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Edition 57

Contents
Essay

Sound, drums and light

The foundations of outsider environmentalism

IN MY LATE-TEENAGE years, I found myself for a time hovering on the border of bogandom. In those long-gone days of the mid-1980s, the bogans of Perth’s foothills could be identified by a clear dress code: flannelette ‘x-brand’ outer shirts, black T-shirts (often with the AC/DC band logo), black desert boots, black jeans and black heavy cotton ‘battle jackets’. And yes, the mullet was the preferred haircut.

The word ‘bogan’ itself was in common usage, but only to describe a kind of social identity and, as I recall, without any implicit disparagement. Bogans tended to be the toughest kids at my school and those most likely to get into physical fights, but my recollection is that they were not generally the bullies. Despite my weedy bookishness, I found myself in the bogan penumbra through some mates who were even more bogan than I was, including a couple who were the real deal – battle jackets and all. My no-doubt unconvincing foray on the fringe of boganness went as far as owning a couple of flannelette shirts and, in retrospect, the photographic evidence suggests a hint of mullet. I possessed at least one copied AC/DC cassette tape, with track titles carefully written out on the inner paper cover.

On a warm autumn afternoon in Sydney I find myself unexpectedly recounting these once-upon-a-time boganesque tendencies to James, a colleague in the environmental movement. I have crashed James’s street-side smoko because I’ve got some questions for him. A taciturn character, widely liked and well regarded for his competence and reliability, James rolls a cigarette and lights up. I begin the conversation with the weird effort in self-credentialing that I have just described, which has me talking about what clothing I wore when Bob Hawke was still the prime minister. At some point though, I realise that I’m both dithering and sounding more than a little ridiculous, so I move on to the purpose of my inquiry. I explain that I want to ask James about Bogans Against Climate Change, a small but lively activist group that he co-founded a few years ago. James looks at me squarely and raises his eyebrows.

THE MODERN ENVIRONMENTAL movement has made extraordinary gains since emerging in the 1960s and ’70s, but even collectively these are not as yet sufficient to stave off calamitous global warming and biodiversity loss.[i] Though enormous ground has been won – for example, in accelerating the rapid structural decline of the coal industry – the speed of transformation in energy use required for a chance at keeping global temperate increases to below two degrees has reached the point of being very challenging.[ii] And that was before Trump. Not only has the rightward populist turn thrown up new obstacles to reform, the rabid anti-environmentalism, climate-change denialism and sucking up to the fossil fuel industry threatens to unwind historic progress.

One of the features of right-wing populism is that although the rhetoric may be egalitarian or redistributive, or even explicitly antagonistic towards the power of big business – think of Trump’s repeated promise to ‘drain the swamp’ – the actual political practice is invariably in the other direction. Whatever the campaign talk, the Trump administration is hyperactively re-regulating in favour of major corporations and the super rich, and dismantling protections for the poor and disadvantaged. In Australia, for all of One Nation’s posturing about standing up for ordinary people, their senators in the current parliament have supported corporate tax cuts and voted against maintaining weekend penalty rates for workers. It is clear to the extent that it is the socially and economically marginalised who are venting their anger and frustration at the unfairness of the system by supporting right-wing demagogues, they are voting in a way that is inimical to their own class interest.

The irony has an environmental concomitant, because ecological harm generally strikes hardest against the poorest and most deprived. One 2014 Australian study, for example, concluded that ‘socio-economically disadvantaged populations were disproportionately distributed with respect to industrial sites emitting significant air pollution, as well as the number, volume and toxicity of air emissions from these sites’.[iii] Although global warming is an ecumenical problem, it is those in poverty who are already experiencing the impacts most severely. In my street-side conversation with James, he’s blunt about the motivation behind founding his organisation: ‘Bogans come from the lower classes and climate change will hit poor people first.’

Of all the extreme weather consequences of climate change, sudden disasters like bushfires, floods and cyclones may be the most spectacular, but in Australia it is extreme heat that is the deadliest.[iv] The principal direct cause of death is through heatstroke, which occurs when the body’s internal temperature rises from the usual 37 degrees to above 40.5 degrees. Heatstroke usually incapacitates before it kills. Symptoms can include difficulty in speaking, concentration and physical co-ordination. Severe headache is likely, along with nausea and vomiting. Finally, if your body temperature is not quickly brought down to a safe level, your organs begin to fail and you will die – literally cooked alive.

We are all susceptible, but some of us are much more likely to be killed by extreme heat. Those most vulnerable include the aged and very young, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, the overweight, those living alone, the homeless and all people lacking in social support.[v] Disadvantage is the overwhelming determinant. Thermoregulatory physiologist Ollie Jay has noted that if you don’t have air-conditioning you are thirty-five times more likely to die from extreme heat.[vi] At a public event at Sydney University in April, I ask Jay from the audience how someone in the hottest of the city’s western suburbs would experience extreme heat compared to, for instance, a resident of Potts Point. ‘Access to solutions,’ Jay responds with wry understatement, ‘would likely be very different for the two of them.’ In Australia, the most common reason not to have air-conditioning is because you can’t afford it. Given the postcode, the Potts Point resident ‘probably doesn’t have a great deal of financial concern about keeping the air-con on all day – to keep his dogs cool, perhaps.’

