Save Us From Our Timid Selves


One of my favourite trade union banners reads simply "ETU Says No".

It was first waved in 1998 during the battle against power privatisation in NSW but has been a regular fixture at rallies since. From WorkChoices to the war in Iraq; from guest workers to globalisation, the Electrical Trade Union regularly says "no".

And they are not alone – many of us on the progressive side of politics regularly find ourselves defending our principles in this way. We have become the voice against change, standing against what sometimes seems like a wave of history sweeping us to the right. This tide of change has been called many things: "neo-conservatism", "American triumphalism" and "free market fundamentalism"; but whatever you call it, it has fundamentally reorientated the idea of political activism, casting it as the "new conservatism".

And now at a point in time when the challenge of climate change is redefining the political discourse in profound ways, we are invited yet again to say "no" – no to global warming, no to rising oceans, no to business as usual, and – some of us add to the chorus – no to coal, no to cars, no to western consumerism.

Two recent books explore this phenomenon from different angles, Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism and Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s Break Through, which is an extension of their controversial essay The Death of Environmentalism. Taken alone, each book makes valid points about the nature of politics in the modern world. Together, they make a cogent statement about the fundamental changes we need to make if we are to adapt to the challenges that lie ahead.

For Reich the target is the false, even delusional, conceptions we have of the motives of big business that drive us into battles we can never win. For the authors of Break Through, it is a simple misreading of human nature and the factors that will motivate us to make a paradigm shift as we adapt to the challenges of a carbon-constrained world.

Reich, the diminutive former Clinton Labour secretary, has long been an important advocate for free trade. His Work of Nations was a compassionate call for national governments to embrace the profound changes of globalisation and coach their economies to successfully compete on the new stage.

Twenty years on and Reich argues that capitalism has fundamentally changed. A new super-hybrid he calls "supercapitalism" has emerged, which delivers fantastic deals for individuals in their capacity as consumers and investors, but lousy deals in their capacity as citizens.

In their efforts to deliver the cheapest products and highest returns, corporations are in a frenzied state of constant war with each other. The winners are those who can drive down labour costs and remove regulatory barriers to sustain double digit growth figures.

Reich’s observations are stark, but it is his interpretation that is profound: that companies that pursue this course are not evil, or self-interested, they are merely doing what they have been established to do. He exposes corporate social responsibility as fundamentally compromised and political campaigns against corporate amorality as dishonest.

When it comes down to it, Reich argues, we are confronted with a trade-off that forces us to be honest with ourselves. Do we want the cheapest prices and highest returns on our investments? Or do we require something more as citizens? If we do, we need to be honest about this and make collective decisions to regulate business, rather than simply ask business to act contrary to the interests of their shareholders.

This argument comes into stark relief around the issue of climate change. As citizens we demand immediate action; as consumers and shareholders business (rightly) tells us that we have much to lose – higher energy prices, lower profits for companies in affected industries. Industry speaks out in defence of us as consumers and investors – arguing that we need exemptions, compensation, special treatment.

But as citizens who recognise that the ongoing enjoyment of the planet is at stake, we say there are things of more importance than low prices and high share returns. And, on this occasion, we demand that government resolve the argument in favour of us as citizens, who prioritise living and breathing over consuming.

And so the Rudd Government – backed by polling showing popular support for decisive action but spooked by business demanding stasis – begins the subtle process of intervening in the marketplace; placing a price on carbon through an Emissions Trading Scheme designed to promote renewable energy sources and cap carbon pollution.

The success of these measures will be determined by the preparedness of the Government to stare down the business arguments that the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action. Are they ready to argue that environmental Armageddon is too high a price to pay?

This is where the authors of Break Through, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, a dynamic duo of career environmentalists-turned-heretics, come into play. They argue that the proposed market interventions of cap and trade schemes are not just inadequate, but counterproductive if we are ever to adapt and meet the challenges of global warming.

Taking as a starting point Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they make the basic point that a Doomsday narrative designed to scare the bejesus out of people will not lead to the required action. Instead, insecure people turn inwards, focussing on their own needs rather than the broader good. And by basing the Doomsday scenario around the idea of carbon "pollution", environmentalists risk setting themselves an insurmountable task. They attempt to "clean up" when what is required is a more radical rethink of energy and consumption.

As the current technocratic, incremental debate over the Garnaut Review unfolds, it strikes me that what is missing is the possibility of real change. The debate is locked in the confines of how tough it will be; which industries will lose; who should be exempted from this pain.

Break Through‘s alternative agenda for climate change is a positive paradigm shift that sees climate change as an economic challenge that creates as many opportunities as threats. In this model of economic change there may be losers, but there will be far more winners – particularly for those who are first to grasp, innovate and develop the new energy models.

Instead of linking response to less activity or job-strangling mitigations, they call for new action in abatement initiatives to address the impact of the changes already occurring – building storm walls, rethinking water flows and preparing for the demographic shifts that will be required as the earth warms. Alongside adaptation, they advocate bold, nation-building investments in renewables – a Marshall Plan investment that grasps the historical opportunities presented by the times. Here we are not talking about incremental steps but multi-billion dollar investments in renewable technologies – driving markets that do not even exist and creating new jobs not even imagined.

For example, where is the Government initiative to make Australia a world leader in a new emerging energy source such as solar or geo-thermal, backed by a massive research and development commitment? Or a more humble Australian Government initiative to insulate every house, which would deliver massive savings in energy efficiency and create thousands of solid blue collar jobs?

This is how Nordhaus and Shellenberger frame the question: what, they ask, is the difference between Martin Luther King’s "I have a Dream" speech and the other speech that could have been given – "I have a Nightmare". Which of these approaches better unlocked the hearts, the minds and the consciences of people to fundamentally change they way they viewed the world? When Tony Blair warned DAVOS of imminent devastation in 2003, he never talked of the opportunities – and a moment for leadership passed.

One can quibble with the findings of both books – maybe Reich is too soft on the corporates, maybe the Break Through authors are failing to take on coal the way that climate warriors should, but that’s not really the point. Both books challenge us to take up positive agendas – to stop looking for enemies within the political process to fight but rather, to lift our heads above the parapet and look at what the world can become.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.