Essay

Sitting with difficult things

Meaningful action in contested times

AS A CHILD in the early 1970s I would sometimes overhear my parents discussing how much commercial television I should be allowed to watch. The shows in question included Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, Lost in Space and The Brady Bunch. Even though I was only eight years old, I remember being mildly interested in the argument. I understood that what was at stake was a genuine concern for the kind of person I’d grow up to be. But imagine the conversations that started when you were eight years old were still going. The shows being discussed stopped being made decades ago. You’re almost sixty. And the conversation has escalated to an intractable argument.

I appreciate the obvious: this forced anecdote has a limited value in today’s overheated political (and actual) climate. Watching The Brady Bunch wasn’t going to kill me, let alone millions of humans, as temperature rises of 2 degrees Celsius or more will. But nonetheless it’s the analogy that came to mind when I was at the Byron Writers Festival in 2019 and someone asked scientist and writer Tim Flannery about Australia’s chance of meeting its targets for the Paris Agreement. Flannery went on to answer in such a way as to indicate that the situation we are facing is so much more serious, it renders that perfectly sensible question irrelevant.

This is my cynical take on the situation – a cynicism bolstered by the fact that since the Paris Agreement was signed, Australia’s big four banks have financed new fossil fuel projects that will cancel out the national emissions-­reduction target twenty-­one times over. The targets were inadequate in the first place; they are unlikely to be met; our rapidly over-­heating atmosphere gives precisely no fucks about some complicated equation involving ‘extra points’ and ‘Kyoto Protocols’, nor various other statements made in bad faith.

Novelist Kim Stanley Robinson disagrees with me though, and I’m always pleased to read positive takes on the current situation. ‘The Paris Agreement is crucial. It’s a major event in world history. It could turn into the League of Nations, in which case we’re screwed. Or it could turn into something new in history, a way to decarbonise without playing the zero-­sum game of nation against nation.’ We need Robinson’s capacity to see the positives because – and I’m quoting from a paper by CSIRO’s Russ Wise and others here – ‘climate adaptation is not separable from the cultural, political, economic, environmental and developmental contexts in which it occurs and is therefore only part of a range of societal responses to change.’

Earlier this year I read papers by several other scientists from CSIRO and their colleagues, who have been working with this idea that managing climate change isn’t so much a scientific question as one of governance. The work requires a capacity to be strategic, to accept failures and to respond radically to a complex and unprecedented set of environmental pressures. I wanted to understand more, and Dr Mike Dunlop, a co-­author of several of these papers, was kind enough to host a conversation between a group of us on how necessary work can be implemented in a timely manner, given the current political climate. (The what has been widely documented and exists in a multiplicity of research papers. Indeed, the Climate Council has recently released two reports pointing the way forward: the Clean Jobs Plan and Primed for Action: A Resilient Recovery for Australia.)

It has taken me a while to really understand what scientists have been saying for decades – that even if we stop emitting carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels today, it could take forty more years for the climate to stabilise. This decades-­long lag between cause and effect means we don’t just have to stop carbon emissions; we have to draw down on the carbon already in the atmosphere using a range of carbon-­sequestration methods. We need to store carbon underground, in the soil, in our forests and in the oceans. Methods for doing this are too various to get into here, but range from a ‘natural’ though slow approach – such as planting trees – to the mechanical. (Think machines that act like super trees and capture large amounts of carbon dioxide. Think iron dumped into the ocean to encourage algae to grow.)

The effect of these, and other solutions, will be piecemeal – but perhaps that’s okay. ‘The future will likely arrive in part by design and in part by disaster,’ Samuel Alexander, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne and research fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, told Voice of Action in June 2020. ‘Our challenge is to try to constitute the future through planning and community action, not have the future constitute us.’

The concern is that the future will constitute us unless we move rapidly. Flannery, one of the many scientists who is extremely concerned about timeframes, recently wrote:

Beginning with the UK in May 2019, one nation after another has proclaimed a climate emergency. And they are acting strongly to deal with that emergency. By mid-­June, the UK (the country where industrial coal-­burning started) had gone two months without burning coal. But Australia has neither declared a climate emergency nor acted decisively. Despite our abundant sunlight and wind resources we are still 60 per cent dependent on coal for our electricity needs.

That is, in Australia time is now so short that we cannot wait until the next federal election for action. Furthermore, Australia, with only 0.33 per cent of the global population, is responsible for about 1.4 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, a figure that increases by 5 per cent if fossil fuel exports are counted.

