Climate Change is Not the Basic Issue

No, it’s not really just about climate change. Nor is it just about the way climate change can affect the viability of all living things. At least in the short term, the public inability to focus on the underlying sources of climate change is equally important. It runs along with the inability to focus on other changes that could undermine our present mode of life. The massive growth of world population is one other obvious example. The basic issue is to identify the common source of a whole complex of such problems. This is a necessary first step towards building a movement that can work towards their resolution.

That paragraph is in the manner of a knee-jerk reaction. It is an amended opening to this essay and its purpose is to highlight the reason why contributors to discussion about climate change often talk past one another. Later in this essay I will try to illustrate this in referring to David McKnight’s and, more incidentally, Ted Trainer’s contributions in Arena Magazine 92.

In a recent issue of The Age Peter Christoff wrote under the heading ‘The End of the World As We Know It’. He compared the effects of extreme global warming to the aftermath of a nuclear war:

Excess atmospheric gases linger, global temperatures continue to increase, the oceans expand and rise, and ecosystems alter and decline, for decades — even centuries — after the initiating actions have ceased.

The vast majority within the relevant branches of the scientific community support that conclusion. Why then doesn’t the message get through to the powers that be, so that resolute action, on a scale beyond even that of preparing to meet an invasion, follows?

In this essay I will suggest that at its roots this pervasive insomnia is nourished by the assumptions on which our limited democracy is now founded. We are living in a dream world in which assumptions about the continuity of economic growth, and especially of the institutional framework which now supports consumerism and individualism, have become ingrained. Indeed, so much so that attention is often diverted from the very conditions of our own mortality. Like any faith that has become absolute for those subscribing to its tenets, the open-ended prospects that, especially in the developed world, are held out to individuals, also tend to become absolute. At least in the short term they divert attention from any serious consideration that things might be otherwise.

Not long ago that failure was illustrated by the widespread denial of climate change. Yet as that stance becomes disreputable, the framework of entrenched attitudes supporting open-ended growth remains in place. They lend support to the more comprehensive denial, or at least failure to understand, that we are now in the midst of a multi-faceted transformation.

To state the issue in these terms carries with it the need to recognise that our whole institutional framework is in accelerated movement. Its overall relation to the natural world is changing. In the aftermath of centuries following what we speak of as an Enlightenment, which essayed the conquest of nature, we have moved on from conquest to reconstitution: nuclear power, nanotechnology, the genome project. All of these are expressions of a technoscientific process in which conquest is subsumed within a reconstitution of the given world. They signify a break with preceding civilizations: one which includes the prospect of constituting and reconstituting life as such.

A deep-seated sense of malaise — which for the present is most articulate in relation to climate change — is abroad and affecting many people. If they are not simply rendered inert within the way of life compatible with their ‘faith’, most people still experience a profound ambiguity. They have settled into a way of life in which the ‘advantages’ of open-ended growth have become habitual. They actually cannot seriously conceive, and therefore cannot actively wish, to live in a different way. To a large extent these mainstream attitudes even tend to render invisible the actual increase of poverty and despair in the wider world, and locally as well. The overall consequence is that governments, which have direct access to scientific assessments of the impact of open-ended growth upon the basic conditions of life, are taking no resolute action on the scale required.

How can we evoke a more active awareness of the underlying issue here, which the present institutions of our limited democracy seem unable to call out? One place to start is by noting that, in spite of increasing exasperation with politicians, most people still believe that what they take to be their independently formed attitudes and opinions direct government policy. Would it not be more to the point to concede that any earlier validity in the notion of the public independently forming opinion is being hollowed out? Right at the core of that process, I argue in this essay, is the unprecedented way in which both the economy and the institutions relating to it have been drawn into a process of reconstruction. A central feature of that process is the bypassing and marginalisation of the institutional arrangements which, in the era of classical capitalism, were able to set limits to the power of the market.

In earlier essays in this magazine, I touched on the way that technoscientifically mediated activities have now moved to the forefront within a long drawn out process. First, implicitly, even mysteriously, in the age of invention, the abstracted reconstruction of actions and social relationships began to displace labour, craft and tradition. Deriving from the changed relation of intellect to social life, as the mark of the Enlightenment, one particular expression of the intellectual form of life today assumes a decisive and active expression. It does so by way of the technosciences. In close conjunction with the extended reach of the market, they contribute to capital. Even within the space of the last half-century one immediate result has been a relatively rapid dissolution of the transparency of the class-based structures of classical capitalism. At least in the short term, the way the individual relates to the social whole, including its political life, has become far more opaque than it was taken to be in ‘old Australia’. The evidence of this shift is all about us. We now live in a technologically extended social world, the existence of which is inconceivable without the means of social interchange developed by the technosciences. Television, the Internet and their derivatives such as SMS, YouTube and the blog. All of them are deeply implicated in the market. They enhance a process of individuation which, in the absence of a more broadly based understanding, readily fuses with the individualism and consumerism integral with the neo-liberal philosophy of open-ended growth. This is by no means to suggest that process is irreversible or lacks ambiguity. Even the ‘aspirationals’ are themselves deeply committed to democracy. The recent federal election provided clear signs of a backlash against the misrepresentations of spin, a small sign perhaps of a more active search for a different way.

