Repeal of the carbon tax

Today is a sad day for Australia. After years of political wrangling it has come to this: the repeal of the carbon tax.

It is a giant step back from facing up to the encroaching cliff, a turning away from the erosion of solid ground, a denial of a slow-burn but deadly serious threat.

Ian MacDonald and Barnaby Joyce, in the midst of winter, talk about cold weather as though it means something. Their statements are unbelievably crude, and their experience of the cold means nothing in this debate. Are they silly enough to believe that a cold winter’s day is reason to scrap the carbon tax, or are they heartless enough to spin an anti-climate change line for political benefit? I’m not sure which is worse.

I’m angry and there is no outlet for it. Where do you turn, nearly 4000 kilometres from Canberra, to express your disgust? We can only turn to one another – and we have been doing that for years, to no avail.

All around me people have become tired of caring – I’m guilty of it too. Today’s repeal re-energises my anger, but what good is talking about it to the people around me? I know I should be optimistic that talking about the issue does matter, but I, like most of us, exist in an echo chamber and our opinions don’t change the mind of anyone who matters. All around me people are saying how awful the repeal is – yet nonetheless it goes ahead. Whatever voice we may have had in September last year when we voted is utterly lost.

When I began writing this piece around midday today, I felt gutted and betrayed. Outside my window there was a blue sky and the green branches were waving slightly in a gentle winter’s breeze. Now, the sun has set and with the orange on the horizon there comes a stillness in the air. It is a beautiful sight and feels like the calm before a storm.

Perhaps these years are the calm before the storm.

We will look back one day on the nineties and on the first three decades – maybe four if we’re lucky – of the third millenium and see an idyllic life that we could not bear to disturb for the sake of a liveable future. We will see a time when we had knowledge but did not use it. When whole generations were born and grew up while time passed and not enough was done for their future. A time when we prioritised money and business over the life and environment of the planet.

You might say I am being dramatic. But it is hard not to feel that drama is warranted; that fear is warranted. If so little has been achieved in the last thirty years, what’s to say that anything useful will be achieved in the next thirty? If governments and societies cannot make the change that’s needed now, in the calm before the storm, how will we fare during the storm itself, when things become much tougher than they are now?

In a press conference today, Tony Abbott talked about being part of a ‘conservationist government’; being aware that we only have ‘one planet’. The words don’t roll easily off his tongue – perhaps he’s aware just how offensive they are – a contradiction to the action his government has just taken.

Later, he is back in his native discourse with these words, which roll smoothly: ‘We are certainly not going to do anything that damages our economy or that puts our people and our businesses at an unfair competitive disadvantage.’

If there’s anything unfair here it is that a man instrumental in this repeal – Clive Palmer – owns companies which stand to save several million dollars each year due to the removal of the carbon tax. It is a sign of just how mixed up Australian politics have become.

As Lenore Taylor wrote today in The Guardian, the repeal of the carbon tax today is a ‘complete and catastrophic failure of the political system’. Let us hope that this failure is not replicated around the world and on into the future.

On fear and climate change

Image credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service

Image credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service

You’re not supposed to want to cry about climate change at work, but that’s how I felt this morning.

We are good at staying divorced from painful but distant realities. We are good at ignoring the hurt that’s happening to someone else if they are nothing like us. We are good at enjoying sunny winter days and not asking why.

Even the phrase ‘climate change’ almost rings hollow these days – we hear it so often, in so many cold and unemotional contexts.

But climate change has many faces, and once in a while there’s a face that pulls at the heartstrings. The article last week on The Guardian gave climate change a face that most of us can’t fail to be moved by. A polar bear found dead, ‘skin and bones’; a 16-year old starved to death, when most members of the species live into their early 20s.

It’s awful and moving. Yes, it’s the cute animal effect, but that doesn’t make the emotion meaningless. It’s a good thing if it draws attention to an issue that will change the environment for a whole range of animals – and plants and entire ecosystems.

The Guardian article and this response by Freya Mathews on The Conversation are powerful reminders of the harm we have done and the hurt we have caused as a species.

I am overwhelmed by this hurt. It is almost ungraspable. It is so big as to avoid definition, so very nearly unstoppable, so hard to see, yet if you look even a little bit closely, it’s so tangible and so close.

This hurt hits me more and more regularly these days, and it’s intensified by the lack of concern shown by the Labor party and the Coalition in the lead-up to an election. That the issue is not attracting some focus during a campaign suggests that enough of us don’t care, or aren’t speaking out about it if we do.

