Tuesday, 16 July 2019

The Colonial Fantasy

It being NAIDOC week, and us all talking about the voice to parliament, treaties and so forth, it's only fair that I should write a review of Sarah Maddison's book, The Colonial Fantasy: Why White Australia Can't Solve Black Problems.

Sarah Maddison is Professor of Politics at the University of Melbourne.  She is not an Indigenous person, but she has written and researched extensively on Indigenous politics and a good deal of this book consists of direct quotes from Indigenous authors and leaders.  She doesn't claim to represent or speak for Aboriginal people. She is careful to represent the diversity of Indigenous views rather than pretend to consensus. Still, her extensive quotes show at least that there is no shortage of Indigenous people who share her view, even if others have a different opinion.

Why, she asks, after decades of debate and effort, are we not succeeding in solving the issues of inequality that face Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?  Her answer, in a nutshell, is that responses are driven by a fantasy of 'colonial completion' - the idea that the British colonisation of Australia can be completed, with Indigenous Australians incorporated fully into European society with nothing distinctive remaining.

Earlier in Australian history this fantasy involved the idea that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would eventually die out, giving way to superior European peoples.  This idea drove the massacres and dispossessions and, once the initial frontier violence was over, the practice of confining Aboriginal people to reserves.  In more recent years, as it became clear that they would not in fact die out, it has transformed into various forms of assimilation - the idea that Aboriginal people can and should just become 'like everyone else'.

This is a problem for a number of reasons.  First of all, it attempts to blot out the cultural differences between Indigenous and settler communities.  It says to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, 'you can only become equal at the cost of changing who you are'.  Hence it fails to recognise, or actively refuses, the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to sustain their cultures, languages and laws.

Secondly, it attempts to whitewash injustice.  It acts on the assumption - explicit or implicit - that the injustices of our history need not be righted and have no bearing on the present, or that they are outweighed by the benefits of colonisation.  But this is plainly untrue - there is a direct link between the violence of dispossession (stolen land, stolen children, stolen wages) and the current levels of poverty and trauma in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.  It leads, logically but falsely, to the implication that Indigenous people are to blame for their own poverty and poor health, that there is an 'Aboriginal problem' rather than the 'settler problem' Aboriginal people actually have.

Thirdly, it does not and cannot work, as we have seen repeatedly.

Drawing on both Australian and international research, Maddison suggests that self-determination is not simply a nice idea, but a necessary precondition to improvements in Indigenous lives.  Indigenous communities around the world do much better when they have formal treaties, authority within their own domain and the ability to generate and manage their own resources.  Where these preconditions are resisted or neglected attempts to solve social problems are unlikely to succeed.

This self-determination is what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have asked for, demanded and attempted to take for themselves repeatedly for the past century or more, and what the Australian settler state has repeatedly refused.  Maddison presents these demands under four headings - recognition, self-determination, representation and land.

When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ask for these things they are either refused outright, or grudgingly allowed part of what they ask for.  After decades of discussion we do not have constitutional recognition or a treaty.  Local self government and the one attempt at a national representative body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, have been done on terms set by the colonial government and can be cancelled at the stroke of a pen, as ATSIC was by the Howard government. Native Title, won through the courts against strong government resistance, prompted legislation primarily aimed at limiting its practical effect.

Instead, the main responses by Australian governments have essentially been continuations of the colonial project - intervention, incarceration, 'closing the gap' and reconciliation. The response to the Little Children are Sacred report, documenting child abuse on remote Northern Territory communities, was the Intervention. This policy cancelled what self-government remained in these communities, upped the level of bureaucratic intervention in daily life, quarantined welfare payments and generally saw a resurgence of paternalism. This was done despite, not because of, the inquiry itself which identified greater self-determination as an essential precondition to addressing the problem. Tragically but unsurprisingly after more than a decade there has been no discernible improvement in abuse rates. Yet there is no sign of either side of politics seriously considering a change of direction.

Other responses are no more effective - 25 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody few of the recommendations have been implemented and more Indigenous people are in prison than ever.  A decade into the 'Closing the Gap' strategy the 'gap' remains stubbornly wide.  In each case, the absence of self-determination makes the chosen strategies ineffective and even counter-productive.

Even the process of Reconciliation, supported by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and showing such promise with huge popular marches in capital cities in 2000, is presented in Maddison's analysis as a more benign form of this same pattern. Rather than a treaty, restitution or self-determination the process of reconciliation (which the Hawke government commenced after reneging on its promise of a treaty) attempts to negotiate the completion of colonialism. It asks Indigenous people to accept an apology, forgive and then move on. Kevin Rudd's belated apology to the stolen generations, valuable and appreciated in itself, was couched as an attempt to put these things in the past. Aboriginal people were addressed as 'fellow Australians' and the apology ruled out any form of compensation or reparation.  It was the colonial fantasy dressed in Aboriginal colours.

Where does this leave us? Maddison has reached the conclusion that well-intentioned progressive policies (which she herself has previously championed) will not help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to achieve their aspirations. The only people who can solve Indigenous problems are Indigenous peoples themselves. This is because they are not really Indigenous problems, they are colonial problems. The best the colonisers can do, even those who are supportive of Indigenous aspirations, is to get out of the way.

Secondly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not achieve success by waiting for governments to give them what they ask for. They achieve it by taking it for themselves. Eddie Mabo gained Native Title for his own people and others by fighting governments all the way to the High Court, not by asking politely. This week we have seen the same in Queensland with the resolution of the long-running legal fight for the return of stolen wages.  Left to itself, the Queensland Government would never have agreed to a settlement of nearly $200m, and even then this is less than half of the actual amount stolen.

At a local or regional level, many Aboriginal leaders are questioning the project of seeking recognition from the colonial government. If sovereignty has never been ceded, they don't need anyone's permission to run their own affairs in their own way. So we are seeing an emerging movement of people and communities around the country acting on their own initiative, taking control of their affairs without waiting for permission.

Of course this is not an 'either/or'.  Colonial governments can always legislate to override self-determination, and to overturn court orders.  This is why Aboriginal people want their representation enshrined in the constitution, not merely in law, and why they want treaties not merely policies.  The point is that they are increasingly recognising that to get what they want, they need to take the initiative and let government respond as it will.

What this book provides is a framework within which we can listen to the debates and discussions around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.  When we hear, for instance, politicians saying they don't support an Indigenous voice to parliament because it will 'divide the nation', we can hear the desire for colonial completion, the fantasy that Indigenous peoples can and should become 'just like us'.  As if the nation were not already divided!

When we hear people decrying discussions about the place of Australia Day/Invasion Day in Australia because it is more urgent to address family violence, we can see the assumption that these issues are unconnected, that ultimately the process of colonisation is not important. Not important, that is, unless some unpatriotic soul suggests that we should stop celebrating it.

