The danger of obsessing over stomach-churning stories about the climate emergency

The word of the year for 2020 was ‘doomscrollling’. Wikipedia says it can be defined as “an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of dystopian news.”

We are used to it now. For four years we have been waking up in New Zealand to the latest outrage from Donald Trump. For me it was quite obsessive. Now we are more inclined wake up to sanity and competence from that part of the world.

Today we wake up to riots  and arrests in Russia and a heat wave in South East Australia.  Most major centres in the Victoria’s north will be surpassing 40 degrees. NSW-Victoria border towns could endure temperatures up to 44 degrees. The choice is do I read more stories about that? Maybe not. I know the climate story is grim. I have known for ten years.

Towards the end of last year, after finding myself always passing on alarming facts about the latest freak weather event or climate prediction too often, I realised that all this obsession with bad news keeps me from spending time on championing real solutions.

It wasn’t until I read Jason Hickel’s book Less is More that I found he had articulated what I had been struggling to do. He had just summarised the ghastly story of the climate emergency we are in. It was, he explained a series of eco-facts.  He says “The philosopher Timothy Morton has likened out obsession with eco-facts to the nightmares suffered by people with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, where you relive your trauma and wake up viscerally terrified, sweating and shaking. The idea is that if you are able to anticipate the  traumatic event, you might be able to avoid it – or at least prepare yourself psychologically.  Morton thinks  our eco-facts serve a similar function. By endlessly repeating terrifying eco-facts, on some subconscious level we’re trying to insert ourselves into a fictional moment right before the collapse happens, so we can see it coming and do something about it. At least will feel prepared when it arrives.”

“In this sense, eco-facts carry a double message. On the one hand they cry out, urging us to wake up and act right now. But at the same time they imply that the trauma is not yet fully here – that there is still time to avert the disaster stop this is what makes them so beguiling, so reassuring, and why we seem strangely to crave more of them. The danger of this is it will all be lulled into waiting around to waiting for the effects to become more extreme. Once we reach that point we tell ourselves will finally get round to doing something about it. But the ultimate echo fact is never going to arrive.”

So this year I am seriously trying to spend less on doomscrolling on climate and more on comparing the various proposals and acting.
Appealing though it is I don’t fancy the choice of doomscrolling to species extinction. Right now I see the most promising way forward as learning about Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs)

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Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) – Rationing that works

Some years ago I read about Tradable Energy Quotas as a method of ensuring everyone has access by right to their fair share of what fossil fuels are left and high energy users could buy units from low energy users. Then, being aware that our country, and indeed the whole world, was not make the necessary cuts to emissions in time to have a liveable climate, I thought to revisit the idea.

I discovered that not only had the idea lasted, but that there was a UK  organisation called the Fleming Policy Centre which promoted it. This was named after the visionary green economist Dr David Fleming whose ideas on de-growth for a post fossil fuel economy are well worth reading. He died in 2010 but his friend Shaun Chamberlin carried on his work, finishing his two books Surviving the Future and Lean Economy.

Rationing had always appealed to me.  As a child I remember taking ration coupons to the shop to buy sugar, clothing, butter and tea along with our money. Naturally our parents managed the petrol coupons.

Petrol was rationed from 1940 to 1950. During the last three years of the war the restrictions were severe. New Zealand also rationed clothing, footwear and nylon stockings.

Then in the 1970s there were oil shocks. When carless days were introduced in 1979 they were unpopular and largely ineffective because a black market arose in exemption stickers given to car owners in essential industries. Petrol rationing was threatened but never imposed.

The fact is that black markets will always appear when there is no trading allowed in ration coupons. And if you ration per month with no trading allowed, then people will buy all the petrol they can and store it in all sorts of containers like “califonts, kegs, kettles, demijohns, vinegar and whisky bottles, tins of all descriptions” as one account says. The government then made this illegal, which really encouraged a black market.

TEQs are ration coupons but they will come in digital form these days like Airpoints or Flybuys. The difference is that you can’t use them alone when you cash them. You will have to surrender them along with your cash when you buy petrol or gas or any fossil fuel.

Fleming worked it out that only 40% of petrol users were private individuals and the rest were business, governments and other organisations. Each year there is a set number of TEQs allowed. 40% are given to individuals in a weekly allowance. The business and governments have to get theirs through buying them at a weekly tender and this sets the price in NZ dollars when people come to trade them. Through a market, heavy users will be able to buy TEQs from low users. Buying and selling is as easy as topping up a mobile phone or Snapper  or HOP card for bus trips.

Fleming argues that this method puts the onus on the users to find the best ways of reducing their fossil fuel use. (More about this later). In WW2 people used horse and cart or just walked.

And of course TEQs units also be denominated in emissions rather than energy. In fact it makes more sense these days to do that now that we know how many categories there are for emissions. That’s worth doing instead probably. But you can understand that this was invented in 1996 before so much was known about our NZ emissions. We certainly didn’t know agriculture contributed nearly half our emissions in those days and we have quantified emissions from waste much better too.

A great deal more information on TEQs are at https://www.flemingpolicycentre.org.uk/faqs. This will take a long time for you to get through. Skim it and come back and back. I recommend reading the 2011 All Party Parliamentary report.

If you are a New Zealander and interested in following through as an idea, please get in touch with me at deirdre.kent@gmail.com as we are trying to start a movement to promote TEQs.

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