Finding Your Way to the Greens

Finding Your Way to the Greens: From Lake Pedder to green capitalism?

reviews of: Libby Lester: Giving ground: media and environmental conflict in Tasmania, Patriots: Defending Australia’s Natural Heritage 1946–2004 and The 3rd Degree: Frontline in Australia’s climate war (2008).

Finding Your Way to the Greens

From Lake Pedder to green capitalism?

 

Libby Lester: Giving ground: media and environmental conflict in Tasmania (Quintus Publishing, 9780977557233, $25.99)

William J. Lines: Patriots: Defending Australia’s Natural Heritage 1946–2004 (University of Queensland Press, 9780702235542, $34.95)

Murray Hogarth: The 3rd Degree: Frontline in Australia’s climate war (Pluto Press Australia, 9780980292411, $17.95)

 

The rule of the neoliberals during the mid to late 1990s had a profound impact on the psyche of Australia, as well as on its day-to-day politics. It shunted the green movement into new political terrain: space that some in the movement had been seeking since ‘professionalisation’ became dominant in the late 1980s.

John Howard’s vision has now been replaced by Rudd’s nicer, milder neoliberalism. The environment – specifically climate change – was one of the issues that got Labor over the electoral line. For environmentalists, the political landscape has shifted considerably. We prevail on a number of fronts, such as nuclear power and renewable energy, but uranium mining, forests, coal, water and federal government powers on the environment remain contested. Policy-wise, Labor is far superior than the Coalition, and green groups will once again be treated with some level of respect. There will be sweeteners: we will probably see a new look ‘peak council’, renewed access to ministers and advisers and possibly even funding, as was the case before 1996. Most significantly, we can expect an end to the ideological war waged against green groups (and Left-leaning groups in general), a hallmark of the last years of the Howard government.

With three books to review in limited space I won’t be able to “penetrate (to) how a book has been constructed” (the method Tim Flannery advocates for reviewers in An Explorer’s Notebook). Instead I will consider some of the changes to the environmental movement’s landscape in recent years, using these texts to inform and explain them.

Libby Lester’s Giving Ground: media and environmental conflict in Tasmania was based on a PhD. Given the central role that the Tasmanian green movement has played in broader Australian environmental politics (and its recent displacement from this position), it is a timely and useful book. Lester tracks the creation of the movement from the Lake Pedder campaign of the early 1970s, the formation and subsequent ascendancy first of the Wilderness Society and then the Green Party, and the interaction of these institutions with the media. Noting that symbols are the ‘weapon of choice’ for the movement, she traces how they have been used – and how, in later years, government and industry have sought to co-opt (or ‘re-channelise’) the imagery of tall forests and wild rivers.

On a philosophical level, she examines the origins of the notion of ‘wilderness’ and its centrality in the modern environment movement. Yet it’s symptomatic of the green politics dominant in Tasmania that she does so without discussing whether ‘wilderness’ actually makes sense in Australia, given its long habitation by Indigenous people.

At one level, this is understandable. I have visited Tasmania and fallen in love with the wildness of the place – that is, the absence of civilization’s obvious footprints. Such perceptions have influenced the dominant green world view in Tasmania: strong on biodiversity but not always drawing the links to broader issues of social justice and equity.

Williams Lines’ presents the approach most explicitly, with his claim that the main defenders of nature have been ‘patriots’, in the sense that they see Australia’s fauna, flora and landforms as intertwined with their identity as Australians. They feel the loss of species and landscapes personally, which is why they’re willing to put their bodies on the line through environmental activism. He argues that much of the movement lost its way as ‘Leftist ideologies’ merged with conservationism, and pulled it away from its founding (and as he sees it, ‘correct’) influences. He cites the Franklin campaign as symptomatic of environmentalists’ errors, with campaigners becoming obsessed with “abstractions” (such as human rights and romantic views of Aboriginal people as ‘ noble savages’) rather than the simple need to defend the land.

Line’s take on the failure of the movement – and his claim that we should be guided primarily by loyalty to Australia – is perhaps the clearest recent expressions of the view dominant amongst many of the leaders of the key Tasmanian green groups: the Wilderness Society, the Greens Party and Tasmanian Conservation Trust. I should, perhaps, disclose the axe I have to grind (Lines is hostile to groups like Friends of the Earth, who make the link between environment and human rights).

Yet there is a broader point here. The Wilderness Society, in particular, has expected the rest of the movement to support its demand that old growth forests, and especially Tasmanian forests, be made dominant in federal election campaigns since at least the late 1980s. This hegemony has eroded over the last two federal elections, with the connected issues of water stress, inland rivers and climate change coming to the fore for the first time in 2007 in a shift with profound significance for the biodiversity-focussed environmentalism epitomised by most peak Tasmanian groups.

To the extent that Lester’s discussion reflects this kind of world view, with ‘wild nature’ as the crucial concern, the ‘liquid papering’ out of Indigenous people starts to make sense.

The 3rd Degree by Murray Hogarth covers very different terrain, in an examination of the current state of climate related politics in Australia. He sees a tipping point (September 11, 2006) when we, as a community, started to finally respond with sufficient seriousness to the problems of global warming.