Parker Palmer suggests that in a healthy democracy issues are never finally and completely 'resolved'.  This would require totalitarianism.  A future government can always undo the work of a current or past one.  Important debates never truly go away.  Nonetheless it is possible to make progress, particularly if we work carefully and patiently to change people's hearts and minds.

This seems to be an issue where this insight is particularly pertinent.  That the colonial project remains incomplete is no bad thing.  The ongoing tension between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can be a productive tension, a reminder that there are wrongs to be righted, that sovereignty was actually not ceded, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will not be going anywhere.  This will always make us non-Indigenous people uncomfortable but the solution to the very real problems facing Indigenous communities lies not in erasing this discomfort but allowing it to be a spur for us to do better, to listen more carefully, and to allow Indigenous communities to get on with their business with our blessing rather than continuing to frustrate them.

Self-determination would not be the end of the story either.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are no more perfect than the rest of us.  They will make mistakes, they will commit injustices just as we do.  But without this shift of power and control into their hands, things will never change, we will keep going round and round the same old cycle of policy failure.  Us white people think we have the answers but history tells us we don't.  It's time to stop pretending otherwise, and change course.  Surely it won't be worse than what we are doing now!

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Living with Trauma

Experiencing serious trauma can change your life, and rarely for the better. People who have experienced trauma are more likely to experience a range of other things - chronic mental illness, addiction, homelessness, marriage breakdown.  Trauma rewires our brains, changes the way we react to situations, makes us prone to 'fight or flight' in situations which are benign for other people.


You would think that the bigger the trauma, the more serious the effect, but this is not necessarily so.  Case in point: last year I read and reviewed Jimmy Barnes' two-volume autobiography.  Barnes suffered a horrendous childhood, witnessing domestic violence, experiencing physical and sexual abuse, being abandoned by his mum and left with his siblings to fend for themselves while their dad spent all his time and all the family's money at the pub.   Hardly surprising that Barnes' adult life was a train wreck of addiction, violence, self-destructive behaviour, promiscuity and near death before he eventually sought help.

This year I read a very similar story from one of the greats of British rock'n'roll, Eric Clapton.  Clapton's tale is almost a carbon copy of Barnes', with his personal train wreck including a heroin addiction in the 1970s, which he kicked only to turn his life over to alcohol for the following two decades.  Along the way he ruined the lives of two women who loved him, burned money and relationships left right and centre and almost killed himself before he sought help.  Although he doesn't spell it out explicitly, the latter part of his book shows him going assiduously through the 12 steps to recovery pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous - examining his own life, admitting his powerlessness in the face of his addiction, turning for help to a higher power, acknowledging the hurt he had caused others and attempting to make amends, and 'giving back' to help others in the same situation.

Yet the first part of Clapton's tale is curiously different to Barnes'.  Certainly he too experienced defining childhood trauma.  His mother was in her teens when he was born, fathered by an anonymous American soldier, and he was brought up by his grandparents.  Until he was eight or nine he believed they were his parents.  His world shifted ninety degrees when he learned the truth and his attempts to reach out to his mother were met largely with disinterest on her part.  Not something you would wish on anyone.  Yet on the surface it hardly bears comparison with Barnes' horrific abuse story.  Clapton was brought up in a loving, secure home by his doting grandparents.  He always had enough to eat, lived in safety, was supported through an education.  He even started his working life as an apprentice in his grandfather's building business before music took over.

Nonetheless the result of the two traumas, and their ripple effect through the lives of these two men and those close to them, were the same.  I guess the message might be that it doesn't matter so much what the trauma is as what you do with it.


A few years ago I was blown away by reading Victor Frankl's classic Holocaust memoir, Man's Search for Meaning.  In 1942, when he was in his mid-30s, Frankl was interred with his wife and parents and was later sent to Auschwitz, and on to Dachau, where he was freed, traumatised and emaciated, in 1945.  This, surely, is the ultimate in trauma, a deliberate program of torture, humiliation and dehumanisation which ended the lives of seven million people and scarred the survivors for life.

Frankl, it seems, was not exactly a saint, but neither was he the kind of destructive wrecking-ball that Barnes and Clapton became.  Instead, he went into the camp a budding psychiatrist with some interesting ideas (and a manuscript the SS burnt) and emerged to become one of the seminal figures of 20th century psychotherapy.  He believed that the key to surviving traumas great and small, including the greatest of them all, was to find and cling to a sense of meaning and purpose.  This, he said, was the difference between surviving the Holocaust intact (but hardly unscarred) and losing hope and one's sense of self.  This key insight was the foundation of his influential school of psychotherapy which he labelled 'logotherapy'.

There are some authors who contend that meanings and values are "nothing but defence mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations".  But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my "defence mechanisms", nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my "reaction formations."  Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values!


Recently, thanks to a recommendation from my friend Mari, I read another Holocaust memoir, The Choice by Edith Eger.  Man's Search for Meaning,  written in 1945, presents an air of serenity which must surely be a front.  The Choice, written in 2017 when Eger was already past 90, is far more honest, if that's a fair way of putting it.

Eger was also a psychologist, and in fact a protege of Frankl's.  She entered Auschwitz in 1943 not as a mature professional but as a young girl, barely 16 and still in high school.  Her mother was sent straight to the gas chambers on arrival at Auschwitz and Edith and her sister Magda survived by sticking by one another, helping one another and sharing any food they could.  Each had the opportunity to escape individually, but came back so they could stay together.  They both made it through, but only just.

When the war ended and the American soldiers arrived to free them they had not eaten for days.  Edith lay amidst a pile of corpses and was so close to death herself that the soldier searching for survivors initially passed her by.  With a supreme effort of will she was able to move her hand just enough to make him look again and realise she still lived.

It is quite possible that both girls would have died after liberation but for a bizarre series of events.  A pair of drunk American soldiers entered their room one night shortly after their release intent on rape, only to be interrupted.  The next day, sober and remorseful, they returned to beg forgiveness and thereafter visited daily for six weeks, bringing food, helping them to relearn how to walk, talk and count.  After a couple of months the girls were strong enough to ride the train back to their Hungarian home town where their older sister, having spent the war in hiding, was waiting for them and nursed them back to physical health.

Of course, there were more and deeper wounds than simply the physical ones. For Edith in particular they were compounded by the need to flee the Communist regime after her husband was imprisoned.  In one way, her concentration camp experience helped her, teaching her to do whatever it took to survive in a lawless environment.  Yet living as a penniless foreigner in a strange country (the USA) just added one more trauma to those she had already experienced.  She struggled with relationships.  She experienced flashbacks and panic attacks.  She sabotaged herself and those around her.  At one point she decided to end her marriage and lived as a single person for a couple of years, learning in the process that it was not her husband who held her back but herself.  In the end they reconciled and re-married.

