Saving the Giving Tree

There was once a Giving Tree who loved a little boy very, very much. When he was young the pair would play together – he would swing in her branches and she would protect him from the sun as he napped.

As the boy grew older he visited the tree less often. The tree just wanted the boy to be happy. She gave him her apples to sell so that he might have money to go out and have a good time. She gave him her branches so that he might build a house. In the end she gave him her trunk, so that he might build a boat and sail away. The story tells us that the tree was happy, because she loved to give.

The tree was happy – “but not really”, the story tells us. For the tree had become just a stump. Eventually the boy became an old man, and came back to sit on what was left of the Giving Tree.

A guest speaker read this story to us last Sunday in church, showing us the pictures like a kindergarten teacher would. It was a metaphor for the way we treat the Earth, he said.

The speaker asked what we thought of the story. The conversation began with a cough and a splutter. (Once very vocal, our congregation is now unaccustomed to being asked its opinion.) Somebody offered a comment about ethical investment. Somebody else mentioned plastic bags. I nodded in agreement. A little part of me dies every time I forget to take my greenbags to the supermarket.

Then Bogusha – God bless Bogusha – raised her arm straight and high.
“I think,” she began, “that we should be caring for the sick and the needy before we think about saving the environment. How can you think about plastic bags and superannuation when your mind is consumed with how you are going to survive the next day?”

I have a lot of sympathy for Bogusha’s point of view. The power to make ethical and environmentally friendly consumer choices often corresponds with the power of your dollar; environmentalism is a middle-class concern that requires a middle-class income. Organic food, solar powered hot water, energy efficient appliances – these choices involve both money and head-space. Bogusha is a long-term sufferer of chronic fatigue syndrome. I imagined there would be times when finding the energy to make breakfast would take precedence in her mind, over and above how she might reduce her personal carbon footprint.

I put up my hand. The speaker acknowledged it with his eyes, but by this stage the congregation was revving with ideas and opinions. I waited patiently as people talked over one another. Finally I told everybody my point of view: which was that the planet cannot be saved through consumer choice.

For me, conserving plastic bags and turning appliances off at the switch are matters of integrity; simple living is part of the life that I expect my God would like me to lead. But the hard reality is that these small, precious acts are dwarfed by the problems at hand. Reversing climate change requires drastic action at a national and international level. With polluting companies in the pockets of governments, preventing the development of new, clean technologies, we are kidding ourselves if we think that turning the hot water system down a couple of degrees will make any difference at all.

My comment was framed negatively and, as expected, was shot down by a dozen voices. But consumers can impact on companies! Shell changed its practices in Nigeria because of public outcry!

These things might be true, but I don’t think they’re enough. To suggest that we can turn climate change around through our consumer choices to me is both a gross understatement of the problems we face, plus an overconfidence in the potential of consumers. Plus, it puts too much responsibility on the shoulders of individuals rather than government and business, who have the power to effect real change. I find the whole idea kind of disempowering.

Actually I think effective action is possible for the everyday person, but it must occur at a structural, systemic level. The solution lies not in people changing their daily habits – many are too lazy and many others are simply unable. For real change, the whole system must change. For me, staging a protest at Hazelwood – telling the government to shut down decrepit brown coal power stations and invest in clean energy instead – goes further in the direction of a genuine solution than installing energy-saving lightglobes or improving my personal recycling system. Of course, these actions are important, but I don’t think they get to the heart of the problem.

I don’t want to abuse my Giving Tree. The difficultly is that we are collectively the boy in the story. I can’t prevent the cutting down of the Tree by reducing my personal environmental footprint. The best hope I have is using my individual power to change the system.

So what am I doing to change the system? Nothing. For now, I will continue to take out the recycling and turn down the heater. I smile sadly at the Giving Tree, while my people reduce her to a stump.