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March 24, 2014 | by  | in Opinion Politics | [ssba]

The Real Tragedy of the Commons

Last month, 29 West Coasters had their jobs destroyed as Bathurst Resources delayed mining the Denniston Plateau. This followed two years of redundancies at the Stockton Mine – over 400 jobs lost as falling coal prices rendered Solid Energy insolvent. For the miners, this meant either the emotional destitution of unemployment or abandoning the town they call home. For Westport, this meant losing one of the few industries the rural community had left. These job losses are a tragedy.

They’re a tragedy because they needed to happen.

A brutal confrontation with climate change is drawing near. We know it must be dealt with, and for the most part we know how. Coal cannot be the future’s fuel. We get it – but we’ve forgotten that this is something to regret.

The 1972 publication of  Limits to Growth seeded modern environmentalism. It argued that for modernity to avoid catastrophic collapse, it needed to accept the limits of the environment. Living within our means required a deliberate reduction in our standard of living; jobs would disappear as we struggled to make do with less. Perhaps it was hysteria, perhaps a far-sighted wisdom – the ideology certainly stood for something different. It didn’t last long. As the greenies courted the absent-minded masses, they forgot the tragedy that lay in their core.

Tragedy is defined by its inevitability, but politics doesn’t allow that. We are easily bored, and we want perfect solutions even when none can exist. And so the critique of materialist consumption was replaced by well-designed images of wind turbines. It made for pretty election billboards, but the green-jobs utopia obscured the struggle that needed to come.

By arguing that high-tech manufacturing should replace mining, we are arguing that working-class jobs should be given to the elite. When your highest qualification is NCEA Level 2, you’re not going to retrain as an electrical engineer. And green jobs are city jobs. Scientists and technologists need to be close to one another. Good ideas are difficult to engineer, but we know they come from collaboration, from coffee dates between experts in disparate fields and off-hand comments that spawn the Next Big Thing. Scientific communities require a scale that Westport cannot provide. In the cleantech future, rural economies crumble.

Politics peddles optimism, but sometimes there is no win-win. This hasn’t just stricken the hippies. Leftists have abandoned their class analysis for the belief that income inequality hurts even those with the highest incomes. Helping the poor is done for the sake of the rich. There are no trade-offs, no hard calls. C’mon guys, we’re all in this together.

But politics isn’t Boy Scouts. The bright ideas that will help us all are running short. People are going to be hurt. We must deal with climate change, but we must not forget the real pain our solutions will cause. We can accept things will be difficult without accepting nothing should be done. Perhaps a green economy is necessary. That doesn’t mean it’s cause for celebration.



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