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Edition 36

Some Provocations

Collective solutions for collective problems

NO ONE WANTS global warming, or wider environmental degradation, to be reality. The prospect of Earth becoming inhospitable to life as we know it is a loss too painful to contemplate. Denial, as a first stage of grief, is an understandable but unhelpful human reaction.

Given the high stakes and complexity of interlocking problems, big bold innovative ideas are needed to prod us into widening our vision. There are many media articles detailing the metrics of the gathering environmental crises, but few explore deep-change solutions.

If the capacity of our democratic institutions is being stretched, they will increasingly flounder as environmental problems become more intractable. Papering over the cracks and pretending the foundations are still sound will not advance our prospects

Other cultures, ancient and modern, can help generate ideas. The trick is to jettison old prejudices and blinkered habits of thought, and to see with fresh eyes.

In this essay I explore some fundamentals by drawing on ideas formed during my time living in the Soviet Union. Insights from the Soviet version of the socialist experiment can contribute to a fresh synthesis, which in turn can inform the future.

Mere mention of the words ‘Soviet Union’ can evoke a visceral revulsion, but please hear me out. Terrible crimes were committed, but there are other issues to consider. To swivel the focus elsewhere is not to absolve the brutal behaviour.

It has always been the victor’s prerogative to vilify and blacken the reputation of the vanquished, but it runs the risk of creating a blind spot in our own cultural self-definition. I suspect that our vehement repudiation of the alien Soviet ‘other’ contributes to a serious imbalance in our current crop of self-focussing, socially-reinforced expectations and dominant public norms.

At present, the refusal to deviate from high-resource living, in defiance of nature’s obvious limits, is a form of madness; and I can easily imagine the gods are jostling to puncture our hubris.

Environmental damage is a collective problem and needs collective solutions. Recalling some socialist notions back from the wilderness to which they have been banished would allow for new perspectives, and in turn could broaden our capacity to envision and plan for an unknown future.


MOST SOLUTIONS THUS far proposed to tackle environmental problems are mechanistic adjustments aimed at not disturbing our mindset or lives too much. Yet the problems we face are systemic. The very way we think and do things, how tasks and resources move through the system, lie at the core of our predicament. Fortunately, these social treadmills, roundabouts and ruts are pliable. The way work is organised, how life needs are met, how we confer together en masse, how we govern ourselves, are not cast in stone.

Ecological science offers some signposts. Young ecosystems function differently from mature ones. While invading new territory, young developing ecosystems rapidly colonise and exploit accessible resources. Production, growth and quantity are the key characteristics. This contrasts with mature ecosystems, which favour protection, stability and quality. Survival strategies change at different stages.

If the global spread of Western capital-intensive industrialism over the past two centuries (predicated as it is on growth) is analogous to the exploitive colonising features of young ecosystems, it becomes inevitable that this strategy must change. As opportunities to make easy profits become less available, old ways will not work so well.

Eugene Odum, a founding figure of ecological science, has pointed out that ‘Cooperation has greater survival value than competition when limits (resources or otherwise) are approached’.[1] Continuing with competition at the planet’s biophysical limits to growth will assure mutual destruction. When our sprawling humanity does come against this limit, the competitive rampaging drive of the free market must change to something more cooperative.

Odum’s point about the survival-advantage of cooperation near limits’ edges takes us back to the drawing board regarding socialist ideas and values. Yet there are big cultural obstacles to doing this.

The Cold War made us stupid. For half a century, it was hard to think straight, wedged within a highly polarised hostility, when open, thoughtful discussion was pulverised by rhetorical slanging matches. A geopolitical enmity became entangled with an ideological stand-off which powerfully shaped our political culture and persists today. In 2010, US President Barack Obama’s moderate public healthcare plan was caught in the same crossfire. Not for the first time, he was accused of being ‘socialist’ and therefore menacing.

It is little acknowledged that the massive Soviet social experiment was a genuine attempt to build something completely new. It provided a fabulous results-abundant laboratory, involving 250 million subjects and spanning seventy years. Failed experiments also offer up valuable information for analysis. Why waste the earnest efforts of millions of people by refusing to learn from them?

