A politics of climate change

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Neo-liberalism was imposed on Australia as a top down, ideologically driven, re-engineering of every aspect of Australian society. In the wake of the present global financial crisis two things are important. First that economic rationalism, neo-liberalism, economic ‘reform’, has never enjoyed popular support[1]. Second that although the free-marketeers still hold all the levers, neo-liberalism has now lost its legitimacy.

This presents an opportunity.

A politics of climate change has the potential to bust the neo-liberal envelope and to open the public space to a revitalised politics of secure national development and prosperity in which all may share.  A new climate change politics can awaken and mobilise the latent strengths of our own heritage. We are a secular nation with weak moral vocabularies, weak civil societies, and weak communities. We are not good at grass roots action. We are not much moved by rights-talk or by political doctrines and ideologies and primal notions of human rights. We are pragmatic nuts ‘n bolts fix-it Benthamites with a strong tradition of mobilising the machinery of state to steer and regulate the market in the service of positive, nation-building, economic development in which all may share. In its own way this is our own modest, powerful, practical, achievable utopia that can fire our national imagination. Think about the power of the imagery that was once evoked by mass immigration to this vast continent; think of the iconic images of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, and the Flying Doctor Service.

A new politics on climate change should be crafted to exploit its inherent advantage as a circuit breaking discourse. The neo-liberal ideology (the most successful and powerful ideology in post WW2 history) has four properties, four signposts: abstraction; time; differentiation; and functionalism.

Let me use the plight of the Murray Darling as illustration:.

  • Neo-liberal economics is chronically abstract. Climate change issues, in contrast, are easily grounded in strong, concrete narratives. The scientists, with some very notable exceptions – for example, Tim Flannery, Richard Kingsford – are generally confined to technical, esoteric, language. Let’s leave the scientists to do what they do best  - which is to present the proven information on the exhaustion of ground water, falling precipitation levels and the like. However, in order to generate strong break-through  narratives, public intellectuals should, in a complimentary way, strive to  ground the narrative in concrete, accessible, and arresting visual images of a dried up Murray Darling, flanked by dying red gums, acid pools and failing rural ghost towns..
  • Neo-liberal economics kills time and strands us all in an urgent present that makes the past seem irrelevant and undermines our imagined future. It creates anomic anxiety without meaning. Climate change has the power to restore the sense of agency by setting the public discourse in real, lived and remembered biographical time. That is what happens as people are prompted to remember camping and fishing trips to those sweeping bends of the Murray near Hay in central NSW. There is not one Australian family that would not be stirred by the memory of those now dying 500 year-old river red gums as they once were. This gives stability to temporal horizons. It gives people confidence in their common understandings of processes and trends; and it gives them the needed courage to discuss consequences and tangible outcomes with conviction.
  • The neo-liberal ideology draws on specialised, expert, knowledge that is artificially compartmentalised (differentiated). A new politics grounded in clear concrete images of what is happening, in real time, to our principal river system cannot be so easily confined to compartmentalised technical policy discourses. Instead the images have a kind of lateral reach, or if you prefer ‘spill-over effects’ that build a broader field of understanding across several domains of policy that are at the same time anchored in ordinary language. As this happens the field of action opens to will and imagination. People can then see that the consequences of climate change cannot, for example, be neatly fixed with a promised review of water allocation licences in the next budget cycle. It becomes clear that both Federal and State governments have to be involved in a problem that crosses state boundaries and involves forestry practices, the viability of rural communities, water allocation, soil conservation, tourism, food supply and much more.
  • The economic mumbo-jumbo has made us prisoners of a functionalism that kills practical action. We are endlessly told to obey and adapt ourselves to (largely contrived) functional economic imperatives that come upon us, so to speak, ‘from the outside’ [If national debt increases you will have to cop cuts to your schools budget, pay more for prescriptions and accept lengthening waiting lists for elective surgery]. A new climate change politics has the potential to restore what Maria Markus would call ‘communicative action’ – a practical intelligence that comes instead from within. It gives public intellectuals an opportunity to prompt forms of action that produce meaningful consensus and stable orientations for new politics, policies and programs. With these strategies public intellectuals can more easily open up a two-way street between coordination by action and coordination by function. This brings critical scrutiny to bear on the economic ideology and at the same time reclaims the intelligence of systems (we need well functioning systems) for human purposes.

Who are the principal political guardians of the neo-liberal orthodoxy? Where are the pressure points to which this new politics should be aimed? That is another discussion but let’s think about the Treasury, the Business Council and the Media.

Some of the arguments in this paper are elaborated in a forthcoming article,‘The struggles of public intellectuals in Australia … What do they tell us about contemporary Australia and the Australian ‘political public sphere?‘, that is to be published in Thesis Eleven, March 2010, as part of Special Issue Festschrift collection in honour of Maria Markus.


[1] Michael Pusey, The Experience of Middle Australia. The Dark
Side of Economic Reform
, Cambridge, 2003