One of my favourite beach activities as a child, and even more so as a young father, was defending sandcastles as the tide came in. The drama of building temporary walls and channels to deflect the next encroaching wave was always very entertaining for me and the (other) kids.
In the end, of course, the construction was washed away and we settled back to swimming or ice creams. (Unless, that is, the sandcastle is constructed above the high tide mark. But then where’s the fun in that?)
Watching the temporary fixes being set up in recent months in many of the world’s most powerful economies to avert or postpone debt crises has much the same feel about it. Watching the short-term, narrow-focus reactions of our own consumption-addicted citizens, and of many politicians and business leaders, to the adjustments makes us look more like the children than the grown-ups in this game-changing drama.
America’s shameful political confrontation this week over its unthinkable debt situation is the ultimate in wake-up calls. But what do we in New Zealand learn? We worry that interest rates may go up a bit, or the cost of milk may rise, or some other relatively minor effect. We see the waves approaching and build little protective walls (if we care at all), but we still refuse to see the tidal advance.
Economies around the world are becoming less stable by the month, but we continue on our merry way in the hope and expectation that the little adjustments our governments make will sort it all out or at least protect our little castles. Our leaders feel happy if they can divert the waves one by one hoping that the citizens are not disconcerted by the real global picture – at least until after the next election.
The metaphor of waves and tides applies equally to climate change, which advances even more slowly than economic collapse. Weather events become a little more extreme each year, small ecological changes are seen over observable periods of time, but still in everyday living these seem like series of waves to be deflected and we cannot see the tide advancing.
So we tinker with policy decisions such as emission trading systems and carbon taxes, recycling and energy saving. Meanwhile populations at large, encouraged by the mantra that economic growth is everything, see such initiatives as obstacles to progress. We cannot see the larger picture – the tide coming in – over a longer time period.
Pessimistic, yes. But societies based on both corporate capitalism and environmental disinterest will, if there is no commitment to change but only to tinker, eventually be washed away. And it will be a painful process.
Trouble is, apart from trying to avoid or minimise personal debt, I have little idea what ordinary folk can do about the economic situation, except to keep our eyes open and hope for the emergence of more business and political leaders who can put real sustainability into practice ahead of the growth imperative.