I recently attended a thought-provoking lecture by David Ritter, Executive Officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. The presentation, entitled ‘Progressive Politics and the Environment in Australia: what now?’ was organised by the University of Western Australia’s Institute of Advanced Studies. An online version of the presentation can be found here.
What should ‘progress’ look like?
David Ritter’s presentation aimed to provide an overview of what our society should look like, what’s inhibiting us from achieving the goal, and what we should do to try to get there. He used the term ‘progress’ to describe the activities that have seen us move from a time when we were hunter-gatherer communities to the civilisation we have today, but noted that ‘progress’ as a vehicle for own development seems to have stalled since the 1950’s, and that in spite of our technology, and collective voices, we have progressed only in a narrow stream of social issues (and developed Facebook). He asked the audience to think about what ‘progress’ should look like, and delivered a set of clear ‘needs’ for humanity – housing, food, water, relationships, meaningful work, access to nature, respect, autonomy. While he noted that we had achieved great gains in our material well-being and some societal improvements there are negative consequences to much of our recent ‘progress’. Inequality in our society is increasing. Our autonomy is decreasing as the power in both government and industry becomes more and more concentrated with a few individuals. Our political, industrial and media outlets are controlled by the same few people. And it’s becoming harder and harder to hold them accountable to their actions. We are more and more likely to be performing ‘bullshit jobs’, which, while well paid, are essentially fruitless and contribute little towards societal wellbeing. We lack access to the natural environment. Everything in our world must now be given a financial value to be judged and traded. We use the best of our science and technology to sell products to our children. We are overwhelmed by branding – from branding ourselves to branding our places. We lack time, space, sleep. We wake up every morning tired.
So how do we address these problems? David Ritter thinks we must create a new politics. Policies in themselves won’t improve the world. Social media is not the answer, nor is ethical consumption, charismatic and representative individuals in places of power, books or science, the media or the development of wealth. Instead, we must ‘chip in’ to improve our prospects of ‘good’ progress. That means higher taxes. We must make businesses and industry accountable and we must have transparent government. We must, as a community, organise. We must take hold of power. In doing so we must disband with arguing over the potential of improving society through ‘symbolic’ policies and instead we must band together to move towards a ‘good’ progress that will bring us our basic needs. We must forget about the individual and the ‘us and them’ mentality of criticising our political leaders.
Inner City Latte Sippers
David Ritter criticised only one group in all this: the ‘inner city latte sippers’. While never clearly defined, it seems that these people are those who want to consume ethically, but will generally just consume, who take to social media, who believe in fighting for symbolic rights, who are branded (for good or bad), who are, all-in-all, the picture of individualisation of our society. Presumably these people are wealthy, well-educated and experience the best that Australia has to offer. I am one of these ‘inner city latte sippers’, and so I feel that I have something to say in response to David Ritter’s presentation.
Links between place and person
David Ritter rightly asserted that there is a loss of connection between our youngest generation and the natural environment. He noted that we are likely to lose our tangible connection to the environment – an understanding of what birds sound like, the feel of grass under our feet. I think this experience is symptomatic not just of an increased preference for linking free time with technology, as Ritter notes, but with a shift in society’s interaction with place.
I can’t help but feel that in this new world, with its focus on individuality at the expense of community, that our personal relationship with place and possession has changed. Without a substantial tie to the community within which I live, and an understanding of what’s left of the natural environment around me, I tie my roots to my own individual space. David Ritter speaks of progress, and part of progress over civilisation has culminated in us moving from a nomadic lifestyle to pitching our own fortresses, creating a whole section of the economy to purchase, guard, fight for and mark out our individual territory. My own backyard, that small scrap of dirt that houses a vegie patch, olive trees and a jasmine bush, is my own Country. And don’t be mistaken, I will fight hard for my right to keep it. Without it, I lose a sense of my own identity. Without it, I lose my haven. This is the individual speaking out against the benefits of the commons. I’m happy to ‘chip in’, to increase taxes, but I’m not happy to give up my rights to land. And the question must be asked, with an increasing global population, and a belief in increased equality, is there room in the world for everyone to have their scrap of land? Of course not. If we want to achieve a world of global equality, what we are really talking about is not chipping in. It is sacrifice.
Common good or personal good?
