Confined to barracks, consoled by Oscar Wilde

I’ve been laid low by a severe bout of blogger’s block, otherwise known as a surge in the demands of my real job. And there’s little prospect of remission.


This is an incurable malady of our times. If Oscar Wilde had been born a hundred years later, he would surely have set aside the demon drink and written instead that work is the curse of the blogging classes.

The worst of it is not so much the denial of my right to write, as the chronic narrowing of the arteries that govern my intake of happenings in the world at large. Most jobs compel us to be specialists in very small things.

The trouble with working in the NGO sector is that we are prone to small-mindedness; it’s generally possible to ply our trade without engaging with people who don’t think the way we think. The value of taking plenty of time out is to acquire a smattering of the cosmology of that parallel human universe.

Bill McKibben's Do The Math tour in Australia ©Canberra Times
Bill McKibben’s Do The Math tour in Australia ©Canberra Times

The gap seems to me to be getting wider, just at the moment when a common vision for the way we live may have become imperative. This is most easily understood in the context of fossil fuels. Those who hail the technology of blasting oil and gas out of rocks as our economic saviour appear quite unaware of those who plead to leave the stuff where it is.

These parallel universes exist in other dimensions, even if harder to locate. Recent weeks have seen a flurry of promises to end global poverty and hunger, led by the report of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Yet the same rich governments who boast of their commitment to this worthy cause allowed the last fortnight of negotiations in Bonn to pass without a single meaningful gesture towards the goals of the UN Convention on Climate Change. If we don’t protect crops from rising temperatures or shell-forming species from ocean acidification, the prospects for hunger in 2030 bear little resemblance to the promises of the Panel.

Last week Mayor Bloomberg was widely praised for his foresight in launching a $19.5 billion programme for “A Stronger, More Resilient New York.” A wide range of defences will protect New York City from the combined threat of rising sea level and more intense hurricanes.

Compare this investment for a single city with the US government contribution to the climate finance needs of all of the world’s poorest countries. On the most generous interpretation of the figures, the US contributed $7.5 billion over the three years 2010-2012. No further specific commitments are on the table, despite the treaty obligation on those countries most responsible for global warming.

I could go on – the divide between those who crave and those appalled at the idea of pricing biodiversity; between those behind agribusiness and those with faith in 500 million smallholders – but the sand falls too fast through my hourglass.

Oscar Wilde was right, once again: most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.