From time to time an unlikely person captures the moment and changes history. Joan of Arc. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Bob Geldof. Jesus of Nazareth. Greta Thunberg. Magic occurs and suddenly something that had been there for an age is seen in a different light. A movement is catalysed.
What is strange about these episodes is that nothing fundamentally changes other than awareness of an existing issue. This, of course, is a fundamental change. Where thousands were blind they now see. Slavery, starvation, or global warming suddenly become the issue of the day and the world changes.
But is awareness, and the noise surrounding it, the right change to save the planet?
Does it matter if people who once were blind now see? Yes, actually. Information blindness is a part of being human. There is so much to do, so much to know, so much to live that ignorance of most things is normal and rational. It takes a jolt to suddenly realise an issue is important. When the jolt occurs, it is important to respond by fixing the problem.
Unfortunately, even though it is tempting to follow the jolter, they are often not an expert about the issue. The ability to catalyse a movement is different from deep knowledge about the issue.
Climate change is a case in point. Physicists, chemists, biologists, philosophers, businessmen and women and even economists have been investigating, analysing, debating and taking action about climate change for decades and decades. The amount of expertise is staggering – and so is the way that the expertise has been ignored.
If you are serious about taking action to solve the problems associated with climate change, you should read what the experts have been saying. Otherwise they will be continue to be ignored and there is a huge risk that our natural state of rational ignorance will lead to climate boredom. Our attention will be distracted by a sudden awareness of the next big issue. If you are like me and have limited time to read and think and take action, it is important to use that time to read and take notice of the experts.
The solutions and where expertise comes in
There may need to be two climate change solutions.
For people in a rich country like New Zealand, the solution may involve less. Less petrol, less travel, less meat, less plastic, less concrete in our very large houses, less rubbish – and perhaps less time spent at work making stuff that we no longer want and more time spent in leisure with family, friends or a low-emissions podcast.
When Henry Thoreau, the first great environmental writer, retreated to Walden Pond in 1845 he suggested that his greatest skill was living cheaply, for then he did not need to waste his life working. But it may not require much less, given that scientists and businesses have shown time and time again that technological innovations can produce the same amount of output with vastly fewer inputs. It is scientists, engineers and business-people rather than politicians that are leading the charge on the practical ways that people can substantially reduce the carbon inputs used to make any level of output. Indeed, when the designer of the computer, John Von Neumann, wrote about carbon and climate change in 1955 he was sceptical whether politicians had either the talent, ability or interest to deal with the problem.
The other solution is more difficult, for people in developing countries already have much less of most things except an aspiration to develop. Since no country has developed yet without burning large amounts of coal, oil or gas, this may be the key question of the 21st century: how can people in developing countries develop without cooking the planet? The obvious answer is low carbon energy. This will require significant capital investment as capital-intensive green energy projects are used as a substitute for carbon-intensive energy sources. In turn, this will require the redirection of the savings of the rich world into capital investments in developing countries, a process that is already beginning.
Working out who is an expert is difficult. But it is worth doing. And that is why it will be great if we thank Greta Thunberg and direct our questions to the people who have spent their lives working, thinking, and acting on these issues. People like the great marine biologist and environmentalist Rachel Carson. The planet scarcely deserves less.