Game of Thrones and the Sustainability Vision Thing
Great excitement chez Kane on Monday as, as soon as the junior members of the household were safely asleep, we could head back to Westeros and caught up with Arya, Jon Snow, Cersei and the rest of the huge, disparate but now converging cast of characters that populate the Game of Thrones universe. I’m not going to give anything away – one innocent click on Monday spoilt the opening for me, thank you very much Independent – but it did make me think about some of the Sustainability debates I’ve been having recently.
There’s a strong fan theory that the overall story – tribes of people fighting to the death over the smallest of short term political gains while ignoring the existential threat of the White Walkers – is an analogy for our own short termism in the face of the threat of climate change. And of course, as the lengthy winter starts in Westeros, we can see the implications: food shortages, mass migration of threatened peoples etc, etc. And yet most of the characters are caught up in their own web of lust, hatred, envy, power and vengeance and pay little regard to the big threat.
So far, so good.
But I am still amazed at those who believe that the solution to climate change is to regress to some kind of pre-industrial state. Going ‘plastic-free’ seems to be the new ‘gluten-free’, seen as somehow inherently good despite a complete lack of evidence to back the idea up (the number of people who think they are gluten intolerant is many times the number who actually are). The Guardian ran a plastic-free piece on Tuesday, memorably including a ‘pig hair toothbrush’. Nice.
As I wrote on Monday, plastic ain’t evil. Plastic in the wrong place is bad, but plastic used properly is very, very good. It is light, durable, and many forms are infinitely recyclable. So when I buy my plastic bottle of milk in the morning for the family breakfast, that bottle goes in the recycling bin, and re-emerges somewhere down the line as another plastic bottle or even a school uniform. If I chuck it in the river, then, yes, that is a problem, but chucking the milk in the river would be pretty bad for the local eco-system too. Don’t chuck stuff in the river full stop.
And here we get back to Game of Thrones. One of the strengths of GoT is how it skewers the assumption that the past was somehow more virtuous, healthier, fairer or more comfortable than life today. If we are telling people that climate change could threaten civilisation as we know it, then it is isn’t very inspiring to tell them that the answer is to go back to a medieval lifestyle. What’s the point in that?
I’m not exaggerating very much – I burst out laughing in a US supermarket a couple of years ago, when I saw the ‘paleo’ aisle – clearly aimed at those who think modern life is killing them and want to regress to living in caves. This idiocy hits the danger zone with the anti-vax movement which has almost certainly been responsible for needless deaths. I like to think I’m super-rational, but it made me hesitate briefly before letting the kids get their MMR jab.
Add the various individual movements together – no post-paleo food stuffs, no vaccines, no plastics, no cars/planes, no fashion – and we get a very bleak vision of the future. Fancy it? Of course you don’t. And neither will anybody else – they’ll take their chances with climate change.
If you want people to change, you’ve got to present them with a future which is much, much better than where they are now. And that means creating a highly desirable vision of sustainability: clean air, convivial communities, healthy lifestyles, fashionable clothes, tasty food, exciting technology, cool transport, beautiful natural habitats, fun – and rivers free of litter, of course.
“We go forward, only forward.” as Stannis Baratheon put it.
Image © HBO used under fair use.