Peter Hay

How daunting it is. How scientists and public actors of enlightenment and principle – journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, commentators, activists – can be immersed in the ichor of climate change politics without surrendering to futile desperation is beyond me. I can’t – the enormity of what is happening and the utter inconsequentiality of our puny collective response disarms me entirely.

So it was as I pondered the statistical nightmare relentlessly laid out by Andrew Charlton in his Quarterly Essay. And yet Charlton is able to look the looming catastrophe squarely in the face and remain optimistic. Ah, but he’s an economist, of course, and he has his ready solvent at hand – when trouble looms large, human ingenuity, prompted by market signals, goes to work and technological genius repairs all, growth spirals away, and progress, the conceptual cornerstone upon which Western civilisation rests, resumes its axiomatic trajectory onwards and upwards into eternity.

I will come back to this. But let me acknowledge the strengths of Andrew Charlton’s essay. They lodge within his frank, often brutal, description of the problem. Climate change is the central challenge of our times, and its resolution is of incalculable importance. Charlton vigorously argues that Australia’s emissions reduction target of 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020 is not a piece of gutless tokenism, but extremely ambitious, and probably unattainable. 

What nettled, though, was the reduction to cardboard cut-out cliché of so much complexity and nuance in the many and various opposing positions. It is much easier, for example, to dispose of environmentalist arguments against GM food if you simply ignore the most compelling element in the case against it – the very real danger of rogue genetic escapees contaminating other lifeforms, with uncontrollable and disastrous consequences.

Similar objections can be made to Charlton’s depiction of issues of global equity. It is disingenuous in the extreme to characterise this as a conflict between selfish First-World environmentalists careless of the legitimate needs of the world’s poor, and those seeking to emerge from poverty into prosperity. Leaving aside the observation that there is little point in developing countries increasing their consumption of energy and their material throughput if the end result is the destruction of the conditions that make human life possible – that global ecological wellbeing must logically constitute a necessary pre-condition within which the goal of the good life is to be pursued – it is simply not the case that green prescriptions ignore the interests of the 6 billion who live in poverty. The evidence that this is so abounds in the relevant literature. Here, for example, is Clive Hamilton in Requiem for a Species, urging, at page 223, “vigorous political engagement” that does not “abandon the poor and vulnerable to their fate while those who are able to buy their way out of the crisis do so for as long as they can.”

I’m looking back over the rich factual underlay upon which Charlton builds the case for his “Plan B,” his strategy for beating a path through the formidable “Kaya Identity.” Wonderfully well argued, but there’s an element missing, and without it I don’t think we can make it. It’s this: the 1 billion living on “islands of prosperity in an ocean of poverty” need to reduce significantly their own levels of material consumption, because it is not possible, even, I think, with “Plan B” new technologies, for the entire world to consume at the levels that pertain in the rich countries. Then, and only then, can we make the moral case that the path taken by us is not one that others should seek to tread, that it was a mistake from which we are now in retreat, and that there are other ways of being prosperous, and of measuring prosperity, in the learning of which we in the West will need to be cast as students. Charlton does not argue for this. Again, this is something to which I’ll briefly return.

Charlton overlooks the environmental activism that is entrenched in many developing countries, an activism that, among other things, defends traditional agricultural practices over industrial models of agriculture imported from the West via the loan policies of the IMF and the World Bank. Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy are two who have cogently argued that Western development models have destroyed local agricultural sustainability (by requiring farmers to grow cash crops for export, and by closing off rights to collect and save seed locally); that women in particular, traditionally the custodians of local agricultural practices, have been disempowered by aid programs; that capitalisation of agriculture has destroyed the social and economic fabric of local communities, fuelling destitution and a massive shift of population into the shanties of the burgeoning cities; and that the major recipients of grant and loan moneys from the West (including the relevant UN agencies) are the new and fabulously wealthy entrepreneurial classes in the major cities. Charlton looks at none of this. It falls below the broad sweep of his gaze. But, given that this is all in keeping with his one-dimensional, conventionally Western notion of “development,” he presumably approves. I do not.

