Leaping Toward a Different Future

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Leaping Toward a Different Future

Richard Hil

Over the past 40 years Social Alternativeshas played a key role in promoting critical scholarship, informed commentary and debate in Australia. It has done so through a variety of mediums such as scholarly articles, commentaries, poetry, cartoons and book reviews. Some of Australia’s leading progressive thinkers have contributed to the journal. I commend all those past and present participants – editors, writers, artists and others – who have helped advance the reputation of Social Alternatives as one of Australia’s leading progressive publications.

Here I’d like to focus on the two words that have for so long been emblazoned across the journal’s cover – ‘social’ and 'alternatives’. Tellingly, the founders of the journal did not call it Economic or Political Alternatives. Social Alternatives has remained true to the view that the 'social’ should not be subsumed under the ‘economic’, especially in the current era when everything is bottom – lined or reduced to a fiscal metric. The ‘social’ signifies a much broader appreciation of the world in which we live, embracing as it does all the other influences that impact on ecologies and everyday life.

Central to this conception is an appreciation of our complex interrelationship with each other, planet Earth and all the species and ecosystems that inhabit it. At its core, the social, especially when considered in light of the grave threat that is anthropogenic climate change, embraces a profoundly spiritual dimension that enfolds beliefs and practices common to Australia’s First Nations people. 

The Wreckage of Disconnection

My argument - and it’s hardly novel – is that if we are to address and overcome the intersecting crises that confront us - social, economic, political, nuclear, climate - then we need a profoundly different sense of human consciousness - a quantum shift in collective consciousness - that recognises our complex interconnections with the planet and each other, and our innate tendency to altruism and the social. This characterisation runs counter to the rampant individualism and competitiveness advocated by followers of neoliberalism.

As noted by human rights lawyer Payam Achaean in his 2017 Massey Lectures, In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey, ‘… we are not incorrigibly selfish and aggressive creatures … there’s a duality to human nature, and … the purpose of civilization is to unlock the potential that exists within us’. Our interdependence and sense of ‘oneness’ rather than othering, says Achaean, is not a new age extravagance but rather a ‘hard and painful reality’ when considered in the context of the existential threats that face us.

Essentially, Achaean is suggesting an urgent and comprehensive rethinking of who we are and the steps necessary for creating a better world. The overarching 'crises of disconnection’, as Tim Hollo of the Green Institutecalls them – disconnection from ourselves, each other, and the planet – are of course deeply enmeshed in questions of power, interest and privilege, as well as the values and beliefs that underpin the current neoliberal order. 

Without a significant shift in consciousness, and a leap toward a profoundly different way of doing things, we are facing a calamitous future in which extinction is a distinct possibility- an eventuality evidenced throughout the Earth’s history, as noted in Josephine Wilson’s latest work, Extinctions. What all this suggests is the need for engagement with generative, empowering social and political movements that ultimately can relieve us of the destructive structures of neoliberal capitalism. 

The shift to alternatives is already underway and is manifested in new, localised, collaborative, cooperative, sharing and sustainable initiatives as well as in more inclusive and engaged forms of socio-political relationships that offer the prospect of real democratic participation (as articulated in ‘new democracy’ discourses). But, as George Monbiot argues in Out of the Wreckage, such alternatives need to be predicated on a story about us, or as Clive Hamilton has postulated in Defiant Earth, on what it means to be human in a complex interconnected world. What we’re talking about here is a rupture with the recent past, a past rooted in rapid industrial development, patriarchy, class warfare, colonisation and environmental destruction. It’s also a departure from some of the values associated with the Enlightenment.

‘Man’ Over Nature

It was during this period of intellectual and political ferment, spanning the late 1600s to the early nineteenth century, that thinkers like Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith and others set forth the case for reason and religious tolerance. They did so in part to counter the excesses of theocratic rule which resulted in incalculable cruelties being inflicted upon tens of millions of people, especially women. For the proponents of the Enlightenment it was the rigours of scientific method, underpinned by rationalist assumptions about the world that would give rise to accumulated bodies of human knowledge deemed necessary for the good life.

And it was science-based truths rather than superstition or blind religious faith that would guide the human spirit. Knowledge production was celebrated in itself and found expression in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedia– a treasure trove of human accomplishment that owed its existence more to faith in reason that any deity.

Not that religious faith was abandoned in favour of scientific method. Rather, the elevation of science as the arbiter of certain truths was, for many, a celebration of the universal order established by God. At the heart of both the Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian belief was the assumption than through the accomplishments of science and reason ‘man’ could master the world by taking control of its resources for the betterment of human kind.

From this perspective the Earth, endowed with endless riches and elemental powers, was regarded as a resource to be harnessed for human satisfaction and sustenance. Aesthetics and ecological concerns played second fiddle to the voracious demands of industrial development which utilised all that science could offer in the quest for ‘progress’.

When, toward the end of the eighteenth century, the early settlers arrived in Australia and began logging old forests and trammelling over Indigenous lands, as noted in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, there was, generally speaking, little regard for conservation or a deep spiritual connection with the land. A profound sense of the unfamiliar coupled with harsh and inhospitable environments – made worse by destructive farming practices – led many settlers to lament their fate as they desperately sought to eke out a living. This instrumental approach to the environment – more than occasionally tempered by romantic imagery – has resonated down the centuries, leading to widespread land degradation and environmental destruction.