This is where I think David Ritter’s compelling argument falls flat. While he fights against the cause of the individual for the needs of the group, he seems to have missed a vital point around the ongoing and ever-present need to protect one’s own assets ahead of the masses. Don’t be mistaken, the tragedy of the commons is alive and well. Hardin’s socio-ecological dilemma is where all will benefit equally from environmental gains but the costs will be borne disproportionately across society. Or, in the other direction, we all lose equally from environmental losses, but the gains borne from polluting our environment will be dispersed unevenly through our society. A question of equity remains. Fairness. Why should I sacrifice if someone else is not? This is, at its core, a symbolic issue, as much as whether Australia is a republic, whether we achieve reconciliation, or whether we have marriage equality. We don’t believe we can ever have a completely ‘fair’ society; many others far more intelligent than I have expressed doubts about a utopian ideal; but that doesn’t mean we should overlook the fundamental importance that fairness plays in our society. To move towards David Ritter’s idea of ‘progressive politics’ we must recognise this fairness, and there must be substantial sacrifice from many within society to gain it. In his own speech he criticises Wayne Swan’s comments that the Labor Party should strive to remove the working class, indicating that there is nothing wrong with a working class. I would agree that there is nothing wrong with a working class, but who would want to volunteer to be in it?
Politics as the mother of policy
There is also the question of the individual within democratic politics. It was none-too-surprising that the Greens lost ground in the last federal election – apparently this happens every time the Greens lose their position as protest party and instead have the balance of power. They are then held accountable for their decisions, and it is the choices that impact on the individual, that the voting public don’t like, that matter. The same could be said of the Labor government and the move towards neo-Liberal economics under Keating. Keating himself was a great educator, he was able to explain to people how the changing economic structure would benefit the country, he was able to explain that, yes, some industries would lose out, but that Australia, as a whole, would prosper. Australia has definitely prospered under these economic frameworks, and David Ritter was very right in pointing out that we cannot and should not overlook the extent to which Australians should be incredibly grateful for the situation we find ourselves in. But what happened after the economic shift? Interest rates rose, the individual was hit, the sacrifice didn’t seem fair, and the tide turned against Labor. This is politics. This is producing a benefit that is, for the most part, distributed across society but has negative ramifications for the individual.
The ‘worry quotient’
In my previous post I mentioned that Alannah Mactiernan, in discussing public opinion on climate change prior to the federal election, described the Australian public as having a ‘worry quotient’. We only have the capacity to worry about a finite range of issues before we are overwhelmed. We must prioritise. Kevin ’07 was able to harness Australia’s worry over environmental issues. The GFC has transferred our national worry quotient towards the economy. I think it would be a mistake to judge this transferral harshly. To my mind, in both cases, this was for the most part a question of individual access and consequences. There’s a reason that environmental activists so frequently talk about access to environmental resources being based on availability of resources to ‘your children and your children’s children’. This makes the environment relevant to the individual, a tangible asset that should be maintained. The same can be said for the value of the economy to the individual. The votes of the public could therefore be said to be based on emotional responses to asset management. In a world where it appears all decisions are economically-based, the emotional rationale for what’s best for the individual will win out in ‘Question and Answer’ time. This is politics. And it will take a revolution to over-come the power of self-interest in a democratic political environment like ours.
Advocacy as business?
David Ritter makes an impassioned plea for people to divert their interests from symbolic causes to those with tangible outcomes. In particular, he targets issues such as turning Australia into a republic, promotion of reconciliation with indigenous groups and marriage equality as issues that are, in my words and not his, superficial. He spoke of well-meaning activists in a single room, politely discussing which of their respective issues or concerns required the most attention. He compared this with, instead, the business world, which he claimed was largely based around mutually beneficial outcomes. Businesses promote deregulation, he pointed out. I think this drastically underestimates the situation for both environmental groups and members of industry. There are environmental group alliances as much as there are business alliances. In terms of energy, there are those businesses that will benefit from increased renewable energy and therefore advocate for increased regulation, government oversight of markets etc with regard to renewables. And there are fossil fuel generators who do the opposite. Under pure neoliberal ideals deregulation would go hand-in-hand with a reduction in industry subsidies – funnily enough those industries that benefit from subsidies do not (generally) advocate for their removal, and those that do not benefit from them advocate for greater equality in the market-place (even if this means shipping jobs offshore).
Businesses will think about their own interests as much as environmental organisations will. It is the individuals within these businesses and organisations that are of interest. People can simultaneously be involved in renewable energy and car manufacturing, just as they can simultaneously be involved in environmental protection and advocate for marriage equality. There is no sound reason that symbolic activities must be sacrificed at the mantel of obtaining a set of basic human needs – and if anything, many of these symbolic activities are obtaining needs such as respect and autonomy for minority groups otherwise lost in ‘what’s best for the common good’.
What about energy?