During any new conversation to retrieve some of these lost perspectives, a resurgence of Left–Right posturing would be counter-productive. A valuable new conversation would separate socialist ideas from the incendiary Marxist flint of ‘class war’, from state-controlled Communist practice, and would drop down into the lived experience of Soviets (as opposed to our habitual interpretations of their society). A quiet, non-pugilistic review, making sparse use of old terminology, could give some room for detours around twentieth Century dualistic thinking.

Typically, this area is approached in a theoretical manner, but mine is not a theoretical analysis. Instead, I worked inductively from my own experience, from Soviet friends, formal interviews and other conversations, to see what patterns of meaning emerged.

Rather than latching onto either ideology, I have found that both can be more usefully employed as sling-shots to catapult contemporary thinking out of the status quo towards new vistas.

My contribution derives from my deep immersion in the Soviet Union. I lived there for twelve months at the beginning of the 1990s; a small window of time when people finally felt free to speak to foreigners; yet they still lived Soviet-style lives. Many were eager to talk, which provided me with an excellent opportunity to learn about how life had been for them. (In time their newly found loquaciousness faded, as everyone became focused on survival. Reflection was a luxury they could no longer afford.)

My experience was unusual in several respects. I lived simply with Soviet people in their flats, sharing their food, going to their parties, shopping and queuing, relaxing at the dacha and vacation centres, standing in the freezing cold waiting for public transport. I discovered a land of insides and outsides. Unwittingly, I became deeply absorbed into the private personal realm, taken into homes and hearts as I moved through networks of people I lived with and those I befriended. I surrendered and melted within their warm, enfolding embrace. It gave me a profound sense of belonging to those people. .

I was cut off from the outside world, with no reason and no means to contact anyone beyond Soviet borders. Free of obligations to family or any Western employer, my consciousness slipped away from its Western moorings. As my habits of interpretation and behaviour loosened, I morphed into some quasi-Russian-Soviet shape.

My Soviet life had a very solid, even stolid, quality. I was forced to realise the abstract and arbitrary nature of money. I learnt much about the generous and arduous spadework of commitment. I became less of a ‘me-first’ person and more attuned to the needs of others and currents around me.


IN GREAT CONTRAST to the generous, broad-spirited quality of life inside Russian homes, the public, official, exterior world was cold, difficult, unyielding, uncaring, even cruel. Only this external face had hitherto been seen by the Western world; and only this cold monotone has dominated Western accounts since. Sometimes, back home in Australia, I’ve wondered whether media images were depicting the same country in which I’d lived.

It is easy to dismiss this hidden face as unimportant, and yet this private world is where Russians tended to spend much of their time, not out in the civic domain. The fact that we discount the functional significance of this cultural ballast says much about us.

I taught at the university, and interviewed many about how their society worked. In 1990, Soviet progressives were engaged in comparing and contrasting their social practices to those of the West, in a bid to better understand themselves. I was drawn into this same process but from the opposite direction.

I wanted to understand what living in a society organised along socialist lines actually looked like. I was culturally of the Left before I set out, although I’ve never had much interest in submitting to dogma. My Soviet immersion challenged me personally and politically. Being sympathetic, I went to the Soviet Union with different questions from other commentators. Instead of setting out to condemn or confirm the superiority of our world, I was interested in discovering which Soviet insights might inform a brighter human future. With this as a starting place, I inexorably parted company from prevailing Western conclusions.


FIRST UP, THE positives: Everyone I met was extremely generous, with a deeply embedded sense of sharing. It was a most striking and attractive feature. Although this sharing ran parallel to the official line, it didn’t strictly arise from their Communist ideology – it wasn’t ‘socially engineered’. It was more a protective reaction against hardship, and happened around the edges of official stipulations about calibrated equality. In the real world of shortages, people had to share, below the radar, in order to survive.

In parentheses, I would add that there were pronounced limits to this open-heartedness. Such intense consideration could never ripple out indefinitely; and beyond the edges of clan-networks there was a sharp drop-off in civic regard.

Still, I became mesmerised by this aspect of their social and economic behaviour. I had the sense that people were guided by a completely different consciousness. I was surprised to watch them respond to others in ways that I couldn’t predict.