During my conversation with the cohort from CSIRO, senior research scientist Dr Nicky Grigg told me that ‘Ecologists are charting the decline of so many things that it can be hard not to be pessimistic. We need to engage with reality and it’s uncomfortable to sit with difficult things.’ Grigg is right to point out how difficult it can be to sit with the truth at the moment, but sit with it we must. I (and we) need to stop being surprised. We have to stop looking forward to a time when we can go back to the beach and things go back to ‘normal’. ‘Normal’, if it ever existed, is over. I don’t mean by that we can’t go to the beach. I mean that if we go it might be eroded or have disappeared entirely. It might be dangerously polluted. It might be so hot when we arrive that we can’t spend time there. Instead of being where we swim, the beach might be where we stand for two days as a bushfire rages around us. The reason we have to stop being surprised by the – long predicted – horrors that are rolling in like a perfect set of waves is that being surprised takes up energy, and human energy, like all forms of energy, is a precious resource. The energy we have needs to be spent on finding ways to work together even when we’re not all in agreement with each other. If we can’t agree on a goal in any given situation, we need to find a goal we can agree on. And we can all agree that we don’t want to lose our houses, our land or our lives to fire, even if we disagree on how we might mitigate that possibility.

 

AN INCREASING NUMBER of organisations, including the Climate Council, are providing the direction and leadership Australia’s government refuses to give. The law is doing what it can, and at the end of 2019, eight separate Environmental Defenders Offices across Australia joined to form a single organisation – the largest public-­interest environmental-­law community legal centre in the Australia-­Pacific region. This is a good move, particularly given that a lack of meaningful environmental protection laws continues to be a problem – and an amendment that weakened the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was rushed through the lower house in September 2020. This, after a report released in July found that the existing act was failing to curb our loss of habitat and species. This, in the wake of devastating bushfires that destroyed as much as thirty-­million hectares and killed or displaced some three billion native animals.

An increasing number of organisations are making the transition towards a carbon-­free economy as well as implementing their plans for adaptation. The Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria has developed a Landscape Succession Strategy (2016–2036), which was the first of its kind for any botanic garden in the world. Climate change projections suggest that in seventy years, Melbourne could have weather similar to that of Dubbo, Algiers or Tijuana, so one of the targets for the Landscape Succession Strategy is that within fifteen years at least three quarters of the Melbourne gardens’ plants will be able to tolerate a hotter, drier climate. ‘The majority of the plants that we grow need to be resilient,’ one of the architects of the succession plan, senior horticulturalist Peter Symes, told me. ‘We can’t afford to wait to 2090 to see what actually happens. We have to make some informed decisions now, so essentially we’re taking a risk-­based approach.’ Similar projects are taking place across Australia.

Lending to the thermal coal industry is at a four-­year low, though Market Forces Executive Director Julien Vincent believes this is partly due to the increasing use of non-­disclosure agreements. ‘The industry and the lenders know they’re being watched,’ Vincent says. ‘It’s reputationally risky to be seen lending to the coal sector and expanding it. So instead of trying to change behaviour, or operate more cleanly, the banks and companies are trying to keep this information from public view.’ But at least it’s now considered a bad look to continue to invest in fossil fuels – and in the case of some of the smaller banks, including Bank Australia and Adelaide Bank, the commitment seems genuine. Relatedly, Samsung Securities has withdrawn financial backing to Adani’s Carmichael coal project. South Korean company Hanwha Investment & Securities backed out of financing the project as well. The Norwegian energy giant Equinor has abandoned plans for exploration drilling in the Great Australian Bight. Mining magnate Andrew Forrest recently invested in the world’s largest solar farm, with energy generated from the project to ultimately power Singapore. On 11 October 2020, South Australia was (briefly) powered 100 per cent by renewables for the first time in an initiative led by a Liberal government. The ACT already runs on 100 per cent renewable energy.

A significant proportion of superannuation investments – which currently sit around $2.7 trillion – support Australia’s largest companies, including big corporate emitters. However, an increasing number of superfunds are proactively investing in green technologies and initiatives – and around a fifth of these funds have expressed an aspiration to achieve net-­zero emissions by 2050. In late October, Japan announced a 2050 net-­zero emissions target, as did South Korea. China is planning to be carbon neutral by 2060. All of which means that Australia will steadily lose its biggest fossil-fuel customers. Across the board there has been a significant jump in the number of businesses going carbon neutral. Bunnings Warehouse, Officeworks, Kmart, Target and Woolworths are among the sizeable retailers who have committed to sourcing 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2025 and are aiming for net-­zero scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2030. Scope 1 emissions relate to those they release from their own buildings. Scope 2 relates to the power they consume, and whether they use renewable energy. This is good news, but it has to be acknowledged that far fewer businesses are aiming to reduce scope 3 emissions, because that is far harder work and involves taking some responsibility for the emissions your industry causes. So, for example, an increasing number of mining companies are using renewable energy, but that alone can’t offset the carbon emissions created by that industry.

