In recent years the profoundly troubling political and economic dimensions of climate change have encouraged a number of politicians and their leaders to describe climate change as the ‘defining problem of the age’. When expert minds believe climate change outweighs concerns about warfare, global financial crises and human inequality as ‘defining problems’, we can be sure something bad is happening.
Climate change exposes many issues for all life on Earth. Human society cannot continue wreaking havoc on a planet we share with other life forms. Economic growth, over-consumption and over-population will deliver us to very uncomfortable futures. We are still effectively in serious denial about the destructive effects of human behavior. In this essay I argue that the political and economic aspects of climate change are the most difficult to deal with.
Problems of the order of complexity of climate change have been referred to as ‘wicked problems’. The Australian policy analyst Eric Knight has written that ‘climate change has quickly become the quintessential wicked problem of politics today’. But really, climate change is the quintessential problem of the age. Climate change resulting in ecological decline affects everything to the extent of being potentially overwhelming.
Since the late 1970s policy analysts have been aware that social problems may not have simple solutions. It is not sensible, for example, to suppose that the social and economic injustices women and migrant groups experience can be solved by legislation alone; cultural change needs to occur along with legislation for higher wages and structural changes affecting the numbers of women or migrants employed in all sectors of the economy. Similarly climate change affects everything and needs to be tackled jointly by all disciplines and all professions. Strangely, perhaps, this is unlikely in a highly professionalised economy.
The increasing professionalization of all political and economic cultures does not now function as a source of reassurance for one important cultural reason. Because politicians and economists are committed to paradigms of growth there is little chance that they will articulate negative messages about changing the direction of our futures. Broader cultural processes support this ‘professional optimism’. In particular, because denial and fantasy have become industrial in popular culture, there is small appetite for consideration of the downsizing of society and culture that will be required if we are to find sustainable pathways. This media driven complacency is also fuelled by the very widespread belief that change and innovation can guarantee endlessly sustainable growth of economies and standards of living. In that respect the advocates of new technology provide the reassurances of good old-fashioned religion. It is still important, we are all encouraged, to believe and have faith – in new technology and innovation, in political leadership, in economic growth, and in the power of human optimism.
Arguably however, the time has come for more honest appraisals of our collective futures. None of the articles of faith and belief currently in mass circulation is having much affect in halting the ecological decline we confront. So where to from here?
Any viable contemporary analysis needs to go far further than merely cataloguing ecological decline and economic malaise. For a start we need to go beyond old and new left political and cultural analysis. Just as surely the conservative side of politics and cultural analysis also needs to be rethought - for it too is very determined about the natural rights of the human species. Any theoretical approach that presupposes the natural right of humanity to dominate and exploit a planetary ecosystem to the point of near collapse needs to be replaced by approaches that can revalue non-human interests.
Heard it all before? Hopefully so, and hopefully the truth of such sentiments has not evaporated after decades of ideological shuffling, avoidance and denial. The problem always was that even radical ideas from green social movements and the more institutional left did not provide plausible or acceptable solutions to the consequences of unrestricted growth. The time for change was not right; the collective pain was not sufficient. Will the time ever be right? Can solutions that involve limits to growth ever be acceptable to mass audiences? It’s almost a heresy!
The Big Picture
Given the commitment of every business, every contemporary government, and most individual consumers to endless economic growth there are good reasons to worry about our ecological futures. This is not a new observation, but if we combine that idea with the fact of remorseless growth of human populations and global pollution it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that humanity is set to experience very interesting times ahead. It is worth noting that global climate change may well only be a contemporary symptom of global ecological imbalances. Loss of habitat for other species has already delivered a catastrophic blow to life on Earth; the continued degradation of ecosystems only compounds a great decline that has already occurred. That is the tip of an iceberg of bad news.