Nevertheless, the basic transformation now in train is rarely given genuine priority in relation to that complex of contemporary problems of which unchecked global warming is taken to be the outstanding example. At least for the present, the typical response is to reverse the cause and effect relationship. Both in public consciousness and government policy, that reversal supports the narrowly focused emphasis on ‘sustainability’, in the sense of the maintenance of the way we live now. Highlighting that reversal in no way diminishes the urgency of action to control global warming. But it can draw attention to the way a too exclusive concern with global warming can divert attention from the deep-seated human hopes and aspirations that the neo-liberal philosophy both draws upon and feeds into a trajectory of self-destruction.

A Passionate Faith and the Technofix

 I have suggested that the public inability to focus on the underlying sources of climate change is an urgent problem in its own right. Peter Christoff, whose short essay in The Age I have already mentioned, argues that we are suffering ‘from a radical failure of imagination … we still believe in everyday life as if global warming is merely a potential risk … ‘ He goes on to list the devastating consequences of such lassitude and to conclude that even though some may dismiss such vivid imaginings as apocalyptic it is they and ‘not economists’ arid musings about the marginal impacts on GDP … that will be critical to the survival of an acceptable future’.

Well fair enough: what Christoff says is an indispensable condition of change. The tight limits upon what one can cover in a brief article may well be a sufficient reason for his not going on to ask just why so many people, along with their governments, offer no effective response. Could it be that while they would readily concede that climate change could be a ‘bit of a worry’ they have a secure ‘faith’ which guarantees that solutions will be found?

Writing in the December issue of the Australian Literary Review, Peter Doherty, Nobel prize-winning virologist and now at the University of Melbourne, holds to that sort of faith and does not draw back from laying it on the line:

I believe passionately that … technology solutions will result from initiatives that link a well funded public research enterprise to tax incentives and entrepreneurial drive of capitalism.

Yes, imagination is indispensable and, like Christoff, Doherty ranges over a profoundly daunting account of the consequences likely to ensue if we should fail to keep pursuing our ‘one chance to get it right’. But science — as distinct from one particular orientation of the technosciences, which for the present runs in tandem with capital — has for a long time endorsed scepticism as one of its basic values: members of the scientific community uphold the need to question their assumptions in the course of every particular research project. Prior to the neo-liberal surge, most of its members experienced no immediate need to do the same in a more encompassing or philosophical register simply because, within the impetus of the Enlightenment, the typical scientist maintained humanist values and stood at arms length from any entrepreneurially circumscribed conception of the common good. Even as late as the middle of the twentieth century, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer responded to the detonation of the first nuclear bomb in the humanist language of interpretation. He intoned the Bhagavad Gita: ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’, rather than offering a technoscientific celebration of a new order of destructive forces.

Nevertheless the voice of the currently dominant orientation of the technosciences, joined in chorus with entrepreneurship, is one vision of the future that, for the present, with the urgent issue of climate change as its foil, diverts attention from the possibility that the humanist project of the ‘conquest’ of nature for the benefit of humankind is winding down. Nature and its resources, that taken for granted world ‘out there’, is no longer simply being used or exploited. On the contrary, it is being reconstituted and humankind and living beings in general may be seen again as falling within the ambit of that project.

If the implications of this epoch-making shift and the perverse faith that so often blinds us to its longer term consequences are to come within the range of public discussion, a central concern must be how our limited democracy sidelines the expertise of those who, in the name of the common good, advocate the need for far more urgent action.

Right at its centre this is a crucial political issue. That is, political in the general sense of the nature of the knowledge on which the supposedly equal voices of the democracy depend. The problem is that knowledge about climate change depends on ways of monitoring climate variations that are abstracted from the realm of common sense. Men and women in the street know about the climate through direct experience and the limits of social memory. If changes outside that way of knowing are occurring, then the first step towards the renewal of the democratic voice is to set up structures whereby the voice of common sense can be qualified and redirected by knowledge that arises outside the range of direct sensory experience.

