- Jeremy Agar


by Theresa Gattung, Random House, Auckland, 2010  

This is a sort of autobiography, but really it’s a justification. Only a few people will know of Gattung as anything other than as the Chief Executive Officer of Telecom, a job she held from 1999 to 2007; the years when Telecom was everyone’s least favourite company. Gattung’s sub-title is a pointer - to the tone as much as to the content. She’s giving us “The Inside Story from a Straight Talking CEO”. People who write autobiographies when they’re scarcely middle aged tend to be from a hyped-up, highly visible career like sports or entertainment or business. They often take themselves more seriously than they need to, or they have axes to grind. Perhaps they need the money. The latter isn’t likely the case with Gattung, but as an autobiographer she’s otherwise true to type.

Gattung is not the first woman in the public eye to tell her story by putting a bird in her title. Everything about this book reads as a generic product. It’s almost entirely predictable. We get the sexism-in-business complaint, the old-blokes-are-in-the-way complaint, and of course lots of stuff about bundling and unbundling, and engaging, creative entrepreneurs and plodding politicians. Like all such tomes it won’t change minds. The birds on the wires or in their gilded cages (the version of a youngish ex-politician in Canada) are always straight talking. If they want to give the impression of being honest, hinting that they’re going to give the reader the true inside story, they’re going to be straight talkers. Otherwise they won’t win over the reader or sell many copies.

As Gattung’s persona is of the young woman in charge of the country’s biggest corporation, she has to have these qualities. Without them, what’s the story to be? The gutsy persona could be a fiction. It could even be true. From the outside, it’s not easy to get beyond the spinning, but from the outside, who cares about the personalities in these outfits? For a young bird to balance on a wire when all the other birds are trying to tip you off, life is never easy. But a quandary emerges. If you get a top job at an early age, before all sorts of resentful rivals, it might not be because you’ve overcome sexism and ageism and the rest of it. It could be that you are yourself not a straight talker but a compromiser and a conformist. Again, who knows? Public relations types like brave young women because they brand you well in the market.

A Dull CEO

What we do know is that she succeeded Rod Deane, who seems to have been influential in launching her career. Gattung says she practised for her job interview by getting eight people to enact the interviewers. Who were these people? How do you find them? The aviary is a different sort of place. Deane was an architect of the neo-liberal reforms that devastated NZ (see Watchdog 113, December 2006, for Jeremy’s review of Michael and Judith Bassett’s “Roderick Deane: His Life and Times”, Ed.), but Gattung describes herself as a pragmatist. She certainly isn’t the hard core neo-liberal that Deane was, and where he comes across as arrogant, Gattung’s boastful. She doesn’t seem to be an ideologue as much as a woman with a knack for impressing the right people at the right time. We’re given quite a bit of personal biography, from which a picture emerges of a capable, aggressive but pleasant enough person from a conventional background with a range of conventional opinions. They soften the impression we might have had of a Telecom CEO, but the CEO is dull.

by Felix R Fitzroy and Elissaios Papyrakis, Earthscan, London, 2010

edited by Thomas P Lyon, RFF Press, Washington, 2010

by Clive Hamilton, Crows Nest, NSW, 2010

by James Hansen, Bloomsbury, London, 2009

by Raj Patel, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2009

“To preserve a planet similar to that on which life on Earth is adapted” we have to go from the present level of carbon dioxide of 390 parts per million (ppm) to 350 ppm. At 450 ppm, a density that, given present trends, the world will certainly achieve, civilised life will not be possible. This is not a theoretical number, the fruit of computer modelling. “It’s derived from the last 11,000 years of Earth’s history”. This is gist of what James Hansen has concluded after a career studying earth science at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US. Hansen is often asked why he’s not targeting a return to 275 ppm, the level that naturally existed before the Industrial Revolution, the level, that is, to which life forms had adapted. It’s not possible, he says. We can’t get there and keep a modern civilisation with roads and buildings. The one big question is of course: Can we get to 350 ppm, and then find a way to live indefinitely at a lower level on a cooler planet? The bulk of Hansen’s authoritative account is the evidence for these conclusions and the beginnings of an answer.

Best Case Scenario

Hansen’s is a best case scenario. This is because the greenhouse gases are already in the atmosphere, and it will take centuries for them to disperse. So it’ll be hard enough just to stop adding, let alone reduce the pollutants. Worse, we are probably close to an exponential rush of new gases. If the Arctic and sub-Arctic permafrost melts, vast volumes of trapped methane will enter the atmosphere, and once the ice cap starts to go, it would happen fast. The “sea level would be continually changing for centuries” and, at that point, the process would be irreversible. And if the Himalayan glaciers melt, the great rivers of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan will become mere trickles.