Unfortunately the obvious solutions are widely unacceptable. Any combination of suggestions that continued growth of economies, populations and human caused pollution are unsustainable has already encountered major resistance from all those with a direct financial interest in the converse situation of endless growth. The early failure of the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972) to sustain popular interest in predictions of imminent human decline (for whatever reasons) provides ample proof that unless disaster actually occurs, most institutions, organisations and individuals will avoid radical ideas, no matter how compelling. The salient fact appears to be that even if small numbers are willing to change lifestyles and embrace ideas about sustainability the rest of humanity has become an all-consuming juggernaut.
Living in parallel universes
We might easily assume that being in denial about climate change is an intended consequence of watching television news. How often do we experience a devastating announcement about climate change (such as ‘last February had more hot days in a row than any other February on record’) that is seamlessly surrounded by competing news about growing economies (such as the great economic benefits of a housing boom) or banal information about sporting heroes or media celebrities. It would seem one of the central mechanisms of being ‘in denial’ (about climate change, about ecological decline) is cultivation of parallel universes and multiple realities in the media.
As media increasingly merge the roles of being both informer and entertainer, their potential to distort and manipulate information rises. For example, it is routine in mass media that if something scary is announced there will always be plenty of more comfortable options immediately available to divert attention and absorb emotional energy. However, the effects of presenting climate change in this manner - as merely one news item among an infinity of other possibilities - amounts to the relativisation of an ongoing global catastrophe which has the real potential of guaranteeing major human suffering.
Everybody needs to know, and accept, that ‘human made’ climate change is real, present, and deserving of major focus. It is critically important to wonder why, if this is the case, so many professional commentators have allowed the necessary urgency required (nationally and internationally) to be dissipated and distracted by other considerations.
Many authors have dealt with the problems of global pollution, climate change, ecological decline, consumerism, and war, but none so far have adequately connected these problems to the assumption that economic growth and technological innovation will continue to provide a good quality of life for ever increasing numbers of people.
There is a good reason for that. Most contemporary authors who raise broad, ecologically contexted analyses – such as Al Gore, Niall Ferguson, Jarred Diamond, Jorgen Randers, Thomas Homer Dixon, and to some extent even Clive Hamilton - are, for professional reasons, committed optimists. All experts are professionalised (to varying extents) and that means that they depend upon peer groups, supervising hierarchies, clients, and audiences for their publications. All of these social networks tend to be optimistic.
If you are a politician, or are politically ambitious, it is important to be able to hope for a better future, or a good quality of future life. Thus Al Gore is confident there is a path that can be chosen that will lead to ‘the future’ rather than to catastrophe. Leadership from the United States, the championing of democracy, technological innovation and a ‘global mind’ may be, as he says in The Future, vitally important, but these goals are more articles of faith than objective truths that will necessarily last for another century.
Al Gore, the ecological activist, may be a rare political figure - and only conceivable in the context of a society with a religious commitment to optimism, but Australian politics has had its own ecological optimist. Bob Brown, arguably the most successful Australian ecological politician, is an incurable optimist – as he declares in his recent book Optimism. Bob Brown, like Al Gore, is charismatic and it is likely that without him Australian Green parties would never have become the significant electoral players they now are. Nobody could deny that Bob Brown was an honest and passionate leader at a time when politicians were becoming increasingly unpopular with voters.
But Bob Brown, like his party successors, has also benefitted from the developed political ideologies of the broad left in Australia. Not that it is impossible to hold strong views about social injustice without left wing thinking – surely not – but some swinging voters have given political allegiance to Green parties on the basis of a perceived connection (sometimes even ‘identity’) with broad, and old, left ideologies. This has been a mixed blessing. Many Green parties became more factionalised than they might otherwise have been and the arrival of ‘hard left warriors’ in Green parties took infighting to new heights. Even if one accepts these internal dynamics as routinely political, the ideological entanglement of ‘old left’ and ‘deep green’ politics has not been productive.
