PETER SAINSBURY. The election confirms my environmental pessimism

May 20, 2019

Saturday’s election result suggests four questions to me:

  1. What does the result tell us about democracy in Australia? I mean no implied criticism of any individual or group or of any part of our democratic process. It is a genuine question to which I hope to see some empirically based answers in time.
  2. What are the likely consequences of three more years of a Morrison Coalition government for the state of the Australian environment, principally but not only regarding greenhouse gas emissions and land and marine biodiversity?
  3. What should be the environmental movement’s priorities over the next three years?
  4. What does the result of the election tell us about humanity’s capacity to avoid an environmental, and consequently also human, catastrophe? I will focus on this question here.

Anyone who has attended any of my talks or read any of my writings on the threats to the natural environment globally, climate change in particular, will be aware that I am very pessimistic about humanity’s capacity to avoid a true disaster, potentially culminating in the extinction of the human race. I have no doubt that humans possess the ingenuity, the technology, the financial resources and even the desire to avoid a disaster. My pessimism is based on what seems to me like clear evidence that, despite the ingenuity, technology, finances and desire, we lack two components essential for a transition to an environmentally sustainable, equitable, democratic global society. And unless we can generate a global society with those three characteristics I am convinced that the environmental and human catastrophe to which I have referred is inevitable.

First, we lack an economic system that can generate and sustain such a global society. In a nutshell, capitalism has created the social and economic conditions that have generated the many threats to which the natural environment is now exposed. Is it likely that capitalism, the cause of today’s environmental problems, can now provide their solutions. I believe not. Capitalism cannot exist without compound economic growth and it is doubtful that economic growth can be sustained without ever increasing production and consumption, the fundamental causes of the environmental problems. So, people say to me, what’s your solution – socialism? Well, possibly, but fundamentally I don’t have a solution. Hence my pessimism. A Labor victory on Saturday would not have changed any fundamental part of today’s capitalist system but the result does confirm for me that when push comes to shove in a capitalist society the privileged work hard to protect their privilege and society’s most disenchanted vote for anyone who promises to change the political status quo, and capitalism survives.

Second, we (within nations, including Australia of course, but more importantly among the world’s 200 or so nations) lack institutional structures and processes for good collective decision making, the sort of decision making that might create and maintain an environmentally sustainable, equitable, democratic global society. This is not to suggest that we should walk away from the principle of democracy (accepting that not all nations currently practise democracy) but rather we need better ways of practising democracy domestically and inter-nationally to create such a society. The outcome of Saturday’s election demonstrates to me that in Australia we certainly do not have collective decision-making processes that can move us along that road, and we have no prospect of producing them within the timeframe required to avoid the oncoming environmental catastrophe. Additionally, I see no evidence that the rest of global society has such processes.

After Saturday, my pessimism remains intact.

Peter Sainsbury wishes to reassure readers that pessimism is not the same as depression or fatalism or hopelessness or withdrawal from the fray.

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