A related issue for Hansen - if only this were always the case with policymakers - is “species extermination”: “We deforest large regions, replace biologically diverse grasslands and forests with monoculture crops, and introduce foreign, invasive animal and plant species that sometimes wipe out the native ones.... Species at the most immediate risk are those in polar climates and the biologically diverse slopes of alpine regions”. Having worked for NASA for many years, Hansen has the tools to look at the big picture. In common with international colleagues, he has calculated the current extinction rate to be at least a hundred times as much as any underlying average natural rate. Human activity is 10,000 times more powerful a factor in altering climate than any combination of natural causes. Denialists - a term used by Clive Hamilton - hope to blame Sun spots, but there is “no chance whatsoever that the Sun can cause Earth to go into a Little Ice Age”.

Hansen is all too aware that “the scientific method is a handicap in a debate before a non scientist audience”. The corporates and their politicians demand confirmation; science is tentative, seeking refutation. When Hansen’s research indicated that other gases, like methane and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), contributed rather more to global warming than he had previously thought, Dick Cheney, George Bush’s Vice President and the architect of official stonewalling, went around saying that Hansen now knew that carbon dioxide wasn’t such a worry after all. The guy was an “alarmist” who should make up his mind. The word from the White House (the world’s biggest government) was that Bush and Cheney just wanted to get the Government off America’s back. Unlike Hansen, whose motives were said to be suspect as he wanted grants to justify his job, Bush mates like BP or Exxon, who contradicted Hansen, were guided only by the beauty of pure science.

In this context, NASA became increasingly politicised. At first scientists were told to avoid talk of “dangerous human-made interference”. Whenever a reporter and an honest scientist met, minders hovered. Then came overt obstruction. Hansen tells the story of how, in the course of researching for an article on NASA’s function, he looked up its Mission Statement. The role he was recalling, that NASA existed “to understand and protect our home planet”, had been deleted. In Stalin’s Kremlin purged leaders were airbrushed out of photographs. They became non-persons. In Bushite America discoveries that were unwelcome to corporates became non-facts. They could be expunged by an anonymous hacker without reference to senior scientists. Concurrently, 20% of the earth science research budget was eliminated. This was an even more drastic cut than the number suggests as most of NASA’s funding goes to fixed overheads.

Hansen quotes a radio talk given by the NASA administrator, Cheney’s hit man: “I guess I would ask which human beings - where and when - are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now, is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take”. Another Bush official to denigrate climate science was Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. Was that the first time a Treasury Secretary pronounced officially on science?

Survey Of US Environmental Groups

Hansen’s is perhaps the most thorough and reliable account of the science of climate change that’s available for the general reader. For those looking for a less detailed explanation the essays by Fitzroy and Papyrakis, British economists, would be useful. Their summary of the science is based on Hansen; their economic analysis is consistent with those of Hamilton and Patel. “Good Cop Bad Cop” is a survey of American environmental organisations, written in an academic style that might appeal more to researchers. The title is derived from the dilemma that faces all protest groups over whether to confront or compromise. The sheer scale of Washington lobbying is reflected in one article which lists just the big registered environmental groups. There are 94 - more or less - and they seem relatively impotent.

The biggest mobilisation so far has been the Greenpeace Exxon Secrets Campaign, launched in 2001 after Bush withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol (the international agreement to combat global warming). A leaked document from Exxon headed “Global Science Communication Plan” outlined the end game for Big Oil. “Victory Will Be Achieved When ... Average citizens ‘understand’ (recognise) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of conventional wisdom” and “Media ‘understands’ (recognises) uncertainties in climate science”.

Note the cute punctuation, an indication that Exxon was explicitly lying. This should surprise no-one. An energy corporation would be well stocked with highly educated geologists. It could commission accurate scientific reports for, in its terms, a tiny investment. Being an academic treatise, with that irritating habit of trying to be always bloodless, “Good Cop Bad Cop” merely outlines the fact of the campaign. Fitzroy gives more detail (derived from the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the 94 big registered environmental groups). Exxon spent $US16 million, channelling money to no fewer than 43 denialist outfits. 43!