If this is not done, and scepticism grounded in direct experience allows the populist voice to be exploited by a corrupted process of ‘representation’ then, in effect, government by misrepresentation gradually takes hold.

Moving Beyond Right and Left is Not the Basic Issue

In the last issue of this magazine, an article by David McKnight, whose widely read book Beyond Right and Left (2005) provided the general context of his remarks, continued to assume that the challenge of climate change could stimulate some reconciliation of longstanding differences so that once conflicting perspectives contributed to a new vision for the Australian people. Contrary to McKnight’s own belief I cannot see that his answer to the urgent problems of climate change breaks sufficiently with the underlying conditions of neo-liberal policy. Wishing to draw a sharp distinction between classical capitalism and neo-liberalism, he sees the neoliberal endorsement of the extended reach of the market as deriving from the innovative power of the ideas of Hayek, Friedman and others. With a very different emphasis, while not ignoring the role of those ideas, I would suggest that they are integral with identifiable circumstances: those relating to the fusion of the technosciences with capital.

One can agree with McKnight’s emphasis on the special dynamism of neo-liberalism. There is a hint of some common ground with the interpretation I am advocating when he gestures towards what I would call its internal contradiction: that ‘its very economic success is revealing its fatal flaw’. But the difference between us lies in how we account for that fatal flaw and the way that affects how we should respond to it. From my point of view, the emergence of a fatal flaw is driven by the fusion of the technosciences with capital. In this interpretation, which I share with others closely associated with Arena, this convergence not only ‘supercharges’ the process of production, it also radically transforms the relation of other institutions to the market. And the central significance within that transformation is the way the reach of the market bypasses and encompasses the always beleaguered institutions that, for millennia, have contributed to the ethical formation of populations. I am speaking about the abiding problem of how ethical concern for the well-being of others is in tension with individual interests and entrenched privilege — render unto Caesar!

Following the second chapter of his book, ‘A World Made by Markets’, McKnight chooses ‘The Triumph of an Idea’ as a title for the next. The reference is to economic rationalism or, in other words, the transformation wrought by the neo-liberal ideas of Hayek and Friedman. Looked at coolly, McKnight continues, the neo-liberal revolution ‘is an inspiring testament to the power of ideas to shape society’. Well yes, but!

I was recently reminded that an outstanding figure — writing under the conditions of the rise of classical capitalism — once remarked:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.

The technoscientific revolution in a quite general sense is a circumstance: one that cuts deeper than the ‘ideas’ alone of those involved. Along with many others at Arena, I have argued for many years that the ideas, as well as the overall mode of being of those close to the centre of these intellectually mediated ‘circumstances’, do not only contribute to the practical activities whereby we begin to take hold of the resources of the material world in a different way. In the course of doing so they work in close conjunction with the ideas and actions associated with another set of ‘circumstances’: those of capital.

The ideas of Hayek and Friedman, and in their own ways Reagan, Thatcher and the erstwhile member for Bennelong as well, are all affected by that conjunction. Without it, ideas in the neo-liberal mode would not emerge. A central question for McKnight and, even more pointedly, figures within the technoscientific establishment currently riding the wave of the neo-liberal surge, is: have they given any thought to the particular circumstances of their own ideas? Do they grasp the general implications of the discontinuity which is unfolding as we begin to take hold of reality in the more abstracted ways of the technosciences? Is this distinctive register integral with the abstracted way (through print especially) that members of the intellectually associated groupings relate to each other? In short, is the now dominant version of the abstract idea expressive of abstract circumstance?

Certainly Karl Marx, the author of the above quotation, never directly addressed this issue, and one of the fateful consequences was the reduction of the ‘circumstances’ associated with ‘ideas’ to the social relations of production and the classes they set in place.

An absolutely central feature of the argument to which I am alluding here is that the abstract social form of intellectually related practices, and the powerful appeal of both these practices and the ideas integral with them, is consummated in a radical break. They begin to encompass a prior world, that for most people still remains a more familiar place, one that retains a stronger association with directly tangible experience than the intellectual practices.

The proposition that frequently surfaces in Arena’s publications is that this shift is the carrier of two possible trajectories. The first is marked by the conjunction I have been stressing in this essay: the current bonding of the technosciences with capital. In the absence of a widely shared theory of the social form of intellectual practice* and its implication in the remaking of the world after its own image, there is a blindness to its internally and socially grounded ethical and identity-forming impulses: the basis of the second trajectory. The ethical potential of abstracted co-operation, as promoted, for example, by the mutual interdependence of those engaged in scientific work, loses its always tenuous hold as the technosciences fuse with capital. In effect, the individual sense of creative agency that coexists with co-operation can readily be drawn into building that competitive edge characteristic of capital.

