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May 17, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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My Own Private H20

Sometimes doing the ‘right thing’ can be confusing. After a while you realise that it’s pretty damn hard to find a perfect answer to anything. As much as you may secretly want an eco-halo, you have to take into consideration the consequences of your celestial circlet; where did the gold originate from, and which toxic chemicals were used to polish it until it gleamed?

Humans are, obviously, not separate from the environment. We are part of it, interact with it, and can affect it both negatively and positively. In our everyday lives we can influence our own personal environmental impact, at least to an extent. If you live within our Westernised society—instead of, say, choosing to live in a cave near Motueka, surviving solely on huhu grubs which have died of natural causes—then it’s extremely difficult not to have a large environmental footprint, simply by using the resources we all use every day: electricity, food in plastic casing, roads, water.

Apart from the immediate unpleasantness of eating raw huhu grubs, attempting to remove yourself from society has another downside: going completely off-grid would mean you can’t even attempt to change our society. You would be doing your own bit, which is wonderful, but you’re not getting close to tackling the real problems when most people are continuing with business as usual.

So we don’t live in a black and white film noir world: how does one navigate the grey? We might each have to work that for ourselves. Is attending an international conference of climate change worth you flying halfway across the world in a carbon-spewing metal bird? It depends what you think it will achieve.

Personally, I don’t think it makes sense to talk purely about individual changes. We need corporations, governments and businesses to make huge transitions, maybe even more than we need new light bulbs and reusable cloth-bags and personal pledges to never iron a shirt again.

If we consider our world-changing actions limited to our consumer choices then we are buying completely into core aspects of what has driven our current ecological and climate crises. Consumption shouldn’t be our primary method of choosing how our worlds function. Yes, we can support or not support products or industries by deciding whether to purchase their goods. It does make a difference if you commit to only buying recycled organic toilet paper. However, I think how we participate politically is far more significant than the decision to use either soap-nuts or Cold Water Surf to wash our sheets. And political participation does not only mean ticking boxes every three years; political participation can be protesting, talking to MPs, or simply chaining yourself to a bulldozer.

It seems to me that we need to work on the hulking woolly mammoth issues collectively, as it’s our emphasis on individualism and overconsumption which has (partially) got us into this mess to start with.

While I’ve only ever taken one paper that included the joys of economics, the “tragedy of the commons” is mentioned everywhere, it seems. While I get the point, I wonder if it actually works in practice. Over the centuries, while the global “commons” have been increasingly siphoned off into private ownership, our environment hasn’t sunk deeper into depression while this has been happening. Private ownership doesn’t usually appear to lead to finer resource management, unless you’re a neoclassical economist.

Abandoning public goods to market forces is walking down this darkened, broken bottle-strewn alley, just waiting to be mugged. In Aotearoa the Local Government Amendment Act 2002 was passed through parliament on its first parliamentary reading earlier this month. This amendment bill would allow councils to contract out water services to private companies for up to 35 years (up from the current uppermost level of 15 years). Unsurprisingly, Mr Rodney Hide was behind what Labour has dubbed water “privatisation”.

People should value water, there’s no doubt about it, but domestic water use pales beside the towering amounts of water used for industrial and agricultural purposes. Surely domestic water services should be treated as a fundamental human right rather than a means of ensuring maximum profits.

But, hey, don’t listen to me: I prefer orange juice, just as long as it’s fair-trade, free-range and dolphin-friendly. 

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