Another supplier for the denialists has been Koch Industries. Greenpeace says it donated nearly $US48 million to climate opposition groups from 1997-2008. It also spent $US5.7 million on political campaigns and $US37 million on direct lobbying to support fossil fuels. Koch has been fined for leaking three million gallons of crude into ponds, lakes and coastal waters (Guardian, 30/3/10). No wonder so many compliant, but often uninformed, journalists, in a fatuous search for “balance”, kept giving the liars equal time. Yet the publicity got bad enough that in 2008 Exxon announced that it would no longer fund the “sceptics”. That was a lie. Since these books were published it’s come out that Exxon’s been back at it, sludging cash to the groups who helped sabotage a deal at Copenhagen (Press, 20/7/10).

On Capitol Hill they talk of the “revolving door” that links politicians and lobbyists. Big Pollution has the need - and the resources - to buy support like no-one else - apart from Wall Street and the (ill) health lobbyists. Hansen mentions a just retired and very senior Congressman who has apparently enjoyed a retainer from a coal company - that’s just one company - of $US120, 000 per quarter. The total spent by pro-business lobbyists in Washington in 2009 was $US3.47 billion (New York Review of Books, “The Money Fighting Health Care Reform”, 8/4/10, Michael Tomasky).

For The Big Picture Read Raj Patel

For the big picture, to link this petty politics with science and economics - and perhaps no topic more compelling insists that we take a wide, integrating perspective - read Raj Patel. “Nowadays”, Oscar Wilde quipped, “people know the price of everything and the value of nothing”. That’s where Raj Patel got his title, his point being that familiar measurements of economic growth have served us poorly. GDP stands for Gross Domestic Product, which includes everything. To take a current example, BP’s oil spill is costing billions, and will Grossly boost Louisiana’s economy as it destroys local businesses.

An oil spill as an economic good? That’s crude. Patel’s theme is that we’d be better off to look at real costs. This isn’t just the obvious moral or social argument. An obsession with growth has obscured the specifically financial numbers that the bean counters respect. Consider the price of a hamburger. Patel warns that exact numbers in such estimates are impossible to derive but his informed guess is that the real cost of a hamburger made by beef grown in a clear cut tropical forest (in 1994 dollars) was $US200*. As the neo-liberals always remind us, numbers can be derived from the measurable, so Patel is abiding by the rules set by the rationalist economists. But “cost” is like “value”. To paraphrase that long-running credit card ad, the big losses, of abused societies and ruined ecosystems, are priceless. *Patel is a specialist in the economics of food. I reviewed his “Stuffed And Starved” in Watchdog 116, December 2007,

Even so, Patel could be letting the fast food industry off lightly. Junk food is comparatively cheap in America, making it attractive to the poor. The resulting health and social costs from heart disease and obesity are high. Patel takes us back to the early modern era to assess two broad streams that have flowed from what historians call “social contract” theory, the philosophic basis of the societies derived from the English tradition. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) thought that we needed a strong ruler or we’d never work together. Before government, life would have been “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. There’s plenty wrong with Hobbes’ anthropology, but, when it comes to looking after Earth, Patel thinks he had a point.

For him the villain is John Locke (1632-1704), a verdict that might surprise in that Locke is associated with liberal values. Locke’s optimism, the idea that there’s enough for all and individuals should be rewarded for the wealth they create, appealed to the new mercantile classes and made him popular with, for example, the American Founding Fathers. However, Patel argues, some centuries later the world isn’t as spacious as it once appeared to European migrants. One consequence of liberal capitalism is what’s called “a tragedy of the commons”.

Patel explains: “A commons is a resource, most often land, and refers both to the territory and to the ways people allocate the goods that come from that land. The commons provided food, fuel, water and medicinal plants for those who used it - it was the poorest people’s life support system. This is why the commons in England was ground zero in the great transformation. To value something involves both identifying it and setting up rules through which it can be used by society, and the rules of commoning were fundamentally incompatible with capitalism. By turning public land into private property, not only did land become a commodity, but the rural poor were cut off from their only means of survival, and forced to sell the only thing they had left - their labour. From the enclosure of the commons were born two new kinds of payment - rent and wages”.

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), an early economist, is still identified with the theory that the world faces starvation because population will rise faster than a finite ability to produce more food, and the “tragedy of the commons” was coined by Garrett Hardin in 1968 as a Malthusian concept. Patel disagrees. The cause of the tragedy is that “when faced with a shared resource, people will be overrun by their own selfish desires to consume it, even if they know they’re destroying it in the process”. The problem has “nothing at all to do with population, it is distribution”.