Those willing to take up the challenge to reflect upon this now fundamental issue may appreciate that, at least in its trajectory, the fusion of capital with the technosciences reaches towards the abstracted reconstitution of that more directly tangible world that is a basic framework of their sense of being. Most people quite profoundly take that sense as given, and that very certitude blinds them to it being reconstituted.

Nevertheless, as reconstitution begins to dismember that primal social framework, it encounters resistance: resistance to the dissolution of the tangible relation to what is taken to be the given world of nature and fixed arrangements of familial and communal relations. There is no space here to elaborate the formation of the seemingly primal impulses which feed into green politics, conservation, communalism, the search for roots, and for a renewal of the sense of embodiment, whether through yoga or in the exploration of the movement of breath.

The basic point is that right at the heart of our civilisation a contradiction is stirring. McKnight homes in on climate change as one consequence of the destructive potential of the trajectory within which the neo-liberal philosophy finds its place. I am not questioning the need to move beyond the Left and Right constituencies as they first formed up within classical capitalism. It is more to the point to question how the erstwhile limited conflict between those parties and the settlement that underpinned our limited democracy have moved over to make way for a far more embracing settlement. This time it depends upon a certain convergence of the parties: a basic acceptance of the need for open-ended growth and now an emerging difference about the required steps, environmentally and otherwise oriented, if that growth is to be sustainable. McKnight is not alone in believing that the values which might support sustainability would need to be framed differently to those associated with familiar versions of Right and Left. But he defines no institutional contexts that might be compatible with their convergence. Indeed he merely emphasises the force of ideas, such as Hayek’s, which he says have the power ‘to move mountains’. Stressing the importance of religious values, he discusses them too as if they ‘floated in air’. McKnight would readily agree that religious values feed into the often more down-to-earth values embedded in liberal, socialist and conservative political philosophies. As I noted earlier, it is to these he turns for the values he seeks to combine in a new humanist vision.

The difference between the standpoint to which I drew attention in ‘The End of Growth: What Then?’ (Arena Magazine 90) and McKnight’s, is not in any immediate sense a disagreement about the particular values. Rather, I want to stress two points about the conservative, liberal and socialist political traditions from which, in the main, he derives them. First of all, while one can understand the association of humanist values with the traditions that crystallised in the centuries just past, those aspects compatible with the neo-humanism McKnight proposes can equally well be tied to antecedent religious traditions. More emphasis on that association might also help to draw attention to the greed that underpins the idolatry that, as Stephen Ames reminds us in Arena Magazine 92, is fundamental to the virulent main trajectory of contemporary society. Moreover, to concentrate on recent political philosophies is to implicitly minimise the scope of the transformation we are now facing, and that tendency has an unfortunate recent past.

Looking into the future in periods of social stress or turmoil by seeking to reconcile the values taken to have precipitated that turmoil, may have a powerful appeal. After all, National Socialism was grounded in just that kind of appeal, or in a less sinister vein, so too was John Howard’s appeal to the ‘battlers’ and the values of mateship. McKnight’s neo-humanist vision is grounded in a deeply felt commitment to the renewal of democracy. I am asking whether that project would be more successful if the values thought to contribute to it were tied to a more searching analysis of changing circumstances. In a period of political inertness, when centralisation and arbitrary power are in the ascendancy, when international relations are increasingly turbulent and the hegemony of our ‘great and powerful friend’ may well be drawing to a close, it is doubly important to consider the overall scope of the type of social movement that might contribute to a renewed concern for the common good.

A Movement that Reinstates Interpretation

In essence I am suggesting that the first condition of such a movement is a recognition that the present dominant trajectory, as grounded in the technoscience–capital conjunction, is the medium of a profound cultural discontinuity.

While lacking a grasp of their own internal formative social conditions, within the classical period of capitalism the intellectually grounded groupings nevertheless developed a wide-ranging ethical stance. With a clear distinction from its more general expression — among the intellectuals proper — of detachment and service to the powers, that ethic struck especially deep roots among the technical branches of the intellectually trained professionals. The essential point to grasp now is that the transformative power of the technosciences is opening up a trajectory which reaches far beyond the limits of capitalism. While that is recognised, and is even the subject of a perverse ‘utopianism’ in limited circles, most people engaged in the technosciences have yet to take seriously the prospect of the changes being driven by a secular version of a faith too often left unquestioned.

