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July 20, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Eye Spy for the Token Environmentalist Guy

You know who piss me off? Hippies—particularly hippies who moan and whine about the environment. As Billy Connolly once put so well, “[whiny voice] There’s too many people and not enough food! … Too many people. Not enough food. Yum yum yum!” (And given their diet, the vegans would taste fantastic char-grilled with barbequed tomatoes and… never mind.) Hippies get on my nerves, because many of them (not all I’ll admit) are lazy hypocritical try-hards, who would rather fiddle with their organic tofu feel-good burger than make a real change that would actually make a difference in the scheme of things.

Let’s be clear, I love this planet. It’s awesome, and we ought to make sure we don’t mess it up too badly. After all, it’s the only known planet with chocolate. In this piece I’m going to burst your balloon of environmental smugness, nudge you out of your comfortable little lives, and then suggest a couple of things you can do that’ll make a real difference if you have the balls.

First, let’s clear up a few myths. You will not save the planet by recycling your rubbish, composting your kitchen scraps, or taking your own bags to the supermarket. These are what are known in the business as “token gestures.” They make you feel good, but they do squat all for the planet. We are not drowning in a sea of rubbish. We are not running out of landfill space, and plastic bags these days will biodegrade. It will be the big stuff, not the small stuff that saves us from the Anthropocolypse. Household recycling is a good case in point. Geoff Brischke (Salient writer 2005) followed your recycling on a whirlwind tour of what happens to it once it leaves the green bin on your kerb. It wasn’t pretty. He found that household recycling is largely a waste of time for very little environmental benefit (with the exception of aluminium cans). Industrial and commercial recycling are great, but recycling your household rubbish is (literally) more trouble than it’s worth.

Lightbulbs are another good example. So you switched your flat to eco-friendly light bulbs. Woo-frickin-hoo. You’ve saved maybe 750g of carbon this month. My overweight next-door neighbour farts more carbon than that after 1 burrito! If you really want to do something for the environment, focus on the big stuff.
Life after Token?

“But how?” I hear you cry. You could write to the Minister of Energy. Every week. For 2 years. Or the Minister of Finance. Or the Prime Minister. Or all three. It’s not sexy. You don’t get results right away. These people have the power to make big changes—seriously huge changes to the environmental landscape of New Zealand. Far, far more massive than you can. But they’re probably not going to unless you make them. Let’s put this power in perspective:

  • Earth Hour. Blacking out a whole house for an hour every year? 420g carbon saved per year.
  • Changing one lightbulb to an energy-efficient alternative? 9950g carbon saved per year.
  • Convincing the government to close Huntly power station and replace it with hydro, wind and marine power? 3,500,000,000,000g carbon saved per year (That’s three and a half trillion grams of carbon, 3.5 Mt per year, or about 4.5% of New Zealand’s total emissions).

So write to cabinet ministers. These people control 90 billion dollars of New Zealand’s money and write our laws. You can do so much more for the environment (for most political issues at that) by lobbying those in power to work on the big stuff, than by sweating the small stuff. Show up to select committees. These are laws in the making, and when National aren’t pushing things through under urgency, you have the right to go along and speak your piece.

But of course the bigwigs won’t do what you want them to if you whine at them or if you shout incoherently at them. “Please Mr Key. We have to save the planet for the dolphins and the whales.” The dolphins and the whales don’t vote, and don’t contribute that much to the economy of New Zealand. Face facts. We have a National-led government. You might not like it much, but it’s what we have. We get to suck it up for at least two more years before our next chance at the green utopia. In the meantime, if you want to convince the men in suits to do something about the environment, get educated about the issues, and make it real to things they care about (it’s the economy, stupid).

Replacing coal-fired electricity generation with renewable sources will improve air quality, save health dollars, and will save us millions of dollars under the next Kyoto agreement. It will provide jobs as the new power stations are commissioned, which will help to pull New Zealand out of recession, and it will improve our green cred overseas to boost our trade. Working on the quality of our fresh water, particularly around farms, will keep us in clean drinking water. And it will keep those good, clean, upstanding National voters contentedly at the beaches and playing in the rivers without getting inconveniently sick on or around election day.

These are the things politicians care about, and you can make them relevant to the environment. Arguing for an environmental policy to save fluffy polar bears isn’t going to work, so make it about the economic benefits. If you care enough about the environment to do something worthwhile, become an educated activist and figure out why the politicians should care about your issue, and how you can make them care.

On your marks, get set… read!

The hard part of convincing the men in suits to run with your idea is the research. They’ll be worried about the cost, so you have to know how much it is and why it’s worth spending that money. Understand the issues involved, including the perspectives of people who disagree with you; especially the perspectives of those who disagree with you. Ministers will put down your idea with a set of common objections and it’s your bob as activist-in-chief to have a smart answer to them. If all you do is throw them an idea that sounds good but is totally impractical, they’ll ignore you. So make sure when you’re convincing the politicos that you know what you’re talking about, and that your ideas will actually work. Put some thought into it and be prepared. Read up on what the government is already doing, and what their plans are. Read the New Zealand Energy Strategy. Then read the New Zealand Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy. Figure out the biggest things you’d like to see the government do, and convince them to do it.

And lastly, stick to one or two ideas. Learn a great deal about them and why the government should back them all the way, and then keep talking to the government about it until they do something.

If you really give a damn about the environment, you’ll put down that tofu burger, cook yourself a nice meaty steak, and start writing.

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