In a sense, she didn't 'recover'.  She still has panic attacks.  Near the end of the book she talks of her reaction on entering a hall to speak to a group of American soldiers - something she does often - and experiencing a powerful flashback.  It took a while for her to realise what had triggered it.  The regimental insignia on the walls was that worn by the young soldier who rescued her from the pile of dead bodies in 1945.  Some traumas never go away.

What she has done is not 'recover' from her trauma, but learn to live with it and to use it to benefit others.  As a psychologist she treats other people who have suffered severe trauma, helping them to find meaning and purpose in their lives, to learn to live with the pain and turn it to good.  Her suffering, evil in itself, has been redeemed.


Trauma is all around us.  Some people are traumatised by war and civil conflict, losing homes, livelihoods and loved ones.  Here in Australia our first nations continue to be traumatised by the ongoing process of colonisation.  For others, the trauma is more personal and private - domestic violence, child abuse, bereavement, crime.  Anyone who works at the hard edge of social support - homelessness, child protection, refugee support, domestic violence - needs to know how to respond to trauma.

It goes without saying that we should reduce the traumas in our world.  However, this side of heaven we will never be free of them and we will always need to know how to deal with them.  Part of this is a task for skilled professionals.  Frankl and Eger studied for years to be able to help others.  Barnes and Clapton both benefited from the help of highly trained professionals.  One of the tragedies is that while wealthy rock stars can afford private clinics and intensive psychotherapy, our poorest people need to rely on overstretched, underfunded public health services.  No wonder so many end up homeless.

I've been thinking recently (I'm still thinking now) about what this means for us Christians.  It seems to me that trauma is not a peripheral issue for Christians, it sits at the heart of the Christian faith.  Jesus began his life in exile, fleeing an insecure Jewish client king, and ended it tortured to death by a ruthless imperial government.  His followers, having witnessed this trauma and lived through the fear and grief themselves, fashioned their faith around it.  Jesus death, they said, was not merely an unfortunate hiatus in the path to victory, it was central, essential.  Without the trauma there is no rebirth.  Each of us likewise can only be reborn by coming to terms with our own trauma.

When Jesus emerged from the grave he didn't leave his trauma behind.  He invited Thomas to touch his wounds in order to prove it was really him.  He returned to heaven bearing his scars with him.  The church likewise incorporated this brokenness into its worship - baptism reprising his death and resurrection for each initiate, communion celebrating his brokenness each time we come together.  We are never to forget it.  Yet we are also to rise again, to take on a new life after trauma.  We are not to drown, but emerge cleansed from the water, and then to take sustenance again and again from this same brokenness.  And then we are to use it as our motivation to serve others.

All these four people have done this in some way.  Both Frankl and Eger turned their experiences into healing tools, devoting their lives to helping others recover from trauma.  Clapton spends as much time these days supporting addiction recovery services as playing music, auctioning off most of his guitars to raise substantial funds for a centre he has helped build in Antigua and sponsoring recovering addicts at a centre near his home in the south of England.  In the past few years, Barnes' telling of his story has shone a light on domestic violence in a graphic, real-life way that no amount of theory could do.

Trauma is real, and it's all around us, but it doesn't have to have the last word.

Friday, 14 June 2019

Dear Scomo

Here's the text of a letter I just sent by snail mail to our dear Prime Minister.

Dear Prime Minister

First of all, let me begin by congratulating you on your and your party's recent election win.  You have been handed a huge and difficult responsibility, and I pray for wisdom and compassion for you and your colleagues as you lead us over the coming three years.

I should perhaps say, by way of honesty, that I didn't vote for your party.  I disagree with you on a number of things I regard as important.  However, one thing I know you and I will agree on is the value of a democratic system in which governments are elected and removed peacefully by the people.  This system requires all of us to compromise at times.  So I am happy to have the opportunity to graciously accept the choice of the majority of my fellow citizens, as I know you would have graciously accepted the opposite outcome.

I am also not a member of any political party, nor a loyalist.  If Labor had won the election, I would have been sending a very similar letter to Bill Shorten.

The purpose of my letter is to ask you and your colleagues to end the 'climate wars', and begin in earnest the difficult task of transformation that climate change requires of us.

I am 57 years old, happily married with two adult children and two young grandsons who are the loves of my life.  The one thing that keeps me awake at night with that twist in my gut that I'm sure you've experienced in your life is the thought that our current ecological trajectory will lead to trouble and hardship for my children and grandsons.  This anxiety is far from unreasonable.  The series of IPCC reports over the past two decades have clearly tracked the increasing evidence that human emissions are leading to the warming of the earth, with its consequences for agricultural productivity, sea level rise, extreme weather events and species loss among many others.

This is why I am troubled that for the past decade, climate change has been a political football.  Since the task of transformation requires sustained investment over a number of years, this kind of warfare is counterproductive.  As a result, we are not as advanced along this transformation as we should or could be.  I would urge you to end this cycle of blame and opposition, and work towards a sustainable bipartisan approach to this crucial economic and ecological issue.

I know you don't need policy advice from me.  As Prime Minister you have access to the best minds in the country to give you advice.  However I would like to suggest three general directions we should be taking as a nation.

1. Enthusiastic Participation in Global Mitigation Efforts
It goes without saying that climate change is a global problem and that no single nation acting unilaterally can address it.  What is required is a high level of global cooperation in reducing emissions.  I would be excited and proud to see Australia taking a lead in these efforts, rather than merely participating at a formal level and doing the minimum needed to conform.  I would love to see us exceed our current Paris targets by a significant margin, and set ourselves on course for net zero emissions at the earliest possible date.  The more countries that do this, the better our chances of limiting climate change, and the more momentum we will create for laggards to get on board.

2. Planning Our Economic Transition
Whether we like it or not, climate change will drive significant changes in the Australian and global economy. As major nations decarbonise, markets for Australia's coal and LNG will shrink and markets for renewable technology will grow.  This represents both a challenge and an opportunity, as you are of course well aware after the recent election!  A decline in coal and LNG exports will hit already struggling regional economies, and we need to be prepared to support these regions through the change, not abandon them to the vagaries of the market.  At the same time, there are huge opportunities in industries like renewable power generation, alternative fuels, electric vehicles and new agricultural methods.  As a nation we need to get on the front foot in planning and preparing for this transition, situating new industries in hard-hit regional areas and making the most of our natural advantages.  If we don't, the change will happen to us rather than us managing it and we will all be worse off.

3. Getting Serious About Adaptation
We are now at the point where climate change is already happening and will continue to progress to some extent no matter what we and other nations do.  It is only a question of how much.  We have seen the effects particularly over the past year in heat-waves, drought, intense floods, bushfires where there have not been fires previously, coral bleaching and various other effects.  As you will be well aware after your recent visit to the Solomons, our Pacific neighbours are facing even greater challenges.  We need to openly accept this as a nation and get on with the job of adapting.  There is a lot involved in this - changing water use and agricultural practices, resetting our urban and regional planning frameworks, reviewing our bushfire management and emergency response capabilities and so many more issues.

