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A fear at the end of the earth

Mar 5, 2020 • 16m 11s

After speaking to scores of ordinary people about climate change, James Button reflects on the anxieties and contradictions in our approach to the future.

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A fear at the end of the earth

176 • Mar 5, 2020

A fear at the end of the earth

Archival Tape -- Jayde Harding:

“My name is Jayde Harding - I’m a filmmaker, a documentary filmmaker based in Melbourne.”

Archival Tape -- Jayde Harding:

Jayde, from the age of five years old, she always had a strong feeling that she would have kids one day.

Archival Tape -- Jayde Harding:

I've loved kids ever since I was a kid. I'd be, like, I’d be that seven year old holding the baby...

JAMES:

And when she was younger, whenever she heard a nice name, she would store it away in her head for a later time.

As she got into her 20s, she was having a good, happy life, doing lots of interesting things, studying, acting, making films. The idea of climate change began to just creep into her mind.

Archival Tape -- Jayde Harding:

Other reports started coming out, it just looked like things are getting, you know, the timelines were getting shorter and shorter. It was just getting a little scarier. And...I turned 30, so...it's sort of, these questions started coming up

JAMES:

And then in 2018, late 2018, the the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. body, climate scientists produced its 1.5 degrees report. And I think that report was significant for a lot of people.

RUBY:

James Button is an author and journalist. He writes for The Monthly.

JAMES:

And it was then that she began to really engage with this question of should I have kids?

Archival Tape -- Jayde Harding:

You know, it's just, I just started thinking about, like, what kind of life would a child have that was born today? What will their life look like when they're my age? And what would the world look like? And those reports just really started to kind of give me a vision of what that might look like. And it was just terrifying.

JAMES:

So she's made a film about the question whether to have children in the face of the climate crisis we're experiencing.

Archival Tape -- Jayde Harding:

I felt really alone in the beginning, and I felt like I couldn't talk about it. And I felt like I almost didn't want to talk about it because I didn't want people that I know to go through the grief that I was going through, if that makes sense.

JAMES:

When she started talking to other people about it, and especially young women of her age, a lot of them said “I've been thinking about this, but I haven't been talking about and nobody I know has been talking about it.” And suddenly it was like... she started interviewing people and people started saying “what are other people saying about this?”

Archival Tape -- Jayde Harding:

I was really surprised in making the film how many people spoke to me and said, I've actually never spoken to anyone about this except you, or I haven't talked to my partner about it...

JAMES:

I was struck in researching the piece how much people wrestled with this question of how to talk about it. Even in my own marriage, I...Mae, my wife, read a piece and was very upset by it.

And I realised we'd never really had a kind of deep conversation about climate change. I think that's probably quite a common experience.

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

James Button spoke to scores of people about climate change and what it means to them.

He found deep anxiety - but also a contradiction between how people thought and how they acted.

Today, what a conversation about ecological catastrophe could look like.

Archival Tape -- Elanor:

[Phone Ringing]
“Hello?”

Archival Tape -- James Button:

“Hi Elanor, it’s James Button here…”

Archival Tape -- Elanor:

“Oh hi, James.”

RUBY:

James, can you tell me a little bit about these interviews that you conducted and why you wanted to speak to people about climate change?

JAMES:

I think I had the idea that if I could examine how we thought about IT in a private sense, it might give us a sense of where we go with this, how we how we address it as a collective, as a community.

Archival Tape -- James Button:

“Hey listen a while back I wrote you an email about climate change, I was after some responses for a piece I’m writing for The Monthly…”

JAMES:

While we’ve known about climate change for a very long time, and we’ve known it was coming, it's invisible, it's incremental, and the stakes are so high, I wanted to find out how people were thinking about it privately and what it meant for them. And so I put out a Facebook post and I sent out an email to people. I got a lot of responses.

Archival Tape -- James Button:

“And I’m just wondering if I could follow up on that, if we could sit down and have a bit of a chat about it?”

Archival Tape -- Elanor:

“Yeah, that would be wonderful!”

