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.


Joanna said...

Scott, I think your criticisms of Rudd are valid - and I certainly agree that reconciliation (or conciliation) is the biggest issue we face as a nation. But I struggle to see John Howard's last-minute and very grudging statements on reconciliation, including the call for a referendum, as 'proving his moral worth'. Though I think they were sincere, I think they cost him precisely nothing to make. And his response to the tragic issues in Aboriginal communities, after a decade of neglect, leaves me (and the Aboriginal leaders I've spoken to) entirely unimpressed. For someone who has shown zilch interest in or understanding of the problems faced by Aboriginal communities, it seems the height of arrogance for Howard to completely disregard the recommendations of the Little Children are Sacred report and come up with his own 'solution' apparently based on one cabinet meeting!

Anonymous said...

"Against this temptation to globalize our sense of morality, it has never been more important to insist on the concreteness of local ethical commitments." Bravo, Scott! That's exactly right.

Rory Shiner said...

I think a little cynicism is worth retaining, Joebloggs, but if Pearson's analysis is right, a good part of the blame for the long negelect of the remote communities must fall at the feet of the romantic notions about the viability of those communities fostered by small 'l' liberals. As someone who has lived in a remote community for 20 years once observed, those aboriginal communities have become the vicarious spirituality of inner-city urban liberals. Knowing that they are 'there', and that they are living out the 'spirituality' that the inner city dwellers are too busy to attend to stopped them (us?) from asking the following up question; "So, what is live actually like out there for them?"

Anonymous said...

Thanks Scott for this post – very thought-provoking. I'm with JoBloggs, though, on the indigenous question. I don't think Howard's last-minute commitment, nor the intervention, make them the moral heroes. Yet, I do think you're right to pick up on the tendency of the "new global morality", as you put it, to kind of demand allegiance and persecute those who oppose it. Anything like this can end up demonic; though I don't think it's quite there yet.

Joanna said...

Rory, I have no problem with critiquing the romanticism of small 'l' liberals and their failure to grapple with the issues confronting Aboriginal communities. But since the intervention I have been listening to Aboriginal Christians who have worked their guts out for their communities for years with virtually no support from churches or state (Aboriginal Christians in Brisbane provide lunch for members of their community every week - they don't even have a working fridge in which to keep the icecream they serve for dessert. This is within 10 minutes of churches which run yearly missions to remote northern Aboriginal communities but play no role in the indigenous communities on their doorstep). These Aboriginal leaders are not romantic about life in the centre. But they feel that the intervention completely devalues their efforts and insights, branding hard-won Aboriginal leadership and wisdom as having failed. I am not against intervention per se - I'm just against intervention that believes 'we' can simply fix 'their' problem.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an excellent post, Scott. Like you say, real ethical issues are necessarily local and highly situational. All the posturing about saving the planet is really an evasion of concrete ethical responsibility, since it's always clear that "saving the planet" is someone else's fault/responsibility.

Anonymous said...

"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"

This is partly true, but realistically, isn't a technologically-driven solution that allows for cleaner and sustainable methods of consumption and production more feasible than a mass reduction in consumption?

The reason I say this is that while there is broad agreement that we ought to consume less (and therefore produce less), I find it hard to imagine that there is a politician (or worker for that matter) who would be willing to see a large rise in unemployment that would necessarily follow from large-scale reduction in production/consumption?

Macht said...

That technology is not the solution was hinted at near the end of this article. The article is about Gore's mansion "going green" but then somebody mentions that his house is just too big to reduce his energy consumption any more.

BTW, I'm in agreement with the opiate-like nature of environmentalism.

Anonymous said...

Focus Group in the UK

Q: What's the biggest issue facing the world today?

A: Global warming.

Q: How many cars do you have?

A: [All but Mr. V] Two.

Mr. V: One. I'm single.

Q: Would you be willing to forego air travel?

A: Er, no.

Q: Would you be willing to pay higher taxes to finance a greener transport system?

A: Er, no.

Q: So no government intrusions?

A: No way!

Q: What about a global, statutory framework?

A: We're not having Brussels tell us what to do.

Mrs. W: Bush is the big problem.

Mrs. X: And China.

Mr. Y: And India.

Q: Aren't you worried about the future your great grandchildren will face?

A: [Guilty looks] Er, yes.

Q: What would you say to them?

Mr. Z (the group wag): Bend over, place your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye. [Loud laughter]

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Scott. This post is also discussed here.

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