The persistence of the ‘man-over-nature’ paradigm is remarkable despite growing acknowledgement of Indigenous knowledges and critiques by environmentalists and others which, in a variety of ways, have blown apart many of its essential assumptions. Nonetheless, in addressing a gathering of Tasmanian loggers in May 2014, former Australian Prime Minster Tony Abbott congratulated his then Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, ‘who appreciates that the environment is meant for man and not just the other way around’.

This was preceded by remarks that appeared to laud ‘the forest’, not simply as ‘a place of beauty, but [as] a source of resources; of the ultimate renewable resource, of the ultimate biodegradable resource’. Abbott added that, ‘we will never build a strong economy by trashing our environment, but we will never help our environment by trashing the economy either’. Conspicuous by its absence in this part of the speech was any mention of the logging of old growth forest and the fact that activists had spent decades trying to prevent such destruction to ‘the forest’.

Abbott’s views were in many senses a celebration of the past, of an enduring connection with settlers whose supposed love of the environment was tempered by the practical realities of economy. Abbott’s speech was an attempt to re-centre loggers in a much bigger story about land, conquest, tradition and economy.

It’s a story that continues to resonate in the industrial practices of today’s extractive, farming and building industries which have contributed so greatly to the material wealth of this nation but also to the depletion and degradation of the environment. There is little or no sense here of the critical importance of ‘the forest’ in all its enduring complexity and wonder, and its essential role in preserving life on Earth.

Blessed Unrest

Despite the Abbotts of this world, things are changing, and changing rapidly. Growing public awareness of the harm caused by fossil fuel extractivism has, for example, led to a spike in clean energy investment and (to some extent) the ‘greening’ of many industrial sectors. Solar and wind farms, and various forms of energy democracy are evidence of a partial shift in the mindset of governments, private companies, and local communities. Yet while there is indeed a strong desire for change, a ‘blessed unrest’ and even a ‘great awakening’, it’s clearly not proceeding quickly enough given that we are witnessing even greater levels of CO2 emissions and the allied despoilment of our environment.

Multinational corporations seem hell-bent on profit maximisation at any cost, even if this means taking us to the very brink of environmental catastrophe. Despite this, there is a real sense of change, some of which is reflected in public polls and surveys indicating growing public disillusionment with mainstream political parties, and with democracy itself. 

While this has resulted in a shift to the political right in some countries, a phenomenon which I believe will be temporary once the bankruptcy of divisive politics is exposed, the more enduring spirit of change rests in those social movements that are seeking fundamental system change, not just a tinkering with the status quo. Recently, a host of books have appeared that give expression to this zeitgeist: from Rutgers Bregman’s Utopia for Realistsand Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough, to Post-capitalismby Paul Mason, Doughnut Economicsby Kate Raworth, and Drawdownby Paul Hawken. Many of the radical alternatives spelt out in these texts have been echoed in one of the most important manifestos of recent times: The Leap Manifesto(which is reprinted at the end of Naomi Klein’s book).

Leap!

The manifesto derives from discussions involving NGOs, activist groups, academics and others. And although written largely for a Canadian audience, Leapis applicable worldwide. It sets out the urgency of the crises before us, and the values, ideas and policies that will inform rapid progressive change. Leap has attracted considerable global interest, some of it hostile – libertarians view it as a dangerous intrusion into the free market – while others regard it as the catalyst for informed hope. So, what comprises the key elements of this manifesto? Here are a few pointers:

• Respect the rights of the original caretakers of the land, and ensure compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Indigenous People

• End fossil fuel extraction and subsidies

• Promote localised energy democracy

• Promote a universal energy building program

• Build high speed rail

• Advance local and ecologically-based agricultural systems

• End all destructive trade deals

• Ensure immigration status

• Welcome refugees

• Ensure full protection for all workers

• Expand low carbon jobs – caregiving, teaching, social work, the arts, public interest media

• Introduce a universal basic annual income

• Introduce a financial transaction tax

• Increase the taxes on corporations and the wealthy

• Introduce a carbon tax

• Cut military spending

• Take corporate money out of political campaigns

These are just some of the suggestions for a progressive policy framework. There are other proposals too, like free health and education, more investment in social programs, a public banking system, affordable housing, the empowerment of women, and measures to confront what George Monbiot refers to as the ‘loneliness epidemic’. Yet questions remain, like what sort of state apparatus do we want or need? Do we need a military? How do we curb arms proliferation? These issues have yet to be worked out, along with the tactics and strategies necessary for promoting rapid change.

As one of the founders of the Leap Manifesto, Naomi Klein asserts it is not enough to simply say what we’re against. We have to be able to articulate some sense of what a post-neoliberal world might look like. We can’t just hit and hope. Above all, we need a movement that is capable of telling a persuasive story about a better future, as well as the practicalities of how to make this happen. 

As activist academic Aidan Ricketts reminds us, this transformation should not be about blueprints or rigid programs, or a simple privileging of one ideology over another. Nor should it suggest the need for more demagogues, self-appointed leaders and proselytisers – we’ve had our fill of those! The transformation to a more just, peaceful and sustainable future will be part incremental, part revolutionary and part obsolescence and displacement. It won’t be easy, and it will at points mean confrontation with power at its most violent and ugly.

But there’s one thing upon which we can all agree: neoliberal capitalism is well past its sell-by date. Let’s hasten its demise.

First published in volume 37 of Social Alternatives

Ngara InstituteComment