Archival Tape -- James Button:

So maybe we could have a coffee next week?

Archival Tape -- Elanor:

“Yep, perfect.”

Archival Tape -- James Button:

“Okay great…”

JAMES:

I was struck by the feelings of pessimism and fear in amongst people I knew.

A woman I know who's in her 80s said, “I'm going to tell you the things I won't tell my own grandchildren.” Someone else said, you know, “I'm telling you things that, I know were supposed to be optimistic. It's a duty to be optimistic. But I just can't feel it.”

If we can find a way to actually share our fears, that is potentially a powerful driver for bringing people together to understand what the task is next.

RUBY:

So James, what were the people that you spoke to doing to try and deal with that sense of pessimism and fear?

JAMES:

First thing to say is...very few people whom I spoke to talked about getting active in an established political party. That struck me. You know, that there was a sense that climate change is sadly come along at a time when people have lost a lot of faith in the capacity of conventional politics.

RUBY:

So what kinds of things were they doing on a personal level, then?

JAMES:

I was struck by how much people talked about their consumption decisions. People talked about trying to shop differently at the supermarket, trying to recycle their plastic.

So I had a few thoughts about that, one was just how much the question of consumption has entered our life, and we are all kind of, I think, appalled by the avalanche of plastic in our world.

Plastic has some connection to climate change, but not really a huge amount. So it was a kind of dissonance, and it came to my larger sense that we find climate change hard to talk about because we can't see it. It's just something that happens gradually, incrementally, whereas plastic is a visible thing.

So that was a surprise, but Rebecca Huntley, she's a researcher in this area, she's writing a book called How to Talk about Climate Change, she says this is a common issue that people substitute the issue of doing something about plastic for acting on climate change.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“We must respect and harness the passion and aspiration of our younger generations. And we must guard against others who would seek to compound, or worse, facelessly exploit their anxiety for other agendas.”

JAMES:

Interestingly, when Scott Morrison was in America and he didn't go to the United Nations Summit on climate change in September, and he announced at the same time that he was going to do something about plastic recycling.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“To protect our oceans, Australia is committed to leading urgent action to combat plastic pollution that is choking our ocean.”

JAMES:

And it was like he was playing on this confusion.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

And this will be a centrepiece of our focus, not only on our domestic environmental agenda, but also our international environmental agenda

RUBY:

So these people who are extremely worried and concerned about climate change, the things they're doing on a personal level to try and address their own impact are not effective.

JAMES:

So I think the important thing to say here is, in the end, the most important thing is what we do at a political level. Nevertheless, personal actions do matter.

The biggest personal impacts on emissions are driving, eating meat, flying. Flying above all.

There's a law professor in my article, Sean Cooney, who's observed that in the last few months he had flown three times to Asia. He was honest about that, he said, you know, I try and offset my flights and I try to fly less. But frankly, I'm emitting a lot more than the average One Nation voter.

And so it's important that we understand income, above all, does shape how much we emit.

RUBY:

So people you spoke to just aren’t willing to give up things?

JAMES:

Especially not willing to give up flying. I think it's hard, especially for older people to ask younger people not to fly. It's really important not to shame people about this but I do think it's important for us to be aware of our own contradictions. And if we can be aware of our own contradictions, then we can, I think, have a more kind of open and empathetic attitude to people who might not think the same as we do about this issue.

One thing that I did notice is that people who were involved in some kind of activism around climate change, who had joined the group, who were doing something, tended to express more sense of purpose and optimism than others.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

James, what do you think the solution is, not necessarily to the climate crisis, but in terms of how we talk to each other and how we talk through the anxieties and fears that we have about climate change. How do we do that without falling into this sense of despair that you've discovered?

JAMES:

I think it's really hard...people really push back against the idea of crisis and emergency. They feel very strongly that this crisis frame crisis languished. It just doesn't resonate with their sense of the world.

So here's the paradox. If we accept that there is a kind of emergency, how do we talk about it without talking about it without using that language like emergency, crisis, catastrophe, collapse, that a lot of people find very, very alienating.

