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Feb 22, 2011

Hamilton: a new brand of environmental radicalism

While environmentalism has had some very substantial successes, all of the gains are now jeopardised. No one ever achieved radical social change by being respectable.

Never has an effective environment movement been more necessary. In fact it is the only force standing between us and massive climate disruption. While environmentalism has had some very substantial successes, all of the gains are now jeopardised.

The difficulty and importance of the global warming campaign is many times greater than every other struggle. Eliminating carbon pollution requires a wholesale industrial restructuring and defeat of the most powerful industry coalition ever assembled. The ruthlessness of big carbon is known to all those who have watched the “greenhouse mafia” at work. Its influence is apparent in the draconian laws against climate protests passed in Victoria, urged by Martin Ferguson and under consideration in other states.

When I think about the state of environmentalism in Australia I keep coming back to the events of May 3,  2009, because what happened on that day encapsulates the impotence of the environment movement in this country.

The Rudd government’s emissions trading policy — the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme — had been coming under heavy attack from everyone concerned about climate change both for its feeble targets and the obscene giveaways to the worst polluters. But the government sensed that the environment movement could be split.

After a high-pressure meeting in Canberra, in which the government dangled the carrot of a 25% cut in Australia’s emissions, the Southern Cross Climate Coalition — comprising the ACF, WWF, the Climate Institute, ACOSS, and ACTU — agreed to support the government’s scheme.

How could major environment groups back a scheme that was so compromised and inadequate to the task — a scheme that handed out billions of dollars to coal-fired power plants, endorsed a strong future for the coal industry, allowed offshore compliance and would deliver, according to Treasury, no reductions in Australia’s emissions until 2035? All this was agreed by the ACF, WWF and the Climate Institute in exchange for a hypothetical 25% cut in emissions that Blind Freddy could see was never going to be delivered.

I think there are three reasons that explain how these groups could support such a travesty.

First, like most Australians some environmentalists find it hard to accept what the climate scientists are really saying. They do not believe, in their hearts, that things could be as bad as the science indicates. Like all of us, they are prone to filter the science to rob it of its sting, to engage in wishful thinking, and to cling to false hopes.

The second reason is the spread of incrementalism. The tension between radicalism and gradualism has defined progressive politics for two centuries, but the victory of free-market ideology in the 1980s saw political radicalism pushed to the very fringes. As the main parties converged on neoliberalism, many NGOs abandoned their interest in a different type of society and came to believe that incremental change to the existing system was the only path.

The third reason for the failure of mainstream environmentalism lies in the professionalisation of environmental activism over the past two decades. Within the main political parties professionalisation has seen a sharp decline in party membership and the rise of a “political class” of career politicians, staffers, spin doctors and apparatchiks. Mass parties have gone and patronage has replaced ideological difference.

Some environmental NGOs have conformed to this new landscape. The “political class” have become the new targets of their activities. To get to them NGOs have felt the need to employ all of the techniques of lobbying and media management that industry groups have perfected. So they become dominated by people with lobbying and media skills, and the conservative political outlook that goes with it.

In other words, they become insiders, remote from their members (or like the Climate Institute with no members at all yet treated as part of the environment movement) and whose attention is focused overwhelmingly on powerful political players and journalists. And as they become more distant from their members they pay more and more attention to their big donors, rarely known for their radicalism.

As insiders they are subject to all of the pressures and inducements the powerful can mobilise. They can have access to ministers, be consulted, and see their opinions reported in the press. In short, they can become “players”. It’s intoxicating.

These three forces — the penchant for wishful thinking, political incrementalism and the professionalisation of NGOs — came together to enable ACF, WWF and the Climate Institute to endorse a policy that, as a response to the gargantuan threat of global warming, was a mockery. Yet the government could now say “major environment groups back our plan”.

In contrast to the capitulation of those groups, it is important to point out that Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and several smaller groups did not succumb to the pressures and could see with clarity that the deal was hopelessly compromised.

Because of the failure of the big groups — either because (such as ACF) they have become conservative, or because the old campaigning methods have run out of steam — new, grassroots organisations have sprung up in recent times. For example, Climate Action Groups, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and Rising Tide are trying to reinvent activism, and more power to them.

***

It is perhaps no surprise that the most obviously political segment of the environment movement, the Australian Greens, should have been most implacably opposed to the milksop responses to the climate crisis put forward by the main parties.

The Greens’ genuine radicalism — based on a willingness to confront the full facts of climate science and a deep understanding of how power works in this country — separates them from the incrementalism and opportunism that dominates segments of the environment movement. That is why the Greens rejected the CPRS as an utterly inadequate response. The barrage of attacks on the Greens for that decision reflects outrage at the party’s refusal to go along with the power structure, to play the game whose rules are set by the established order.