I know that these issues are very difficult for you politically.  There is a cacophony of voices in parliament, in the media and across various lobby groups that are ready to pounce on any action on this issue.  There is no risk-free option here.  However, the worst option is to do nothing, to kick the issue a little further down the road in the hope it will become someone else's problem, or try to get away with the minimum response that makes it look like we are responding without really getting to grips with the issue.

I will be praying for you over the next three years, that you will be able to act with wisdom and courage on this and other important issues.  I trust that my children and grandchildren (and even my own generation!) will be able to celebrate your legacy as the Prime Minister who was finally able to break the political impasse and get us moving forward on climate policy.

Yours sincerely


Saturday, 1 June 2019

Black Out

Climate change and energy policy go hand in hand.  The biggest source of greenhouse gases, and the easiest to change, is electricity generation.  Of course we need to reduce emissions in other areas too but the electricity system, as a unified system relying on a relatively small number of large scale generators, is an ideal place to make a big impact.  No surprise, then, that in Australia this is the policy area that is most fraught, as politicians and industry players jostle for position and advantage while trying to deflect blame for things that go wrong.  Sometimes it seems impossible to get at the truth in the cacophony of mutually incompatible assertions and accusations.

I've recently been trying to get more of a handle on this subject and among other things have just finished reading Matthew Warren's new book, Black Out: How is Energy-Rich Australia Running Out of Electricity?

Warren is an energy economist who has worked for the Minerals Council of NSW, the Australian Energy Council and the Clean Energy Council and has served as environment writer for The Australian.  As this CV suggests, he is hardly a left-wing ideologue.  He is a fairly orthodox economist, believing in the power of markets and a limited role for government.  He longs for the days before climate politics took over the running of the electricity grid, when the major decisions were made by engineers and it worked without fuss.

However, he is also a respecter of facts.  He accepts the science of climate change, and the consequent need to decarbonise our electricity industry.  What he wants to know is, why are we making such a hash of it?  His answer is, politics.

Most economists will agree that if you want to reduce carbon emissions in your economy, the most efficient and effective way to do this is to put a price on them.  If the price is set at the right level, this will provide the economic incentive for businesses, particularly power generation companies, to reduce emissions and shift to low- or no-emission means of generation.  The caveat is that, particularly in the energy sector where investments have a 50-year life cycle, this price (or at least, the mechanism by which it is set) needs to be stable over a long period.

There was a moment in Australian politics where it looked like this could be achieved.  In 2008, Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister and Malcolm Turnbull was Opposition Leader.  Since Labor did not control the Senate, they needed the backing of the Coalition to get much of their legislation through the parliament.  Both parties supported implementing an Emissions Trading Scheme, their differences were only about the details.  They haggled over the scheme and came close to sealing a deal before a revolt within the Liberal Party deposed Turnbull and elected Tony Abbot as Opposition Leader with a mandate to firmly oppose any carbon price.

From then on, the game was over.  Even though the Gillard Government implemented a Carbon Tax in 2011, it never had bipartisan support so it was ineffective as an investment signal.  Instead, energy policy was driven by sub-optimal policies.  The two main ones were the Renewable Energy Target (RET) and the subsidies for household solar.  These were highly effective in their own terms.  The relative cost of solar and wind generation, both domestic and industrial, has fallen so rapidly in the past decade that domestic solar is now competitive without subsidy and commercial scale solar and wind are the cheapest forms of generation on the grid.  Virtually all the new investment in electricity is now in renewables.  Even the government's recent Expression of Interest process for government-guaranteed investment in 'firm power' led to the tentative acceptance of only one fossil fuel project.

The problem is that instead of focusing on the grid as a whole, these policies focus exclusively on particular technologies.  They flood into the system in an unplanned way, and have impacts which no-one is quite prepared to manage.  As a result the transformation of the grid is poorly planned and starting to show signs of strain.  For Warren this is not a problem of too much renewables; it is a problem of not enough planning.

The key problem is this: our electricity grid has been designed around coal power.  Coal-fired power stations are designed to be always on, or at least only turned off at planned times for maintenance.  They burn away 24 hours a day, seven days a week, producing a constant stream of electricity.  This can be turned up to maximum at periods of high demand, or down to its lowest feasible level (the actual meaning of the term 'baseload') when demand is low.  However, it is always on.

Solar and wind power, on the other hand, are constantly fluctuating.  It's not just that solar doesn't generate at night, or that wind doesn't generate on still days.  Even when they are working, the amount of power goes up and down - a short lull in the wind will reduce the output of a windmill, or a gust will temporarily boost it; a cloud blowing overhead will reduce the output of a solar farm for a few minutes, then the sun will re-emerge and the power will increase again.

This means that a significant amount of cheap solar and wind power plays havoc with coal generation.  When they are generating, they can outbid coal stations in selling electricity to the grid, forcing the coal off the market.  Then when their output drops away, the grid goes looking for something to rapidly replace it - but the words 'rapid' and 'coal' don't go in the same sentence.  The income of coal generators drops through the floor.

As a result, no-one wants to invest in coal generators any more.  We have no new coal-fired power stations under construction or on the drawing-board, and a number of our existing coal fired stations are reaching the end of their life and at risk of being retired early because they are losing money.

These closures should not be a problem in a well-run system - replacements would arrive in good time.  However, in the political and policy chaos that surrounds energy policy at the moment, this hasn't happened, and the result is a more fragile system, exemplified by the 'system black' in South Australia in 2016.  The result has been a number of 'ad hoc' policy announcements which allow political leaders to sound like they are 'doing something' but which do not actually address the problem.

It has also empowered various politicians to call for the government to intervene and build or guarantee new coal fired power stations.  This is silly not only because of the need to decarbonise but because they won't help.  A renewables-based system needs back-up that can match the fluctuations seamlessly.  In the terminology currently fashionable you don't need 'baseload' - something that's always on - you need 'firm' or 'dispatchable' power.  This is a source you can turn on and off at will and which will power up immediately to smooth the fluctuations.  Clunky old coal can't do that, so it is useless.  Nor, incidentally, can nuclear.

The good news is that there are power sources that can do this job - pumped hydro, batteries, peaking gas generators, even diesel generators - and others that are at least under development although not yet widely deployed, like flywheels and molten salt.  There are, however, two problems.  Firstly, all of them require a lot more capacity than we have now, and we don't have a clear pathway to attain that capacity.  Batteries would need to be at an exponentially greater scale than we currently have.  Hydro would need new dams and facilities, and potential sites are strictly limited in our dry, flat country.  Even gas, aside from the fact that it is still a fossil fuel (albeit generating only half the emissions of coal) has problems with the supply and price of gas in a competitive global market.