This cosy Russian convivial, even cloying, interconnectedness contrasted strongly with the separation and the spaces between people which I experience at home; with our ‘unbearable lightness of being’. Their texture of living favoured passivity, dependency, loyalty, conformity and surrender-submission to group needs. Cooperation was favoured, not competition. These are markedly different to promulgated Western values of self-sufficient individualism, variety, choice and freedom; and also different from corresponding splintering side-effects such as self-absorption and reluctance to cooperate. Their world was highly personalised; ours is impersonal.

The argument can go other ways. When I voiced these thoughts to one Soviet psychologist, he responded by saying that the price of their closeness was too high. Terrorising and herding people so that they cling to each other was ‘a terrible way to touch the soul’ he said. I wouldn’t argue, but Russians do know about sharing (both the good and the bad) at close range; and this aptitude seems to be flying away with the centrifugal forces of our globalised world.

I discovered other deep differences regarding money. Tsarist Russia never made the full transition to a money-based society. Like most pre-industrial communities, people had muddled along, doing tasks and receiving life’s basics. Even into Soviet times people continued to rely heavily on barter, with goods and access to services circulating through their networks of kith and kin. Most Soviet people could not easily accumulate currency in large sums and, with the rouble overhang, money did not wield a lot of clout. Daily cash did exist, but it wasn’t a central obsession. Material acquisitiveness was socially frowned upon and comrades were encouraged to be modest in their requirements. Later I watched my Soviet friends change under the onslaught of the West. As one friend said: ‘Money penetrates into all the crevices of our lives now.’

I saw clearly how competitive materialism nudges people to be separate, whereas collectivism enables people to stay in relationship. Money empowers the individual by extending solo reach, but erodes collective reservoirs. The absence of free-market forces in the Soviet Union allowed their ancient habits of largesse to persist, rather than being swallowed up by intense pressures on the individual. Probably their communal consciousness could only blossom in a collective-economic milieu.

Living there often seemed to me to be more ‘ecological’ in a broadly social and multi-layered sense. We had time for relationships and for leisurely thoughtful conversations. Entertainment had a very light foot-print, most often occurring around someone’s table over simple fare, sometimes with vodka; and there was a lot of fun to be had. It was the last period in my life when I remember luxuriating in time.

Another tendency I found among my Leningrad friends (and they included research scientists) was a soaring, transcendent, poetic view of life. They were far less shoe-horned into a rational, neatly delineated, empirical world view. Historically, Russia was a bystander-observer to the West’s Industrial Revolution, and to hard-nosed mercantile accounting. From the eighteenth century, Russians respected and borrowed from our pursuit of scientific knowledge and technology, but that reductionist mentality never became fully lodged in their marrow.

The Soviet Union was no exemplar of environmental stewardship. However, if Odum is correct about cooperation and sharing having survival advantages near the limits to growth, the Russian aptitude for knockabout collectivism could make a handsome contribution to any twenty-first century paradigm.


IT IS SIGNIFICANT that Soviet ‘sharing’ occurred in a mass urbanised industrial society, as opposed to a village-based agrarian one. People worked in offices and factories, and lived in flats with electrical appliances and indoor toilets. Their society shared our technological capacity to harness the forces of the natural world to human ends. Yet people exhibited some modest non-materialistic self-restraint. This implies that industrialism does not have to breed materialism. It is the enfolding culture which counts. It shapes expectations and behaviour.

The lack of advertising incitement to consume ever more had to be enormously significant. Personally, I found the absence of glossy images a welcome relief. Bodies were more to be lived inside and enjoyed, like a comfortable armchair, as opposed to a commodified art object to be admired or reviled from the outside. Why would it be otherwise? Western advertising is in the business of revving up emotional insecurity and dissatisfaction, in order to boost higher levels of economic activity; and it inflates avarice and over-consumption in the process. It therefore follows that the elimination of advertising allowed these features to subside. (Of course the political propaganda which festooned Soviet public life was their form of visual pollution, and it also distorted psyches.)

Contrary to the conspicuous consumption of the West, the Soviet economy was not geared to pumping out consumer luxuries. Instead, basics were provided to citizens at subsidised prices; everyone was housed and fed.

It is salutary to remember that, as their society began to crumble in the sharp transition years of 1990 and 1991, the Soviet government gave all citizens monthly coupons for food and other essential items. The government also deeded them private ownership of the apartment they occupied.

