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There is no such thing as a free lunch

BAU and the green button syndrome – it’s the end of the world as we know it, so push the button again

by | May 6, 2024 | 0 comments

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To quote a much (over) used aphorism, ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ It sums up our approach to sustainability. I call this the ‘green button syndrome’, and to appreciate it, think of the world as a photocopier. It’s also a good way of understanding our policy response to mass coral bleaching.

We’ve all been there. The person ahead of you is staring blankly at the photocopier wondering why their precious document isn’t being copied 100 times. There’s a red blinking light somewhere on the control panel but this person believes simply stabbing the big green button again and again will somehow fix the problem.

It doesn’t, of course, so the person snatches their file from the load tray and stalks off. They’re too important to wait around or attempt to fix the problem themselves. As far as they’re concerned, the problem is 1. Beneath their station; 2. Will be fixed by someone else of a lesser station (you?); or, failing that, 3. The ‘system’ will bring in that guy in the blue overhauls to pull the wretched machine apart and stop that little red light from blinking. Either way, why should the person who was in front of you care?

It’s not working! Better call in the men in blue (Image by Wilfried Pohnke from Pixabay)

The Green Button Syndrome

I call it the ‘green button syndrome’, and it’s not limited to photocopiers. It also applies to printers, computers and pedestrian buttons at traffic lights – indeed, pretty much every bit of technology we deal with on a day-to-day basis. Something goes wrong and we believe simply pushing the ‘go’ button repeatedly will somehow fix the problem. (In the case of the pedestrian crossing, the belief is more that multiple stabbings of the button will somehow speed up the traffic light cycle. It’s the same underlying issue of ignorance interlaced with hubris.)

We’ve all witnessed the green button syndrome at some point, And, if we’re being honest, we’ve all been the button pusher at some point, too.

We laugh at our own stupidity or we get angry when the button pusher exhibits self righteous rage (‘why won’t this button respond! Doesn’t it know how important I am’). Yet, have you ever considered society as a whole is suffering ‘green button syndrome’ when it comes to climate change and sustainability?

I’ve written many blogs about our cognitive dissonance surrounding the mass bleaching events that are destroying the world’s coral reefs, including our own Great Barrier Reef (GBR). This destruction is being caused by the anthropogenic heating of our oceans caused by human activity releasing too much carbon into our atmosphere. Scientists have provided warning after warning, and accurately predicted the consequences of failing to abate our carbon pollution.

And now, having failed to achieve any meaningful abatement over multiple decades, we see these predictions coming to roost, year after year, undeniable, there in bleached white and rotting coral flesh tones.

A passive attitude of dissolute ignorance

And our response? We adopt a passive attitude of dissolute ignorance and simply keep stabbing the same bloody green button expecting something different might happen this time.

The green button in this case is ‘business as usual’ (BAU) consisting of endless economic growth, market forces and the promise of technological salvation. As a species we keep pushing this button while our leaders promise we don’t have to sacrifice our quality of life or, really, change anything, and something magical (often spelt ‘technology’) will come along and deliver us.

So, we turn our eyes away from our wilting coral ecosystems (and burning forest biomes just to name two catastrophic ecosystem collapses), fully expecting that someone else will fix the machine (the Earth system) that our use and abuse has broken.

Men in blue?

And who might be the ‘men in blue overhauls’ in this situation? The many scientist experts who have been warning us about this for decades? The same people who have been completely ignored by the powers that be (time and time again)*?

Maybe it’s our myriad scientific institutions set up to safeguard our national heritage and prosperity? In the case of the Great Barrier Reef, that would be three of Australia’s premier science and research groups – the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation.

As it happens, these three have just jointly released a Reef snapshot (for 2023-24) summarizing that the Reef has been hit hard over summer. And, while they don’t shy away from the root cause being climate change (“Climate change is the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef, and coral reefs globally,” says Dr Roger Beeden, the Reef Authority’s Chief Scientist), their overall response is the same as it has always been – more “modelling, monitoring and innovation” to help the Reef repair itself when the heat ends; when all the climate science is telling us to expect ocean heating only to increase.

And what about the problem of human carbon emissions and the havoc these are causing to the Earth system (the driver behind climate change)? Not a mention! Too many vested interests and sources of funding at risk if these institutions stray beyond their tight brief of focusing on the Reef and only the Reef.

The world as photocopier

Returning to our photocopier analogy, multiple red lights are flashing all over the device. We keep stabbing the green button regardless but the machine refuses to budge. We call in the men in blue but all they do is tell us that the machine is too hot, and it seems to be getting hotter. Rather than investigate the source of the heating, and do something about it, they recommend we simply monitor the situation (because the heating is beyond their jurisdiction), and keep them posted. Who knows, they say, there’s talk of a new magical type of photocopier that works regardless of how hot it is. They’re not sure how this is possible but it should be available in about ten years’ time.

It was Einstein who reputedly said ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ You don’t have to be Einstein to realise Earth’s green button is no longer responding. But no-one is contesting BAU, so what the heck, let’s push that button one more time anyway…

Banner image: I pushed the button but nothing happened… again!
Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay)

*Of scientists, science institutions and the shadow of BAU: While preparing this blog I spied the following tweet from Professor Terry Hughes, one of the world’s foremost experts on the Great Barrier Reef, bleaching and coral ecology. He is commenting on a tweet by Australia’s Minister for the Environment in which she is promoting how she was being “briefed by our scientists about the current situation on our reef”. Professor Hughes observes: “Our scientists” – i.e. people employed by government agencies – are simply not allowed to speak freely about the current mass-mortality of corals on the Great Barrier Reef. In the meantime, Australia spends a fortune on subsidising new fossil fuels.”


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