Monday, September 19, 2011

Climate change, social change

Walking through Footscray, I passed a poster that advertised for “an activists conference” under the title Climate change, Social change. I am old enough to remember when the standard radical left critique of environmentalism was that it was bourgeois sentimentality that diverted folk from the true revolutionary struggle. But then folk worked out the great revolutionary advantage of trees and animals over the proletariat: they don’t answer back, they do not suffer “embourgeoisment”, they do not vote the “wrong way”.

It turns out that workers—and queers, blacks, women, etc—do not want to overthrow Western capitalism, they wish to be get better access to its goodies (plus not be treated like crap anymore, thanks). This makes them rather unsatisfactory vehicles for radical social change.

Not so beasts, plants, land- and seascapes. As any action that affects them can be deemed noxious, so Western capitalism can be declared to be radically illegitimate to a far greater extent that any championing of marginalised humans. The very thing that makes Western capitalism so attractive to people—its productiveness and freedom—is the very thing that makes it profoundly illegitimate in “deep green” terms. Western capitalism’s greatest strength is turned into its profound and irredeemable “original sin”.

Hence environmentalism has become a prominent response to the failure of socialism. The collapse of traditional religious belief is, as Michael Lind notes, also a factor:
The religious vacuum to the left of center in the U.S. and Britain, where liberal Protestantism has undergone a similar collapse, has been filled with three new creeds. The first is radical environmentalism, which is best understood as a kind of nature-worshipping pantheism.
A recent post by Skepticlawyer on the resurgence of “paganism” suggests that there may be considerable room for environmentalism-as-religious-impulse. It has already become the de facto “religion” of public (and much elite private) schooling.

Part of the reason why the poster caught my eye is that last week I went to a talk on the economics and politics of the Gillard Government’s proposed Carbon Tax. It is clear enough that the tax will have no measurable effect on the climate, since what Australia does is completely irrelevant: we are simply not big enough in economic and environmental impacts to matter. The claim that we will provide an “example to the world” is arrogant nonsense: various successful Australian policies have notably not been adopted by other countries. This is despite Australia avoiding both the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession. Again, we simply do not matter enough, even without considering the fact that the US and EU both have much bigger concerns at present, which is making climate change increasingly politically unimportant.

Both of these considerations lead to the conclusion that Australia’s response to climate change should be adaptation, not mitigation. Meanwhile, the Carbon Tax itself is unpopular and contributing to the diabolically low poll standing of the PM and the Government. Which raises the question: why go there?

The answer “to keep her coalition partners The Greens happy” hardly seems a satisfactory answer on its own. Which is where the presentation last Wednesday was so helpful. (It was Chatham House Rule, so nothing will be attributed.) For the carbon tax is much more than a tax: it is a vast and complex package which goes far beyond its redistributive compensation. Though that clearly has policy appeal in its own right.

What it represents, as was put to us, is a profound reversal of the basis of Australia’s considerable public policy achievements of the last 30 years. If there was one principle underlying that it was: allowing Australia to use comparative advantage more effectively.

The Carbon Tax and associated policies represents a thorough reversal of that principle. Which is the genius of the thing: for it thereby creates a plethora of “green” interests which are absolutely reliant on state action. This is a major exercise in social change, in institutional reconstruction. (There was a lot more detail, but that is the core thesis.) The activists at that conference advertised in the aforementioned poster have got their slogan spot on.

So, the question becomes, will it work? I am sceptical, and on two grounds. First, operating against comparative advantage like that will depress economic activity. A policy whose abolition opens up extra resources for politicians to offer is not a stable policy regime unless it provides other compensations to a stable electoral majority, such as the risk suppression provided by the “Deakinite Settlement” (pdf) of White Australia, Wage Arbitration, Trade Protection, State Paternalism, Imperial Benevolence. Achieving such a stable set of benefits seems unlikely. Particularly given that the problem with environmental benefits is, even if they are real, animals and plants do not vote: which is why environmental amenity has been increasing—that is where environmental management (or its lack) does affect people.

On the contrary, it seems much more likely that those adversely affected by the proposed policy principle will tend to form an electoral majority.

Secondly, I am sceptical how much environmentalist politics can “slip into” non-monotheist spirituality. The fundamental problem is children: the logic of "deep Green" environmentalism is against them. Yet a key way for burgeoning religions and quasi-religions to spread is via families. If having children is antipathetic to voting Green (as it currently strongly is), then there is a clear natural limit to the potential “Green” vote: Labor Senator John Black summarises the in-depth polling data:
… if a woman has two children or three children or more, they simply don't vote Green. They tend to have less disposable income and they tend to vote Labor, until they're in their 40s and then sort of drift off to the Coalition, which is sort of a pattern that's been going on since about 1900, so that's pretty much written in stone.
But if they have no kids, their support for the Greens remains strong right up until their 60s. If they have one, their support for the Greens doesn't start until their late 30s, but if they've had two they're lost to the Greens. So the Greens are a party of the inner city, of the professionals, of the higher incomes, and that's all a function of basically no kids. If you have kids, as a female professional you don't get the job opportunities, you don't get promoted, that's the cruel fact of life.
Unless the Greens can overcome their parent-vote deficit, they are doomed to third Party status.

All of which suggests that the Carbon Tax is not likely to transform Australian public policy in the intended way: but the ambition to do so does much to explain its appeal.


  1. I have just posted this link into the comments on the thread about this legislation on the Joanne Nova climate blog and on the relevant thread on Watts Up With That.

    This analysis has shown the real reason behind the legislation and your conclusions are substantiated by the fact that they are only allowing 6 days for the public to comment on it. Democracy in action ... NOT!