Sacrificing freedoms to halt decay of nature: Is this the biggest scroll-past-me headline ever?

9:19 am on 8 May 2019

By Greg Roughan*

Opinion - Today you scrolled past a story in your newsfeed about wildlife extinction; skimming the headline - because you're interested - then consciously choosing to not click through.

A small minority will have engaged of course - those with a penchant for wallowing in sensations of dread and helplessness. But in truth the rest of us sensibly left it well alone.


A headline you might have scrolled past in your newsfeed. Photo: RNZ

The report, after all, was one of many such stories assailing us lately, all clustered around a now-familiar theme: The destruction of our planet, so long hinted at as a future event, is happening now. If you missed today's highlights: A quarter of all plant and animal species are destined for extinction, with the planet's underlying support systems so degraded that all human-wellbeing is now at risk. That comes on top of the recent "12 years till climate doom" report, and headlines about the "insect apocalypse". (Here's how to understand this theory, for those as yet unaware. Step 1: Think about the last time you bought car windshield bug wash. Step 2: Spend a moment wondering why it's been so long. Step 3: Be overwhelmed by a visceral sense of dread).

Sir David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough Photo: AFP

The sense of gloom has become so pervasive that most people are now immune to it. Last week our family made the mistake of watching the new Our Planet on Netflix. My wife and I found it enchanting; our two young children spent the show in tears. As Sir David solemnly informed us that the human population has more than doubled in the last 50 years and wildlife declined by 60 percent, our children experienced genuine grief at the impending death of the natural world. Meanwhile the adults barely registered the message, so familiar have such stories become.

Of course that's partly because all sorts of other things are changing in similarly rapid and paralysing ways. In the US and the UK, the two greatest Western democracies seem locked into a similar death spiral, making the idea of legislating our way out of planetary crisis feel as fanciful and quaint as quidditch.

The political situation has become so absurd that on a recent UK current affairs show called New World Order, which is hosted entirely by comedians, one commentator quite seriously suggested things might be better if England joined China. That government, after all, seems one of the few still capable of getting things done. (As an aside, comedians hosting news shows is another new thing. Not because the media has become a joke, but because journalism can barely keep pace with the world - while gallows humour is one of the few remaining sensible perspectives).

New Zealand forest. A fern sits in the center of frame.

What will it take to save the world and collapsing nature? Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

So is that it then? Will it take a Chinese-style authoritarianism to save the world? Certainly, if libertarianism is to go extinct, along with the orangutan and the Bengal tiger, then it only has itself to blame. It pied-pipered us into this situation in the first place - selling a dream of environmental protection without rules: A kind of prisoner's dilemma where it works if we'll all only follow the same unspoken agreement to not rape and pillage, yet the whole system collapses if anyone cheats to get ahead. The problem with this sort of voluntary approach being, of course, that it all depends on the weakest link - whether that's fish-dumping Kiwi trawlers, or cash-strapped cow cockies importing palm oil-based feed.

No - that simply doesn't work. And that's ultimately what I take from this report. Our economic systems, and the political clown-shows that enable them, have failed - and failed to the extent that if humanity is to survive in any meaningful way, we'll now need to sacrifice many of our freedoms to halt the decay. Which is about the biggest scroll-past-me headline you could write.

*Greg Roughan is an editor and author based in Auckland. Check out his website [here].

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