The second problem is that it is not clear that our grid (the poles, wires, transformers etc that get the electricity from the generator to the home or commercial customer) is properly designed for this new world.  For instance, to make the best possible use of household or business solar and battery installations it would be handy to have smart meters installed at each location, so the grid operator can remotely control the amount of power flowing in and out of what are in effect mini-power stations.  However, most homes don't have these, and the Victorian Government frightened the horses by initiating a compulsory roll-out that generated a loud consumer backlash.  Other aspects of network design need to be adjusted to enable the transition.

There's no technical reason we can't meet these challenges - the technologies are all available.  In Warren's view, the barriers are political and the solution is for governments to de-escalate the conflict, develop a bipartisan framework that specifies what governments want in terms of reliability and decarbonisation, and let the technicians and boffins and the market get on with solving it in the best way they can.

Personally, I'm not so sure about this techno-utopia.  I don't doubt that our boffins could solve the technical problems, but I'm less sanguine about the power of markets.  Warren skips rapidly over the fact that the system which worked so well through the 20th century was largely created and run by government entities.  At the end of the century substantial parts of it were sold off in the name of efficiency, but as a consumer it is hard to see the benefits of this, and this privatised system is clearly beginning to fail now.  For better or worse, we have to rely on our politicians, if not to come up with the solutions (since these involve technical issues that are beyond them) but at least to back the solutions on offer.

Sadly, one of the outcomes of our most recent election is to drive our politicians, both LNP and Labor, more firmly into the hands of the coal industry.  The last thing our coal barons want is a solution to these problems, because they know it won't involve them.  Until we can break this relationship, we can expect further political obfuscation and technical claptrap.  Much as Warren sees environmental activists as part of the problem, it is only our ongoing vigilance that can keep us focused on solving the problem instead of just kicking it a little further down the road while the coal industry continues to cash in.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

All Things New; A Climate of Justice

I was sad to read Clive Hamilton giving short shift to the role of traditional religions (including Christianity) in dealing with the Anthropocene.  After all, I mix with quite a few Christians who are passionate and active on environmental issues.

Still, I have to sadly admit that Clive has a point.  Christian climate activists are decidedly in the minority.  Aid agencies like TEAR and lobby groups like Common Grace and ARRCC have picked up the issue, but many Christians are disengaged and it is not something that has been talked about regularly in any of the churches I have been part of.  When it does come up there will be the predictable skeptics and deniers, but many Christians will respond that while it's true and important, it's much more important for Christians to 'preach the gospel', by which they generally mean 'make converts'.

I find this frustrating but also familiar.  It is exactly the same response I have heard over many years to suggestions that Christians should be concerned about issues of justice.  'Sure, it's important to feed the hungry and house the homeless, but shouldn't we be focused on preaching the gospel?'

Where does this come from?  I think it has three sources.

The first is a strong sense of individualism that holds sway in many parts of the church as it does in our wider society.  This suggests, often without examination, that all our problems are ultimately individual.  Individual conversion is much more important than any kind of collective action.  Hence, the same Christians don't make this response to issues like same sex marriage or abortion about which they will often be passionately active - these issues are questions of individual morality.

Second is a kind of dualism which sees heaven and earth as separate.  This earth is merely a temporary practice ground, following which we will spend eternity in some other place - either heaven or hell - which is essentially unconnected from this world.

The third is a view of eschatology (the study of the theology that concerns 'final events' or our final destiny) which sees God as bringing about the destruction of this current cosmos and starting again.

All these things can lead Christians to devalue the present (both socially and ecologically) and see conversion as a form of escape. They will often do good works, feeding the hungry or visiting the sick or whatever, but these will be seen as adjuncts to the important work of evangelism.  This attitude is not necessarily conscious or examined, but it tends to underline what we do and where we put our time and effort.

As an antidote to this view, I would recommend the writings of Mick Pope,  Mick is a Melbourne-based meteorologist and theologian and is a prominent voice urging Australian Christians to take our looming ecological crisis seriously. I interact with him online from time to time and met him briefly when he visited Brisbane earlier this year.  He's also written a number of books about the intersection of climate change and theology.  These are not tomes, they are short books, written for a general reader, and salted with pop culture references and terrible dad jokes to lighten what could otherwise be rather confronting subject matter.


Right before I read Clive Hamilton's Defiant Earth, I had worked my way through his most recent book, All Things New: God's Plan to Renew Our World .   

All Things New is an attempt to address the eschatological question.  How should we see the mounting evidence of ecological crisis in the light of Christian understandings of the future?  Where do ecological crisis and environmental activism fit into Christian eschatology?  How should this inform the way we live our lives here and now?

In the end it comes down to two competing views of eschatology.  Premillennialism, the view that God will take Christians out of the world before destroying it and building a new one, has become dominant in the evangelical church in the past century.  However, prior to the late 1800s most Christians held the view known as postmillennialism, the idea that God, in company with his people, will renew all things including this earth and everything in it, human and non-human.

To caricature this view a little, if you are a premillennialist you will not care much what happens to this world or to human societies, because you believe that God will soon destroy them anyway.  Either we will die and be transported to heaven, our true home, or Christ will return and all that we now know, including all those who do not believe, will be swept away.  Our overriding task on this earth is to rescue ourselves and as many others as we can through conversion.  Working to rescue ecosystems or reform human society is just a waste of time, because God will destroy them anyway.

This view is very powerful, and all the more so because its influence has seeped from its source in small fundamentalist groups to the wider church, often guiding people who rarely if ever think about such things very deeply.  Part of its power lies in its fitness for an atomised, individualistic culture in which we see ourselves as masters of our own destiny.  It also feeds into (and is a special form of) the wider dualistic mindset which has pervaded the Christian church for much of its history - heaven vs earth, souls vs bodies.  And it is psychologically appealing, allowing us to see a path of escape from the many problems which beset humans in the 21st century.  But is it Biblical?

To answer this question, Pope takes his readers through the various passages which refer to the end.  He focuses on passages such as this from Romans 8.

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Or the line from Revelation 21 which supplies the book's title.

"Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

The picture he paints is decidedly inclusive.  God's plan is not to wipe everything out and start again, but to renew what he has already made.  This includes not only people, but the whole of creation.  The oceans, forests and deserts, the animals and plants, the water and the air, will all be renewed along with us.

Christianity is not an escape-hatch from the world we live in.  Instead, it is a call for us to begin the task of renewal which God has promised, to be the forerunners and heralds of God's reign on earth.  This doesn't lead us into a foolish optimism.  We live in the midst of the empire, in the midst of powers which are opposed to God and which are happy to despoil God's creation and leave the poor to suffer.  We are called to struggle, not necessarily to triumph.  However, we have God's promise of ultimate renewal to sustain us.

