Talkin’ about my generation

To the younger generation, in the wake of COP17 in Durban –

I’m writing this on behalf of my generation, the generation that has shaped the modern world. With miraculous electronic devices, endless supplies of consumer gadgets and toys, international burger chains and the power of consumerism, we have created a world of plenty and endless progress.

It’s a lie, of course; an illusion; and deep down, you know this.

You know that this has all been done with a fuel source that’s about to run out. You know that in creating a cornucopia for humans we have driven other species to extinction and trashed the climate.

 You know about the insanity of the financial markets. You know that money is a fiction on which major decisions are made about the future of millions of people and that the real world is worth nothing in accounting systems which are used to manage the global economy. You know that globalisation has poisoned and neutralised politics and that corporations run governments.

 Your generation has been brought up to believe in the power of personal choice – as long as it is confined to the market-place. You have almost unimaginable freedom to do anything you want, except have any real power in the world.

Mind you, we have left you with some cool stuff – you’ve got iPods and rock’n’roll, so you can listen to songs about love, freedom and sex while the world falls apart. Until the batteries run out.

While you’ve been playing we’ve been using the atmosphere as a trash can, dumping the carbon left over after we burned the fuel to make your toys dance. We’ve now stolen the very air you breath, polluting a future that most of my generation will never see.

Sorry about that.

We didn’t mean to stuff up quite so badly, not most of us anyway, but that doesn’t change the fact that we did. Big time.

What can you do about it? Nothing, if you listen to the corporate and government apologists. Plenty, if you listen to your own voice. Five years is all you’ve got, starting now. It’s just enough time to turn things around, but the changes needed are nothing short of revolutionary. Don’t believe any of the old rules. This ain’t no video game.

If I were you, I’d be getting angry. Very angry. Full-on, get-out-of-my-way angry. But don’t look to political leaders, they follow money and votes. Don’t expect leadership from major corporations, unless you want to be led over a precipice. And don’t follow sage advice from old folks – they got you into this mess in the first place.

The mess that you see coming out of climate talkfests is an eloquent expression of just what a bunch of no-hopers we really are. We have failed you.

Now it’s your turn.

In 2011 there was no Greta Thunberg leading climate strikes. Thankfully, now there is. 

I was born when the CO2 levels in the atmosphere were 311 ppm., by 2011 it was 390, it’s now 412. I spent the early 1980s reading papers on climate science and figured out, from the evidence, that we were headed for global warming. In 1989 I was instrumental in forming ‘The Greenhouse Association of South Australia’, one of the first citizens’ organisation devoted to combatting climate change. That was 31 years ago.


My Favourite Thought Experiment

I conduct ‘thought experiments’. These can be fun. They cost almost nothing, you can do remarkable things to anyone, anywhere, anytime – and they don’t even notice! My favourite experiment focusses on metropolitan Adelaide (you can do this too). It’s simple: at the height of summer, turn off the city’s water supply for two weeks.

There is outrage! There is universal expectation that ‘someone’ will fix it but after just 24 hours the situation is critical because virtually every aspect of maintaining sanitary conditions depends on hot water for cleaning, boiling water for sterilisation or simply water to flush the toilet.

The very young, the elderly and the infirm suffer most, and quickest. Society’s most vulnerable members quickly feel pain from the disruption of ‘normality’.

After a week, violence is breaking out. Anyone who can is leaving town. Owners of rainwater tanks are attacked by desperate people, less and less able to think straight as they get thirsty, dirty and scared.

The government declares a state of emergency.

Within two weeks the city collapses completely. Normal order is impossible. Violence is routine. Desperation, fatigue and fear have replaced any sense of security the city once provided. Pestilence and disease overruns the city as normal services break down. The thin fabric of civilisation begins to tear…

In my even nastier experiment, I turn off the electricity for two weeks as well!

Continuing this exploration of possibilities, imagine all the cities and towns dependant on the Murray-Darling system for their water supply becoming independent. Then imagine them weaned off fossil fuels…

Can cities be independent in this way? The answer is ‘yes’, but instead of poisoning the lifelines of our waterways we should be cleaning and conserving them. Our urban centres must be planned, developed and redeveloped on the basis of their interdependency with the landscape (and vice versa – no farmer would have a livelihood without cities to feed).

We need to transform the landscape. But the landscape that has to change first is the invisible landscape of legislation, because in an advanced civilisation that is one of the principal foundations of its existence.

We need cultural change. It happens at the grassroots level of communities and committed citizens, but it can be accelerated by supportive, intelligent legislation and that is the responsibility of government.

The amount of water we use is about the same as the amount of rain falling on the metropolitan area every year. In Adelaide, at the height of the summer of 2020, let’s look forward to turning off the tap!

Now conduct your own thought experiment – imagine living in an exciting, beautiful city that fits the ecology of the land. Then, if your ecological city feels good and works well, move it from the realm of imagination, start figuring out how to build it, now begin…

Paul F Downton

This wildly optimistic essay, date 8 October 2003, is an abridged and modified version of a longer paper given at the Region 7 Seminar of the Murray Darling Association on 26 July 2000.