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February 11, 2020

Time for a rethink

When disaster strikes a community, it’s usually the innate levels of local resilience that determine how quickly that community recovers and moves on. Much has been made of the Australian community response to the fires with volunteer firefighters risking their lives to save their neighbours’ homes. The sheer scale of those fires and the remarkable disconnect between the country’s political leadership and its people may be responsible for some of the ideas now circulating – a desire not just to get rid of a few individuals at the top – but the whole system. Starting again from the bottom up.

Tim Hollo, Executive Director of the Green Institute

As I sat down to write this—struggling with how to get on with normal life while, just down the road, a massive fire burns in one of my favourite places and smoke turns the morning light a ghastly orange—two kookaburras suddenly started laughing in the tall eucalypts behind my home.

The sound sent a jolt of pure joy right through me, like a glass of cold water on a hot day, or a spontaneous cuddle from a child.

We’re living at the end of the world as we know it. And, some of the time, when I squint, turn my head, and look at it from a particular angle, I feel fine.

The Namadgi National Park is on fire. As a Canberran, this is heartbreaking. I’ve spent so much time there with family and friends, walking and camping, marvelling at the wildlife and the ancient rock art of the land’s true custodians, and enjoying the wonder of being in nature. Though I wasn’t here at the time, it also brings back terrifying trauma for so many friends and neighbours of the horrific 2003 fires which scarred the city forever.

But, even before the kookaburras, the fear and anguish was mingled with hope.

So much has already been said about the community’s inspiring response to this summer’s catastrophes. We see volunteer firefighters risking their lives to save others and students distributing masks to people living on the smoke-filled streets; there are families preparing meals to share with those who’ve lost everything and others opening their homes to evacuees; knitting groups are making socks for burnt koalas and wildlife carers are shepherding endangered rock wallabies into safety.

This is wonderful, and it is absolutely worth celebrating. It’s not, however, unusual. It’s what we do. It’s a demonstration of the cooperative and generous spirit that has made humankind such a successful and resilient species.

But these fires are so intense, they’ve done more than trigger the usual human communal response.

These fires have burned up old certainties about the world and our place in it. In doing so, they mark a turning point and an extraordinary opportunity—maybe our last—for deep change.

If, at this moment, we learn the lessons of ecology and translate them into our politics and into how we work for change, this doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It could be the beginning of the next.

Those in power have always known the importance of myth-making to create an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ in order to maintain their power and to direct behaviour. One of the earliest and longest-lasting forms of us and them is the idea that we humans are separate from and superior to the natural world. Dating back thousands of years early agricultural states needed to exclude what become known as ‘weeds’ from deliberately planted crops, and to condemn those who continued to live more closely with natural cycles as ‘uncivilised’. Over time this disconnection has been institutionalised, in religions, political theories and economic models.

It’s this arrogant and exceptionalist attitude which has enabled us to plunder the natural world we are part of, declaring its beauty and bounty to be ‘resources’ for our use and a dumping ground for our waste. These horrific, climate change-driven fires would not have happened were it not for our belief that we are separate from and superior to nature.

This summer has seen this myth go up in smoke.

After months of breathing in the ghosts of gum trees, of koalas and cockatoos, how could we deny that we are all connected? Battered by fire, dust, floods and hail, how could we pretend we’re not completely reliant on the natural world?

One fascinating aspect of this summer’s phenomena is that, because miraculously few people have died thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the firefighters, attention has been focussed on the loss of wildlife. For the first time, a bushfire season has been framed not just as a ‘natural disaster’ impacting on humans, but as a human-caused catastrophe with disastrous impacts on the natural world—impacts which will inevitably blow back on us. The shift in thinking here is remarkable, and will have far-reaching implications.

Importantly, as part of this shift, the role of climate disruption is now assumed. Not even the Morrison Government can deny it any longer. In every previous fire season, all attempts to discuss climate change were furiously shouted down. This time, climate protests have been gathering steam, with tens of thousands of people on the streets, lifting their voices together, demanding that governments act.

But governments aren’t listening.

Even after this summer, governments almost without exception are not just failing to act but are actively standing in the way. They continue to provide tax concessions and royalty holidays to fossil fuels. They introduce legislation to criminalise protest and suppress advocacy, and they mobilise riot police against peaceful protesters. They spread lies and misinformation, misdirecting attention towards convenient scapegoats. They reduce funding to fire services and hand gigalitres of free water to coal mines. Their divisive rhetoric pits people against each other and feeds hatred.