Patel has to be right. In all the recent food crises people have starved not because there was no food but because they couldn’t afford to buy it. The corollary for Patel is that the fault lies not with the poor for having too many children, nor with a rapacious human nature. These are reactionary prejudices, used to justify repression of the many by the few. So “the nightmare did not begin with the creation of the commons, but with the process of its destruction, the process under which it was taken under private ownership”. Patel comments that fishing is a popular example of the tragedy of the commons. Stocks are in strife, the orange roughy being a local victim, after the oceans had been viable for centuries. NZ has the unusual distinction of having deliberately legislated a tragedy of the commons into being in the Lange and Bolger eras, in the 1980s and 90s. The nasty and brutish reform of electricity comes to mind.

Critic Of Conspicuous Consumption

By emphasising increased global demands for food and the unsustainable spread of land being given over to the production of rice and meat, Hamilton takes what might seem to be an opposite tack to Patel. It’s more helpful to see them as complementary. The difference is of emphasis, not their analyses. Hamilton has more of a focus on the West. He’s a critic especially of conspicuous consumption, the neurotic drive to shop. Since the 1990s, he says, corporations have found a way to restore declining profits by devising “entry level” luxury goods. Without our restless ambition of “getting and spending” (that’s Wordsworth 200 years ago reacting to the first great boom in mass markets) US emissions would be 1/4 their present level. This is an extraordinary number. What assumptions inform Hamilton’s definition of waste?

Both writers agree that “green consumerism” is not a viable response. The personal gesture, Hamilton explains, is a flawed tactic as “it transfers responsibility from the corporations ... and the governments that should be restraining them... [It is] a privatisation and individualisation of responsibility”. Also it doesn’t work because not enough people respond. Corporate propaganda likes “responsibility” in part because it assumes a moral superiority (our people aren’t sickness beneficiaries) but, more importantly, because if we are responsible for ourselves as individuals then there is no need for governments to act. A coal company’s ads ran: “It’s easy to blame industry and transport for environmental crime. But who decides what to produce and what to ship to different parts of the world? Isn’t it you as a consumer?” BP could try it. The Gulf spill is the fault of car owners.

As a cultural critic and scourge of bourgeois styles, Hamilton condemns the usual suspects like high-rise apartment buildings and shopping malls. Here his complaint is aesthetic. Environmentally, he’s on shaky ground. Compact cities produce fewer greenhouse gases per person. That’s a quibble. Hamilton targets the people who call themselves sceptics, but that’s a misnomer. Scepticism involves the scientific virtues of inquiry and tentativeness. Real scepticism demands that a hypothesis be falsifiable. Hamilton calls these ones denialists, an epithet that captures their faith-based approach. Denialists exist in order to badmouth the science, so they have no interest in rational inquiry. Flat denial is the best option, but, if facts get in the way, global warming can be attributed to natural variation, like changes in Sun spots. Another gambit is to decide that we could do with a bit more heat. One of Koch’s corporate propagandists has suggested that global warming will be beneficial in winter and at the Poles. Another Koch-funded outfit has put it about that cutting greenhouse emissions would be detrimental to public health. These are cosy comforts, though a ... sceptical ... observer might think they’re Koch-ups. Global warming as a good thing contradicts global warming as a nonexistent thing.

Sowing Doubt; Promoting Limitless Growth

Hamilton points out that the climate denialists are direct descendants of the tobacco denialists. In the 1980s Big Tobacco’s Philip Morris needed to show that human lungs could do with a nice coating of tar so it devised “astroturfing”. This technique involved setting up apparently independent front groups to worry about “over regulation” of business and “unfounded fears” of health risks. A tobacco sceptic explained the spin: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is the means of establishing a controversy”. In the 1990s Exxon used the same public relations flaks to discredit climate science. They’re proving at least as successful as the tobacco lobby.

“Doubt” is clever. A synonym for scepticism, it encourages the familiar retort: “Keep an open mind”. It sounds liberal. In this example, though, doubt is placed in opposition to a “body of fact”, the punctuation implying that we shouldn’t pay too much attention to (so-called) facts. In a section called “Leftwing scepticism”, Hamilton has a brief look at “post-structuralist ‘relativism’” (the habit, big in the ‘80’s and ‘90s, of saying there was no such thing as objective reality) - suggesting that both political extremes have a penchant for irrationalism. More detailed, however, is his critique of the opposite trend - to strict rationalism, which also has a Left and a Right version. The book’s subtitle, and the focus of most subsequent interest, is: “Why we resist the truth about climate change”, so this emphasis merits attention. Hamilton is not himself a scientist. He’s a philosopher and social commentator.