A FEW DAYS later, I head out to Penrith, which in early 2017 was memorably named by The Huffington Post as Australia’s ‘hottest, sweatiest, steamiest suburb’.[vii] I know Penrith only slightly and I want to look at the place with fresh eyes. For those not familiar with Sydney’s geography, Penrith is a long way out from the city – almost twice the distance from the Opera House as England is from France at the Channel’s narrowest point. As I drive down Mulgoa Road towards the town centre I see an old man, looking frail, tottering along with a cane next to the busy street. I can’t glimpse the fellow’s face, but he’s wearing an oversize maroon jumper with dark shorts, and as the traffic slows to a pause, I can see raised dark veins at the back of his white legs. A few minutes later I park and, without much of a plan, my eight-year-old daughter and I go for a wander, in and out of shops, making polite conversation with a few strangers. Trying not to sound odd, I ask what people who don’t have air-conditioning do in the extreme heat. A friendly woman in a bank smiles at me with puzzlement because the answer is so obvious; Penrith’s giant Westfield shopping complex offers air-conditioned sanctuary. So there it is, if you have the means of getting there you can escape the impacts of global warming during trading hours by heading to the shopping centre. I think again of the old man with the walking stick.

The extraordinary heat in places like Penrith is only one of the ways in which the consequences of global warming are now plainly upon us, striking with growing ferocity at the same time as we experience the populist surge. It is not altogether a coincidence; the slow violence of the heatwave imposes stress upon people that can lead to eruptions of anger. A whole sub-genre of films, that might be dubbed heat-noir, use the context of the Celsius gauge rising as both metaphor and cause of rising tensions, leading to outbursts of politically tinged violence. In Joel Schumacher’s politically ambiguous 1993 film Falling Down, it is the air-conditioning in his car malfunctioning in the heat that finally tips the main character William Foster, played by Michael Douglas, into a destructive rampage.

It is common ground to both the right-wing populists and their opponents that the appetite for political upheaval is fuelled by a profound sense that the structural socio-economic shifts associated with globalisation, financialisation, automation and digitisation have left many people behind. As Hugh Mackay reflected in his Gandhi Oration in January this year, in everyday life these grand changes are experienced as lack of control, manifested as increased material precarity and psychological disquiet.[viii] Mackay also noted that the ‘growing rumble’ of climate change (along with terrorism and further global economic disruption) is contributing to a growing sense of powerlessness and vulnerability. Ultimately, the consequence might not only be acute anxiety and other mental health problems, but violence. If the air-conditioning breaks, you can only keep the dogs cool for so long.

FINISHING HIS CIGARETTE, James explains that he and his partner and some of their friends set up Bogans Against Climate Change in the lead-up to the massive climate marches that swept across Australia in late 2015. I ask James how people have responded to the activism of the BACC. His face gives a flicker, suggestive of muscle memory from years of complicated conversations. ‘People get it. There’s bugger-all denial out there. They just don’t know what to do. People are sick of politicians talking shit and doing nothing. This is about doing something.’ He then tells me a description he once heard about class and energy: ‘The rich buy solar power as a status symbol. The middle classes buy solar because it is the right thing to do. The lower classes buy solar as a way of saying, “Get fucked, we are taking control.”’ I tell James I’d like to quote him on some of what he is telling me. He smiles doubtfully.

As the social activist, poet and CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society of Australia John Falzon has said, it is inevitable that ‘humiliation begets disempowerment or rage’.[ix] But equally, ‘as the history of progressive social change teaches us, humiliation can also turn into revolution under the guiding stars of struggle and hope’. The conditions that have given rise to malignant populism also present great opportunity. These days of outrage are ripe for the emergence of an outsider environmentalism, as a dynamic popular alternative to the menace from the right. A project of popular environmentalism would not abandon the imperative for transformative action to stop carbon pollution and reverse biodiversity loss, but would pursue these aims as part of a wider social vision for increased human security, agency and flourishing.

An environmentalism of the majority would share some of the critique of the status quo that is often propounded by aggressive nationalists: the system is unfair, the dice are loaded against the common person and, yes, both people and planet are getting done over by economic and political elites.[x] However, where the ugly populism of the right seeks to slake dissatisfaction by scapegoating minorities, popular environmentalism can instead proffer a positive outlet for frustrations, harnessing the power and determination of the Australian people in shared democratic challenge to reclaim our politics from the vested economic interests that are detrimental to the common good.

