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Environment

Mar 18, 2010

Where is the Mao, the Lenin for climate change?

Climate change is not an easy thing to argue. Scientists can't boil it down, the rest take too much on trust. Where is the Communist Manifesto for saving the environment?

While dealing with the minutaie of British life — filling a free prescription (good) that the pharmacist said would take 45 minutes because of the absurd process of checks and counter-checks (bad)* — your correspondent browsed in the second-hand section of the excellent Bookmarks bookshop, run by the Socialist Workers Party. Among a range of purchases two stood out.

One was Mao’s pamphlet On Peasant Revolution. It was sitting on the desk beside me as I read various Crikey reports about Julian McGuaran, and his latest mad blurt about the CSIRO. Quite possibly it’s a new high/low in conspiracy theories, but it’s nothing new, really. Yet the reaction is fresh horror at the degree of irrationalism, stupidity, of McGuaran’s remarks, as if climate change should somehow sell itself as an idea autonomously.

The reaction is of a piece with much of the Green/climate change movement ‘s work, which has been, over past years, one of the most ineptly conducted campaigns, and avoidable political losses, in the last 200 years. There is no doubt that a lot of this is to do with the formidable money and power of the anti-climate change movement (sceptics is too neutral a term, denialists too prejudged).

But as the pamphlets of Bookmarks remind us — Shaw, Lenin, Mao, Emma Goldman, Stafford Cripps, John Strachey, Rosa Luxemburg, etc — progressive movements have faced far greater challenges hitherto. And the pamphlets tell us something else — the climate change movement should stop focusing on each fresh outrage by the antis, and focus on the positive campaign that it is not making.

Climate change is not an easy thing to argue. For a start, you can’t honestly say that the science is settled, because no science is ever settled. So one is faced with either advancing a great oversimplification, which then has to be walked back at times, or make the more complex argument about probabilities and the precautionary principle. Secondly, it’s a more abstract process than, say, killing whales, or some other concrete and visible thing. Thirdly, it asks people to be in a permanent state of transformation, rather than relaxing into their familiar lifeways. And that’s before you factor in the relentless propaganda of News Limited (Australia), etc.

But many of these things can be said about the challenges faced by the Left and the labour movement in the early 20th century. What was relatively concrete for workers were things like nation, empire, and race — these were immediate, visible things, rich in symbols and manifestations, of sufficient power to march millions of people into trenches to slaughter each other over a four-year period. Class as a concept (as opposed simply to wealth and poverty) was a different matter. Profit, surplus value, labour-power, exploitation — all these had to be established as an alternative account to notions of hard work, a fair day’s wage, king and country, blahblah.

How was it done? It was done by establishing a whole disciplined apparatus, with the explicit object of creating both a core of full-time cadres/organisers/propagandists who could expound the argument everywhere, anytime, a hundred different ways, at the drop of a hat. Step by step they created a wider band of people who, while not professional agitators themselves, had been so convinced by the argument — intellectually, politically, morally — that they felt some of its urgency and identified with it, so that they would talk to others about it.

Crucial to this process were four things — the training school, the pamphlet, the public meeting and political self-criticism/analysis. It’s a signal fact of the climate change movement that none of these features are really present. The Right likes to argue the Green movement is Marxism by other means. If only that were the case, some of these things might have been in place.

Instead few of them are. There are many good books on climate change — by Monbiot, Mark Lynas, David Spratt among many — but there is nothing in the style of a Communist Manifesto, the US Declaration of Independence, a Lenin, a Mao, or a Santamaria for that matter. Something that in a few thousand words sets out an argument about what is happening, about why its critics are wrong, and about what should be done.

The Green party should have produced something like this years ago. If it has, it should be printing it in the tens, hundreds of thousands. Everyone who wants to do something about climate change should just be able to take a stack of them to give to people. It should be written in clear, direct language, but without skimping on the science.

Secondly, you need people trained in the arts of argument, propaganda and recruitment. At the moment, most people actively involved in the climate change movement are simply terrible at arguing their case. Those with a scientific background don’t know how to boil it down, those without take too much on trust. Some sort of ongoing training would address both problems.

But here self-criticism would come in because the great flaw in the climate change movement has been an elitist arrogance that is, at its worst, anti-political. Some of that is due to the asocial political naivete of scientists — ‘I mean, it’s obvious, why are these people being so stupid’ — some of it is due to the technocratic spirit of the age, whereby something is seen as a mere technical problem to be fixed, and some of it is due to the fact that the abstract/systemic nature of climate change ideas are most easily accepted by people trained in abstract-systemic thinking. That is, the scientific /professional/managerial/cultural class (SPMC) who, in many ways, run the joint.

As Bernard Keane has noted here, the active anti-climate-change movement is old, white and overwhelmingly composed of people who once had unquestioned cultural authority but now don’t — the old bourgeoisie, some manufacturing workers and tradies, farmers, etc. Consciously or otherwise, they see that acceptance of climate change as a model means the transformation to a new framework in which the cultural power of the SPMC class becomes entrenched.