I found this book deeply annoying, from its, ‘I met someone important and they told me this’ storytelling approach to its naive ‘let’s move beyond ideology and do what is required’ analysis. Hogarth, unsurprisingly, offers a benevolent green capitalism as a solution, with the markets driving innovation and delivering us from global warming. Ostensibly, the book focuses on what we can do to avoid a 3 degrees Celsius overall warming and what will happen if we don’t. It is full of one dimensional analysis and platitudes, like his decision not to spend any time on “blaming” greenhouse culprits: revenge he says, is “not my thing”. Instead, he argues for the need to concentrate on solutions and to move forward together. Given the role of corporations in driving global warming, this is like talking about the threat of bushfires – but not wanting to chase the arsonists lighting them.

There is nothing particularly new about the book: it is just the ‘business will save the planet’ analysis (sometimes also called ‘natural capitalism’) popular a half decade ago, updated to include climate change. Hogarth is right to say that the climate change issue has moved beyond environmentalists, something that many within the movement have been working towards for years. But corporate friendly (and corporate-aligned) forms of environmentalism have a deep and nasty undertone which Hogarth completely ignores. He talks in neutral terms about nuclear power as a solution for global warming, and the political space for a conservative party that could focus on issues like ‘border control’, given the many environmental refugees that will be seeking refuge in coming years. To raise – and then skirt around – such loaded issues is a form of intellectual and moral cowardice.

Hogarth burns up a lot of space talking about the wonders of markets, particularly in respect to emissions trading. Though he says we need a cap – a limit on how many greenhouse gases we should emit – before we can trade, he is incredibly optimistic about the ability of the market to deliver results once we place a price on carbon. He is especially fond of the company Easy Being Green, which started operations in Victoria and then moved to NSW to take advantage of the carbon trading market in that state – only to crash badly as the market collapsed.

That anecdote shows the dangers on relying on the market to deliver environmental outcomes. I have often been amazed at the lack of analysis in some parts of the movement of the pitfalls of market-based initiatives and the emphasis on engaging with corporates: often for very little tangible outcome and sometimes at a real cost to other forms of environmental campaigning.

Hogarth argues that the green movement is “terrified” of actually succeeding. Here the argument is reminiscent of first environment minister in the Howard government, Robert Hill, with his claim, “We are all environmentalists now”. Yet, while Hogarth talks about the failures of the movement and its overreaching idealism, he discusses companies in such glowing terms that it is hard to believe he really comes from what he calls the “raw and aggressive” world of journalism. BP is his favourite model of sustainability, yet nowhere does he even discuss any of the widely available critiques of it: the world’s third largest oil and gas company, and one of the largest global polluters. In recent years it has been involved in the controversial Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, amongst many other clearly unsustainable projects.

Hogarth’s assumption that we need to place a price on carbon in order to drive innovation into low carbon futures makes sense, but unless we foreground social considerations, such schemes will lead to more people suffering, with low income families not able to pay power bills, coal workers thrown on the unemployment scrapheap and so on.

One of the most annoying claims in the book is that global warming is not primarily an environmental or economic issue but a personal one, ultimately about whether we want to create a sustainable future for ourselves. In actuality, human rights and social justice are central to the argument, since some parts of the human population have been driving global warming for generations, while others – the majority – are suffering from it, despite having contributed very little to the carbon currently in the atmosphere. Missing this pivotal point makes is easy to envisage a benevolent and sustainable capitalism.

While Hogarth does mention the need for good policy to make it easier for consumers to act sustainably – such as, for instance, laws on deposits on beverage containers – he is silent about industry’s almost total commitment to voluntary measures. Where, for example, are the companies demanding legislated levels of minimum behaviour around extended producer responsibility? The voluntary ‘opt in’ approach is loved by business – it is exactly the self-regulation for which many industrial sectors have been arguing. In the past, environmentalists were opposed to this; now, many cheer it on.

I assume the book’s intended audience is in the business sector: presumably, the people who will adopt the mantle of saving the planet, helped along by us consumers doing our bit by driving the opinion polls to force the government over its own ‘tipping point’. Forgive me for my unreconstructed ways, but that sounds as convincing as the suggestion that a new conservative political party could take on the task of “future proofing Australia” against climate change – another Hogarth prescription.

The political terrain is shifting profoundly as our society begins to grapple with the realities of climate change. Such shifts offers immense opportunities for new movements and alliances. But in forging these, we must not lose sight of the enormous ecological, economic and human rights imperatives. If we believe what climate science is telling us, we must move beyond business-as- usual in the shortest time humanly possible, which means defining a new role for corporations, rather than expecting them to lead the way.

A few years ago there was a tee-shirt doing the rounds with the message that “green is the new black”. If this is true, then climate change is clearly the new green. When looking for a solution to the onslaught of climate change, we should remember that not everyone looks good in that colour and, with growing numbers of companies pulling on the green shirt, we need to be more wary than ever about their intentions and ability to bring about meaningful change.

 

 

Cam Walker is campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth in Melbourne.

 

 

Published in Overland Journal, January 2008

 

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