Would our state act with such clear-headed transformational boldness in an equivalent upheaval, to hand citizens the necessary wherewithal to survive? America provided a contrast, when tens of thousands became homeless in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008.

The Soviet workplace provides another significant point of difference. In their labour-intensive set-up, productivity was ‘inefficient’ according to Western criteria, with the duplication of many workers assigned to one post. However, I had some affection for their doctrine of universal guaranteed employment. Everyone was included in the daily ritual of life. There was no fear of unemployment or penury; no marginalised enclaves of an underemployed underclass. The social cradle-to-grave guarantees soothed the anxiety to strive and acquire.


IN ANY FUMBLING attempts the West might make now to move forward in partnership with nature, an attitude of collective responsibility is crucial. Without strong assurances of social equity for all, coordinated moves to reorganise our industrial-societal structures into a more attuned complexity are unlikely to work, psychologically. There would be insufficient trust for people to let go of present certainties. Understandably, everyone has an eye on how they will fare personally. Why should some embark on belt-tightening, ecologically speaking, while they see others pollute and squander resources with insouciant abandon? This disincentive applies within, as well as between, nations.

Equity will be an enabler; not obsessive penny-pinching exactitude or fanatic appropriation, but rough and appropriate equity all the same. How to get there, from here? A major lesson from the Soviet exercise in equality is that coercion and calibrated formulaic sameness doesn’t work.

I was highly enamoured with the country after I’d lived there. Annoyed by what I saw as the hastiness of Western commentators to condemn everything Soviet during the 1990s, I sought to cut a new path of interpretation through Soviet phenomena. Of one thing I was sure: popular critics were conflating all Soviet evils onto an alleged tragically flawed socialist model, while ignoring the means used over seven decades.

The totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime was most significant.

Their Communism was the abstract ideal of socialism grown in Russian soil, and thus was always going to be conditioned by Russian culture and political traditions. Take repression, for starters. The institutional machinery for a police state was constructed in the nineteenth century, under Tsars Nicholas I and Alexander III, in response to the 1825 attempted coup and the assassination of Alexander II, respectively. So the Bolsheviks did not create anything new. They merely availed themselves of the apparatus already laid down by their predecessors.

In the early years, Lenin took an extreme position, both theoretically and in action. Stalin refined it further in the 1930s, which degenerated into a long nightmare for the Soviet people. Marx’s idea of ‘Class War’ also contributed to this tragedy, by inflaming atavistic human impulses. As theory implied, there were ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people, and it led to the annihilation of many.

Although the regime did try to construct public procedures to ensure greater equality amongst its citizens (and there were plenty of examples of these) the violent implementation tore a gaping hole in the psychic fabric. My ear became attuned to the words ‘I remember well’, as a prelude to stories about the night a family member was plucked out of their flat and taken away. People would recount terrible abuses that their grandparents, or uncles and aunts, suffered at the hands of the state. People didn’t forget these deeds; they stored these memories within.

Boris Yeltsin used those same words. ‘When they took away my father one night – I was six then and I remember it well.’[2] Both of Mikhail Gorbachev’s grandfathers were arrested. It is no accident that Gorbachev’s Perestroika reformers were of an age to remember the Stalinist events of their childhoods. In hindsight, it was inevitable that the whole pressure-cooker would blow apart.

Another Russian feature of the Soviet version of socialism was the accentuated hierarchical nature of decision-making and bureaucratic implementation. Those above controlled those below – and some used their position mischievously, even malevolently. The back-drop of gulags and KGB reinforced power asymmetries, effectively handing great latitude to Soviet superiors.

The command-control structure in the workplace quelled initiative and innovation. Each Soviet work-position had a set of instructions which the occupant had to stick to: ‘We are sacked for breaking instructions. If you adhere to the instructions and everything burns – well it’s okay. If you break the instruction and manage to get things to work, then you can be sacked,’ one lecturer told me. She gave compelling examples of inaction due to fear. The punitive nature of the public domain trained Soviets to be risk-averse. For most it was safer to do nothing; and so the ‘do-nothing’ torpor metastasised.

