motivated by selfishness and most of our relationships with other people are commercially arbitrated; living lives where we listen intently yet hardly hear a word of what is said because we are too busy thinking about what we are going to say or do next; lives where we can't even guess at the needs or wants, let alone the ambitions and dreams, of the person sitting right next to us.

Ultimately, faced with leaders lacking moral courage and climate change street cred and having minds that have been bedazzled by modelling, reports, statistics and data, all that we common people have left is our senses and instincts. My instincts tell me that the regularity of the seasons has changed and that the frequency of natural disasters is increasing; and I read that money itself is migrating to the Arctic in readiness for the melting of the north-west passage and the opening of new oil fields.

I have come to accept that everything that exists is interdependent on the existence of some other thing so I can’t deny that I too have an effect. But my instincts tell me we all have to make that admission, and that it is better that we err on the side of caution and prepare for the range of adverse possibilities rather than sit with our heads in the sand. Having done that I must now ask: what are my human obligations?

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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