It’s all too easy to feel the emotion, for a while, and then let it pass and slip back into one’s day to day life, worrying instead about work or study pressures or  money or family or what to have for dinner. It’s also hard to see how an individual can make a difference – political machinery seems to roll on without paying any attention to our views, and sometimes not even to our vote.

But we have to keep caring and keep trying to do something about this if we want anything to change. It’s individuals who make up the collective, and it’s the collective that can change the direction of the nation.

So if you vote on one issue this federal election, vote according to who takes climate change seriously and is committed to doing something about it.

I’m scared. We all should be sacred. Everything else pales into insignificance.


Read these:

On The Guardian, ‘Starved polar bear perished due to sea ice melt, says expert’

On The Conversation, ‘Wild animals are starving, and it’s our fault, so should we feed them?’ by Freya Mathews

On The Drum, ‘The election that forgot the environment’ by ABC Environment’s Sara Phillips

The canary in the coalmine, the butterfly on the hill: Flight Behaviour

Flight Behaviour coverBarbara Kingsolver’s fourteenth novel, Flight Behaviour, is set in Tennessee. The characters are firmly rooted in a primarily pastoral landscape that turns out to be unstable, though most in the novel refuse to acknowledge the changes.

Dellarobia, the feisty young mother trapped in a domestic situation where her only outlet is crushes on local tradesmen, learns to see that the land on which their lives are based is changing before them. In doing so she recognises too the instability of the human landscape.

The book opens with Dellarobia in full flight, albeit in unsuitable shoes, up a mountain towards an extra-marital tryst. But the sight of mountain ranges aflame – not with fire but with something she cannot comprehend – sends her home again, with the sense that running away is not the answer.

The orange flame turns out to be millions of monarch butterflies, a beautiful ‘miracle’ that is the result of a horrible truth. Climate change is rearing its head in a town where people say that the weather is in the Lord’s hands. It changes Dellarobia’s outlook completely. Unlike most of those around her, she doesn’t have much faith in God, and is open to science and to encouraging her intelligent, questioning kindergarten-aged son in a way that few others are.

This is working-class rural America, where college isn’t part of the life plan, where people are judged if they don’t attend church, where floods and orchards rotting in the earth are all attributed to God’s will. But it is the poverty that is an unexpected feature of this novel; while Australians might perceive middle America as overweight and subsisting on junk food, this is a family that hasn’t had take away or eaten in a restaurant in two years.

This is a book about class and about the division of ideas. It is also about denial, and about the lack of security in both the earth and in each other as human beings. Dellarobia, never knowing what else there was to aspire to, sustained herself with crushes on men who were not her husband. Now a world opens to her that is both terrifying and much broader than anything she has ever known.

Kingsolver returns to her theme of religion in this novel – Dellarobia, despite being thrown out of Wednesday bible discussion for having the temerity to actually discuss, weaves bible metaphors into her thoughts throughout the book. Flood and fire: while the bible bashers deny that it is upon them, she is confronted with it through the evidence of science.

The ending of Flight Behaviour has been widely criticised, and while I share some of the criticisms the novel ultimately tells a powerful and imaginative story. It is a book that should be read, because from it there is so much to learn.

Navigating the disconnect between Manne and The Australian

Between academic Robert Manne and our esteemed national broadsheet The Australian, a battle is – or was – underway. It began three weeks ago when an extract from Manne’s Quarterly Essay appeared in The Age, followed by the publication’s release shortly afterwards. Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation argues that The Australian is no longer a paper that reports accurately and comments on current events, but that has ‘turned itself into a player in national politics’.

The Australian brought out the big guns in response, with 8000 words of criticism on Manne’s essay – and on the man himself – in just one issue of the paper. The Australian has since decided that there endeth the debate, as upstart’s Matt Smith noted following the absence of the paper’s representative at the Wheeler Centre debate last week. Perhaps The Australian has realised their folly in giving so much attention to Manne’s ‘silly essay’, as editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell described it.

With the word length of a novella at his disposal in Bad News, Manne takes a different approach to the issue than many commentators who are restricted to shorter forms of commentary. He methodically investigates several of The Australian’s coverage areas in order to support an argument of media bias that to some seems quite obvious, but that to The Australian is an accusation quite without merit. It is refreshing to see the various coverage issues dissected carefully and supported with relevant examples, instead of being skimmed over as shorter pieces often necessitate.

While the slanging match died down sooner than I expected, each side has scored their major punches and given an air of ‘my word against yours’ to the battle. Few readers have the time to trawl back through years of broadsheets, as Manne has done, to see whose argument is supported by evidence in the form of The Australian’s coverage of particular issues. But what one can do is read both sides of the argument with a healthy critical eye.

