This piece is a preamble to my participation in the Reasons for Optimism and Hope for a Sustainable Future – Public Forum in Penguin, Tasmania, hosted by the RESEED Centre as part of the North West Environment Centre’s Healthy Planet Expo and the 12th Australasian Permaculture Convergence.
In 2007, the American think-tank Center for a New American Century published a report called The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change, which explored the ramifications of climate change for the security of states. The report’s lead author, Kurt Campbell, is an American academic and was a diplomat in Obama administration. The report takes its cue from Winston Churchill’s observation in the late-1930s in relation to Nazi Germany: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” The Center for a New American Century report saw in our present time that “we are already living in an age of consequences when it comes to climate change and its impact on national security, both broadly and narrowly defined.”
Of course the findings of this report are not new. As early as 1972, Donella Meadows et al’s famous study The Limits to Growth warned of a peak in food production and industrial output around about now after a long lead time of natural resource depletion. Our time has been labelled with other monikers such as the Age of Limits, the Anthropocene, and the Long Emergency, among others, whose commonality is the identification of our time as a period of great societal transition, driven by the related threats of climate change, energy insecurity, economic instability and technological innovations that are driving marginal costs of production toward zero. I often use the term Age of Consequences in my presentations, because it conveys the idea that human societies are experiencing the bitter harvest sown by the ecological, economic and political contradictions of two centuries of industrialisation. The symptoms of the Age of Consequences are beginning to re-shape modes of production, economic systems and relationships of power that spring from them.
Politics in the Age of Consequences is becoming more volatile as our political institutions, founded on the basis of nineteenth century ideologies and class conflicts, struggle with emerging ecological, social and economic upheavals that are as tectonic in scale as those that accompanied the industrial revolution. Such monumental change is certainly frightening, but also presents a window of opportunity.
In her new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein states “If the opposition movements are to do more than burn bright and burn out, they will need a comprehensive vision for what should emerge in the place of our failing system, as well as serious political strategies for how to achieve these goals.” That is the essence of holistic politics.
Defining the political is difficult because debate, controversy and disagreement lie at its very heart. Nevertheless, a number of common themes can be identified across most definitions of politics. First, politics is a social activity arising out of interactions among people and the institutions that people create. Second, politics develops out of the existence of the diverse range of opinions, wants, needs and interests of people and states. Third, this diversity is closely linked to conflict, as politics involves the expression of differing opinions, competition between rival goals or clashes of interests. Fourth, politics is about reaching decisions which are in some way regarded as binding. Finally, the politics is a process of conflict resolution which often does not have an end point, as many conflicts cannot be resolved. Politics is everywhere and inescapable. In practical terms, politics affects everybody, including those who understand its importance and those who are unaware of its significance or would prefer to ignore its existence.
A holistic politics for our time starts with a change in consciousness. It recognises our inter-dependence with each other and with the natural world. It mitigates the causes and responds adaptively to Age of Consequences problems. It involves not only acts of omission, commission and protest (a la traditional activist models) but also active construction of viable new economic and social systems, and it sends. It sends tangible political, social and market signals to existing institutions and gives its practitioners leverage in relation to these structures. It undercuts the material and political power of vested interests in the old economy. It draws on the insights and experience of other social justice movements (indigenous rights, LGBTQI, civil rights etc). It establishes a practical model of right living and in so doing, demonstrates a constituency for change for others to adopt and political institutions to react to. It is the embodiment of Gandhi’s dictum “be the change you want to see in the world.”
There are a number of tools we might use to “change facts on the ground,” a phrase that’s more often used in military-strategic contexts, and put our holistic politics into practice. Together, these tools combined hold the promise of changing altering economic production systems and the economic and political relationships that emerge from them, while also forming part of a constructive response to the maladies of the Age of Consequences.
For example, self-sufficient local food production and local-scale renewable energy technologies, deployed using ecologically sound design principles (such as permaculture) could help people and communities re-establish sovereignty over their means of subsistence. Gift economies could facilitate the exchange of goods and services without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards, ideally taking place in recurring gift exchange that circulates and redistributes wealth throughout a community and serves to build societal ties. Zero marginal cost technologies, which are infinitely or close to infinitely replicable at no cost, could allow people to locally manufacture and disseminate useful products across communities at a fraction of the price that similar products made and distributed through global production chains are sold for.
