PETER SAINSBURY. The election confirms my environmental pessimism

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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3 Responses to PETER SAINSBURY. The election confirms my environmental pessimism

  1. Nigel Drake says:

    Well, Peter, capitalism is failing us, religions have exploited us and the powerful augment their control.
    Nothing new to see here.
    Humanity feeding upon itself.

  2. John Doyle says:

    Climate change is a slogan, but one not capable of resolution. There are no plans about what to do because we have left it too late for a meaningful plan to function. The world economy is still wedded to fossil fuels. And IMF says we are growing at 3.5% p.a. Therefore in twenty years our economy will be 2x bigger. Renewables are about 4% of th market today. In 20 years we will need double, just to mark time. Read the Wiki entry; “The Cubic Mile Of Oil” Also prof Alf. Bartlett on the exponential function. We have no idea what is the exponential function. A 550 year coal mine the coal industry forecast comes down to only abt. 50 years to exhaustion.

  3. Ian Webster says:

    Peter, you are not a pessimist but a realist.

    I am sure many of us feel the same way.

    There may be some hope in re-visiting the idea of ‘communitarianism’. It would certainly help with many of our social and health problems and, at least, tune-in communities to their local environments. But it seems humanity is competitive and not so generous to those ‘others’ – their status, their deserts, their beliefs and values and their threats to us – to build supportive and connected communities. This is where real leadership will be found.

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