With fires still burning, Scott Morrison is paying lip service to climate action while announcing policies to protect coal, expand gas, and chop down more trees. Anthony Albanese, meanwhile, is still walking both sides of the street, professing great concern but rejecting the (scientifically uncontroversial) need to urgently stop using fossil fuels. State governments of both stripes are similarly attempting various middle paths. Even the ACT, with its Labor/Green government having already achieved 100% renewable electricity, is being held back in the next vital steps by the main party of government’s old thinking. And, around the world, even the countries that put us to shame aren’t doing what the increasingly panicked scientists tell us in very clear terms is necessary.

And we all know it. We’re reaching the age of climate consequences right at the moment when confidence in our democracies has dropped to historic lows, and when authoritarians—in blue shirts and brown—are whittling and hacking away at our democratic norms and institutions.

The second certainty that has gone up in flames this summer is the idea that politics as usual can save us.

It has become clear that our current systems of government are simply incapable of tackling the climate crisis. It’s not that the demands of scientists, school kids, advocates and activists, First Nations people, and countless others haven’t been heard, or just need to get louder. They are being heard, and then deliberately shut down.

In some ways more importantly at this point in history, these systems are spectacularly ill-suited to enabling human survival in the far less hospitable world that they have created. As ecological collapse triggers ever worse extreme weather events and food and water shortages, systems based on adversarialism, individualism, disconnection and dominance will only increase the chaos. They may briefly enable survival for a select few but, as the intersecting crises deepen, extinction would seem the likeliest outcome of the current model.

But then the kookaburra laughs.

What if we treated the abject failure of our systems of government as a liberating opportunity to reinvent them? What if, instead of the end of the world, we decided to make it the end of the world as we know it?

We’re at an inflection point in history. The current world is over, burnt to cinders on a pyre of its own making. In order to both turn around ecological, economic and social collapse, and generate the resilience we need to survive and thrive in the decades ahead, we urgently need to cultivate from the ashes new, regenerative democratic norms and institutions.

And right now, facing the immediate threat of ecological collapse, and finally recognising that we humans are part of and inextricably enmeshed in the natural world, what could be more suitable than basing those new norms and institutions on the principles of ecology?

Every part of an ecology is connected to, and has impacts on, every other part. A small change for one species or community can have huge ramifications for others. In ecology, resilience comes from diversity; over-dominance of one species will generally trigger collapse. Whereas in a machine, each part of the whole is replaceable, in an ecology the parts matter as much as the whole, creating a complex interplay, a coexistence, a balance of cooperation and competition, teeming with ambiguity and unintended consequences. In the dynamic equilibrium of ecology, change is the only constant. Refusal to change will, eventually, end in disaster.

In a world rapidly approaching a precipice, we will need more networks of support, more social cohesion, more layers of redundancy, more cooperation and generosity, more flexibility—all those aspects of society which ecology teaches us create resilience but which, in our anti-ecological politics, are unvalued, marginalised and outright erased. Informed by the ever-changing nature of ecologies, we need to recognise that government and economy are no more than tools that we invented and can reinvent.

I would argue that, at this point, continuing to work for climate action by demanding that governments and corporations act within the current system is both destined to fail and underplays our hand. While, of course, the urgency is such that we must keep constant pressure on all actors, our strategic goals should reach far beyond such pressure and into cultivating the new democratic systems, norms and institutions we need in order to survive and thrive.

Climate campaigning has already evolved substantially over the past two decades into a sophisticated social change and social justice movement. Nevertheless, at essentially every level, it is still aimed at asking governments and corporations to act—even if it is framed as ‘building a mass movement’ to ‘demand’ action.

It’s time we acknowledged that this hasn’t worked, and won’t work. The governments themselves aren’t the real problem. If we replace the people in the seats, little will change. The problem lies in a system designed as anti-ecological. What’s worse, when we demand action of governments, we are effectively buttressing the power of the system, and abdicating our own power.

An ecological approach would reverse this. We would put governments (and oppositions) on notice that we have no faith that they understand the situation we are in or are capable of facing up to it, so we are taking action ourselves. They can get out of the way or follow.

In practice, we need a wide array of projects that involve both living more sustainably and cultivating social cohesion while not just building political power but distributing that power as widely as possible. We need to pivot the climate movement’s broad but shallow community mobilisation towards specific goals into deep, community-building projects aimed towards deeper democracy.

What’s the difference? Community mobilising sees campaigners reaching out to large numbers of community members, by email or social media or at their doorsteps, and asking them to support calls for governments and corporations to take action. Everyone involved knows from the outset that, even if small discrete steps are sometimes taken, the governments and corporations being targeted won’t do what’s actually necessary to confront the crisis we have already entered. This can risk contributing to disenchantment, making it ever harder to engage people again. And, being often inherently adversarial, the campaigns themselves can drive us ever further apart from one another.