 

CURRENT APPROACHES TO science tend to focus on careful and considered process rather than an outcome, which I understand. Process, ignored, can lead to wildly unpredictable results. To illustrate this you only need to consider debates around the pressing need for a vaccine for COVID-­19 versus the risks of a hasty development. However, the stakes are even higher when it comes to climate change, and implementation needs to become a priority. One of the many challenges that face us is the fact that making big changes rapidly requires consensus. Corporations are pouring money into misinformation campaigns on the subject of climate change. According to UCL’s Professor of Earth System Science Mark Maslin, ‘The latest estimate is that the world’s five largest publicly owned oil and gas companies spend about US$200 million a year on lobbying to control, delay or block binding climate policy.’ Other powerful players (such as News Corp) are putting their human and economic resources into convincing us that consensus doesn’t exist.

It does exist. Ninety-nine per cent of climate scientists are in agreement that we are on the brink of runaway climate change – and it is already having a catastrophic effect. Eighty-two per cent of the Australian population agrees that something needs to be done. Even this level of consensus has not been enough to break the monkey-grip that exists between the Morrison government and the fossil fuel industry.

We aren’t just reaching a tipping point in terms of the weather, but also in our capacity to solve the problems before us. As disasters increase in frequency and severity, opinion is becoming more polarised. When things deteriorate further socially, the conditions for consensus will no longer exist. It’s possible that in the United States – which has the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world – they no longer do.

 

IN THEIR LATEST book, Surviving Autocracy, Masha Gessen provides a useful analysis of the way in which language both frames and constrains political debate:

If we use the wrong language, we cannot describe what we are seeing. If we use the language developed for describing fish, we cannot very well describe an elephant: words like ‘gills’, ‘scales’ and ‘fins’ will not get us very far... Now the same thing was happening in the United States; we were using the language of political disagreement, judicial procedure, or partisan discussion to describe something that was crushing the system that such terminology was invented to describe.

‘Consensus’ is just one of the words that is degraded in the current political environment. Any number of words have become distorted or emptied of meaning. George Orwell tried to warn us of this back in 1949 when he wrote 1984; Roland Barthes tried back in 1957 when he wrote that the ‘definition of myth in a bourgeois society [is] that myth is depoliticised speech’. Constructed identities are presented as natural ones. Think of phrases and words such as terra nullius, fake news, unprecedented, one-in-a-hundred years, carbon tax, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister. The weight of colonial history, of capitalism in those arrangements of letters. The weaponising of language.

Language, degraded, affects our ability to imagine a better future. It corrupts our capacity to think or talk our way out of the problems we are facing. According to Dr Sandra Waddock, Galligan Chair of Strategy at Boston College, ‘Since World War II and particularly since the Reagan and Thatcher administrations in the early 1980s, the world has been under the influence of a powerful economic narrative. That narrative or story, often called the neoliberal narrative, like all good narratives, is based on a resonant set of core words, values, phrases and ideas that are called memes.’

 

SO HOW DO we work our way, imaginatively, towards a more expansive understanding of what our future might look like? The need for smarter narratives was one of the recurring themes that arose during my conversations with scientists. According to Mike Dunlop:

Many scenarios have failed because people have only imagined slightly better versions of the present. We need to build a new normal. We need to make the energy economy work differently and to understand there is a trade-­off between efficiency and resilience. Systems that are more efficient tend to be less resilient. Transformational change doesn’t fit into the mainstream systems, but nonetheless that’s what we need.

What Dunlop is talking about here is the way current political systems are risk-­averse. Organisations are punished for perceived failures rather than supported in finding new ways forward. Dr Grigg elaborated: ‘We need narratives of accountability rather than narratives of blame.’

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, takes up this conversation, fictionally:

There is no single solution adequate to the task.

And so what can we expect to see?

Failure.

But assuming success, just for discussion’s sake, what shape might that take?

The shape of failure.

Expand on that please? A success made of failures?

Yes.

Robinson’s novel has one of the most devastating descriptions of what it might mean to live in an overheated world that I’ve ever read, but that initial ‘disaster’ sequence is followed by an animated Greek chorus of a novel about public service and political process. In this fictional world, no possible solution is off the table. Indeed, the stakes are so high that Robinson seems to have abandoned concern for any conventions of fiction and often slips into a genre recently described by Rob Nixon in the Sydney Review of Books as ‘speculative non-­fiction’. 