Trouble is, many of those advocating the reality of climate change don’t really factor in this class difference to the way they think, or the manner in which they campaign — when they campaign at all. And that is the final missing piece, the lack of public meetings and campaigning. No-one likes ‘the hours spent at the boring meeting’ (well some do, but they should be used very carefully) and leafletting in the street requires a ceaseless war against a creeping feeling of embarrassment and absurdity. But it’s got to be done. Even in post-post-modern society there’s no substitute for it.

The trouble is the SMPC class are not only digital natives, they can easily talk themselves into believing that a TweetDeck and a smokin’ thought-meme crowdsource flashmob thing can wholly substitute for grassroots face-to-face campaigning. The Greens, the FOE, the ACC, must have a potentially active membership larger than the far-Left groups such as Socialist Alternative. Yet you rarely see posters for a climate change public meeting, a table in Bourke Street Mall — and never for the Green party, which appears interested in repeating early Labour’s obsession with factionalism and parliamentarianism.

The climate change movement may well be correct in their argument that every year counts in changing global processes. But in past years that has served as an excuse for not building the slow and remorseless mass campaign, deploying all the campaigning skills and rhetoric of older progressive campaigns (much of which, in style anyway, is being used by the anti-climate-change group). It has to abandon the idea that truth somehow communicates itself. The longest march, as the man said, begins with a footstep. Or a pamphlet.

*These have nothing to do with the free nature of the drugs, which have not the slightest degree of recreational potential, and minimal possibility of overdosage. It is simply the autonomous process of British paternalism, rolled over from 1948, when the system began. The chemists still have specially printed ledgers in which every prescription filled must be hand-written.

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68 thoughts on “Where is the Mao, the Lenin for climate change?

  1. Tony Kevin

    I have to reply to Jack Jones. Jack, you think that what you call ‘armchair critics” like Rundle or myself should be out there ‘doing something”. Doing what ? Actually, running round like headless chooks isn’t nrcessarily doing anything useful for the climate crisis cause, if the policy content isn’t thought through. Your letter suggests that you may realise this yourself. There are at least five big issues on which the envirohmental movement has to work out where it stands:

    How to attract the political middle ground? How to convince them they have more to hope for than to fear from environmentalism?

    What issue to prioritise? ( the answer has to be decarbonisation)

    450 or 350 ppm CO2?

    Am emissions trading scheme with internationaslly traded credits, or a national carbon tax?

    is nuclear energy going to be allowed to be part of the decarbonisation prototype research mix, or not?

    I try to write usefully about these issues. My currency is ideas. I wrote a 300 page book on the climate crisis in 2009 – Crunch Tîme. I had an opinion oiece in the Australian Financial Review two weeks ago, and one in Crikey last week (on James Hansen’s visit to Australia). Last week also I had a book review in The Age on the Hamilton and Hansen climate crisis books. Today I had a piece in Eureka Street called ” Vote One Zero Zero against climate inaction “”. Last week, I addressed a meeting in Braidwood. I don’t want to boast, but I donlt think this amount of writing and speaking on climate issues merits thec appelation of armchair critic.

    These days, I am not a joiner. The fact is that I have not found a climate group that has a clear idea of where it is trying to go. Until I find one, l’d rather put out independent ideas for pub;ic scrutiny in the hope others may find them useful. It’s a shame we put everyone into boxes in Australia.

  2. Flower

    “allows a sceptic to say “you see, you keep on admitting that there are important facts still to be uncovered”.

    Julius – Please try to keep up. If you knew a VOC from a sock, you might have some understanding of tropospheric and ambient fossil fuel pollutants and here’s the bio for Tom Quirk whom I daresay must have been a “particle physicist” during the dinosaur era:

    “Tom Quirk has interests in venture capital, fund raising and investment management as well as business advisory work.

    “He was Chairman of Virax Holdings and the Victorian Rail Track Corporation, a Victorian State Government corporation managing the statewide third party rights and property opportunities of the railway and tram systems.

    “ He is a Director of Biota Holdings Ltd, and is also Deputy Chairman of VENCorp which is involved in the energy markets in electricity and gas. In addition, he is a director of a number of companies in areas that range from medical investment to publishing. He has interests in a number of developments in technology including a U.S. computer peripheral business.”

    ** ( He was a founding shareholder in Pangea, the internationally sponsored company for nuclear waste disposal whose shareholders thought they could dump their RA waste in Australia.)

    “Prior to 1987, he was Chief Consultant (General Manager) in the mining company, CRA and spent 1985 to 1986 seconded to work in the $70 m. venture capital fund run by James D. Wolfensohn in New York. He was on the Board of Applied Electron in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

    “Between 1981 and 1985 he worked in a new business group in CRA that initiated business development before it was passed onto other management groups within the company. During this time he helped start CRA’s involvement in Biotechnology Australia and initiated Nilcra, the high performance ceramic business. He first joined CRA in 1978, working first at Bougainville Copper in New Guinea and then at CRA headquarters.”