It's not that you don't tell the truth, but I think you have to always stress the fact that there is opportunities. There is hope. And that if we get this right, there could be profound economic benefits from it as well.

RUBY:

James, did you talk to anyone who reframed this issue for you while you were reporting this piece for The Monthly?

Archival Tape -- Paul Briggs:

[Car pulls up]
“Hello!”
[Car door shuts]

JAMES:

Paul Briggs is a Yorta Yorta leader from Shepparton.

Archival Tape -- James Button:

“G’day Paul, good to see you, mate. How are you? Paul, this is Mae, this is my wife Mae.”

Archival Tape -- Paul Briggs:

“Hello, Mae!”

Archival Tape -- Mae:

“Hi, good to meet you.”

JAMES:

He's he's president of the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club. But Paul's done a whole lot of different things in a long career, working pretty much tirelessly for Yorta Yorta people in northern Victoria. He folded the issue of climate change into a whole kind of systemic way that he has of thinking about the arrival of Europeans on his people's land,

Archival Tape-- Paul Briggs:

“Well, I think it's symptomatic of the abuse. And the abuse that's been delivered to the environment, the indigenous place of what’s now called Australia, I suppose. We're a part of that abuse, and the rivers and the environment are dying with us.”

JAMES:

I walked with him on the side of the Murray River, which he calls Tongala. And you know, he pointed out, the leeches have gone. The fish have gone. The mussels have gone from the river. You know, this is just a process of destruction and degradation of the land that he knows and climate change, he sort of goes, well, you know, it's just one more thing. You know, in all of those forces of dispossession for his people.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

The notion of climate change and its impact has largely been commercialised, I feel. Like, it's the treatment, the physical and spiritual relationship with the land or with the environment and the exploitation of that. And in the last, you know, 200 years, the decimation, really, of the environment and the people within it. So climate change is a part of that.

RUBY:

So for Paul, what was the way forward?

JAMES:

Paul is really interested in, will this mainstream society open up to give indigenous people a place at the table? So he really hopes that climate change will be something that forces people to rethink the way we do everything.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

I’m not sure if Western society can change its behaviour, but I think we as Aboriginal people have a lot to offer.

JAMES:

Climate change does just open up so many questions about everything that we do.

We are all in this together and if you have children, your children or grandchildren or the people that come after us will experience now turns on us doing something profound, quickly and as much as we can, in a united way.

It’s a massive challenge but great things could come of that as well.

RUBY:

And what about Jayde? What's the future for her?

JAMES:

Jayde said to me, I've got a three part way of thinking about my days. I'm grateful for what I have. I want to fight for a better world and I want to adapt to the world that's coming.

Archival Tape -- Jayde Harding:

It’s always going to be a spectrum, you know, it can always be worse, it can always be better so hopefully it will be better.

JAMES:

She's still weighing up the whole issue, but about having a family or not. And like all of us, she wonders what's coming next.

Archival Tape -- Jayde Harding:

If I could see something happening, if I felt we were actually going to try, then maybe, but right now, it just feels like a very...I just don’t see how I could make that choice to bring a child into the world.

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today…

14 states across the US held Democratic presidential primary ballots on what is known as Super Tuesday.

Former Vice President Joe Biden won eight states, but Bernie Sanders scored an emphatic victory in California, the largest state with the most delegates up for grabs.

The other main contenders, Michael Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren, failed to secure any victories, confirming the contest as a two-horse race between Biden and Sanders.

And the federal government has expanded its travel restrictions in response to coronavirus. Anyone who has entered Australia from Iran since February 19 must now self-isolate for 2 weeks.

The number of cases of coronaviruses in Australia has risen to 42.

Reporting on this episode was done by Elle Marsh, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see ya tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

James Button spoke to scores of people about climate change and what it means to them. He found deep anxiety – but also a contradiction between how people thought and how they acted. Today, what a conversation about ecological catastrophe could look like.

Guest: Author and contributor to The Monthly James Button.

Background reading:

The Climate Interviews in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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176: A fear at the end of the earth