Another part of the massive go-slow, which any visitor to the country was confronted with, was sour resentment. It festered over what had gone before, plus the incredible bureaucratic labyrinths that kept everyone locked down in their place, plus the feeling of vulnerability that the system had dossiers that could be used against one, at any moment. Soviet desire for freedom from all this entrapment was fierce.

I gleaned a logic behind the many small stubborn acts of daily defiance. People told me they did not want to contribute to the regime’s lifeblood because this would only perpetuate its grip. This principled malingering depleted economic performance and ate away at public life.

Much of the rot stemmed from emotional reactions to bureaucratised totalitarianism, not from specific antagonism against the espoused ideals of socialism (although I met enough people who did hate the very idea). It was the methods used and path taken which eroded good-will towards the workers’ state.

The paternalistic, heartless regimentation denying most Soviet citizens of self-agency was a far cry from the socialist aspirations that I’d admired. Socialism implied liberation from ensnaring economic and class structures. We had certainly never chanted for state control at any march or meeting that I’d attended.


ARE THESE EXPLANATIONS sufficient; or are they merely excuses? Certainly, protestations alone will not establish that socialism is feasible. Foisting most of the blame for the failure of the grand nineteenth and twentieth century vision onto the Russians may be too glib.

My experiential lessons in Russian Communism did drive home the obverse negative side, at a practical level. I had to admit during my early months in Soviet streets, shops and offices that private enterprise has a dynamism that was nowhere to be seen in their government-controlled terrain. Personal reward definitely works a treat, and with it comes a psychological sense of freedom. Market-based economies are good at producing. No question. They excel at flexibility, innovation and can-do willingness. The Soviet motivational stick of coercion and punishment was paltry in comparison to the Western carrot of rewards and incentives.

There were potent arguments against their anti-capitalist system of centralised planning. Trying to micro-manage a complex economy from a central planning office led to paralysis. Their tireless procedures of allocating resources in pre-determined quantities into roughly 12 million disaggregated bits which moved through a network of monopolistic production-houses, especially across their far-flung localities, were unwieldy. It was too complex for the tangle of separate departments, sectors, ministries and regions to coordinate. Cumbersome and sluggish, it was unable to adapt to changing conditions.

Arrayed against this, however, are the familiar evils of the Western free market. Great at material prosperity, at pumping out ‘things’, it can be blind to social and environmental well-being. It generates inequality, which inexorably widens in the absence of countervailing intervention. The ‘unseen hand’ invariably responds to the siren call of the individual purse, not to communal or complex non-material needs. It produces for those with money, ignoring those without. Both models have strengths and weaknesses.

Moreover, endless growth is no longer an option in a world of finite resources. Profit, as the central driver, is meeting its nemesis. To take the words of Michel Camdessus, a former head of the International Monetary Fund, completely out of context: ‘Economic models are not eternal. There are times when they are useful and other times … [when] they become outdated and must be abandoned’.[3]

So why revisit the now-defunct Soviet Union? Where does it get us?

Perhaps betraying some dialectical hardwiring, I have sought for some valuable synthesis of last century’s ruinous Communist experiment with free-market gung-ho.

There has been some intermingling in the middle-ground; namely social democracies in the West, and the economically-more-liberal periods in the Communist world (such as during Gorbachev and Lenin’s New Economic Policy years, in the Soviet Union). I submit that each resembles an ancillary lean-to to the predominant pattern, aimed at ameliorating the inherent shortcomings of each. The former softens some harsh impacts of an uncaring market on individuals, and the latter attempted to make the state-run economy more productive.

Are there other useful blends which could be embraced, if our collective mind could be rid of twentieth century binary ruts?

Added to this is the present contradiction between people and their planet.


ACCORDING TO HISTORICAL philosopher Roland Wright,[4] the last time human demands did not overdraw against nature’s capital was in 1984. Annually, we extract more than nature’s top-up interest. To reverse this, a balanced account with the biosphere has to be at the core of future public policy and private sector practice.

There is no way to squirm around it. Our physical drain on the environment will have to contract. But what is to be jettisoned? Opinions will clash wildly.

A strong contraction, as part of a transition towards a sustainable future, will be tough to negotiate. Gritty obstacles crisscross the terrain.

