01.08.2006 Environment

Thinking with the Heart

Environmental columnist Adrian Glamorgan sees hopeful signs of a new wisdom

How does Europe produce electricity to meet the needs of over 40 million people? Through wind power. That's not in the future, but right now. While no single source of power is ever going to be a complete solution, wind electricity generation is the world's fastest-growing energy source, with an annual growth rate of 29 per cent over the last ten years. Given Europe has the lion's share, two thirds of the global total, (a whopping 40,500 megawatts), it's interesting to note that the top four countries in the world for wind power are Germany, the United States, Spain, and India. Yes, developing world India has 4,400 megawatts of capacity, compared to rich Australia's meagre 710 megawatts. Back to Europe: Denmark with only one quarter of Australia's population nevertheless has 3,100 megawatts churning out energy to meet a fifth of its energy needs. These are the sorts of trends that ought to be examined in a national energy inquiry. Alas, the only current energy inquiry is confined to how the government might bring nuclear power plants to our shores.

Why are we hurtling down the wrong road? It's about monkey mind. I mean no disrespect to primates, I just mean the human tendency to have lots of thoughts without connecting them rigorously to each other, or just as importantly, to the human heart. Let me explain. It takes a lot of abstract thought to make bad things, from the dire to the downright trivial: atomic bombs, the plumbing for toxic gas in concentration camps, DDT pesticides, PCB plastics, biological warfare stocks, bounties for ongoing land clearing, dull urban architecture, factory farming of chickens, structural adjustments for poor countries which take away education and health services for the majority of the population, cynically targeting kids to nag their parents to buy, or unnecessary plastic packaging. Large or small, there is always a certain cold logic to harmful behaviour. In such scientific, economic or military ventures, the rational mind says the harm is acceptable, or doesn't acknowledge a risk of harm at all. To monkey mind, the world is solely a place to experiment. You can aim at your science billiard balls and watch them click around the felt. What you are snookering doesn't have feelings.

The real world, however, is more complex. If we send out harm in one direction, it has an uncanny habit of returning to us by another. As species go extinct prematurely, as pristine wilderness is bulldozed into shopping malls, something in our heart winces. It feels wrong and uncomfortable. Our instincts, but increasingly our intellect, recognises that this can't go on forever.

Our civilisation has enslaved nature. Fabulous things have come of it, but terrible things too, (to take Bhopal, Chernobyl, ozone thinning or climate change as haunting examples). So much of this enslavement of nature has come from splitting off our thinking and feeling, allowing a cold and sinister logic to work itself insidiously into public culture.

In the last couple of years, there have been PR experts briefing corporations and governments about how to counter the rising environmental consciousness. A much publicised overseas PR consultant went round Australia on a tidy earner recently, advising business to call sustainability "an extremist position," environmental activists "extremists," "terrorist," and a "security threat"; "corporate responsibility a weakness," and health advocates "immoral." Non-government organisations that do advocacy - say, for example, suggesting that tree clearance is damaging, should lose their tax deductibility status and be refused funding. Let them plant trees, but let them not speak out about tree felling! Corporations should "astroturf," create bogus citizen groups that speak out for the company's objectives.

Such cleverness is thinking without the heart. It is like finding a way to dig ourselves deeper into a hole, instead of becoming part of the whole. It is dry and dead thinking. It needs a change of heart.

The new environmental ethic claims that humans play a pivotal role in the wise warm web of life. It is an ethic that will not go away. It is in our being. It is warming our thinking. Even arguments of short-term self interest will not chase it away for ever. Just as slavery was abolished, so too will our enslavement of nature. The process could take years, or centuries.

There will be those who stand against the change that is coming. They will burn more coal to make more energy. They will make plans for nuclear power. They will name and blame the lovers of nature, the connectors with Mother Earth. But around the world, the wind turbines are steadily turning. New breakthroughs in solar technology are lighting homes in faraway places. There are fresh ways of doing things. It is more exciting, more hopeful, and more ethical, than anywhere we have been before.

More than just technology, we are seeing the technical achievements of the last two hundred years being joined with insights about compassion that have been around for a couple of thousand years, to make a new wisdom, one of heart, mind and actions together. All it will take is the wise change of heart.

Adrian Glamorgan

Adrian Glamorgan is a passionate advocate of social change and environmentalism