The extent to which people feel in control of their own lives must be key to any popular environmental project. It is crucial that the environmental imperative is not experienced as just another kind of powerlessness, felt as the imposition of edicts by know-it-alls wielding abstract rationalisations. You can’t do this. Now they want to stop you from doing that. Bloody environmental wowsers. They’ll want you to go back to the cave next. Whether it is being told what you shouldn’t buy, or told what you have to stop doing, environmentalism in practice can run the risk of being felt as just another broken thread in a wider fraying of agency, often advanced in the name of a conceptual abstraction like ‘emissions reduction’ or ‘preventing biodiversity loss’, or for some faraway place or exotic species at a distance from everyday concerns. The challenge now is to switch the dynamic, to forge an environmentalism that is about enabling people to reclaim power, agency and hope. It is a project with the potential for popular appeal across a very broad swathe of society. In this context it is worth recalling the sheer extent of contemporary wealth disparity, in which the top 1 per cent have as much wealth as the rest of the planet combined, and the already stark ratios of CEO-to-worker pay rates continue to increase.[xi] Across the developed world, socio-economic precariousness is spreading rapidly within the middle classes. Perhaps in one sense at least, among the 99 per cent we are all bogans now.

Ensuring a just transition to decent jobs and credible alternative development pathways for workers and communities directly affected by the dismantling of the fossil fuel industry is an essential ingredient of popular environmentalism. However, though absolutely necessary, the social and economic ills driving the rightward turn will not be ameliorated only through intervention to secure decent lives for fossil fuel workers left without an industry. Instead, what is required is a broader rethinking, putting an end to domination by transnational business and footloose finance in favour of a politics of reclaiming social rights, redirecting wealth towards increasing equality of opportunity, and returning time, space and security to people in order to engage in fully realised lives.

When I circulate a draft of this essay back to James before final submission, he’s characteristically no-nonsense: we have to get on with the job of turning theory into practice. Popular environmentalism must begin with everyday experience and be expressed in the form of active political solidarity on matters of concrete concern. The movement will thrive if people are offered greater control over their own lives – not only through practical measures, like citizens owning the means of power generation, but a whole raft of remedies designed to address economic precarity and social alienation. As environmentalists we must remain devoted and true to our historic mission of fighting for clean skies, the wild oceans and the tall forests. But by binding our demand for an earth capable of nurturing life in all its magnificent diversity to an ethic of social solidarity and a vision of our common human flourishing, the opportunity is there to build something huge – a movement strong enough to reclaim the biosphere and build the good life for all.


References

[i] UNESCO (2017). Changing Minds not the Climate (Draft), UNESCO Task Force on Climate Change. UNESCO, Paris. Available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/ecological-sciences/climate-change/ [Accessed 20 June, 2017]

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Chakraborty J & Green D. (2014) The relationship between industrial air pollution and social disadvantage in Australia: national and regional inequitiesAir Quality and Climate Change Journal, [online], 48(4). pp.35-28: Available at:http://web.science.unsw.edu.au/~donnag/Chakraborty%20and%20Green[1].pdf [Accessed 5 June, 2017]

[iv] Fenwick, J. Hanna, E. Hughes, L. (2017) The Silent Killer: Climate Change and the Health Impacts of Extreme Heat. [pdf] Sydney: The Climate Council. Available at https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/uploads/b6cd8665c633434e8d02910eee3ca87c.pdf [Accessed 20 June, 2017]

[v] Health Direct, (2017). Heatstroke. [online] Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/heatstroke [Accessed 20 May, 2017]

[vi] Kenny, G.P., Yardley, J., Brown, C., Sigal, R.J., Jay, O. (2010). Heat stress in older individuals and patients with common chronic diseases. CMAJ Can. Med. Assoc. J. [online] 182, pp. 1053–1060. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2900329/ [Accessed 2 May, 2017]

[vii] Sharwood, A. (2017). We found Australia’s hottest Sweatiest Steamiest Suburb. The Huffington Post [online]. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/01/24/we-just-found-australias-hottest-sweatiest-steamiest-suburb_a_21661273/ [Accessed 17 May, 2017]

[viii] Mackay, H. (2017). Hugh Mackay: the state of the nation starts in your street. The Conversation [online].Available at http://theconversation.com/hugh-mackay-the-state-of-the-nation-starts-in-your-street-72264 [Accessed May 17, 2017]

[ix] Falzon, J.  (2015). Resistance and Hope speech to congress at Progress 2015 Conference [online]. Available at: https://www.vinnies.org.au/page/Publications/National/Articles_and_speeches/Resistance_and_Hope_Speech_to_Progress_2015_Conference/ [Accessed 3 Jan, 2017]

[x] Stilwell, F., Jordan, K. (2007). Who Gets What?: Analysing Economic Inequality in Australia. Cambridge University Press.

[xi] ibid.


From Griffith Review Edition 57: Perils of Populism © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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