All this will certainly sound esoteric to anyone who is not a Christian, and even to many who are.  Yet people with the dualistic mindset occupy many key positions in our nation, including our current Prime Minister.  And dualistic Christians can be a brake on progress in addressing climate change, contributing to the 'well it really doesn't matter that much, we have more important concerns' attitude that seems to prevail in much of Australian society.


A related duality, which we often see within the church, is the distinction between the natural and the human.  There is a view which prevails in the church and in the wider society that the earth is there for us to use, and that humans are our primary or even our only concern.  If species go extinct or ecosystems are lost that is sad, but it may be a necessary cost to ensure that humans prosper, or have jobs, or whatever.  Clive Hamilton discusses this in secular terms as the 'subject/object divide', the product of the Enlightenment beginning with Immanuel Kant.  In Christian terms, it is expressed in the idea taken from Genesis 1, that humans are to "fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

This idea can be challenged theologically.  If, as Pope argues in All Things New, God cares about and is renewing the whole creation then it is our Christian duty to care for it, not simply exploit it.  However, Hamilton points to a more practical problem.  In the Anthropocene it is no longer possible to separate the two.  The earth has reached its limits, and is no longer simply passively receiving our attentions.  It is fighting back, becoming increasingly unpredictable.

Mick Pope has also written about this question in his earlier book, A Climate of Justice: Loving Your Neighbour in a Warming World published in 2017.  While Hamilton addresses the question in philosophical terms, Pope's approach is intensely practical and focused squarely on human wellbeing.  In the Anthropocene, in the face of climate change and other ecological crises, it is no longer possible (if it ever was) to view social justice and environmentalism as separate concerns.  If we love our neighbour, we will also care for the environment.

This is a short book on a huge subject, and his approach is to illustrate with a few examples rather than treat the question comprehensively.  The four central chapters of the book deal with four key ways in which climate change impacts on core social justice concerns.  These are not hypothetical future projections - they are current impacts of climate change occurring right now, and only likely to get worse as the world continues to warm.

Chapter 2 deals with overseas aid.  Both our government aid programs and our private giving to aid organisations aim to relieve poverty and promote development in poorer nations and communities.  Climate change is increasingly impacting on quality of life in these communities, yet our aid is slow to catch up both in quantity and focus.  In our giving we need to recognise that adapting to the effects of climate change will be a key consideration in these programs.  As impacts accelerate, we will need to be more generous, not less.

Chapter 3 talks about the increase in slavery around the world.  Slavery is far from new, and it has multiple causes.  However, climate change increases poor people's risk of enslavement.  Droughts and floods in already poor rural communities leave people without even the most basic means of subsistence.  They have few choices and are vulnerable to exploitation from people who promise them employment or education, take them from their communities and then enslave them, including in forced factory labour and forced prostitution.  Once ensnared they have little chance of escape and corrupt law enforcement officials collaborate in their enslavement.  We can combat this problem at the end point, through programs that help rescue and rehabilitate people trapped in slavery, or at the source, through programs that help poor communities to adapt.

Chapter 4 discusses the global refugee crisis in which the number of displaced persons seeking refuge is at an all-time high.  Of course, people are fleeing many things - war, tyranny, religious and ethnic persecution.  However, these situations can be exacerbated by climate change.  For instance the Syrian civil war, which has left millions displaced, was triggered in part by a prolonged drought resulting from climate change.  In the future we may also see a growth in 'pure' climate refugees - people whose homes become uninhabitable as a result of climate change.  A number of Pacific nations face inundation and their people will need to find new places to live.  In the face of this crisis Pope reminds us of the Old Testament teaching about welcoming the foreigner and stranger.  However, across the world's wealthy nations we see increasing resistance and hostility towards refugees and immigrants, expressed in Trump's wall, the fences barring passage from Syria and Iraq into Europe, Australia's offshore gulags and the rise of the far right around the world.

Finally, Chapter 5 brings us home to Australia and the impact of climate change on Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.  The first Australians already endure the effects of colonisation, with historic injustices still unresolved and a huge gap in wellbeing between them and other Australians.  Climate change, largely caused by the actions of the colonisers not the colonised,  exacerbates this gap in a number of ways.  For instance, the Torres Strait islands are experiencing rising sea levels and increasing inundation.  Aboriginal communities across northern Australia are faced with multiple challenges including increased heat waves and heat stress, water insecurity and increased damage from cyclones and floods.  These impacts make the challenge of righting those historic wrongs more urgent, and more complex.

These four examples are bookended by two chapters which talk directly and simply about why Christians should be concerned about these things.  Chapter 1 deals with the core Christian ethic of love for neighbour and the implications of this love in the context of global justice and injustice.  If we love our neighbour as ourselves, we will seek for them what we desire for ourselves.  Chapter 6 presents a sterner challenge, outlining the church's prophetic role in speaking the truth to power and being witnesses to God's justice in our communities.  


The bottom line from both these books, and from much other writing and thinking on the subject, is that 'preaching the gospel' should not be defined narrowly as winning converts or 'saving souls'.  The gospel is God's good news for humans and for the world, and preaching it (as well as living it) involves proclaiming and being good news here and now, to our fellow humans and to God's good earth, which God is renewing.  Mick Pope gives us both something of the theological reasons why this is the case, and some practical ways for us to move forward with this task.  There is much more that could be said, but this would get you started.

To finish, a word of warning, and one of encouragement.  I often find this subject overwhelming.  The scope of our ecological crisis is massive, and the governments and communities of the world are achingly slow to respond.  Every one of the four specific justice issues discussed in A Climate of Justice is a massive challenge in itself.  Despite Australians rating climate change our number one issue in our recent election, we just re-elected a government that has frustrated every effort at mitigation in the past two decades.  

For some, it will be comfort enough to know that God is in control and has promised to renew everything in his own time.  Personally, I lack this kind of faith.  Maybe this is a fault, but it is what it is.  

Instead, I'll finish with something Mick shared with us during his talk in Brisbane a couple of months ago.  I think it may have come originally from Tom Wright.  Working for the Kingdom of God, he said, is like building a cathedral.  It is a large, intricate and well designed structure.  However, we have only been assigned the preparation of a single stone.  We can't understand or picture how the cathedral will look  All we can do is the best job we possibly can on our own stone, trusting that others are doing the same and the Master Builder is putting it all together in the way he intends.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Defiant Earth

A few years ago I read Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss.  The authors examine the ubiquity of over-consumption in Western societies, what drives it, why we keep doing it even though it doesn't make us happy, and some ideas for countering it.

I remember agreeing with it, but largely from the standpoint that I had heard it before.  Back in 1975, the English theologian and later bishop John V Taylor wrote a little book called Enough is Enough which urged Christians to resist the temptation to over-consume.  I still remember his advice to families watching TV - when the ads come on, cover your ears and shout 'Who are you kidding?'.

