A man sails a boat made largely of plastic bottles and recycled waste from San Fransisco to Sydney. He arrives, bearded and beanied, to front a media pack dying to ask him about his journey. In the wash-up, you hear something about the novelty of a man on a boat of plastic bottles, something about how he's an heir to the Rothschild fortune. You don't hear all that much about the way to get the world to end its addiction to disposable packaging.
And this is how it goes. We love the spectacle, but not the actual issue.
Waiting to interview the captain of the plastic boat this morning, I caught the end of a roundtable discussion between designers, engineers, environmentalists, campaigners and communications specialists; people with a vested interest in making people care about the environment. Many words were being thrown around about how, just how, their great ideas for solving the world's problems can be made personal. As one guy said, "engineering doesn't really lend itself to metaphor, but metaphor and story is what we need".
The room agreed - narrative is needed to make abstract issues, like climate change, real to people. In the same way people in affluent countries are desensitised to poverty or war because of remoteness, we are desensitised to the impact of global warming. The challenge is to make the abstract, tangible.
Someone else piped up, "It's about self-interest. People need to see how these things actually impact them personally." Another suggested tapping into ego - capitalising on the selfish gene so that people see environmentalism as a way to impress their peers, to do better than their neighbour. "Why not encourage people to take great pride in the fact they drink tap water?" she said. "Let's get away from negative messages." Another well-known environmentalist suggested the two problems we face are greed an ignorance. Ignorance, he said, we can combat with education. Greed, is another beast altogether. "We might not be able to get rid of greed," he said. "But we can harness it so that people see the commercial opportunities of environmental initiatives." Someone else made the observation that we tend to be a selfish, aggressive society, but that we can to tap into our primorial drivers and use them to provoke social change.
It got me thinking about the way we try to solve the world's problems. Exploiting people's sense of pride, feeding their greed - these are solutions, but they are so impermanent, so superficial. Someone's greed might be channelled for a brief moment into investing in green technology, but at the end of the day, they're still seeking personal gain and always at the expense of another (that's what competition is, in a free market, right?) What makes green greed any more noble than tax evasion greed? The impulse - greed itself - hasn't disappeared. Likewise, encouraging people to compete with eachother to be "the most green" might be capitalising on our inherent selfishness, but it doesn't do away with selfishness itself. In fact, it feeds it.
We've got to be crazy if we think we can solve the world's problems by putting a different coloured frock on our basic fears and desires. Because the problem with the world today isn't plactic bottles. Our problem is our heart, where the fears and desires take hold that end in us polluting the world, or ignoring the poor. It reminds me of Jesus' words: "Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.'" And because I see in myself these basic impulses - greed and selfishness to name just two of many- I am thankful that there is a permanent solution: Jesus didn't come to condemn our hearts, but to clean them.