Sleepers, wake!

Jan 12, 2023
World globe under construction tape on a white background.

For those of us focused on sustainability, we wonder what it would take for a progressive government to wake up and smell the evidence. In other words, how close to collapse does Australia and the world need to be before the government (including its public service) decides it should take the issue seriously?

Would you board a plane if the pilot said there was a 49% chance that the plane would crash – but that we would therefore most likely be OK? How about a 20% chance? How about a 5% chance? What is the chance that our growth-obsessed economy and society, where almost every sector is in some kind of crisis, will crash? Whatever happened to the precautionary principle? Something is fundamentally and patently wrong with policy development – and that something is our wilful ignorance of sustainability.

Briefly, climate change is just one of nine key boundaries – called planetary boundaries – that humanity must not cross to avoid collapse. Crossing even one of the nine boundaries would be foolhardy, but humanity has crossed probably five or six. This means collapse is highly likely at some point without urgent and extreme counter measures.

My view can be contrasted with Roger Beale, who wrote on this site that the Albanese government is basically on the right track when it comes to environmental-economic issues: he believes we can “decouple” economic growth from environmental harm although he offered no peer-reviewed evidence for his opinion. Here’s a counter view. Beale falls into the ‘green growth’ clan, with similarities to ecomodernists. In short, they say carry on with the same economic paradigm (neoclassical growth) but focus on ‘green’ technologies. Technology will save us. Complexity will save us. Sounds like a lot of stuff coming out of the CSIRO on ‘sustainability’. Is the CSIRO politically compromised?

Since my camp and the Beale camp will never agree, why doesn’t the government establish an independent, expert commission to study the question and advise government and society? The Blair government did this in the UK in about 2000 when it established its Sustainable Development Commission. Out of that research came Tim Jackson’s now classic Prosperity Without Growth (2009). The Conservatives dissolved the commission in 2011. Why waste money on something as tedious as preventing collapse?

The Nixon administration in the US established the Rockefeller Commission in 1969 to examine the issue of growth. Its 1972 report was called ‘Population and the American Future’. It found no or limited benefit to further growth, although Nixon did not implement the report. The Clinton administration in the US established a President’s Council on Sustainable Development in 1993 which delivered its final report in 1999. It favoured economic growth but urged urgent population stabilisation. It found more than 100 countries had similar sustainable development commissions, inspired by the Brundtland report, ‘Our Common Future’ (1987).

The Hawke Labor government established the Commission for the Future in 1985, spearheaded by science minister Barry Jones – hence my title ‘Sleeper, Wake!’ echoing Jones’ 1982 book of the same name. This commission was to look ahead for threats and opportunities, including what was then called the ‘greenhouse effect’. Such a body these days, like the Commission for the Human Future, would presumably focus on sustainability and existential risk unless politically compromised. Australia’s ‘commitment’ to the UN Sustainable Development Goals would be a starting point (funny how these goals are never in the news).

Problems establishing and running these research and advisory bodies are many, as Clive Hamilton explains in his memoir Provocateur (2022) where he relates the shortcomings of the Climate Change Authority that he was a founding member of (and we could add the Climate Commission, established in 2011, which morphed into the NGO Climate Council). Political interference seems to be the main problem. Yet we have other statutory bodies to advise government that would be difficult to disband, although stacking the boards with puppets is too tempting for some.

Even so, we must find better ways for independent experts to advise government in transparent ways, even if we reform the general public service along similar lines. Think tanks exist arguably because universities can no longer do their job under neoliberal straitjackets. Again, I highly recommend Provocateur for a first-hand account of establishing The Australia Institute to counter right-wing propaganda and compromised universities.

The galling thing is that focusing on sustainability is clearly in the national interest, meaning it is in almost everyone’s interest – except for those engaged in gross moral turpitude. That’s because sustainability is synonymous with advancing general wellbeing, rather than making sacrifices. By contrast, we all make sacrifices now for the wealthy 1%. Properly approached, I believe there would be massive support for any government who took on the challenge of advancing sustainability in a competent way. I suspect most ordinary people know that the dominant paradigm doesn’t work and is downright dangerous. But replaced with what? In short, a sustainable system, which a new commission would develop. Opposition would come from the usual suspects: most mainstream economist; much of the big end of town (the 1%); and much of the FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate).

I am reminded of a Radio National interview with Barry Jones maybe 15 years ago when he expressed his struggle with the seeming conflict between a government leading the people or a government simply delivering what the people want. But why not do both?

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