But it is a good essay. Remember that as I construct my catalogue of dissent. It is a good essay. Its major flaw is that to which I alluded at the beginning of my commentary – the author’s unbridled technocratic trust. I know, so far as the discipline of economics is concerned, that such an article of faith constitutes the party line. But it is dangerous. Because faith is what it is – a Hail Mary that, cometh the hour of crisis, cometh the men and women of genius to supply the technological breakthrough that will set civilisation back on a steady keel. It is not an empirical truth, not a law of history – it is essentially a prejudice, almost religious in character. Charlton argues that it has ever been thus – that the advent of crisis has invariably seen the technological breakthrough necessary to restore equilibrium and rescue civilisation. As an antidote to such dangerous nonsense we should note that virtually all civilisation-threatening crises were technologically induced in the first place, just as the climate change crisis is today. And we should note that history is actually a litter of civilisations that have flowered and fallen precisely because they did not solve the crises with which they were beset – usually crises of resource depletion, often accompanied by shifts in ambient environmental conditions. Sound familiar? Even Western civilisation – the one predicated upon the blithe assumption of never-ending progression from a given state today to a better state tomorrow – even Western civilisation does not conform to the Charlton theory of history. The Dark Ages constituted a major rupture, for instance, from which a starting over needed, eventually, to emerge. And one of these days there will be another crisis where the magic of the technological solvent will fail.

Charlton is himself curiously inconsistent in his technocratic trust. He places his faith in new technologies rather than more efficient technological applications of known technologies, arguing that the necessary investment is more likely to cohere around the former than the latter. But this is a bifurcation that is difficult to sustain. Given the uncertainties involved in moving from technological breakthrough to economic feasibility, it seems more likely that technological investment, given appropriate government policies, will seek to discover more efficient ways to deliver existing technologies – and this includes the renewables, the targets for Charlton’s selectively applied technological pessimism. Improvements in renewable energy technologies to the point that they might begin to meet base-load power demands seems at least as feasible as the rapid development of some of the currently nowhere-in-sight technological options listed as promising by Charlton.

The cobbler, they used to say, should stick to his last. I don’t entirely agree with this – polymaths are welcome on my turf, and Charlton has a capacity for wide-ranging synthesis rarely encountered in an economist. Nevertheless, his “optimists” versus “romantics” dualism is downright silly. For a start, those environmentalists so caricatured are not romantics. Romanticism was a movement without an ecological sensibility. It was intensely individualistic. Nature was not valued for itself, but as a spiritual device – an instrument through which the refined individual sensibility could, via contemplative engagement, attain heightened enlightenment. Such a “nature study” aesthetics of the individual is not the ecologically derived sensibility of the contemporary environmentalist. The romantics were nostalgic, looking back to a golden past from which humankind had unaccountably strayed. Today’s environmentalist has almost no interest in the past, tending to regard it as a series of option-narrowing mistakes. And the romantics derived, from their intense individualism and their yearning-back, conservative political and social philosophies. Those whom Charlton would label “romantic” are at the forefront of political and social progressiveness.

Then there are the optimists, those who believe in a triumphalist vector of history, in “the power of human progress.” But an extraordinary thing has happened. Such a coalition should have included, as its very standard-bearers, the Republican Right of the US and the Australian Right within the Coalition, for these are the believers in material progress par excellence. But climate change science has driven a wedge between the optimists, such that it no longer makes any sense to deploy this label in the way Charlton does. Suddenly science is not the handmaiden of unremitting progress, but is found to point emphatically in the opposite direction. Faced with such an appalling eventuality, the fundamentalists of the unconstrained market economy have embarked upon the greatest mass demonstration of cognitive dissonance in modern times. They have chosen the sacred truths of ideology over the clear conclusions of science. It is a development that has thrown the very authority of science as an enterprise into crisis – and that in itself is a development of civilisation-threatening consequence.

The climate change crisis has created a similar legitimacy crisis for the democratic polity. It requires of people a level of technical sophistication that most do not have, thereby fostering reversions to foolish but tenaciously embraced prejudices. Despair suffuses all. Anger has become the currency of what passes for democratic exchange, and political rhetoric is ramped up to levels of provocation that democratic life can’t sustain, while neither political leaders nor the crusaders within the commentariat seem aware of the extent to which the tone and terms of political discourse – which they largely determine – are destroying democratic legitimacy. For these developments the climate change debate is largely, though not exclusively, responsible.

And I am one of the many who have fallen off the truck. I have been an ultra-democrat all my life – I still describe myself as a “strong democrat.” But the television news comes on and I leave the room. Because the public realm has become morally and intellectually threadbare. Faced with the crisis of the millennium the democratic estate shows itself to be powerless, puny, pathetic. Why did Andrew Charlton omit that necessary component from his “Plan B” – the requirement for the affluent West to opt for drastic cuts to its own level of material opulence? Here’s the answer on page 44 of his essay: “In rich countries, policies to cut emissions that come at a large cost to households simply will not succeed.” And he’s right. We will not step back from unsustainable opulence. So I despair, my prognosis for my planet hopeless. For all our sakes, let us hope that Andrew Charlton is right, and I am wrong.


Peter Hay is in the School of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania, and has advised the ALP at both state and federal levels. His books include The Forests (2007), with Matthew Newton, and Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought (2002).


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 44, Man-Made World. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 45, Us & Them.


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