Australia is burning: so is it time for a new environmental politics?

January 6, 2020   By Luca Tiratelli, Policy Researcher, NLGN


So, the new decade begins with Australia literally on fire. Unsurprisingly, many of us are feeling the moral imperative for climate action more strongly than ever, and yet a glance at politics right now offers little cause for hope.

Whilst outright climate denialism is on the wane, a look across the Atlantic offers us a clue to what the politics of ‘continuity denialism’ might look like in the 2020s. Taken as a whole, Trump’s border wall and isolationist rhetoric – alongside his refusal to take action on emissions – suggests a vision for the future where countries that think they can withstand the most catastrophic effects of environmental breakdown simply pull up the draw bridge. The rest of the world is then left to pick up the pieces.

At the same time, we see extensive failures in both liberal and green political responses to the challenge. As Naomi Klein has argued, a liberal politics that focuses on returning to some kind of pre-2010s normal – which does not accept that those conditions both fuelled climate breakdown that the political instability of the last decade that has prevented action – is in essence a form of denialism, as it refuses to accept that systemic change is now what’s necessary.

Similarly, while a green politics framed around a vision of individual frugality does at least understand the scale of the problem we face, it ultimately seems destined for failure. Any movement that tells people to curb their desire for material consumption, whilst failing to offer them an alternative means of fulfillment, faces an almighty struggle. Furthermore, this politics of ‘having less’ does not engage with the fact that many people, even in the developed world, feel under immense financial pressure, and are not going to be persuaded that they can afford to see any reduction in living standards.

On the left, the idea of a ‘green new deal’ had offered the greatest cause for hope. However, Labour’s proposals in this area have just been resoundingly rejected by the public, unable to unite even the environmentally conscious, with the Green Party gaining close to 3% of the vote. While, as an agenda, the ‘green new deal’ contains much to be admired, learnt from and built on, perhaps now would also be a good time to reflect on the tensions that come from building our response to climate change around massive increases to the size of the state at this moment of populism and anti-democratic feeling.

It seems important then, that these early days of the 2020s see intense reflection on whether a new kind of environmental politics might be possible. NLGN’s idea of a Community Paradigm, with its agenda of localisation, communitisiation and democratisation, offers a potential starting point here. While ‘the green new deal’ did a lot to try to marry climate action to people’s disquiet with the economic status quo, perhaps The Community Paradigm could do a similar job of linking it to dissatisfaction with democracy. This could further expand the base of people willing to vote for systemic change to counter climate breakdown.

Such an approach would need to be debated of course, and there may be better ideas out there. One thing is not up for debate, however. We need to come up with something, and to come up with it fast.

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