A generation ago, when ecological awareness was stirring, the Club of Rome (representing mainstream European opinion) issued a report whose title hints at its prescience. “The Limits To Growth” recommended that policymakers take responsibility for dwindling resources and a depleted environment and put away their fetish with growth. To corporations fretting at existing curbs on their need to plunder the planet this was intolerable. A typical response came from an influential Yale economist who ranted that the Club of Rome was talking “irresponsible nonsense”. Hamilton notes that the reactionary backlash successfully demonised moderation. Rachel Carson, who wrote the very popular “Silent Spring” in 1962, a warning about pesticides, was hounded by the chemical industry, attacked as “a hysterical woman” and a “subversive”.

Ronald Reagan (US President 1980-88), that Republican archetype, just knew that “[t]here are no great limits to growth when men and women are free to follow their dreams”. Reaction has long been given to windy rhetoric. A typical variant from NZ was from Owen McShane, a conservative advocate, who described plans to curtail urban sprawl as an example of the “romantic nonsense of green belts”. The attempt to cut carbon emissions, in the view of one propagandist, was nothing but “bureaucratic suppression”. This free spirit echoed Reaganite enthusiasm to do with “the manifest destiny of the human race. In this country we are the builders of new worlds. In this country we took a raw wilderness and turned it into the shining city on the hill of our world”.

These images are American staples. “Manifest destiny” translates as “America is Number One because that’s the way God wants it”. First the native land was colonised, then the West was conquered and the world dominated. And with his Star Wars fantasy Reagan dreamed of the culmination: the subjugation of space itself. In this context the current contempt for the natural environment can be seen as the logical extension of a centuries-long history of exploitation and expansion. Fundamentalist religion sweeps clear any residual doubt. Biblical injunctions for Man (white males) to have dominion over the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air and the fishes of the sea are taken literally. “Pursuing abatement”, Hamilton shrewdly observes, “is an admission that industrial society has harmed nature while engineering the Earth’s climate would be confirmation of our mastery over it..... Geo-engineering promises to turn failure into triumph”. Control through technology becomes the test of manhood. Size matters.

Man’s Dominion Over Nature

In 2010, as oil pours into the Gulf of Mexico, it’s as good a time as any to assess possibilities. In the history of Earth there have been five mass extinctions, the worst of which wiped out 90% of life forms. That was 251 million years ago. It’s not something which most people are looking forward to, but that doesn’t include the Taliban branch of American Christianity, as represented in the Reagan White House. Reagan’s Environment Secretary, perhaps in his time the individual on Earth with the most direct responsibility for enabling species survival, is on record as wanting the world to end. The misnamed James Watt believed in the End Times, when True Believers would be taken to Heaven while God destroyed the evil doers, and that was one reason (he could well have had other motives) he lobbied for the right of oil companies to drill in the ocean off Alaska. “God gave us these things to use”, Watt explained. “When the last tree is felled, Christ will come back”. The End Timers welcome the prospect of a sixth mass extinction, the vindication of their spiritual superiority.

The millennial spirit takes unexpected twists. A New Age variant, currently trendy, is explained in a tome called “Spontaneous Evolution”. In a clip you can check online, a demented Robert Lipton is happy to deduce that it’s not possible to avert mass extinction number six, but it doesn’t matter because a new and better civilisation of him and his mates will spontaneously evolve. Jim Jones took his disciples to Guyana, where they had to force feed their extinction through suicide (more than 900 members of Jones’ American cult died in that 1978 mass suicide. Ed). Better, because it flatters, is the Watt/Lipton knowledge that the world has only itself to blame for its demise. The Chosen will go to a better world because they are purer than the rest of us. The extreme Right of the Republican Party and New Age cultists look at each other with mutual horror. In most ways they seem opposite extremes of opinion and style, but they share a smug exclusiveness. They’re both too good for this mediocre world.

The sad aspect is that in their daily lives the spontaneous evolutionists are great minders of a green planet. Why do so many educated people - as the devotees of Lipton seem to be - find evolution a sufficient threat for them to invent such extravagant appeals to irrationalism? Why do they adopt beliefs that will confound their own values? And why are evasions of scientific knowledge, especially when it’s to do with evolution, so frequent? Darwinian adaptation is a simple concept, and in NZ it’s especially relevant as a guide to policy. This is because a common factor in species extinction as it occurs here is the conflict between life forms as they evolved and the threats to them posed by our very recent human habitation. The applicability of Darwin in NZ can be affirmed in the course of an average day.

