'Virtue signalling' isn't a new expression — it's been around for donkey's years, usually attributed to those who display piety but don't quite live up to their public image. But it's well and truly entered the mass lexicon in 2019. We see it in all sorts of places, and while many recognise it for what it is, we seem powerless to reduce its appeal.

We see it in the ban of so-called single-used plastic bags, those that don't meet an arbitrary micron boundary, and, mysteriously, don't have handles. Apparently those without handles don't get into the environment, and don't kill turtles. In fact, the no handles criterion allows the use of bags that supposedly have a public health role to play, like the very light ones most of us use when we buy loose fruit and veg at the supermarket.

Obviously there are alternatives to these bags, but those who have banned their handled counterparts don't want to risk a rebellion, and the people who provide them can't be bothered to go to too much trouble to help save the planet. The fact remains that bags without handles are just as polluting as the handled variety, even if plastic bags of any description are a minor player as far as global pollution and the killing of marine wildlife are concerned.

The priority for some is clearly to be seen as doing something, even if that something doesn't amount to much.

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The government's gun buy-back is also virtue signalling. Not one of the firearms that will be handed over for destruction falls into the category that we should be worried about, and will not help make this country safer. The buy-back will rid us of a currently unknown number of weapons that were never going to be used against people, and will not include those that might. The important thing again is being seen to be doing something. The fact that what we are doing will not achieve the stated goal means nothing.

Now we have children and teenagers striking for the climate, and local authorities lining up to support them by declaring climate emergencies. Again, this will achieve nothing, apart from encouraging those who protest to feel they are achieving something, which they are not.

Those who applaud the councils that have declared a climate emergency presumably don't notice the double standards those councils reveal, or pause to think about what said councils might now do differently. One would have thought they were already considering the environment when they made decisions that might have impacted on it. How will decisions made now, with an emergency having been declared, differ from those made in the past?

Will those councils reduce activities that, whatever one thinks of anthropomorphic climate change, contribute to the emissions that are supposedly endangering the only planet we have? Some of the councils that have declared emergencies have spent, and will no doubt continue spending, eye-watering sums on air travel.

Government politicians are equally duplicitous. They harp on about reducing emissions, with their sights firmly set on the farmers who underpin our economy, but fly about the globe at every opportunity, not least to take part in discussions regarding how emissions might be reduced, and extol the virtues of tourism, when every tourist probably generates more emissions than your average dairy cow.

We all contribute to the emissions that we are told must be reduced, but those who fly contribute more than most, but that doesn't seem to bother them. Over the last week or two many of the more senior politicians went on holiday, which is fair enough, or went to Britain to play netball or cricket, every one of them flying. Those planes, obviously, would have flown with or without them, but it would be nice if these people practised what they preached.

Meanwhile the students who protest so loudly (and sincerely) might consider whether they should simply be exhorting others to 'do something,' or whether they might lead by example, having declared their own climate emergency. Like giving up the use of plastic, fossil fuel-powered vehicles and the technology that is responsible for environmental damage in their manufacture.

Someone reckoned last week that they had a mate who works in a lithium mine, which consumed half a million litres of diesel per day. Where is the call to ban lithium batteries? Making a noise and demanding action is one thing; living in a way that reduces the environmental harm that each and every one of us is doing is quite another.

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The push to get us all into electric vehicles is another example of virtue signalling. No one who sees our salvation in abandoning the use of petrol and diesel seems to be worried about where the extra electricity that will have to be generated is going to come from. It won't come from wind farms and solar panels. Hands up those in favour of more dams. Or nuclear.

And while all this is going on, Kaitaia has the makings of a genuine emergency on its hands with the demise of the local branch of Toll. On one hand this can be seen as the result of a reasonable, and understandable, decision by the company's major client to pursue a cheaper alternative. If Juken NZ can strike a better deal with another transport company, potentially contributing to its own continued viability, then it has every right to do so. But the impact on Kaitaia will inevitably stretch far beyond the loss of 33 Toll jobs.

Toll is a big company by Kaitaia standards, and a very valuable one. It not only employs 33 people who will soon be looking for work elsewhere, but it spends a lot of money in the town. As of August 30, that money will not be spent. Every business closure has a ripple effect, and the ripples from this one could be very significant.

Those who will soon find themselves without work include the teenagers who for some years have devoted their Saturdays to cleaning Toll trucks. This arrangement provides the company, at not insignificant cost, not only with a means of keeping its fleet clean but also of giving a number of Kaitaia's young people an opportunity to lay the foundations for productive, rewarding working lives.

Some of these youngsters have gone on to become truck drivers themselves, armed with skills that are in real demand from one end of this country to the other, and overseas.

Toll has proved itself to be a very good corporate citizen of Kaitaia, far beyond an important employer simply by virtue of numbers. One of very few prospective employment doors for the young people of Kaitaia will close on August 30, and that adds greatly to the sorrow, and the alarm, that Toll's demise should be generating.

Perhaps those who pride themselves on leading us to a more sustainable future should turn their minds to how we might secure a more sustainable present.

If the end of Toll in Kaitaia has a domino effect, handled plastic bags entering the marine environment might be the least of the town's worries.