I haven't really been paying attention to Hamilton since then, but recently I saw a reference to his book Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene in an article I was reading and decided to check it out.  I'm both glad and sad that I did.  Glad because it is a brilliant book, beautifully written.  Sad because its message is hugely challenging and I'm not sure I wanted to hear it.  It's hard to do it justice in a short review like this but I'll give it a go.

Hamilton's starting point is that we have entered a new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene, an epoch in which human activity has a decisive influence on the life of the entire planetary system.  This is not Hamilton's idea, it is an idea much discussed by Earth System scientists and rapidly gaining currency in environmental debates.

The principal reason for Earth scientists' belief that that the planet has shifted out of the previous epoch, the Holocene, lie in the rapid increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and its cascading effects throughout the Earth system.  The system-changing forces of ocean acidification, species loss and disruption of the nitrogen cycle add to the case.  Human disturbance of the climate system is now detectable from the beginning of large scale coal burning at the onset of the Industrial Revolution.  The rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide was gradual for the next 150 years, but became steep after World War II....  "The last 60 years have without doubt seen the most profound transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind."

This new era is qualitatively different from what came before.  It means that many of our ways of seeing the world need to change.  Many of the intellectual and practical tools which have served us up until now need to be revisited.  This is not easy for even the most educated of us to do, and thinking and conversation about the Anthropocene frequently slips back into talking in ways that do not do it justice.

The confronting nature of this new understanding brings out a number of responses.  One of these is to deny that it is true.  We are all familiar with climate denial.  Some of my friends, and many intelligent people, have fallen for it, despite its implausibility.  This is, of course, fed by those in the fossil fuel industries who would like to go on profiting from environmental damage, but this is not the full story.

If the invention of the lies of climate deniers can be attributed to Exxon, the willingness to believe them cannot be. The seeds of doubt have been broadcast on fertile soil.

We would like to believe it is not so.  The truth is frightening and it is easier, at least for a short time, to believe a lie.

Hamilton doesn't spend much time on this denial.  He is more concerned with two other ways of thinking which accept the science but propose what he sees as mistaken responses.  The first he refers to as 'eco-modernism', the idea that the same processes and ways of thinking that produced our current crisis can be used to solve it.

Most who read the Earth System scientists' papers on the Anthropocene - and especially the projections of climate scientists - understand the new epoch as a consequence of the industrial growth process whose harms will range from severe to calamitous.  Severe harms are evident already.  However, a rising chorus of writers and intellectuals actually welcomes its arrival, expressing a certain excitement or exhilaration.  At the entrance to the first scientific conference devoted to the new epoch in 2012, a huge sign proclaimed 'Welcome to the Anthropocene'.  I interpreted the slogan as ironic.  It was only over the next two or three years that I realised it was not dark humour but a true expression of the sentiment of those who see disturbance of the Earth System as a wonderful opportunity for humankind to prove our ingenuity and technological faculty.

This attitude leads to proposals for technological solutions to climate change, such as sowing the atmosphere with ammonia to reduce the penetration of solar radiation, or locating an orbiting reflector over the Arctic Circle to deflect the sun's rays and reduce ice melt.  Some at least of these solutions are technologically feasible but it is doubtful that they would solve the problem.  The effects of the Anthropocene are varied - we are not simply warming the planet, but crossing a number of planetary boundaries at the same time.  Reducing warming will not uncross these other boundaries.  At the same time Earth System science tells us, if it tells us anything, that the Earth is complex and not particularly amenable to human control - less so as we push its boundaries and it pushes back.  We have no way of knowing how the results of massive scale geo-engineering would actually play out.  In the end, eco-modernism provides a smokescreen for humans to continue our unsustainable exploitation of the Earth.

However, his also critical of the opposite tendency, the desire to cancel anthropocentrism altogether and see humans as no more than another creature, a glorified chimpanzee or the moral equivalent of a mollusc.

Although these attempts to cut humans down to size are well motivated, aimed as they often have been at countering the unending violence committed against other creatures by humans inured to the sufferings of others or possessed by a sense of species entitlement, there is something desperate about arguments that equate human beings with chimps, dolphins and dogs when on any measure the unbridgeable gulf between humans and the rest of creation is blindingly apparent. When we consider, if only for a moment, the vast scale of human achievement - writing, cities, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, splitting the atom, space travel, literature and art galleries, not to mention theorising about our equality with animals - the rudimentary tools, 'language' and cultural products of the animal kingdom pale into insignificance.

He dwells at some length, and very wittily, on the irony, say, of novelist Will Self saying during a panel discussion at a writers festival that humans are no more to be valued or respected than molluscs, as if the fact of discussing this question at a writers festival were not in itself evidence of profound difference.

However, there is also a more important practical reason why these arguments are counter-productive in the Anthropocene.  In the previous epoch, it was at least theoretically possible for humans to slip into the ecological background and vanish without a trace.  However, the defining feature of the Anthropocene is that this is no longer the case.

What is new, and will prompt me to argue for a new anthropocentrism, is the arrival of a geological epoch in which humans now rival the great forces of nature.  The future of the entire planet, including many forms of life, is now contingent on the decisions of a conscious force, even if the signs of it acting in concert are only embryonic (and may be stillborn).  In the face of this brute fact, the defining truth of the age, denying the uniqueness and power of humans becomes perverse.

Even if humans become extinct in the near future, the signs of our presence will continue for millennia.  The changes to climate and oceans, the mass extinction of species, the disappearance of glaciers and polar ice, will not be magically reversed by our passing.  We have changed the earth permanently.

This, then, brings Hamilton to his point.  Our old forms of anthropocentrism will no longer do.  We can no longer view the Earth as a passive stage on which we live our lives, as inert matter for us to shape with our reason and technological prowess.  The 'subject/object divide', first conceived by Kant and implicit in our present relations with the earth, has become untenable.  The Earth, so to speak, has awakened and is having its own say.

From Earth System science it ought to be apparent by now that humans can never master the earth; its power is too great and will always prevail, whatever local 'victories' humans may have.  If in the Anthropocene the 'giant has been wakened' and is flexing its muscles, the continued belief that we can master such a fractious and uncontainable beast becomes not mere hubris but crazy-brave.

What Hamilton proposes instead is a 'new anthropocentrism', one based not in any sense of moral superiority and entitlement, but in the acceptance of the fact that what we do has profound impacts on the Earth and that if we do not take care these impacts will rebound to not only our own harm but the harm of the millions of other creatures with whom we share the planet and who do not have the same capacity to influence the Earth System.  This imposes a great responsibility on us and we need to find ways of thinking and acting which guide that responsibility.