Denialism’s common factor seems to be the wish to excuse inaction. Hansen discusses a leading denialist, a person who can be counted on to back the polluters in public discourse, who soothed with the comforting knowledge that “Nature finds a way to heal herself”, a core “adaptionist” sentiment that his audience is all too willing to believe. We rich world suburbanites encounter nature as gardeners or as we see paddocks drying out after a flood. We’ve experienced Nature’s resilience. But as a summary of global trends, it’s a nonsense.

In his discussion of “Leftwing scepticism” Hamilton hardly mentions the obvious: that the hacks who lambasted Rachel Carson gave the impression that science had silenced the spring. Science came to be associated with events like the thalidomide scandal, the bombing of Vietnam and nuclear weapons. In the 1950s and ‘60’s, when progressives tended to see hostility to technology as being green, it was easy to confuse science with politics and economics. That’s been the New Zealand story. But why, more recently, has the Left converged so often with the anti-rationalist extreme Right?

Promotion Of Mindless Individualism

A recent article in the New York Review Of Books by an American philosopher has offered insights. Mark Lilla thinks that “Americans are and have always been credulous sceptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead; they second-guess their cardiologists, then seek out quacks in the jungle. Like people in every society, they do this in moments of crisis when things seem hopeless. They also, unlike people in other societies, do it on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect” (NYROB, 27/5/10, “The Tea Party Jacobins”, Mark Lilla). Unlike people in other societies? Once perhaps we could look askance at what seemed a uniquely American paranoid style, but not now, certainly not in NZ. We’re all Americans now. We’re John Locke’s bastard descendants.

Lilla argues that the crazies are not just the Fox News or Tea Party extreme Right: “We are experiencing just one more aftershock from the libertarian eruption that we all, whatever our partisan leanings, have willed into being. For half a century now Americans have been rebelling in the name of individual freedom. Some wanted a more tolerant society with greater private autonomy, and now we have it.... Others wanted to be free from taxes and regulations so they could get rich fast, and they have.... We wanted our two revolutions. Well, we have had them”.

The cry always is for freedom. Sarah Palin’s know-nothing angries want a perfect weightless, gun-toting freedom – “free from Government agencies that protect their health, wealth, and wellbeing; free from problems and policies too difficult to understand; free from parties and coalitions; free from experts who think they know better”. In their cars (the car being the quintessential American symbol of freedom) they don’t want to be told to buckle their seatbelts or cradle their cellphone. They don’t want to be told what to eat or smoke or drink.

It’s a new strain of anarchism, Lilla suggests, but it’s as “estranged, aimless and as juvenile as our new century”. Where’s Thomas Hobbes, now that we need him? In the US they don’t talk about NZ’s defining emblem of the new disorder, our contempt for something we call the nanny State, mythology about which has become a staple, but that’s because they don’t need to. The American tradition has always been about the individual, the frontiersman escaping. In NZ, where our quite different history has emphasised stability and community, and where our social style has been the search for compromise, we’re still learning the language of narcissism.

Uniting all ranges of the new populism is hostility to climate science. It’s hard to think of anything as likely to infuriate the freedom riders, or as certain to unite in “credulous scepticism” its’ Rightwing and Leftwing variants as a responsible and united global resolution to preserve Planet Earth. Climate science is anathema because it is old-fashioned enough to assume that there is a reality that exists without regard to me and my mind. The new populists don’t need science. They expect the world to conform to their whim.

If we are to somehow get to grips with reality, a necessary first step is to understand why what has been done to heal the planet has never been enough. We have to appreciate the current malaise. But of the writers under review only Hamilton has the sociology of climate science as a focus (Hansen is looking at obstruction by the State), and sometimes his view seems curiously dated. For instance, when he analyses Leftwing deniers, Hamilton bewails those doctrinaire rationalists who look only straight ahead to the revolution that never has been. Surely he knows that this brand of economic determinism is an extinct species. No-one on the Left these days argues that we have to pollute to protect jobs. All shades of progressive opinion have a green tinge. No, rationalism is not our problem. We could do with a lot more of it. Our problem is irrationalism.