Of course, as readers and critics we bring our own perspective to the debate, one that can cloud the manner of criticism we offer. Let me outline the angle from which I approach this particular issue.

I grew up in Perth, where the local daily is the The West Australian, a tabloid format paper owned by Seven West Media and usually considered to have conservative leanings. Unlike many of my peers who were raised in Melbourne, The Australian was essential to my media diet throughout my late teens and adult life. While many Melbournites dismiss it and turn immediately to The Age, years of habit and a desire for a national focus mean that as a reader, my broadsheet loyalties still lie with The Australian.

My upbringing in what some easterners might see as the backwater of Perth has not stopped me from being able to engage critically with what I read. The Australian’s manner of depicting certain issues has rankled with me for some time.

This feeling came to a head during the 17-day period following the 2010 federal election, when The Australian consistently depicted the figures of the hung parliament in a way that favoured the Coalition. The most obviously misleading example of this was the inclusion in Coalition figures of Western Australian National Party MP Tony Crook, in spite of his explicit statement that the Coalition could not necessarily count on his support. Meanwhile, the seat held by Greens MP Adam Bandt was listed separately, in spite of Bandt having already indicated his support for a Labor government. With control of the parliament hinging on a few independents who were expected to make up their minds in a high pressure environment, this none-too-subtle shaping of the facts and prodding of public opinion was dishonest.

While Manne’s Quarterly Essay pursues issues that have been troubling me for some time, this does not mean that I embrace his arguments uncritically. In the section of the Quarterly Essay that considers the paper’s coverage of climate change, I was able to consider Manne’s argument in the light of my own experience as a reader. It is a topic that I have followed closely over the last few years.

On the other hand, I felt that Manne’s argument about Larissa Behrendt over an injudicious tweet was not developed convincingly, and that a great deal of his writing could have been clearer. I was also aware that I was not in a position to judge those criticisms of The Australian that relate to earlier this century, due to the fact that I was younger and less politically engaged at the time. For example, I take Manne’s argument over the Iraq war with a grain of salt, as I am aware that my own knowledge of the issue is insufficient to allow me to be appropriately critical. This exercise in critical thinking is essential to navigating the conflicting arguments of Manne and The Australian.

This brings me to the discourse of left-wing versus right-wing that is so dominant in political commentary. The constant labelling of public figures as one or the other implies a lack of critical thinking and unquestioning loyalty to a particular, limiting, ideological perspective. A large part of The Australian’s criticism of Manne is that he has swung from the right to the left, as though his loyalties miraculously shifted from one ‘side’ to the other. Manne’s apparent swing can be construed quite differently if this absurdly limiting spectrum is taken out of the picture: rather, his views can be seen to have evolved with time and experience, accompanied by a rare willingness to own and acknowledge this shift.

The Australian openly adopts a particular ideological point of view when it comes to political, social and economic issues. The problem is that the paper’s columnists often seem to neglect critical thinking – that essential tool which allows one to change one’s opinion as an issue evolves – preferring instead to delightedly adopt any piece of evidence that dovetails nicely with their predetermined ideas about how the world should work.

The reaction from The Australian’s commentators to Bad News is polarising, implying that one is either with Manne and against The Australian, or vice versa. The paper’s editor, Chris Mitchell, attributes ‘Green values’ to Manne, and since The Australian has in the past openly argued in support of the destruction of the Greens at the ballot box, one assumes that Manne’s ideas must be similarly destroyed.

This attitude is utterly unhelpful. The world does not split neatly into, on the one hand, Greens, leftists, latte-sipping inner city elites and humanities academics, and on the other, rational, hard-working, ‘real-world’ Australians. There is a complex range of views in our society, a range which the paper says it gives voice to in its op-ed pages even as its own rhetoric of left versus right continually denies this complexity.

On some issues, The Australian is capable of representing a variety of views. On others, such as on its own role in Australian political debate, the paper seems quite unwilling to engage critically or productively. Both Paul Kelly and Chris Mitchell have labelled Manne’s criticism as attack. This is another rhetorical bad habit, found on both ‘sides’ of the issue. There is a vast difference between critique and attack, and to blur the boundaries between the two does a disservice to public debate.

But of course, businesses and politicians are both adverse to considering their faults publicly. It seems ironic that we ask primary school students to self-evaluate, yet The Australian is unable to publicly do the same.

