A very modest proposal

Below are the concluding remarks to a talk given on Australian public radio. The talk discussed the problems of government trying to frame policy in the light of uncertain climate science.

[We] are fixated on growth, both of the economy and of the population, as being an absolute good. It seems to me that we have enough knowledge now to bring on the economy of any country to something like our own standard of living within a generation or two, say 35 years. As we do, each such country’s people will want their own three-bedroom, three-bathroom houses, their swimming pools and their own cars. India alone is said to have a middle class of 80-million. China is rocketing ahead, and new freeways full of cars are appearing there every few months. They want what we have, and they are not impressed by talk about global warming.

Nonetheless, somehow we have to change the way we do things, if only because we will be unable to afford our present way of life. My strategy is to encourage a shift from what I call materialism, the notion that you can buy whatever you need to make you happy, to creativity, by which I mean that we do our best to unlock the creative impulse in every child and every adult. There are three good reasons for doing so. One is that materialism ultimately doesn’t work. The second is that creative people tend to be interested in life, happy in what they do, and productive. The third is that the footprint of the creative, to use that hackneyed expression, is likely to be a lot fainter than those who search for fulfilment through buying things. Musical instruments, paints and paintbrushes and garden aids cost less and use less energy in their production than do large houses, cars and boats.

‘What has that got to do with global warming?’ you ask. Well, a thriving, creative society will sit a little more lightly on the planet than an acquisitive, materialist one. I was brought up in a thrifty household where recycling went on as a matter of course. It wasn’t called ‘recycling’ then, it was just how we lived. If we went down the path I have proposed (and I agree that I have barely sketched it) we would produce some of the outcomes that environmentalists yearn for. But then we would be doing it for what I would regard as the right reasons.


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