The forte of the free market is its vigour to produce – not to not-produce. So contraction poses a special challenge. Another Achilles heel is that free-market feedback loops work through the summation of haphazard individual choices. But we cannot afford to wait until most consumers have become informed and highly motivated enough to stop buying polluting and damaging products. The need for change is too urgent. We need more finely articulated information-relays.

Furthermore, how can a modern democracy, steeped in expectations of the unrestrained right to buy and produce, adopt an attitude of collective responsibility towards wise use of resources?

Here, I would float the idea that the Soviets might have got one thing right in seeking to rationally determine what is produced and what is not.

Industrial production is the engine-room of environmental degradation. In any brisk transition from present extravagant excess to sensible but elegant sufficiency, there is a need to exert some enlightened rationality. Why not harness intelligent parts of our brain, not just the hip-pocket nerve?

In the interest of dreaming up an innovative idea, and breaking up the hypnotic power of the status quo, I’ve tinkered and come up with a thumbnail sketch.

Let’s entertain the idea of a hybrid between a free market and a planned economy. The inputs into the industrial–commercial zone, the impacts, and what comes out the other end, could be rationally deliberated upon, in a more a lightly planned approach. If firm overarching directives can channel activity towards goals of ‘common social good’, industrial objectives could be pared down and reset at the outset, before the mechanical and mercantile wheels start to churn.

If, unlike the Soviet Union, there is no micro-managing by any centralised power, freely operating agents could happily preserve capitalism’s dynamic engine ticking over at the centre of industrial activity. Goods could still be bought and sold; not ‘distributed’ to the population. It amounts to moving the borders between public-private, and smudging the demarcations between the two.

Undoubtedly there are other ways to take apart the components of resources, need, motivation, production sequences and their impacts, product-worthiness, working tasks, personnel, and consumers, and fit them back together into a new matrix.

The Soviet industrialised design placed an emphasis on ‘labour’, near the front-end of production, due to the legacy of Marx. This blunted the influence of user-consumers at the other end. Even Leonid Brezhnev acknowledged there was an urgent need for Soviet consumers to have a greater influence on what was produced.

Perhaps now is the point in history when it is imperative to dispassionately examine the output-end, of what is produced, who consumes it and why? Let’s face it: junk is being manufactured, using precious resources for things that no-one really wants.

Industries, services and items could be judged on whether they are worth the degree of environmental damage their production entails. Products judged to be trivial or too damaging could be down-graded or abandoned; while those of high value would be retained. Select the best. Leave the rest.


A DETRACTOR COULD argue: why mess with our finely tuned social mechanisms, evolved over centuries? I would argue that they were shaped under past conditions, devised as the best solutions for that time – not ours. The detractor might continue: just let newly reformed financial incentives work.

The biting question is, what if improved efficiencies, triple-bottom-line accounting, new inventions, a price on carbon, and so on, fall short of what is needed? What then? Do we just sit on our hands, and keep our brains politely at half mast? Keep on with business as usual?

The grip of market ideology will come under increasing pressure because future environmental shocks are likely to force social equity issues back onto the political agenda. Even in the affluent West, contraction, whether voluntary or involuntary, will be more painful than the expansion of recent decades; and a continued heavy reliance on market-logic to shape public life will hurt those at the bottom more. What for some is trimming the fat, is cutting into the bone for others.

Sometimes when I look at my hybrid notion, it can shape-shift into a top-down Soviet-Frankenstein monster. Crucial questions instantly arise. Who will make the decisions, and on what basis? How would the integrity of such processes be protected? Would this system produce optimal results? Would feedback loops flow smoothly back into production?

At least ‘the market’ was an impersonal arbiter of production flows. (Well, in theory anyway.) By contrast, once people take up the reins, the opportunity to redirect the flow towards some and away from others can become too tempting. This sharpens the need to look carefully at governance modes.

The Soviet Union offers a cautionary tale. Ostensibly, it was a planned industrialised economy. In practice, it was not really impartially calculated and allocated. The central-planning hub, Gosplan, (which designed the entire production system of how much of what was made where) became subject to political directives. Thus the moniker of ‘command’ economy became a more accurate descriptor.