As I have said, I am a loyal reader of the paper. But in spite of this I do not trust much of what I read in its pages, both news and opinion, aware that there are often holes in the paper’s coverage or commentary. This makes me uncomfortable. Yes, debate is and should be uncomfortable, but not because our only national, general-interest broadsheet appears to be pushing its own point of view, with a frequent disregard for journalistic principles.

A shorter version of this piece also appears on upstart, and is available here.

O’Neill’s confusions

On Saturday, The Australian ran a comment piece by Brendan O’Neill in which he argues that ‘greens’ are anti-free speech by supposedly attempting to censor any hint of climate change scepticism. Some of the examples he uses include journalist Margo Kingston’s comment about climate change denialism being a crime against humanity. The comment was made in 2005 in the context of David Irving’s arrest for Holocaust denialism, and has already been used by plenty of commentators who think that ‘the green movement’ is trying to shut down free speech; including by O’Neill himself back in 2006.

O’Neill’s comment peice conveniently neglects to mention that while the occasional ‘green’ may have accused climate change sceptics of denialism akin to Holocaust denialism, one such sceptic has already gone several steps further in misappropriating the legacy of the Holocaust. I’m speaking, of course, of Lord Christopher Monkton. Perhaps O’Neill, as a recent arrival in Australian public debate, is not aware of Monkton’s comparison between Professor Ross Garnaut and Adolf Hitler. At a conference in Los Angeles in June this year, Monkton displayed a picture of a swastika beside a quote from Garnaut, and directly referred to Hitler (in relation to Garnaut) in his speech. Monkton’s act constituted misappropriation of Nazism on a much grander scale than anything that O’Neill has to complain about.

O’Neill is also guilty of a fallacy in his article. He assumes that because Al Gore and Margo Kingston are part of what he describes as ‘the green movement’, and that because they see climate change denial as an offence, that therefore the ‘green movement’ as a whole would like to censor the speech of climate skeptics. The ‘green movement’, or ‘greens’, in O’Neill’s usage, appears to be a generalisation applied to those who support the science of human-driven climate change, and therefore must include people from both sides of the political spectrum and from all walks of life who hold this view. The individuals that O’Neill mentions, however, do not speak on behalf of this diverse group of people, so quite apart from the tenuous nature of his argument, it is hardly accurate to attribute the views of non-representative individuals to an entire movement.

Frankly, the ‘green movement’ has bigger things to worry about than climate change deniers – namely, getting on with the business of mitigating the effects and slowing the process of climate change.

The other beginning – and The Sea Around Us (1951)

Originally written 27 November.

Last week I finished reading The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson. This week I’m reading The End of Nature by Bill McKibben. Both are outdated, published in 1951 and 1989 respectively. In terms of the facts, it matters. In terms of how these works make me feel, time makes no difference.

The Sea Around Us is a beautiful piece of writing, though perhaps it could be considered old-fashioned in style. I write about the ocean all the time and so I am susceptible to reading about it. But Rachel Carson’s writing is unique. I open it now and instantly I can imagine the richness and fullness of the ocean, in terms of the images that Rachel creates. I can see the currents curving around the edge of continents, the seabed rising abruptly into the Atlantic ridge, the weather systems of Australia’s eastern seaboard responding to the air over the Pacific.

Rachel wrote about geological time – long time spans where mountains are built and eroded, where islands come and go. Bill McKibben on the other hand stressed that not everything takes a long time to change: he was writing about the global climate change. In 1989 what he wrote would have been periphery to most people’s concerns. Today it occupies politics around the world. So much has changed.

And yet not everything has changed. Bill argues that nature is dead, because no place on earth is unaffected by humans, as a result of the changes to the atmosphere that our societies have caused. But I don’t think he’s right. I think we’ll cling on to a sense of nature, and maybe we’ll change our understanding of it in order to keep up with a world that is changing. Nature will – or has – become something that clings on to its ‘naturalness’ in the face of human impacts reaching everywhere. But it’s still there. It holds on, like a tree growing crooked on a windy cliff, or a lonely tuft of grass sprouting half way up a sheer cliff. It will be changed by what we do, but it will not die, not as long as this planet continues its slow revolution around the sun.

For me, as I begin to experiment with new forms of writing, The Sea Around Us plays on my mind. It is an example of so much that is important to me: the ocean, the land, the environment, and of course good writing. It is imbued, by its existence and its context, with the politics of environment and of the place of women in society. It is written with passion, creativity and scientific accuracy; it reminds me that the humanities and the sciences belong together, not in opposition as many thinkers would lead us to believe. Bound in the 59 year old cover of this book is a story about the earth. It is majestic and humbling, and full of a sense of wonder. I hope that I never forget it.