Saving the world, one suburb at a time

Dec 11, 2023
privileged lives Image: iStock

Privileged people trying to save the world shouldn’t be dismissed as bourgeois virtue signalling. There are worse things to signal and it could make a difference.

Even for the optimists amongst us, the problems of the world can seem overwhelming and beyond our control to change. The understandable temptation, especially for those of us fortunate enough to live in an oasis of privilege and security like Australia, is to tune out and succumb to self-absorbed isolationism.

Unfortunately, this is a temptation that even nation-states find hard to resist. In addition to its enviably high living standards, Australia is blessed with seemingly endless natural resources, which the leaders of both major political parties have little hesitation in exploiting and exporting, despite the well-known and increasingly criticised consequences of such entirely self-centred policies.

If ‘being a good international citizen’ is to amount to more than a soundbite, a real commitment to the common good would seem the bare minimum required. And yet it is clear that even apparently well-intentioned attempts to solve global collective action problems like addressing climate change are hostage to national interests and the influence of the powerful fossil fuel industry. 

Making the United Arab Emirates, a notorious greenhouse gas polluter and abuser of human rights, the host of Cop28 was enough to make anyone despair about the capacity of so-called international community to act in our collective long-term interest.

Plainly, there are limits to what any of us can do, a possibility that is thrown into sharp relief by failures of governance at the transnational and national level. In such circumstances it is possible to become apathetic and cynical about the possibilities of effective action at any scale. The phrase ‘think globally, act locally’ may have become something of a cliché and co-opted by the corporate sector, but it still captures something important about our relationship to planetary crises.

The sobering reality is that most of us can only make a tokenistic contribution to addressing global climate change, but that’s still not nothing. On the contrary, doing something at the very local, intimate level, not only produces tangible results, but puts us in direct contact with the natural environment and our neighbours—both of which are very good for our mental health.

For those of us in even very modest public positions, it is hard to talk about useful projects without sounding partisan and self-promoting. Indeed, we have to recognise that even – perhaps especially – at the level of local politics, the same sorts of dynamics can come into play that stop cooperation at other levels of government.

Nevertheless, small changes are possible and there are compelling reasons for making them. Not only is it in the self-interest of residents of any suburb to look after the local environment, but it would seem something of a moral obligation for the population of Nedlands, where one of us is the mayor: if we can’t act to preserve one of the most fortunate, privileged and wealthy enclaves in the world, let alone Australia, why would we expect anyone anywhere else to do so?

As achievements go, planting trees – even thousands of them – protecting existing ones, reducing landfill, banning black-roofs for new houses, and signing up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, are unlikely to stop the presses. They’re not even likely to meet with the universal approbation of the locals in what is a rather conservative electorate.

Paradoxically enough, though, conservative values, at least when it comes to the natural environment, may be precisely what we need at this historical juncture. The sad reality is that our inability to collectively conserve our natural inheritance has largely got us to where we are today: facing an unprecedented climate crisis that threatens the very foundations of the good life which the denizens of Nedlands enjoy more than just about anyone else on the planet.

Without rapid action, climate change is coming to get them and their equally privileged children, too. Even Perth’s fabled western suburbs will eventually succumb to runaway climate change if the predictions of the world’s climate scientists come to pass – especially as things are deteriorating more quickly than most of them believed possible.

The entirely apolitical point to stress is that people who are fortunate enough to live in places like Nedlands have much, much more to lose than those unfortunate enough to have been born in less secure and wealthy places. Enlightened self-interest can be a good thing at times. Doing what you can where you can is not the worst mantra to live by. At least you’ll be able to tell your children that you were well-intentioned, which is also not nothing. Whether this will make a difference to the world only time will tell, but we might feel a bit better about our lives in the meantime.

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