Monday, June 15, 2009

Will Boredom Kill Us?

I found a great editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald which pretty much sums up my fears and views on the climate debate:

Maybe we're all too bored to bother saving the planet

June 13, 2009

Boredom is going to kill us. Wait. Too dramatic. Let me put it more boringly. Boredom, and our collective inability to endure it, is going to compromise our capacity to tackle the challenges of our age in a way that is productive and conducive to progress in our society.

For more than a century, thinkers have been writing about how modern life, with its endless stimulations, actually makes boredom worse - and less easily tolerated. When the boom of the 1920s was busting, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote about this, focusing on the blah of waiting hours for a train.

If only he knew how bad things would become a lifetime later. Train commuters now have to endure the tedium of watching a blue monitor as they wait as the estimated time of arrival flicks down to three minutes, then back up to four, then back down to three. All that the commuter can do to ease this torture is check emails on a mobile, skim newspaper stories about the spat between Gordon Ramsay and Tracy Grimshaw, return missed phone calls and slurp coffee from a paper cup.

Boredom has always struck the most fortunate, people with plenty to keep them occupied. In Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Anna's lover, Vronsky, finds himself restless and dissatisfied right when his desires are fulfilled, when he is swanning around Europe in freedom with his lady love.

"It showed him the mistake men make in picturing to themselves happiness as the realisation of their desires," Tolstoy writes. He describes boredom, or ennui, its more glamorous and chronic cousin, as the "desire for desires".

Are we all like this now? Easily over it? Crippled by the attention span of gnats? How ironic it is that in the very era of impatience and shrunken attention spans, the world has been confronted with a dilemma like climate change.

It is like a test God has sent us to remind us we're idiots, because it is a problem modern society is uniquely unsuited to fixing: the worst consequences are a long way off, and we don't care about a long way off, and the solutions are dull, and we don't care about dull.

If climate change could be solved with a sell out-charity concert and natty fund-raising ribbons, we'd be sorted. But it doesn't. It requires immediate action of a complex and boring nature. Negotiations over trading and credits and prices per tonne and projections. Just yesterday I fell asleep reading that the State Government has stalled on the issue of bonuses for rooftop solar panels, unsure of whether to grant home owners a gross tariff or a net tariff.

Have you noticed that when climate change activists have got into trouble for misrepresenting the issue, it is usually because they are trying to shape global warming into an issue more suited to our attention-deficit times? Appropriating the genre of before-and-after snaps of the gossip mags, only substituting melted faces with melted glaciers? Trouble over illustrating the issue of melting ice caps with sad photos of polar bears stranded on icebergs, as if climate change has robbed them of the ability to swim. Or trouble over turning disasters such as hurricane Katrina into news hooks, to show huge consequences are already upon us.

The trouble is not the lack of hard evidence but that hard evidence tends to be technical and unphotogenic, and not many media outlets do technical and unphotogenic these days.

In fact, if I was working on a public relations strategy on behalf of climate-change denialists or the fossil fuels industry, I would be concentrating on making the issue so complicated and dry that it loses traction in the wider community. Maybe this is happening already.

Sometimes spin is about sexing up an issue, but the reverse can be true. Spin can mean putting lipstick on a pig. It can also mean hiding a time bomb in a bucket of slops. I am reminded of this every time I get a letter from my bank saying its policies have changed, almost always to the detriment of the customer. The bank hides the nasty details in a little grey brochure, alongside tiny technical changes, so only the extremely vigilant look before chucking it.

Powerful interests can abuse our fear of boredom, just as effectively as they can abuse our desire for sensationalism. Maybe we have a civic duty to push through the boredom barrier.

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