‘It’s hard to imagine a positive history, but it’s not impossible,’ Robinson said in an interview with Jacobin:

And now, yes, it’s easy to imagine the end of the world because we are at the start of a mass extinction event [but] can you morph, by stages, from the political economy that we’re in now, which is neoliberal capitalism, to what you might call anti-­austerity, to a return to Keynesianism, and then beyond that to social democracy, and then beyond that to democratic socialism, and then beyond that to a post-­capitalist system that might be a completely new invention that we don’t have a name for.

Of course some people have a name for a new system they think would stand us in good stead: socialism, but that is only one of the traditions that Robinson is harking back to. ‘We’re in an all-­hands-­on-­deck situation,’ he says. ‘There is no excuse for ideological rigidity about something this important.’

During my conversation with CSIRO scientists, environmental economist Dr Russell Gorddard made a similar point. ‘I find hope in a collective rebuilding and redesigning of our institutions,’ he says. ‘It is in revealing the richness of the rules that shape our economy and society that we can start to identify the range of options and address the emerging issues. But at the same time calls to dismantle the capitalist system, and the capitalist-­socialist polarisation, are pretty unhelpful. We can recognise the major issues within the current system without having to reject it all. There is still plenty of scope for reform that can be quite transformative.’

 

ANOTHER QUALITY – ANOTHER human resource if you like – that we will need to get us through the months and years and decades to come is hope. We need to make hope the muscle and sinew of our working day. We need to build through small steps, sincere conversations had in good faith and constructive action. Hope is an act of love. And by love what I mean is connection and community. It includes care and concern for others as well as love of place.

When Mark O’Connell, the author of Notes from an Apocalypse, was asked back in April 2020 if he’d consider living in a bunker to ride out the end times, he said he’d reached a conclusion that had surprised him. ‘I think I’d rather be dead. I’d rather be outside and take my chances because it seems, from an ideological perspective...if you’re preparing for the collapse of civilisation in that way, I think for you civilisation has already collapsed.’ I believe that O’Connell is talking about love here. The need for it if we are going to be in a position to use the resources at our disposal.

I too would rather be outside and take my chances. Which isn’t to say I don’t hope that my chances will be good, not bad.

‘Radical hope is not simple optimism, or the opposite of despair,’ the Australian novelist and essayist James Bradley wrote recently. ‘It involves accepting the fears so many of us are grappling with and using them as the basis for a new set of priorities... Like deep adaptation, radical hope is a psychological practice as well as a political position. It requires us to accept the past is gone, and that the political and cultural assumptions that once shaped our world no longer hold true.’

So, to my mind, the question to ask is not ‘do you have hope?’ The question has become ‘what are we hoping for?’

What do I hope for? I hope that some of the glories of this world survive. Koalas. Seahorses the size of a grain of rice. Snow gums. Elephants. Giant sequoia. The superb lyrebird has particularly been on my mind because a third of its habitat was lost in last year’s bushfires and its conservation status shifted very quickly from secure to less certain. We must hold these beautiful birds in our heart, keep them in our mind’s eye and ear, remember the perfection of their shimmering, flouncing tail feathers, the virtuosity of their song.

Another hope I have is that we keep the temperature rise closer to 2 or 3 degrees Celsius than allowing it to get to 4 or even 7 degrees. Two degrees is optimistic these days, and even that won’t be pretty – we’ve all experienced what just shy of 1.5 degrees is leading to: increased fire and storm activity, rising sea levels and extinction rates. But we won’t even get under that low bar if we continue to take our lead from self-­serving governments and corporations – if we play it safe, if we don’t seek common ground and if we don’t imagine a better world.

 

TO GET BACK to those TV shows I grew up with, and our constrained imaginations. Those shows, which emerged out of a particularly American brand of mid-­twentieth-­century capitalism, still have cultural traction. In 2019, some cast members of The Brady Bunch reunited to make A Very Brady Renovation, a reality show from 2019 in which the Brady siblings renovate the house they ‘lived’ in back in the early ’70s. Lost in Space was remade in 2018, perhaps because the original imagined that the human race would be colonising solar systems throughout the universe by 1997. I Dream of Jeannie still appeals: a blink of the eye and we could undo, say, Donald Trump. But of all my favourite old shows, Get Smart, written by the brilliant Mel Brooks, seems the most prescient: mobile phones on our person, Maxwell Smart missing his targets by ‘that much’ and saying ‘I asked you not to tell me that’ on the receipt of bad news. If we are to transition to a world where we will not just survive but thrive, we need to start writing new narratives. We need to embody them through action. We need to choose our words carefully.

Towards the end of our two hours, Mike Dunlop presented me with some words that I think are useful. I’ll leave them with you: ‘Ripples can turn into a wave,’ he said. ‘And even if they can’t be focused on the end point, they can be focused on a direction.’ 

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review