The main reason why Green political parties will always struggle to be convincing about either achieving ecological sustainability, or persuading individuals to think and behave more ecologically is the necessary attachment to economic growth required in modern politics. When hard left warriors push outmoded social and economic theories that require either centralised bureaucracies or social revolution the argument changes from how wealth is produced to who controls that wealth. That return to theories about class warfare and the evils of capitalism guarantees that most voters see their proponents as unelectable extremists. Within Green party processes they and their political colleagues become gridlocked in secretive committee processes and bitter infighting.
The unavoidable fact in modern democratic politics is that all political establishments, including parties in parliamentary opposition, are currently forced to support growth economies in their pursuit of electoral popularity. It will require a much more concerted effort to develop new ideas about economic and ecological sustainability to change that. And even when Green parties become ideological extensions of left wing politics – as we so visibly see in NSW – their focus on broad left agendas comes at a cost to time available to pursue ‘bread and butter’ ecological issues. Saving forests and habitats and opposing the ecologically destructive processes of coal seam gas extraction, coal mining and industrial pollution are central in the thinking of most Australian Green party supporters. Because Green parties are generally forced to cover all issues raised in parliaments they necessarily struggle to adequately represent their non-human constituents. Fortunately they can depend on a broader coalition of activist groups to do the heavy lifting.
For most economists the idea of ecologically sustainable economics is ‘way out there’ and currently perceived as pessimistic in the extreme. The idea of economic growth in excess of 2% per annum being necessary is a very entrenched assumption, yet unless technological advance and productive innovations prevail well into the future, it is unlikely that developed economies will be able to keep growing as before. This is a very hard possibility for professionals in any field to take on board – and understandable because our collective wellbeing is very much a product of economic success (currently defined as ‘growth’). Niall Ferguson (in, for example, Civilization and The Great Degeneration) and at home Ross Gittens (in his feature articles in The Sydney Morning Herald), obviously struggle with the idea of endless economic growth (and ‘neoclassical’ economic orthodoxy generally), but never really stay too long with discussions about sustainability.
Probably the main reason for the unwillingness of experts to venture too far from economic orthodoxies is population growth. This ‘elephant in the room’ is still a taboo subject. Related ideas about the carrying capacity of the land and security of water and food supply are submerged in popular culture by rhetoric about globalisation and economic growth. As many have argued over recent decades, global human population growth is the deepest problem we confront.
Arguably the phenomenon that will most subvert ‘the future’ is ecological decline – assuming, of course, we do not experience nuclear warfare. Along the dimension of ecological decline Jarred Diamond’s book Collapse is one of the most important recent book length analyses. He describes historical examples (Easter Island, the Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, native American Chaco society, Classic lowland Maya, and Viking Greenland) and concludes that any society’s responses to environmental problems ‘always prove significant’. Notwithstanding environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, or friendly trade partners, the way a society manages its ecologies is, in his view, the most important factor. This is a message that remains timely.
All very well, but how does that work politically and economically? A book like Diamond’s does not adequately tackle deeper issues that go to the substance of political practice, economic modelling based on growth, and professionalism that hopes too much. Further, any contemporary analysis that sidesteps the global issues of human caused climate change and over-population cannot provide an effective analysis or adequate long-term solutions for global ecological decline.
We have clearly entered an era of ecological overshoot. Most prominently human activities have elevated atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. By February 2016 atmospheric CO2 had reached record levels of 404 parts per million (figures from the observatory at Mauna Loa). Already temperatures are higher - on average, between 1 and 4 degrees C. This figure depends on where you are on Earth and the length of the average you are considering - weekly, monthly, annually, and so on. Amanda McKenzie, Australia’s Climate Council CEO, says global average temperatures could be four to six degrees warmer by the end of the century ‘if nothing is done’.