None of the writers take note of why this characterisation of Leftist politics is outmoded. More relevantly, they don’t look at the general cultural shift, of which it’s a symptom. “The Limits To Growth”, which came out in 1972, assumed a polarity between growth and greenery. Its conclusion, that economic growth was unviable, appealed to affluent, liberal Westerners. At the time, green technology that allowed a way out didn’t exist - and no-one knew just how threatened the planet was. Debate was strictly an either/or proposition. The choice was presented: grow the economy or cultivate the soul. In this context the demand to curb growth amounted to abandoning everyone who wasn’t already comfortably off - an overwhelming majority of people from every region - to relative degrees of poverty.

This omission could allow the misapprehension to linger yet longer and thereby provide a reason for readers to reject the analysis. The Right could go on saying that a sustainable Earth is a pipedream of hippies; some on the Left could go on saying that they reject material values and (whether or not by intent) that they thereby oppose the development of the human spirit through education and healthcare that wealth allows. We shouldn’t be condemned to such clichéd dilemmas. Investment in new, green technologies can be the means to unite the aspirations of rich world economies and those of the developing world. The encouraging thing is that there are signs that some important European governments acknowledge this, as does China, the one that really matters. When Hansen comments that China is at once a “rich” country and a “poor” country he is assuming this.

Hamilton is more persuasive when he says that by cutting ourselves off from direct contact with Nature - and all involved in the discussion concur that we have, at least to some extent - we lose contact with causation and, with it, a sense of human limitation. We can convince ourselves that we can be whatever we chose to be. In this way, Hamilton’s conclusion meets Hansen’s - and Lilla’s: the enemy is narcissism. How to overcome the various narcissists is the poser. The demonisation of ecology has been notably successful in clean green New Zealand, where self-styled pragmatists pass themselves off as hard-headed men (it’s a very masculine mode) of facts, wealth creators harried by parasitical dreamers (yet prone to hyperbole). Who hasn’t heard a sentiment about the beauty of landscape and the need to respect it prefaced by an apologetic “I’m no greenie, but...”?

In Canterbury, where the rivers run to swell cows’ udders and Big Dairy’s profits, discussion rarely progresses beyond the generic. Canterbury’s new Commissioners declared critics of their installation (by the Government, to replace the elected Environment Canterbury Councillors whom it sacked en masse in 2010. Ed.) to be “emotional” and “philosophic”. Rhetoric of this kind indicates minds content to accept dated stereotypes as a substitute for thought, but people who assume they are uniquely immune from bias (by referring to differing views as being based on “philosophy”) are dangerous. The Commissioners, servants of a very political coup, were anointing themselves as being above the petty fray of politics. Such lack of self-knowledge is the product of some combination of arrogance and complacency, emotional states.

When Wyatt Creech, a Deputy Prime Minister in the 1990s’ National government and a current director of a dairy company, was brought in to eliminate representative government he explained that he had no choice. ECan, the regional council, was accused of having been guided too much by science. Time to get pedantic. “Science” means “to know”. If you don’t want to be scientific, you don’t want to know. Here another American import comes to mind. 150 years ago a reactionary rump, alarmed by signs of democratic progress, declared itself to be the Know Nothings.

What Should Governments Know? Why Should They Respect Facts?

Hansen wants no political appointees near science policy or communications. That’s a no brainer. “Cap and trade”, the prescription favoured by the big governments, won’t work. In this, Hansen, Hamilton and Patel, three writers under review who are reliable guides, are agreed. The cap part is OK. It’s the trading they distrust. When it comes to alternatives, the most detailed specifics are Hansen’s. Biofuels should be limited to marginal land or what can be produced from fuel diverted from waste material. We should forget about tar sands oil.

Coal is the big villain. “Coal’s global pollution effects are compounded by the devastating regional effects of the various techniques of dredging the stuff to the surface. The most barbaric approach, mountaintop removal, can only be described as blasphemous... Mountaintop removal mining does more than irreparably scar our mountain ranges. Toxic sludge ponds and mining waste dumped into valleys poison the water supply, causing multiple documented health problems for nearby populations”. Clean coal has been touted as a future cure all, but Hansen is sceptical. It’s an “illusion, a diversion... Coal use must be prohibited unless and until the emissions can be captured and safely disposed of”. This is also Hamilton’s view. Both think it likely that, even if the technology were to be developed, the energy it would require would make the final product unsustainably expensive.

China gets mixed reviews. All the authors note that it’s a major polluter and that for China to continue to increase its greenhouse emissions is not an option. But they also agree that China has done more to mitigate the problem than is often recognised. Hamilton bashes the countries where the industrial revolution started, arguing that the US, UK and Germany have to make up for the total pollutants they have emitted, which is historically more than China. Maybe, so far...