    ** British Pangea’s PR video, vying for an international nuclear dump in WA was obtained by Friends of the Earth in the UK and released to the Australian media in 1998 and the Australian government got caught with their pants down.

    Again, thank the Gods for FOE and WA’s environmentalists!

    Furthermore, Quirk’s “notable” Australian Climate Science Coalition associates include the duplicitous Plimer and Carter and ACSC is a spin off of the AEF and IPA.

    Come off the grass Julius. Quirk has no discernible experience in the field of climate change and hangs out with a bunch of spin merchants!

  3. Julius

    @ Flower

    What a curiously indirect and second hand inferential approach to substance. As it happens Quirk and I were both invited to speak at a dinner in honour of a nuclear physicist (gone on to great things in another area) who I had been at school with and whose work as a physicist Quirk was in a good position to talk about.

    I have, partly as a result, had plenty of opportunity to check his credentials as a mathematician, physicist and modeler and demand explanations of anything I can’t understand or don’t see the implicatons of; e.g. the Chow test results for CO2 emissions initially.

    His CV shows how much others have valued his abilities. For many years however I understand him to have returned free lance, retired from his main gainful activities, to his first love which is good science. I haven’t asked him what set him off on his interest in aspects of climate science and don’t know. But I gather he has always had a pretty good nose for humbug and the excesses of second raters. I think he knows Hansen, Barrie Pittock and quite a number of the principal “warmists” from decades back (not that I am suggesting they are second raters in case you wonder).

    So, try and deal with the substance. It is at least interesting that he has noted how slowly the C14 isotope, spread in the Northern Hemisphere by the 1963 final Soviet atmospheric nuclear test, was equalised in the Southern Hemisphere. Its implications for where the atmospheric CO2 actually comes from was quite original I believe.

  4. Julius

    @ Tony Kevin

    Are you the former diplomat of some fame or notoriety that I suspect you are? No criticism of your contributions on that ground, even implied, if I am right. Intelligent analysis by someone not hopelessly challenged by mathematics or logic or knowledge of basic science can make considerable contributions on the climate related policy questions, and maybe even the public understanding of science (which reminds me to wonder, what does Richard Dawkins have to say about AGW?).

    It is of interest however to contrast your approach with that of estimable old Treasury people like John Stone and, particularly, Des Moore, who put a lot of emphasis, I think, on the standards that they would have applied to the evidence before allowing themselves to advise a minister to spend or cause expense.

    A former Ambassador, better known as author, that still occasionally writes about foreign affairs, with particular emphasis on Asia, recently suggested that membership of the G20 was a big advance both for Australia and the world (though it took a little probe to get him to concede that Costello deserved credit as well as Rudd) and, accordinly, I would expect you to place more emphasis than the economist/Treasury/ businessman type on Australia’s possible influence on events which I admit I am disposed to regard as beyone Australia’s influence to help or hurt us or the world.

    In that context it is interesting to read Ziggy Switkowski’s very carefully worded Australian op-ed piece this morning in favour of timely action on climate change. Some omissions are curious (nothing about nuclear most obviously perhaps) and some inclusions (apparent faith in carbon capture and sequestration). I think you might agree with his unquantifiable view that Australia treating AGW seriously is a way of getting ourselves up to speed for what we will [might] eventually need to do. Quite curious. But I think I would trust Ziggy not to waste our money any more than the Treasury misers would.

  5. Flower

    You are a lucky chap to have such intimate contact with Mr Quirk, Julius. Genuflex, genuflex! Alas, Mr Quirk’s CV details are significantly diminished when it comes to his other life as a physicist. As a result, could you relay the following missive to your good friend on my behalf?:

    Yours sincerely

    Flower

  6. Flower

    Oops seems the phone line dropped out! 2nd attempt:

    You are a lucky chap to have such intimate contact with Mr Quirk, Julius. Genuflex, genuflex! Alas, Mr Quirk’s CV details are significantly diminished when it comes to his other life as a physicist. As a result, could you relay the following missive to your good friend on my behalf?:

    Yours sincerely

    Flower

  7. Frank Campbell

    C. Dunne: “The punters can be polled any second week on any subject that’s been splattered across the dailies and they’ll respond like kelp in the current. So what?”

    Amazing, isn’t it. “The punters” are “kelp”, “numbskulls”, “apathetic”…. that’s just a few of today’s crop of patronising putdowns.
    If AGW turns out to be Armageddon, who should we blame for the political failure? Blathering Bolt and his trolls, or the patronising priests of AGW who express contempt for the deluded masses

  8. Venise Alstergren

    GUY RUNDLE: What have you been smoking? All this multiple division of class-life is just not relevant any more.

    There are but two classes in Oz. The people who are prepared to use their brains and think. Or the footy lovers who don’t exercise their brains at all.

    The reading matter for both classes is everything they can get their hands on, for the first group, and The Herald Sun sports pages and the Andrew Bolt columns for the second group.

    Otherwise your article was a beat-up. Which is not like you at all.

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