13 April 2012

A lighter shade of brown

Forget the old ethnic demarcators. All people are brown, some are just browner than others.

Olivia Rose-Innes
Let me come clean at once: if you opened this story thinking it had something to do with race politics, then you've been deceived.

A cheap trick, but “green” (heavy on the inverted commas) journalists often have to resort to underhand means to get readers to pay attention.

Still, I am going to touch on colour here, if not the skin pigmentation kind.

We run a quiz called Are you a Greenie or a Brownie? to tease readers about their degenerate planet-abusing ways. People who cycle and recycle score as Greenies, while others, those who chuck cans out of car windows for instance, get daubed a more faecal hue. (In enviro-lingo, “brown” issues are things like sewerage and air pollution, just as important as the fresher “green” issues like biodiveristy and nature conservation.) I used to think it was quite an amusing little quiz.

It's not: it's a rubbish quiz.

Because Greenies aren't really green, are they? None of the worthy environmentally-inclined types of my acquaintance, myself included, truly deserve that label. (If you know someone who does, please, I'd love to be proved wrong).

We're Brownies all, and I don't mean baked confectionary or small girl guides.

I used to think my role was to coax people into greening their lifestyles without frightening them that they'd have to make any serious changes. i.e. you can save the world and still enjoy all life's little (and big) luxuries.

That's rubbish too.

Because of course it's going take effort and sacrifice. It matters that you separate paper and plastic, and switch off for Earth Hour. It does. But if you lay claim to even the humblest environmental credentials (that includes “nature lover” and “likes long walks on the beach”), you need to accept that Green Lite activity, however well-meaning, is almost certainly not going to be enough.

It's not quite rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic or spitting into the tsunami; but it may ultimately amount to no more than slowing the rising waters by a few minutes, or salvaging one deckchair.

So I've formulated four new Greenie-Brownie categories for our times into which almost everyone not preoccupied with sheer hand-to-mouth survival will fall: 

1.      Colourless. (It's unlikely you're still reading if you fall into this category, so I'm not going to bother thinking up a quaint colour designation for it.) "There is no crisis, there is no climate change, it's a lot of nonsense and I see no reason to budge from this deckchair any time soon. Bring me another martini." 

2.      Toxic sludge brown. "I know we're off to hell in a handbasket but I'm trying not to care. The human race is going extinct and there's not much anyone can do about it. Let's make a deckchair bonfire and dance around it."

3.      Eroded donga brown. "I've made a few lifestyle tweaks to be greener, well more than a lot of people anyway. My deckchairs are made from sustainably grown wood. I'm hoping everything's still going to turn out OK, though deep down I know it probably won't. I don't try to work out my carbon footprint because it's almost impossible to calulate exactly and anyway I don't have the time. Scientists and / or governments and / or big business need to sort things. I'll donate to / vote for / buy into whoever promises to do so."

4.     Honest earthy brown, but with a shy hint of verdancy peeping through, like the first tender shoots after a fire. "I record my carbon emissions the best I can, however imperfectly, reduce them as far as possible and then offset the difference to equal zero. I'm learning and getting better at this as I go. It's a bit of a drag, but you can't pretend to care about the environment and not do it: that's just illogical, not to mention hypocritical."

So which one are you? I'm drawn to Toxic Sludge Category myself, and do settle there periodically, especially on Friday evenings, but I worry too much about my young nephews in 30 years' time to wallow in nihilistic abandon for long.

So I'm a 3, down in the donga along with the majority of decent, well-meaning, resource-greedy earthlings. We're good people. But it's becoming increasingly apparent that all that is necessary for global environmental collapse is that good people do nothing1. OK, not nothing. Just not enough. 

I don't want to be at 4, because it means being organised and grownup and accountable, and almost certainly involves fewer martinis. But I'm running out of excuses not to be. Because if you aren't at least at 4 the sorry: you are part of the problem.

We can't wait for governments to hash out a practical way forward. And although there is extraordinary, optimism-inducing work being done on alternative energy innovations and carbon sinks and scrubs, pinning all our hopes on that is like a chain smoker scanning the headlines for “Lung cancer: miracle cure.”

The only way out of the hypocritical mud is to at least attempt to get to stage 4. This column serves to announce my own transition: I'm going to gauge my emissions, learn more about reducing and offsetting, and report back. It's not going to be perfect, there's likely going to be much more visible brown than green, and no doubt hankering after Sludge Life, but how I can keep writing on the topic and not at least try?

Wish me luck. Or better yet, join me. I'm going to need help.

Into the future: my nephews in their preferred mode of alternative transport, the 'bakfiets'.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated April 2012


1. The original quote is by Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797) : "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

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