On Monday, Waleed Aly had a superb opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald which sadly went largely unnoticed. In the piece he argued persuasively that the biggest long-term impacts of major economic crises are the changes to the socio-political terrain that they tend to trigger.
The prime example, of course, is the dramatic shift towards fascism and other forms of xenophobic politics triggered by the Great Depression, not only in Europe but across the globe.
Aly’s great fear is that the current economic crisis could well lead to a new xenophobic politics. This is a fear which rang a deep chord within me, as one whose political views were shaped significantly by a Holocaust survivor grandfather.
Aly sees people uniting at times of insecurity against a common enemy. His fearful view is that this enemy must be a fabricated scape-goat in the form of Jews, Muslims or other minority communities. Aly points to the fact that, as in the 1920s, there is already a strong undercurrent of the politics of hate rising around the world, across Europe, Asia and the Americas.
But there is another political undercurrent that has been rising now for some years which could foreshadow a hopeful future rather than a fearful one.
As part of the rise of Green politics across the globe, the last two years have seen an extraordinary momentum building in the grassroots movement to tackle climate change, inspired by Stern, Gore, Katrina and thousands of dedicated activists around the globe. This movement has been growing increasingly strident and appalled as the tipping points in our climate draw ever nearer and political action seems as far away as ever. Many of us have been pinning our hopes on the view that political tipping points can be reached as suddenly as climatic ones.
But will our hopes now be dashed? Will there be a new climate change scepticism that gathers to it the hate and fear that arises in times of economic uncertainty?
Already one of the big questions people have been asking in the last fortnight is what we should do about the fact that the economic crisis has tipped climate change off the front page and, thus, onto the political backburner.
The optimist in me wonders if this is the wrong question to be asking. Perhaps this is the moment we have been waiting for. The rise of fascism also saw the brave leadership of many who were willing to do whatever it took for a better future – from Churchill’s vow to fight them on the beaches, to the nameless thousands who fought in underground, to Oskar Schindler and the many other “righteous gentiles” whose efforts saved thousands of Jews from the death camps.
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If we act now with wisdom and care, if we show sensible, inspiring leadership at a time of great socio-political unrest, perhaps we can overcome those who seek to use the moment to spread fear and hatred. Perhaps we can help make this a political tipping point that sends us into a cooperative, positive, green world order.
Tim Hollo is a Canberra-based environmental writer currently employed as advisor to Greens Senator Christine Milne and blogging at Crikey’s own Rooted.