Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Climate change and the new global morality

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

In early 2004, Tony Abbott delivered a couple of remarkable papers – “The Moral Case for the Howard Government” and “The Ethical Responsibilities of a Christian Politician” – in an attempt to regain the moral ground seemingly lost by the Australian Government.

As he saw it, two potentially devastating trends were at work within the electorate. The first was the fickle but inevitable sense that the time had come for a change of Government. But it was the second trend that Abbott regarded as even more foreboding. There was a strong popular perception that the Government had lost its moral credibility due to the controversial “Work for the Dole” program, its intractably hard-line against asylum-seekers and, of course, the calamitous decision to join the American-led invasion of Iraq. Despite the fact that each of the Government’s positions palpably demonstrated a moral courage of its own, Abbott recognized that the “resentment of the moral guardians whose orthodoxies have been debunked and whose values have been usurped poses as big a threat to its re-election as the ‘it’s time’ factor.”

Time has vindicated Abbott’s analysis. For although the Howard Government won comfortably in 2004 – due more to a visceral suspicion of Mark Latham than any bump in Howard’s moral stocks – the 2007 election saw it caught in a perfect electoral storm. Boredom disconnected the Coalition from the electorate, effectively muting any further policy initiatives or repackaging of their message, while WorkChoices and the refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol left the Government stranded in a kind of moral no man’s land without any recourse to some higher agenda or greater moral cause. (In the final days of the campaign, Howard was left with the pathetically empty assertion: “Like me or loathe me, people know what I stand for.”)

But what we have witnessed over this election year is not simply the predicable demise of an increasingly sclerotic Government which had fallen out of step with the modern sensibilities and values of the electorate. Instead, the Howard Government was a casualty of one of the more pronounced trends in global politics today: the simultaneous banalization of domestic politics and globalization of public morality. To put it simply, as the role of national governments is dwarfed by the enormity of trans-national economic flows and the unfolding environmental crisis, and as people’s habits are more and more enmeshed in the libidinal matrix of consumerism, any immediate sense of morality or common purpose becomes de-localised and cast onto the global stage.

The core imperatives of this global morality are obvious, having been championed in the popular media and taken root in the zeitgeist through such slogans as “Fair trade not free trade” and “Green is the new Black,” and through the “Make Poverty History” campaign. These imperatives are: to mitigate the ravages of free market capitalism on the disadvantaged by means of domestic (grouped under the umbrella term, “welfare-state”) and international (fair trade, debt relief and foreign aid) measures, and to arrest the devastating effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gases on our lived environment through the restriction of carbon and methane emissions, sustainable growth and clean energy alternatives.

Needless to say, the Howard Government’s WorkChoices legislation and failure to repent of its “sins of emission” by signing up to the Kyoto Protocol were unforgivable in view of these imperatives. By contrast, Kevin Rudd shrewdly aligned himself with the prevailing moral sentiment by revamping his social democratic façade, all the while pledging his allegiance to strong economic growth:

“Neo-liberals speak of the self-regarding values of security, liberty and prosperity. To these, social democrats would add other-regarding values of equity, solidarity and sustainability. For social democrats, these additional values are seen as mutually reinforcing, because the allocation of resources in pursuit of equity …, solidarity and sustainability assist in creating the human, social and environmental capital necessary to make a market economy function effectively.”

But this statement also points to the substance of our moral crisis today. The supplementary social democratic values that Rudd here espouses merely grease the skids of the capitalist machine, as it were, “creating the human, social and environmental capital necessary to make a market economy function effectively.” Similarly, for Rudd, Al Gore and most other climate change centrists, the solution to our current environmental woes lies not in any radical curtailing of our industrial or consumerist habits, but rather in some supplemental technology that will neutralize the global economy’s addiction to high emissions – such as carbon geo-sequestration, limited use of renewable energy, or perhaps a gigantic solar disc that will block a portion of the sun’s heat.

The problematic core belief in both instances is that the answer to our global environmental/economic problems lies further down the road on which we are already travelling. In other words, capitalism is the cure for the disease that it itself unleashed on the world – to use a line from Wagner’s Parsifal: “The wound is healed only by the spear that smote you.” (A nod toward Slavoj Žižek on this point.)

I would insist, however, that this moral zeitgeist, fuelled by an inherent faith in capitalism’s capacity to get us out of this mess, is not just impotent. It is positively harmful because it gives off the appearance of genuine activity and conveys a false sense of morality, even while we neglect our most fundamental moral obligations. I think of the way, for instance, that James Lovelock has ruthlessly condemned the half-measures self-righteously paraded by Kyoto signatories as little more than “each nation [trying] to gain brownie points for its diligence in meeting the Kyoto limits”; whereas in fact they are just “playing for time.” The reality of our situation demands more serious measures for, as Lovelock maintained in his recent response to the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, contiguous yet sustainable development is no longer an option:

“I see our predicament as like that faced by any nation that is about to be invaded by a powerful enemy; now we are at war with the Earth and as in a blitzkrieg events proceed faster than we can respond. We are in the strange position of living on a planet where climate and compositional change is now so rapid that it happens too fast for us to react to it. For this reason alone, it is probably too late for sustainable development. Enlightened living of this kind might have worked 200 years ago in Malthus’s time but not now.”

While Lovelock’s “Earth-at-war” stands for the absolute limit of global capitalism, pressing on capitalism’s certainties from the outside, as it were, it is imperative that we also recognize the internal or local limitations of capitalism. Noel Pearson has been rightly critical of Rudd’s reduction of the plight of Indigenous Australians to the disparity between the “privileged” and the “disadvantaged”, insisting that both terms already presume some degree of integration in the economic-cultural dynamic of capitalism. But Indigenous Australians are systemically excluded from the benefits of the free market economy, a state which no mere application of social democratic values can rectify.

“Aboriginal disadvantage,” Pearson says, “has become entrenched during the decades when social democrats, small-l liberals and conservatives influenced policy; many policies for Indigenous Australians have been liberal and progressive.” Here too, we are forced to recognize capitalism’s structural incapacity to embrace everyone within its sphere of beneficence, its inherent moral deficiency.

It is as if this vacuous brand of global morality that I’ve been describing has been spontaneously generated by capitalism itself as a kind of palliative, a way of softening the harshness of its insatiable growth and assuaging our own guilt. If so, then the almost evangelical fervour with which people confess themselves to be climate change “true-believers” might function rather like Marx’s “opiate of the masses” – a way of numbing our economic culpability, and of divesting us of our domestic responsibilities. Against this temptation to “globalize” our sense of morality, it has never been more important to insist on the concreteness of local ethical commitments. I would even go so far as to say that Australia has but one moral crisis on its hands – and that is the ongoing tragedy of Indigenous Australia.

The irony, of course, is that for all of Kevin Rudd’s self-righteous posturing on Australia’s Kyoto obligations, it was John Howard that proved his moral worth by committing his next term in Government to a constitutional referendum on reconciliation.

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