Right now, this style of community mobilising won’t help us succeed, and it won’t help us survive. Community building just might help us succeed, and it will definitely help us survive.

Community building creates hope for people by actively involving them in building our common future together. It recruits people into fun, creative, mutually beneficial activities which both reduce our impact on the climate and create social cohesion. They might be walking school buses or dinner discussion forums, community gardens or communal food preparation, repair cafes or renewable energy co-ops, non-violent direct action groups or formal Citizens’ Assemblies. They might involve professional groups imposing green bans, residents converting streets to guerrilla parks, or groups of small businesses establishing a local currency. Over time, we can combine them all, and interlink in appropriate ways with Indigenous, refugee and multicultural groups, sports associations, community arts projects and much more.

Because people enjoy being active participants, they stay involved, are willing to make more demands of governments, and become effective ambassadors. If their political demands don’t succeed, participants know that their local projects are making a real, transformative difference anyway. The diversity of approaches makes involvement more accessible for a wide range of people who develop expertise in democratic practice, taking part in and facilitating collective decision-making for common benefit. By building social cohesion, growing food, and sharing stuff, they are creating care, connection and resilience in their community in the face of climate disasters.

The keystone of this ecological approach is connecting the diverse projects together into a collective whole which is bigger than the sum of its parts, but where all the parts matter as much as the whole. It has to evolve from alternative ideas at the margins into a transformative program of distributed democratic institutions. For this to work, it must be collective but not centrally controlled.

A fundamental insight here is the recognition that collective action doesn’t have to always mean government action. Understanding that opens up a different, more ecological, and perhaps more successful path to change.

Communities might not be able to immediately solve the global fossil fuel energy trade the way determined government action could. But let’s admit that such action isn’t forthcoming. On the other hand, there are vast emissions from transport, food, and consumption which are often seen as ‘stubborn’ emissions, difficult for government to address because they require social change to deal with. Communities can tackle them with bold and creative collective action. What about establishing ‘last mile’ transport services, providing short trips on demand in electric vehicles, by the community for the community? These could fill gaps in inadequate public transport systems, supplement active transport, and bring people together in helping each other out. Similarly, there is a broad range of fantastic options around local food growing, purchasing, preparation and distribution which can reduce the climate impact of agriculture, build bonds in the community, and generate resilience against climate impacts. Community share and repair groups and workshops extend the life of products, teach important skills, and shift worldviews. Even for energy there is plenty that can done, from establishing renewables cooperatives and local micro grids, to energy efficiency skillshares, or collectively installing insulation and draught-proofing in the homes of older or more vulnerable neighbours.

All of this is transformative at the community level. But, bringing the projects together, we can build power to deliver the policy changes we need for the industrial-scale transition. That’s when the community project becomes a political project.

What if we used doorknocking and letterboxing to invite people to get involved in existing groups, and invite them to community meetings to co-design their own local climate-positive, social cohesion projects? What if we supported communities to hold formal and informal citizens assemblies, perhaps connected through those local groups, creating space for Indigenous leadership, actively including diverse community members, to discuss what they can do to confront and prepare for the climate crisis?

What if each of those assemblies and gatherings sent representatives to regional assemblies, and shared what they’re doing through online clearinghouses, so they could learn from and inspire each other, and so they could consciously envisage their actions as vital pieces of collective action which, together, is cultivating the new ecological democratic alternative?

We won’t just be building a movement to demand change of those in power. We will be building our own power, distributing it widely, and creating new regenerative democratic institutions and norms that will enable us to not just survive the coming storms, but thrive.

Here’s the thing: we humans are part of the natural world. Like anything else in the glorious, complex, contradictory mess of ecology, we can be destructive or creative. When we choose to be, we can be regenerative.

Regenerative agriculture, for example, is a hugely exciting demonstration that, even in the face of droughts, fires, floods, and widespread ecological collapse, we do have the capacity to feed ourselves while rebuilding biodiversity and learning again to live as part of the natural world.

If, with the right effort, it’s possible to take highly degraded land and regenerate its health and resilience, then surely we can do the same with our degraded politics. With a regenerative approach, we can plant the seeds of trust, social cohesion, cooperation, and generosity, and we can reap the harvest of a healthy, resilient, joyful, beautiful, ecological democracy.

This will be hard. But it’s well past time we admitted to ourselves that the current path is a dead end.

This summer’s fires have destroyed the myth that we humans are separate from nature, and they’ve burned away the pretence that our current system of government is capable of saving us.

But the kookaburras are still singing.

Don’t be afraid of the end of the world as we know it. It doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It can be our opportunity to cultivate the next one.