The most committed defenders of the established order are also those who most fear the Greens — the “greenhouse mafia”, the right-wing ideologists of the Liberal Party, and their apologists in the media. The editorial offices of The Australian are a hot spot of Greens’ hatred, but we should at least thank editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell for declaring so candidly that his paper wants to see the Greens “destroyed”.

In general, conservatives understand environmentalism better than most environmentalists. They see it as a profound threat to the structure of the world they are committed to — the world of free-market capitalism, limited government, unlimited consumption, and the subordination of nature.

Against this, much of the environment movement has no real political understanding of the world. They mistake the superficial argy-bargy dished up by the daily news media for political analysis, and do not truly comprehend the forces they are ranged against. They see environmentalism as merely wiping away the blemishes on the prevailing system, rather than challenging it. And until environmentalism fully grasps its historic mission, it will continue to be found wanting in its greatest test.

So we urgently need a new environmental radicalism; one built firmly on a full confrontation with climate science and its meaning; one that understands the need to defeat big carbon rather than seek a detente with it; one that resists pressure to conform to the prevailing political structure.

We need a new environmental radicalism made up of those willing to put their bodies on the line; because no one ever achieved radical social change by being respectable.

This is an extract of a speech delivered at the Sustainable Living Festival as part of the debate Environmentalism is Failing.

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53 thoughts on “Hamilton: a new brand of environmental radicalism

  1. dragonista

    In the interests of transparency, perhaps Dr Hamilton should have revealed that he used to be Chairman of the Climate Institute?

  2. Mark Duffett

    …much of the environment movement has no real political understanding of the world. They mistake the superficial argy-bargy dished up by the daily news media for political analysis, and do not truly comprehend the forces they are ranged against. They see environmentalism as merely wiping away the blemishes on the prevailing system, rather than challenging it.

    That cuts both ways, though. If many environmentalists truly, fully understood the implications of what they profess to advocate – “a profound threat to the structure of…the world of free-market capitalism, limited government, unlimited consumption, and the subordination of nature” – they might very well cease to be environmentalists.

  3. D. John Hunwick

    Once again Clive Hamilton has clarified the very heart of the problem. Our present way of life is unsustainable. Having been brought up in it it is extremely difficult to throw it off. To do that requires (for me at least) a group of others similarly disposed to confront, with the science, all those people and structures that are in the way. I would do it for my children and grandchildren and the protection of the biodiversity that enthralls me. Now that I am a declared environmental radical what do I do – stand in front of a coal train? I woud be far more motivated if I could communiate with others who felt th same as I do and not get hung up with all the sceptics that only want to delay any action.

  4. Tony Kevin

    First rate analysis from Clive. My own experience, of looking vainly for any intellectual feedback at all since 2009 to my book ”Crunch Time”‘ , supports Clive’s clear-eyed conclusions about the self-referentialism and limited political vision what we quaintly call ‘the environmental movement’. He is right about the Greens too: they understand the ruthless politics of climate change as no one else does .

    Having said this, the Greens are going to have to compromise this year with Combet’s cautious policy incrementalism, if we are at last to get a carbon price system started in Australia. But at least Bob Brown and Christine Milne go into this tough negotiation with their eyes open.

    If anyone wants to confront with an unflinching clear eye what we face in this country if our profligate carbon-burning and coal-exporting ways continue unabated, try reading Chapter 11 of ”Crunch Time’ – the final chapter, entitled “Southern Australia 2060: drowning cities in a parched land”. With only a small degree of poetic licence, I visualise here a plausible future that awaits our grandchildren born today – if they are lucky.

  5. wilful

    All Hamilton has done here is profess his love of radicalism. He’s provided no evidence that it’s more effective, just that he likes it.

  6. Scott

    I don’t think the world is ready for deep ecology, Clive. We are too anthropocentric. So when you preach your nihlistic manderings, you give up the centre, and hence, the ability to actually achieve change. Stay with the ecological modernisation and you might get somewhere.

  7. Captain Planet

    Thank you for an insightful article, Clive. The world needs radicals like you at the moment. If nothing else, as I said to the Socialist Alliance at the last Federal Election, the truly radical environmental and political activists make the Greens and other, more mainstream organisations, look less radical and thereofore more palatable to the general populace. If you want to look skinny, hang around with fat people 🙂

    Seriously though, I realise this was a speech and so it is strong on the rhetoric, but a few qualifying statements would not go astray.

    An effective environmental movement, “is the only force standing between us and massive climate disruption”. All you had to do is insert “almost certainly” or “on the basis of the best evidence available” and this would be a reasonable statement instead of coming across as a rabid, staring fundamentalist. The fact that I happen to agree with you, doesn’t excuse you from the need to stick to statements of fact or carefully qualified opinions.