I will turn now, as I always do in these posts, to the issue of energy. And this is an issue which I believe reflects many of the problems I have with David Ritter’s argument. While David Ritter touched on climate change being our greatest environmental challenge he did not, in the main body of his argument, reflect on our use of energy. It took an audience member towards the end of the ‘Question and Answer’ time to ask him to reflect on his perceptions of energy. His answer was unsurprising, that there is a substantial body of literature available that says we are capable of obtaining 100% renewable energy within Australia, and that that is what we should aim to do. He is right of course, we could have 100% renewable energy and we should aim to get there. But to say so is entirely environment-centric. It positions renewable energy ahead of consideration of economic ramifications – who will pay? Yes, our tax system could be amended to place the burden of taxes on higher income earners who could then disproportionately bear the costs of modifying our electricity supply system, but this would be politically unpopular. If the general public finds it difficult to stomach a mild carbon tax suggesting a revolution of our energy-supply system would be tantamount to political suicide. No one is going there. And, potentially, for good reason. Yes, we could have an organisation of people to change the political environment to make this change, as David Ritter suggests, but it does not address what I believe is the core problem with energy use in Australia.
The problem with the focus of the debate on the source of our energy is that it diverts the debate away from where it really should be – our use of electricity. In the same way that the ‘recycle’ sticks in people’s minds more than the, far more important, ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’, the ‘behaviour change’ and the ‘energy efficiency’ take a back seat to the ‘source’ of our energy. Don’t get me wrong, for as long as humanly possible we will access energy sources and wherever possible these should be renewable, but the preoccupation within society for how our electricity is generated does not take advantage of many opportunities we have, today, to dramatically reduce our own reliance on energy sources and the kinds of energy sources we access.
The domestic solar industry proclaims that the massive uptake of domestic solar electricity systems is tantamount to Australia saying it supports renewable energy! I would disagree, my own surveys reveal that, for the most part, people install solar systems for primarily economic rather than environmental reasons, hence the need to provide rebates to make the decision more attractive. With the cost of systems reducing and tariffs increasing there will be an increase in demand for solar PV systems, but this is not because they are an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels, it’s because it gives people the opportunity to spend less. Or, and here is the main crux of my argument, consume more. The preoccupation in the energy debate on the source of our energy does nothing to address our own consumption of energy. Our public psyche, through advertising and public policy, has told us that purchasing a solar PV system is tantamount to us ‘chipping in’ to the renewable energy world. Let’s not mention the fact that provision of the Solar Credits Multiplier crippled large-scale renewable energy, and that small-scale solar is still high cost emissions abatement compared to large-scale renewable investment. Let’s not mention that the funding of premium feed-in tariffs (where they are paid for through electricity tariffs) and Renewable Energy Target rebates for small-scale systems is a regressive form of taxation, disproportionately affecting lower-income earners. This entire policy structure has been established to provide the voting public with a means to feel as though they are ‘chipping in’ to a worthy cause, whilst simultaneously saving them money in the long term. It does absolutely nothing to address the real problem, their level of energy consumption. And why? Because people don’t want to be told to sacrifice what we, as Australians, as people, as part of progress have worked so hard to develop.
A right to consume…
We work hard at ‘bullshit jobs’, we wake up tired, and then because of that, we deserve to feel cool in summer and warm in winter, to be lazy and have dishwashers wash our dishes and clothes dryers dry our clothes. We deserve and are in most cases expected to have clean, new clothes; to shower daily; to blow dry our hair if need be. Our fridges need to be large to contain the food we need. We talk so much about ‘energy’ as though it only relates to electricity. We all still own cars, and drive them because we want the comfort. We still go on an inordinate number of overseas vacations. We are willing to ‘chip in’ here and there – to pay more for five star efficiency appliances; to prefer a more efficient car – but there is currently not the drive, the impetus, to sacrifice. Again, it is this very sacrifice, a sacrifice that is available today, right now, that could be at the forefront of our collective actions to move towards a more just and sustainable world, but there isn’t the drive to do it.
But maybe I’m missing the point? Should we really have to sacrifice anything in order to obtain transparent governments and accountability for business? Probably not, but in and of itself neither of these things will result in the ‘needs’ outlined by Ritter. And as we approach the limits of growth resulting from both population expansion and an ever-increasing demand for consumables there really will come a point when sacrifice will be required. And are my personal sacrifices, entwined in my very being as an ‘inner city latte sipper’ – elements of ethical consumption, voluntary ‘chipping in’, active discussion of these issues – enough to enable my children to meet their own ‘needs’?
So these are my confessions. It just so happens that I don’t drink coffee. I do wake up tired every morning, though.