If the technosciences are to be oriented differently, we must break from the ingrained assumption of their detachment. This stance, which purports to be ‘value free’, far too readily continues to support the powers now moving beyond the limited democracy of ‘old Australia’. Such a break calls for an understanding of a different trajectory, one that among the general public is still mainly grounded in an intuitive sense of the need for a different way, even as it is simultaneously repressed by the counterappeal of consumerist individualism.

Paradoxically the search for alternatives that McKnight believes could contribute to the sustainability of our present way of living might also promote the unintended consequence of a more coherent articulation of public malaise. McKnight’s main argument for a market-led answer to climate change as a state-sponsored restriction of the externalisation of costs provides an example. Following David Korten, he argues that jacking up the price of pollutants (such as diesel fuel) would ensure the adoption of more sustainable practices. Apart from any band-aid such alternatives might offer to the sustainability of capitalism, they also reach out a ‘hidden hand’ in support of ecological awareness. Implicitly they ask us to consider that beyond any limits to growth, climate change is only one of the symptoms of how the dominant trajectory challenges the basic assumptions of the human condition.

Ted Trainer, in an article in Arena Magazine 92 juxtaposed with David McKnight’s, stresses these limits. As a passionate critic of the way capitalist greed contributes to climate change, Trainer’s sense of vision is very different to McKnight’s. Nevertheless as an anarchist, who from a social philosophical point of view is a left utilitarian, his failure to give any concentrated attention to changing institutional frameworks of value formation invites some comparison with McKnight’s work.

I am not suggesting that either of these approaches should be simply rejected. A wide range of disparate standpoints can contribute shorter and longer term features to the emergence of a counter to the dominant trajectory. Just because that trajectory is the carrier of unprecedented change, any counter movement is likely to be piecemeal and fragmented in the way it enters public awareness. Yet given the social form, the institutional engagements and the traditions of the intellectual practices, one can be confident that all these will be indispensable components of a counter movement.

I am well aware that I am spitting into the wind when I assert that there is a distinctive, though still far from appropriately recognised social form of interchange that sets apart the intellectual mode of being. The very fact that it cannot stand alone, that, for every individual, it coexists with other less abstracted and more directly tangible modes of sociality, guarantees a persistent surfacing of the widespread malaise I have been discussing. It is breaking through the strictures of the compelling faith now common among these same groupings. It can be expected to do so increasingly, even within the most compromised branches of the intellectually grounded practices.

My thesis is that, as an implicit ethic of co-operation and mutual concern seeks to break free from delusions generated by individually creative service to the powers, the intellectual strata, and especially its technoscientific branch, will come to recognise the emergence of the posthuman ‘reality’ to which their faith contributes.

The dominant trajectory has built its foundations within the heartlands of the intellectually related groupings — the universities — for at least half a century. They are the agents of the ‘technologically mediated’ social forms reconstituting the realm of civil society and encompassing the previously existing institutional framework of ethical formation. Yet a minority among their members are still well placed not only to experience but also to interpret a deep-seated contradiction. They are well placed to question the ingrained ethic of detachment as it feeds into service to the powers — to speak out, to lie in the streets in passive resistance if need be, but above all to find a language appropriate to recognising that they may serve as a catalyst for a far broader movement that moves beyond the politics of corrupt representation.

Geoff Sharp is General Editor of Arena Publications.


* Two publications where this question is considered are S. Cooper, J. Hinkson and G. Sharp, ‘The Idea of the Intellectual and After’, Scholars and Entrepreneurs, Arena Publications, 1996 and G. Sharp, ‘Not By Words Alone’, Dialogue, vol. 24, 1/2005.

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there will be fossil caborn corporations and governments of states with large fossil caborn extraction industries who see climate action as a real threats to their profits, employment levels and tax revenue.The climate action opponent attack fronts include:1. The risks are exaggerated: a. Climate science is grossly exaggerating the effect of rising greenhouse gas levels on climate. b. The impact of temperature increases and higher CO2 levels are exaggerated.2. The action required to slow climate change will destroy our country’s/the world’s economy.On each of these fronts what is being put forward by climate action supporters is complex. There is the inherently complex science and complex action plans based on ETS or caborn taxes. There is not a great deal that can be done about the science at this stage although some of the communication might be improved.On the other hand there are things that can be done about the action plan. It is pointless getting sucked into arguments about long term targets. All that is doing is convincing people that it is all too hard. What we need at the moment is a simple action plan for the next 5 to 10 years. An action plan that can at least convince people that there are easy things that can be done to at least slow down the rate of climate change until we are better prepared to do something about it.

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