The Great Disconnect — Why Climate Change is Too Big for Australian Politicians
Random thoughts of a deep green conservative
Kevin Rudd gave us his classic “climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation”.
Malcolm Turnbull tried to deliver a mega technocratic option in Snowy 2.0 that ignored the ecology of diverting whole river systems.
Hillary Clinton’s most memorable quote is that “every child needs a village”.
All failed to deliver.
The defining thoughts and acts of these leading Australian and US politicians broke otherwise successful careers, leaving the public deeply distrustful of their desire to support real environmental reform.
This reflects, I think, a great disconnect between the worthy platitudes expressed above, and the enormous political and economic challenges required to see them through.
Even for strong, principled politicians, the long term demands of managing climate change are way beyond short term demands of electoral cycles, policy formulation and media interest.
Put simply, we can’t restore the earth’s atmosphere, or provide every child with a village (shorthand for the need to move towards a more self-reliant, de-consumerized society) unless we radically overhaul our current political and economic system.
And that basically means adopting a practical strategy of degrowth.
In countries like Australia this is perhaps the greatest challenge of all — especially where great wealth has been built on extractive mining,energy and monocultural farming industries.
Technocratic options like Snowy 2.0 often miss the point because they don’t address key environmental or resource management issues.
For example, in an era when everyone on the planet wants air-conditioning, generating cheap electricity only fuels the demand for more electricity guzzling units. Excess energy stifles innovation in more sustainable options.
Degrowth economists call this the “rebound effect” — and it applies to many new technologies.
The solution, they say, is to move away from the uncontrolled science and defense driven technology free-for-all we have now.
So what is a stable or steady-state economy?
The idea has been around since the 18th century when the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, proposed the sensible idea of a “stationary economy” where inputs equalled outputs and populations remained stable.
The industrial revolution, which happened at much the same time and really invented the idea of using fossil fuels to speed up production and transport, quickly put paid to Smith’s idea.
It’s been a downhill run ever since. Not only has growth economics become the norm, its generated a mentality where bigger is better, and fostered ecologically dangerous cults of aspirational affluence and globalism.
Modern transport technologies, for example, have concentrated economic activity into highly focused hubs, leaving vast swathes of suburbia and rural regions as economic arid zones.
The idea of steady state economies reemerged in the broad social revolution of the swinging 1960’s.
It’s been simmering away ever since, but has never become mainstream. Some politicians have flirted with its ideas (every child needs a village), but even the Greens have had difficulty articulating a consistent and coherent policy of degrowth.
But in a world of uncontrolled population growth and an equally uncontrolled decline in resources, it’s probably the only option we have.
So how can we redesign government and capitalism models to drive us towards smaller, more diverse and localised economies?
The current Brexit debate may hold some clues.
In the future it may well be seen as a turning point — the first time a democratic majority said that local communities matter; that big governments, big banks, multinationals and global institutions have not lived up to their promises of offering a better way of life for most people.
The dramatic polarization of wealth over the past 30 years has born this out.
Small, ultra wealthy enclaves of urban shareholders have benefited, but the vast majority of people have only seen their main street — their local economy sovereignty — steadily decline.
Yes, a Brexit will be ugly and chaotic at times, but it does point to a desire to reverse the power balance between supranational and local governments as a first step in returning economic capacity to local communities.
But ultimately the move to a stable state economy will be an ideological battle to be won in schools and at the dinner table.
Already we are seeing a generation of children emerging from the playground with a very different set of environmental values to those promoted by current governments.
Often encouraged by disillusioned parents, they are taking to the streets and demanding a sustainable future for themselves.
In doing so, they will soon have to begin thinking about new economic systems to suit those values.
Changing the direction of ships of state around the world rarely happens overnight.
But it could happen relatively quickly if enough people become motivated and take small actions in the appropriate direction.
In the end, thought, I believe it will be a generational change. And it can’t come soon enough.