“New Work can be defined as the work we really want to do, rather than work that makes us suffer. Whereas Old Work is the work people have to do, work that’s experienced as a mild disease, a kind of plodding suffering.”
Collectively, these interventions could reduce the economic imperative for people to engage in wage labour to acquire the money (and debt) necessary to obtain those products from market transactions. They could reverse our alienation from many of processes of economic production upon which we depend and help us step away from having to participate in ecological destructive economic activities out of need to earn a wage. There is clearly scope here for increased levels of personal freedom and community autonomy if these changes proceeded in a positive direction, with profound implications for the distribution of political power. As David Holmgren discussed in his recent appearance at the Melbourne Sustainable Living Festival, the way the global middle class chooses to live is their biggest political leverage point. People who are saddled with debt and dependent on market transactions for their subsistence do not possess that leverage and are often reduced to shouting at politicians to legislate for change.
If successful, a holistic politics of this kind creates pressure on governments to take bolder positions in international multilateral forums like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and gives them room to manoeuvre in their negotiations with other countries (the logic of the two-level game). Similarly, the demonstration effect can work to influence people in other countries through a networked contagion, creating the same pressure for bolder action among several negotiating parties.
Before we get too caught up in promises of future autonomy, we need to consider some caveats. There are numerous past examples of utopian political ideas holding a similar emancipatory promise that turned out to be dead ends, were co-opted or crushed. Successful social movements that threaten established power structures have been undermined or met with repression. Ideas for change that are too prescriptive become straight-jackets that can lock practitioners into interventions that are ill-suited to their local conditions or lock out other groups for whom such prescriptions are not relevant.
So what is different now? The symptomatic problems of the Age of Consequences are weakening established power structures. As the insurance industry has demonstrated, climate change impacts are already creating large economic costs as extreme weather events become more frequent and intense. Energy price volatility, carbon pricing and the prospect of stranded carbon assets (the “carbon bubble”) are impacting on the efficiency and viability of supply chains dependent on fossil fuel energy. We are increasingly likely to see the contraction of supply chains and the reconfiguration of economic activity within the bounds of the available (or desirable in terms of carbon pollution) energy constraints. We are increasingly seeing the creeping contraction of service provision by large public and private institutions in many countries (such as Greece), forcing people and local communities to assume more responsibility for the delivery of vital services.
Neither neo-liberal nor Keynesian approaches to economic management are likely to be suitable in a post-growth world. Party politics based on the left-right political spectrum is becoming increasingly disconnected from reality. I predict that the retreat of the state from many of its service provision roles, driven from above by global trends, will create space for people and communities to decentralise and re-localise, to introduce the kinds of interventions discussed above both out of necessity and because the forces that would oppose them are weakening.
The Age of Consequences will present significant challenges to human well-being and social cohesion. At the same time, these challenges will weaken existing economic and power structures sufficiently to open a window of opportunity for positive change. There are a number of tools and interventions available that can help us to rise to the challenge of building resilience during this age.
It is not possible to change the facts on the ground, to practice holistic politics, by acting alone. It is sobering to recognise the systemic short-comings that leave us vulnerable to chaotic social upheaval in the Age of Consequences. Many people have a strong aversion to being cogs in the many vertically stratified hierarchical institutions that have come to dominate our lives. The overwhelming urge is to escape the system, strike out on our own. This is a seductive dead end; when we remember that we exist inter-dependently with other humans and the world around us, it is obvious that the escapist urge is flawed. A more appropriate adaptive response is to cultivate networks of trust and reciprocity with fellow travellers (as opposed to the superficial instrumental form of “networking” practiced in corporate circles). Networks overcome problems of scale for grassroots activities, without need for large hierarchical institutions and speed up organisation and information dissemination.
My ideas on this topic are continually evolving. I would be delighted to discuss this topic further with any interested parties, to visit working projects, and to network and collaborate with people getting busy in this space. Please get in touch.