To overcome the tragedy of the commons is to enforce global regulation. No, it won’t happen soon. The question is: will it ever? To summarise Hansen: In the present world the biggest contributor to global warming is China. The world’s worst single activity is coal burning. The worst way to mine coal is opencast. The worst place to opencast is up high where streams carry muck. The most immediately threatened climate zone is the alpine. That’s uncomfortably relevant in NZ. In Buller the tops of the mountains in a national park are being scraped away to mine coal to send to China. Then there’s the collateral damage of globally unique species probably becoming extinct. That’s seven compelling reasons to leave Paparoa National Park in peace.

Hansen makes a basic and irrefutable argument. Faced with catastrophe, a rational response is to do everything that’s possible to avert it. He mentions Britain facing the threat of a Nazi invasion, when the Churchill government found big sums to build its army. He could have cited his own country. Roosevelt invested previously unimaginable millions of dollars. Being a political piece rather than a scientific one, a Watchdog review could point out that during the previous Depression decade both countries could have invested in people by creating work, but chose not to. Currently, both countries had been repeating the World War 2 trick - so as to bail out the banks devastated by international finance’s version of the tragedy of the commons (by rejecting stimulus spending, the incoming UK Tory government is reverting to type).

In other words, the powerful mobilise resources when it suits them. When it doesn’t suit them, they say they’re powerless. Hansen argues for a massive commitment to arrest global warming. There can be no doubt he’s right, but under the existing rules it can’t happen. Global “free trade” agreements have been designed precisely in order to prevent effective public decision making. NZ’s Resource Management Act, our fragmented layers of government, and our corporatised public agencies all exist to limit popular initiatives. We’ve adapted, evolved (as it were) to the point when no politician will champion a cause as pragmatic and responsible as Hansen’s for fear of the barrage of ridicule that would follow.

Dick Cheney once confounded a news conference with the observation that when he makes decisions he has to be aware that there are in life known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns and unknown unknowns. It’s a sentiment, if not a mode of expression, with which Hansen would agree. He would remind Cheney that just as we don’t know all the life forms on our planet, we don’t know how they affect each other. Ecosystems are based on interdependencies. You’d think that every New Zealander, even those in the Government, would be able to grasp this truth. We live in the land of the rabbit, the rat, the possum and the weasel. Yet rationalisations for sloth masquerading as adaptionist theory abound. A common variant here is the view that confuses evolution as science with evolution as a metaphor for social change by saying that all our flora and fauna, native or exotic, should be left to cope as best they can. The sentimental and the anthropomorphic have even put it about that introduced and native flora and fauna are evolving to co-exist. The stoat will learn to lie down with the kiwi. Of all places species extinction applies most obviously to New Zealand. Our extinction rate is just about the world’s worst, though we’re not the only people to not know how many species are going out of business. “We do not know”, Hansen reminds us, “how many animal, plant, insect, and microbe species exist today. Nor do we know the rate at which we are driving species to extinction”.

Back to Patel’s wider perspective. Adam Smith (1723-90), often identified as the first economist, is routinely taken - by free trading polluters - to be an unimpeachable source. That’s because they’ve heard that he championed the plundering economy. They should read him - as should Gerry Brownlee and Nick Smith. Patel notes that, discussing profiteers, Adam Smith wrote that their “interest is always in some respect different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To narrow the market and narrow the competition is always the interest of the dealers... and can serve only to enable the dealers ... to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow citizens. The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this quarter ought always to be listened to with great precaution.... It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same as that with the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even oppress the public, and who accordingly have, on many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it”.

Science & Democracy Are Natural Partners

Patel urges a politics that resolves the tragedy of the commons. “This means engaging in democracy across a number of different institutional levels - the decisions about how to share water will need to be conducted over the geography of a watershed. Decisions about how we grow and distribute food should come from a different, possibly municipal, geography. The way that these decisions interact with climate change will need to be coordinated globally. “For us to ... forestall resource wars, we’ll need new, decentralised planning and locally adapted ways of commoning resources.... When the world’s top scientists addressed global hunger, they came up with the same kinds of solutions that the world’s poorest people had - local, ecologically sensitive solutions that respect local knowledge, democracy and autonomy”. The good news is that science and democracy are natural partners. You can see why power doesn’t want to know.

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Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. August 2010.


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