The key here is who framed the priorities which determined industrial activity. As part of the privileged elite, both the Soviet leadership and those who translated their wish-lists into a workable plan, were untouched by the endemic shortages which blighted everyone else. Without common Western forms of accountability (such as elections or free press) public input was locked out. Thus the importance of common consumer goods for the masses slid down the priority-list.

Given the recent bowdlerisation of climate science in much of the Australian media, it’s tempting to want to hand the whole kit-and-caboodle over to a technocracy of specialists. Then there would be no debilitating party-political stoushes, no dumbing-down of complex issues into lurid simplicities. Technocrats would ensure that scientific knowledge is handled appropriately, and they are well-equipped to delineate nature’s terms. However, scientists have no special aptitude to decide on the best path forward. Moreover, their vulnerability to political pressure was demonstrated by the Howard government’s attempt to muzzle climate scientists from speaking publicly about their findings. (A case for a new separation of powers, perhaps?)

Together these offer a strong negative lesson of how not to do it. Without the impersonal arbiter of money as the central pulse, it becomes more imperative that any rationally-crafted system pivots around mass input. Mass human experience, not solely the precise narrow focus of specialists or a political elite, is an essential part of feedback loops. The ‘many’ must be authentically involved. No more ‘vanguards’. QED.


I'VE WONDERED HOW this might work. A rich twenty-first century mix of online participation, on-the-ground deliberative deep-democracy techniques and a reduced form of present executive style of government could democratically orchestrate an intelligent contraction in our industrial repertoire.

The public could participate in prioritising products, shaping quotas and choosing how the annual environmental budget could be allocated. This is not unlike Participatory Budgets, which are already in operation at a municipal level in South America. However, this proposed collaboration must be qualitative, considered and slow. Participants would be required to take in good quality information as part of their deliberative contract. A number-crunching exercise would fail dismally. It’s not about juggling competing interests or marshalling the numbers. The aim would be to create optimal outcomes via an evolving process of mass conferring.

It’s easy to be cynical about public participation, but I like to believe that if the general population were given a genuine seat at the table, they would become motivated and informed. An observation made by John Reed, a left-wing journalist who lived in Petrograd during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, is inspiring: ‘All Russia was learning to read, and reading – politics, economics, history – because the people wanted to know… Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets…poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression… Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable.’[5]

Alternative governance and industrial possibilities need to be discussed in public forums, not solely confined to specialist cloisters.


PAUL AHRLICH, AN ecologist and long-time environmental spokesman, has stated, ‘the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of…the services that natural ecosystems supply to the human enterprise’.[6]

We operate as if it’s the other way around. In fact, our value-adding is minor, even miserable, compared to the original cornucopia we receive.

In the end, only action on nature’s terms will count. Our supplier of ecological services is deaf to persuasion, threats and political theatrics.


THE ECONOMIC EQUITY issues discussed in this article may seem dead and buried, ‘so twentieth century’. Yet social ideas can break the surface, sink and then rise up again – the Occupy movement is a case in point. The declaration of the ‘natural, inalienable and sacred’ Rights of Man in 1789 was discredited after the Terror of the French Revolution, only to re-emerge in the middle of the twentieth century, dusted and reworded as ‘universal human rights’.

Whatever the final verdict on socialism, we are suffering from a surfeit of individualism. Our present industrial system was developed under the Social-Darwinist survival-of-the-fittest paradigm. Now, the future needs to be freed from the impediment of resembling the past. Now, as we near the limits to growth, it is important for cooperation to be rewarded over competition by the social-economic environment.

The biosphere is a very collective concern needing collectivist solutions. Optimally, every niche of human society will readjust to a new pattern of living cooperatively with the earth and with each other – just in order to survive.


[1] As quoted in Dale A, with Hill S B. At the Edge. Sustainable Development in the 21st Century. UBC press, Vancouver. 2001

[2] Solovyov V & Klepikova E. Yeltsin – A Political Biography. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. 1992

[3] As quoted in Klein N. The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Allen Lane, Vic 2007.

[4] Wright, R. Author of ABC Massey Lectures & A Short History of Progress, Text Publishing, Melbourne. 2004

[5] Reed J. Ten Days that Shook the World. Penguin, Middlesex. 1966, p39.

[6] As quoted in Dale A with Hill S B. At the Edge. Sustainable Development in the 21st Century. UBC press, Vancouver. 2001

From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review