The Great Barrier Reef still here — now get off that snooze button and get going!

Photograph: Mark Conlin/Getty Images, via ‘The Guardian’

Yesterday was a sad and depressing day as I read about the Great Barrier Reef in the past tense, as declared dead after having been on this planet for 25 million years. It was too sudden and I kept asking, ‘how could that be?’ I mean, I have known about the coral bleaching and the threat due to ocean warming and ocean acidifying for so many years now, but I was shocked to imagine that all these experts and activists and everyone in Australia actually let it die!

It also felt as a personal failure at some level for not having done enough by way of action on climate change. And anger. But a little bit too tired and depressed to even feel a “decent” level of anger. I cannot remember if I’ve ever been too tired to be angry before.

So it was a relief to find that the Great Barrier Reef is still here — for now. I thank God for that.

Why bother about the ‘Great Barrier Reef’?

The Great Barrier Reef happens to be a famous natural feature. The first time I learned of it was from high school geography ages ago. It is huge, iconic, and it is Life, so I suppose it must matter to all of us who care. God knows what it is experiencing right now, struggling to stay alive in a warming, acidifying environment. I’ve known that the Australian government has tried and succeeded in avoiding too much focus on the Reef ‘on the grounds it could impact on tourism.’ But how many other species have been wiped out and are dying as a direct result of ecological destruction due to human overconsumption? And with most people never even hearing about the loss?

Do not merely blame it all on “capitalism”

I know people of a certain ideological persuasion would object to the use of the words ‘human overconsumption’ in this context, instead insisting that the blame must be placed on the rich or on the capitalist system. But I would prefer to go by numbers here — especially numbers to do with the ecological footprint and carbon footprint for each person and family. That would make a whole lot of people culpable even if they do not think of themselves as “rich.” But many are still rich by global standards, and their personal consumption levels are still way too high, with a correspondingly high impact on the environment.

Some of this consumption is forced on people — such as the necessity to drive cars because of a lack of public transport. But there is also a lot of discretionary, non-essential consumption. Topping this list is the consumption of meat, dairy, eggs and fish. Consuming animal flesh and animal products has been documented to be the single largest source of climate change. Those who have looked at the numbers without trying to defend their personal addiction can easily see that it is so. And those who care must act immediately to switch to a fully plant-based diet immediately — that is the least that a caring individual can do, especially where plant-based food is easily available.

What has ice hockey got to do with coral reefs?

There are all kinds of non-essential, wasteful forms of consumption which can be given up without even lifting a finger. As an example, there is a lot of noise in the local media here in Canada about the start of (yet another) ice hockey season where the “local” team is playing its first game of this season. The “regular season” goes on from October until April, and the top teams to emerge would then play in the “Stanley Cup playoffs” from April until June. This is a tiresome, annual affair, and the NHL (National Hockey League) has about 30 teams from the US and Canada together.

Watching ice hockey on television and in the arenas is a massive national addiction in Canada. And I insist on calling it ‘ice hockey’ rather than just ‘hockey’ because it requires artificial ice and therefore is energy-intensive, but most people do not ever think about it! (In India, Pakistan, etc., ‘hockey’ refers to ‘field hockey.’).

I find it astonishing that there are only three months in a year — the summer months basically — when there is not an NHL game, and still, so many people in Canada are addicted to watching this game year after year. Most people do not realize that an ice rink is a hugely energy-intensive facility because it requires a large artificially-frozen surface that has to be left open for the players to skate on. And there are ice hockey teams in the NHL from California, Arizona, Florida, etc., where the ambient temperature makes it even more energy-intensive to operate these ice rinks. Hardly any player aspiring to play with some competency plays on natural ice, so the entire system is built on an energy-intensive infrastructure.

I talk about ice hockey here because it is in the news, at the same time as when there is so much social media sharing of the “news” about the “death” of the Great Barrier Reef. But I wonder how many people would make the connection. All of this energy used in the artificial ice rinks could be used for something else, allowing at least several coal-fired power plants to be shut down. If we are serious about acting on climate change, certain kinds of wasteful activities must be stopped for the foreseeable future.

