Less comfortable for some…

The science is abundantly clear that the present economic trajectory of the human race taken as a whole is environmentally unsustainable. Climate change is the most pressing priority, but it is only one element of a broader pattern of steep  environmental degradation. We sometimes speak of the risk of environmental ‘collapse’, but the multifaceted nature of the slide to ecological ruin is more redolent of a mounting chorus of whimpers than any decisive bang. A major fish stock slips quietly beyond all hope of recovery; a river system dries up; a dozen more species become extinct and we simply don’t notice. Despite the rich abundance of rhetoric, the politics and policy is lagging pitifully behind what the scientists tell us are the multiple imperatives for action. So, what is to be done?

In February 2007, Tony Jones asked John Howard on Lateline

‘Prime Minister, what do you think living in Australia would be like by the end of this century for your own grandchildren and for the grandchildren and great grandchildren of others, if the temperatures, the average mean temperatures, around the world do rise by somewhere between four and possibly even more than six degrees Celsius?’

To which Howard replied:

‘Well, it would be less comfortable for some than it is now…’

I’m confident we share a common revulsion at the apparent callousness of Howard’s phrasing. But the former Prime Minister’s fundamental calculation, that climate change will be differentially experienced, is centrally important. Yes, climate change and environmental degradation are major global problems, but no, neither within nor between nations does it affect all of us equally.

The clear implication is that climate change and environmental degradation present conundrums of economic distribution and social fairness to which there are no value-neutral solutions, only a variety of potential policy prescriptions, each of which is necessarily founded in some broader conception of the good society. For those of us seeking, in David McKnight’s sense, a way beyond left and right, that means not only responding to climate change and environmental degradation adequately (which we are currently failing to do) but within a framework that also advances economic fairness and social wellbeing.

I offer here six short variations on these themes, to stimulate thought and discussion:

1. The green movement, however defined, is characterized by ideological incoherence. A related problem is the adoption of green jargon by virtually everyone, making for a policy language that is compromised to the point of almost total vapidity. Perhaps we are all green now, but contrary to the song, it is very easy being green because the label imposes no definite standard on the content  to which it is applied.

2. All ‘solutions’ to climate change and other environmental problems are innately political because goals like ‘sustainability’ and ‘efficiency’ necessarily entail a range of decisions about how resources are to be allocated. The idea promoted by nervous governments, that individuals, businesses, NGOs and communities ‘all have their part to play’ in solving climate change, ignores the reality that interests do clash; that it will indeed be ‘less comfortable for some’ and that the notion of corporate social responsibility is simply a politically and commercially convenient myth.

3. Despite the global financial crisis, the overwhelming public policy  response to climate change is reliant on market mechanisms. The theory  is that through carbon trading within a capped system, price signals will ensure that emissions are reduced in the most economically efficient possible manner. The problem with this notion is not only that it remains theoretically suspect in important respects, but that even if you are a believer, you would likely consider that carbon trading is not being implemented in an optimal way anywhere in the world, not least because political leaders have proved so reluctant to make big polluters subject to the kind of price signals that are essential to force a shift to low carbon technologies.

4. The reliance on market mechanisms to deal with climate change – like all instances when commoditization is called upon to answer social questions – inevitably comes with a range of cultural implications. The culture of market based solutions to climate change is one which perpetuates and further embeds fundamental assumptions about the sustainability of avaricious growth, the social desirability of affluence and the dominance of mercantile norms and institutions. The chilling concept of ‘eco system services’ connotes the idea that the natural environment is amenable to being monetized for human beings, who presumably are reclassified as ‘eco system users’ or ‘eco system customers’.  Notions of the environment’s transcendent value, in whatever secular, spiritual or cultural terms one prefers, become lost in commodification.

5. One of the operative political truths of climate change and broader environmental degradation is that the proposition that we cannot all lead lives designed around the untrammeled satisfaction of individual desires is literally unutterable. No mainstream political leader will say ‘buy less’, ‘repair things’, ‘make-do’, ‘be modest’ or ‘practice thrift’.  The politics of restraint is inimical to an age of consumerism without limits, in which conspicuous
consumption is regularly depicted as the highest form of human attainment. The false promise of ethical consumption may have moral force as an expression of individual intent to lead a good life. However, as a driver of systemic change, it is not merely woefully limited, but counter-productive to the extent that it reinforces the paradigm that we are consumers not citizens.

6. Climate change and environmental degradation should not be seen in isolation from a broader process that we might describe as the emergence of a post-natural world. Although there are obvious differences among them, anthropogenic climate change and ecological transformation can be bracketed with nuclear energy, genetic engineering, super computing, smart drugs, virtual experience, nano-capacities and all the rest of the promethean technologies with which we are actively transforming not only the biosphere, but what it means to be human. What foundation of values best equips us to address the existential issues associated with the politics of the post-natural world? How do we ensure that choices about these fundamental dilemmas are brought more effectively within the remit of democratic decision making?