There are obvious technological measures that can lower our ‘carbon footprint’: increased sustainable energy production and decreased levels of industrial pollution are possible right now. Ecologically sustainable practices in all spheres of production and consumption are conceivably ‘just around the corner’. Sustainable economic practices will take longer for various reasons, known and unknown. One less known reason is the failure of interdisciplinary analysis to take hold in professional cultures.
The importance of interdisciplinary analysis
It is remarkable that after so much ecological angst over so many recent decades the absolute necessity to tackle ecological analysis from a very broad intellectual platform has not translated into much more than Green political parties, the occasional new specialism in tertiary settings and optimistic books by professional forecasters. That kind of interdisciplinary work is important but without the combined intellectual weight of research performed by natural scientists and specialised researchers in any discipline, the bigger picture will not emerge - the remorseless drive towards narrow specialisation is still the dominant intellectual process in all tertiary institutions and research establishments. This criticism applies generally across the sciences and the social sciences and humanities.
Nonetheless the specialised researches of natural scientists are absolutely essential; there is an unending need for facts and reliable information. There is no time to debate or worry too much about the contemporary intellectual dominance of the natural sciences. What we should worry about is the desperate need for all the sciences to become part of broader analyses of climate change and ecological decline - and not remain a substitute for, or obstacle to interdisciplinary analysis and research.
There are obvious reasons for a state of intellectual affairs that has remained resolutely specialised. For a start, the enormous effort required among mainly natural scientists to produce the IPCC’s reports speaks volumes about the great difficulty in achieving consensus about issues that cross scientific disciplinary boundaries – such as the rate of global warming, or rates of decline in ecologies and natural systems (eg. oceans and atmospheres). The gaps between the natural sciences and other disciplines that have an equal stake in ecological analysis – such as economics, politics and sociology – are as deep as ever. After all, there are established and legitimate differences between different forms of intellectual enquiry. This is not disputed by a majority of researchers and intellectuals; what is not adequately appreciated is the need to find new methodologies and formats to bring disparate ideas into a broader ‘ecological’ context. The quality of our futures actually depends on that kind of cooperative endeavour.
This state of affairs is perhaps most exploited by politicians – including Green party politicians – who find themselves making judgements about the relative merits of short term economic returns versus habitat preservation or longer term cultural investments in education and scientific research.
That kind of decision-making may be an unavoidable consequence of parliamentary democracy anywhere; the ability of scientists in government to actually call in question the validity of consensus reached by an overwhelming majority climate scientists is quite a different matter. Australian politicians, particularly conservative ‘liberals’, appear to be consistent offenders; calls for parliamentary committees to hear ‘a balanced view’ of scientific evidence about climate change is an obvious attempt to interfere with evidence that is ‘already in’. That goes to the heart of modern western politics: politicians should depend upon expert committees, not vice versa.
However, and just as pertinently, so long as scientific specialists are the main providers of ecological analyses, scientific voices can easily be deflected by political parties, select committees, and individual politicians. All those political actors have short-term horizons and (often) dubious ecological concerns. In the final analysis current parliamentary practice depends on the ability of specialists to be contained by parliamentary processes. That may prove to be disastrous. Somehow a greater sense of urgency about declining global habitats has to become mainstream in popular culture.
For any such greater concern to translate into effective action economic policy makers need to embrace some form of sustainable economics. While twentieth century economics rule there will be endless economic (and therefore political) rationales for not biting the bullet on climate change - ensuring it remains as a less worthy priority. In effect, the dominant attitude will remain that as long as economic growth continues, the state of this planet, which happens to be our home, can go to hell. The evidence is in front of us: we are witnessing the breaking of records with respect to fire, flood, drought, cyclonic activity, melting icecaps and air and water temperatures. In Australia ever increasing allegiance to a dysfunctional economic growth model has led to the sacrificing of precious farm land and water quality for the shareholders of coal mining companies from India and China. How can this not be madness!
Tom Jagtenberg is the author of Beyond the Limits: A Planet in Crisis. Sydney: Cilento Publishing, December 2015.