And ice hockey is just one example of the waste that goes on the name of “entertainment.” I was surprised to learn that ‘more Canadians per capita watched Super Bowl than Americans.’ There are all kinds of ecologically destructive activities indulged in in the name of leisure and entertainment. Most of all, the time spent on watching these circuses is time not spent on learning about or taking action that can make a difference.

I am not against playing sports or engaging in leisure activities or entertainment. I only insist on choosing such activities that do not impact on the environment so much.

And watching these sporting circuses must stop because it takes an enormous amount of energy and resources to enact these circuses year after year — if one includes all the time spent for the teams practicing, traveling in private jets and so on.

If people cannot even stop and think about the environmental impact of such totally non-essential activities where is the hope for saving what’s left of the Great Barrier Reef, to stop any further loss of species and loss of biodiversity due to human activities, to stop and reverse climate change? Most of all, where are the people going to find the time and energy to engage in such action that can make a difference?

Is there still hope?

How long would it take to reach a situation where we could collectively say that we have dodged the bullet and have reversed direction, pulled back from the brink of disaster and have started to move decisively towards safety?

Please read that line again because it is a question that we must keep uppermost in our minds if we are to actually make a difference. So, how about this for an answer:

If we can act immediately to end all non-essential forms of consumption starting with the most wasteful, most carbon intensive ones, if we can achieve a massive worldwide switch to a fully plant-based diet freeing up so much land for carbon absorption and sequestration, if we can force our “democratic” governments to make peace and to start rolling back the military maintained at such huge costs — financial as well as environmental — then there is a very realistic chance of avoiding disaster and to make a decisive move towards safety within the next 5 to 10 years.

Let’s get the order right

Please, let us not get bogged down with arguments about what needs to happen first. Most of all, please dump all arguments that insist on starting with a system change. That is an illogical and crippling way of thinking about change. If a patient is sick, obese, weak or dying, you don’t merely tell that person that he should first become fit before he can live a normal life.

A logical and responsible approach would be to start where we are, where the patient is, and work through the healing process at a rate that we can actually handle, at a rate that the patient, the system can actually handle. That is, we start with what is possible, with what is in our power, right now, and not demand putting the outcome as a starting point. This is true even in an emergency — especially when an adequate emergency care team is not yet fully in place!

What can you and I do?

The most obvious change within the power of the individuals and families is in food choice. And in the choice of all non-essential activities such as entertainment. Persuade the people you know to quit their addictions to energy-intensive and carbon-intensive forms of consumption, entertainment and leisure activities.

We cannot go on creating little bubbles for our existence and normal living at huge energy expenditure. Every kilowatt-hour of electricity saved at one place can be used for some other essential activity elsewhere, and only such frugal, budgeted use would allow us to start shutting down the coal power plants. It has been said that the level of reduction in carbon emissions required in developed countries is of the order of 80–95% below 1990 levels by 2050, and I just do not see how this can come about without a drastic reduction in non-essential consumption of all kinds.

Merely talking about “capitalism” is meaningless without also doing everything in our power to move towards a frugal way of living. That is, ‘frugal’ in terms of energy and resource use, most of all. I am not talking of an occasional indulgence, but rather about routine indulgence in wasteful activities.

Do not get hung up over “system change” not knowing where to start. Start working for change at whatever level you actually can, right now, and get others involved, especially the young people. And many such actions do in fact work towards forcing system change.

Do not let certain ideologues tell you that individual action is meaningless and that only collective action matters. Even organizing for collective action is ultimately up to the individuals, so please tell such ideologues to shut up and actually do something for a change. And for God’s sake, do not wait for system change to do even the kinds of things that you could be doing yourself, right now.

It is time that we start making the whole world livable, where fresh air and clean water should not be so difficult to obtain. And where the threat due to global warming is no more hanging over our heads all the time. This is a sad and completely unacceptable way to live.

I want to treat this premature “obituary” to the Great Barrier Reef as a wakeup call — in case anyone needs yet another wakeup call. I know some of us routinely resort to using the snooze button. But what if we are running out of the snooze option altogether? It is time to insist on a sane, safe world for all. It is possible to achieve such a world. We just need to make it happen.