    Likewise, “the difficulty and importance of the global warming campaign is many times greater than every other struggle”. I don’t know about that. The struggles to eliminate poverty and war have proven to be somewhat difficult over the last few thousand years, and I personally believe they rival global warming in importance. That is not to say that global warming is not important, and I realise that both poverty and war will become more widespread in a warming world: but there is a clear cut mechanism for eliminating global warming, the same can’t be said of poverty and war. So, your statement is exaggerated and gives the strong impression (whether true or otherwise) that your personal mission has blinded you to the scope and severity of the multitudinous other problems facing humankind.

    Another problem facing humanity, which I frankly think far more difficult and far more important than the global warming campaign, is overpopulation. At the end of the day, the overpopulation problem is a precondition for the global warming problem, and in the long run I know which I believe is going to prove more intractable, and more devastating. We can generate electricity in different ways and restructure the world’s economy. We’ve undertaken similar political, engineering and logistical challenges before and succeeded. Try messing with the reproductive instinct of 7 billion people and see how far you get. When we solve the global warming problem (and we will, and your article is a valuable contribution to the mobilisation necessary to do so) we will be left with the next symptom to arise out of the underlying malaise of overpopulation. So, I can’t agree that the global warming problem somehow outranks all others.

  8. Ern Malleys cat

    Interesting points, but at the risk of sounding like Frank Campbell, I’m surprised the article didn’t mention any aspect of environment/alism but climate.
    This is obviously Clive’s special area of interest, but to not even acknowledge some of the other damage/challenges to our environment seems weird if he’s trying to rally the movement as a whole.

  9. D. John Hunwick

    Hi Scott, I remember reading “it is better to half right on time than to have the whole truth too late” MY concern is that NOW is the time – to delay will only make it worse. Do I have to bite my tongue and go with the incremental flow knowing full well (from an ecological poin of view) that nature as I know it will be lost to my grandchildren? How can a radical at least get a fair hearing when the messge is NOT what anyone wants to know?

  10. Captain Planet

    Clive has given a thoughtfull analysis of the underlying causes of the present ineffectiveness of the environmental movement at tackling climate change. The fact that the environmental movement is up against the most powerful, and motivated, collective of vested interests ever assembled, is contributing fairly strongly to that ineffectiveness, too.

    Clive’s comments calling for the reinvention of activism in a newer and more radical form may have a role to play, but I would urge caution. As Clive correctly pointed out, Greenpeace and the Greens never swerved in their dedication to achieving the outcomes that are necessary to tackle the climate change problem. Calls for a newer and more radical form of environmentalism than Greenpeace, are something I view with trepidation. If you get much more radical and interventionist than Greenpeace, you risk marginalising the entire movement, alienating the bulk of the populace from your cause and damaging the chances of success. The Greens, on the other hand, are an excellent example of an effective paradigm for successful change: It is easier to change the system from within.

    En Masse, people become engaged in, and support, radical movements for change when they perceive a clear and present threat to their personal wellbeing, or that of their close family. Witness the present movements in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere. The other things which are necessary, to galvanise large amounts of people to engage constructively in movements for radical change, is a widespread, realistic and shared vision for change, combined with a reasonable expectation of popular support, and a good chance of success. So far, the vision is widespread and realistic: It is not yet shared. There is very little perception of popular support for radical environmental activism, largely because people cannot yet perceive the clear and present threat.

    This is why I would advocate that clear and reasonable argument, persistent and engaged but less than radical, activism, is more likely to succeed than the radical brand Clive is calling for.

    We need the warm regard and willing support of the bulk of the populace, most of whom, by definition, have much more mainstream views than radical environmental activists.

    Clive says “no one ever achieved radical social change by being respectable”.

    Having attended several anti logging protests, I can tell you that the protesters who choose to look as outrageous and unorthodox as they possibly can, with huge dreadlocks, tattoos, piercings, and all the attendant counterculture paraphernalia, are as counterproductive to the cause as anything could possibly be. It reinforces the pre existing prejudice in many mainstream minds, that the “save the forests” movement consists of dirty feral dole bludgers.

    I would suggest that many movements for radical social change have been led and achieved by the most respectable means. I would point to Mohandas Ghandi as a fine example: A trained lawyer who advocated peace, non violence, and respect, all through his life, Ghandi achieved more far – reaching change in his lifetime than perhaps any other individual, ever.

    The movements in several of South America’s failed economies, whereby workers who have been made redundant from a collapsed business simply return to work the next day and run the factory as a socialist collective, are respectable in the extreme. These people aren’t burning the factory down, lynching the boss or trying to restructure the industrial system in their country: They’re just going to work and doing business. But the change they are achieving is profound.

    I would suggest we stand to gain more by persisting with a less than “radical” course of activism than that which Clive advocates. A Carbon Tax is just around the corner, thanks to the tireless and respectable efforts of the Greens, who are slowly but surely gaining the support of the mainstream. Remember, in movements for popular change, unless the majority support you, you won’t succeed.

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