The duty to protect and placate the Earth System can be seen as self-justifying; it arises from the responsibility that goes with great power.  others may justify it in terms of its effects - for traditional anthropocentrism, the continued flourishing of humans, and, for non-anthropocentrism, the continued flourishing of other forms of life and ecosystems too.  Alternatively, the duty to protect nature and placate the Earth can be justified by way of teleological anthropocentrism such as the claim that humans were destined to be the dominant creature and this dominion always carried with it the obligation to use our special position responsibly.  

In the latter part of the book he tentatively begins the attempt to recast the story of humanity in a way that is appropriate to the Anthropocene.  He does not offer these retellings as 'the answer' but as stimulus for further and better thought.  Here is one way he puts the story.

The new story has a new main character, no longer the protagonist of modernity, the autonomous subject blessed with conscious reason and so the capacity to decide.  The newbon anthropos is a conception centred on humankind's world-making practices, the power to shift the Earth, for good or ill.  We might speak of the transformation of humankind into the shackled super-agent, torn between two irresistible forces - a self-assertion that, convinced of its independence, aspires to transcend all boundaries, but which is up against the limits imposed by an Earth that remains implacable and ever-more recalcitrant.

Within this story we need to find an ethic which can guide our actions.  Hamilton is not hostile to traditional religion - indeed, he uses a lot of religious language and metaphor himself - but he does not believe that such religious belief will serve us in a post-enlightenment age.  Instead, he puts hope in an ethical and realistic appraisal of the scientific world-view.

The path to realising our destiny was no longer a spiritual journey but an intellectual and physical one, building on the 'epistemic distance' opened up by the scientific worldview.  Ultimately, however, it was a power-struggle between contending social forces, the forces of neglect - power-hunger, greed, growth fetishism, hedonism, and psychological weakness - against the forces of care: self-restraint, respect for the natural world, love of ones children, the desire for civilisation to flourish.

Personally I would question his characterisation of these two contending forces as something different from spiritual forces.  Walter Wink, for one, would see this as a profoundly spiritual battle, a battle with the Powers.  But I'll go into that another day.  Here, I'd like to appreciate the gift Hamilton has given us.

First of all, he is unflinching in facing the reality of the Anthropocene and the dangers we are facing.  He doesn't sugar-coat it, or propose superficial solutions.  He is not setting out to alarm us, but the picture itself is frightening and to face it the way he has takes great courage.

Secondly, the world is awash with scientific books and reports on climate change and the ecological crisis, and technological and economic analyses of impacts and solutions.  Hamilton, although more than capable of writing about these subjects, has taken us into a place we rarely examine, the underlying philosophy and ethics which sit behind our political, technological and ecological choices.  He does this not in facile 'think outside the square' management babble, but in a way which engages with the fundamental narrative about who we are.  Reading it in the midst of an election campaign characterised by soporifically shallow debates about the 'cost' of climate action is a slap of cold water to wake me up.

Finally, he challenges us to change - not to just do what we do a bit better, or to update our technology and 'green' our neo-liberal market economy, or any of the other ways in which we try to change while staying the same, but to see ourselves differently, to see the earth differently, and to act very differently as a result.

I'm not sure if we can make these changes.  I don't have the gift of seeing the future - even the present is a bit of a mystery - and I waver between hope and despair.  But I do know that we need to take up the challenge, not avoid it.  The Anthropocene has already begun, and we need to begin the task of learning to live in it.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Black Lives, Government Lies

Australia has many myths about its history, and particularly about our history of invasion and dispossession of Aboriginal people.  Among them are the myth that Australia was terra nullius, an empty land, prior to the arrival of the British; the idea that Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers who roamed randomly around the country; and the idea that the Europeans named the various parts of the country, as if they did not already have names.

Each of these myths has been comprehensively busted, but many Australians remain unaware of this fact.  Other myths also remain alive.

Rosalind Kidd is a Queensland historian whose main work has been on the administration of Aboriginal affairs in Queensland.  At the start of the 1990s she was given access, through the intervention of Aboriginal academic and activist Marcia Langton, to the files of Queensland's Aboriginal Affairs Department going back to the foundation of the colony.  Aside from her doctoral thesis, the major results of this work were twofold.  She wrote a scholarly but accessible history of Aboriginal Affairs in Queensland titled The Way We Civilise, which I read not long after its publication in 1997.  Of perhaps more direct significance, she provided detailed historical evidence which backed efforts by Aboriginal people to recover wages stolen from them by the government over a number of decades.

Over the years I've attended a number of events hosted by Brisbane's Aboriginal Christian leaders and Aunty Jean Phillips regularly promotes Ros Kidd's books, including this one, Black Lives, Government Lies.  Aunty Jean is a woman who has walked the talk for decades and well worth listening to, so I bought a copy last year and read it while I was confined to my lounge chair after my bike accident.

I was blown away not so much by the information in the book (much of it I knew already from reading The Way We Civilise) as by Kidd's passion.  It was published in 2000 in the wake of the Bringing Them Home report into stolen children, and its 60-odd pages are bookended by telling quotes from two political leaders of the time.  The opening quote is given to then Prime Minister John Howard, speaking in parliament in 1999.

I have frequently said, and I will say it again today, that present generations of Australians cannot be held accountable...for the errors and misdeeds of earlier generations.

It's final chapter is headed by a quote from then Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Senator John Herron:

...[T]he treatment of separated Aboriginal children was essentially lawful and benign in intent...it is impossible to evaluate by contemporary standards decisions that were taken in the past.

This is a cluster of myths often repeated by non-Aboriginal Australians - that the dispossession and mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was long ago and need not concern us now, and that times and social standards have changed since then.  Our ancestors may have done wrong, but our hands are clean.

Drawing on the records of over a century of Queensland Government management of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Kidd comprehensively blows this myth out of the water.

From 1897 to the 1970s, the lives of Aboriginal people in Queensland were governed by the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of Opium Act 1897. This Act defined all Aboriginal people, child or adult, as wards of the State, giving the 'Protector' virtually total power over the lives of Aboriginal people. He and his delegates (generally the senior police officer in each locality) could decide where they lived, where they worked, whether they could marry, what should happen to their money and pretty much every other important detail of their lives.  Older Aboriginal people still talk about living 'under the Act'. John Herron would have liked us to believe that this regime was benign and well-intentioned but Kidd begs to differ

She begins with the practice of child removal. The Act allowed the Protector to remove any child and send him or her anywhere. While we often think of this in terms of Aboriginal children brought up in non-Aboriginal families a bigger story, if anything, was those raised in dormitories. These children sometimes had contact with their parents but often they were taken hundreds of kilometres from their home country.

Can we even imagine the terror of being wrenched, often at gunpoint, from your family and homelands, locked up in watch house cages en route, and then dumped in a strange place? Here, among perhaps a hundred other boys or girls, there might be not one person who could speak your language; if there was, if you spoke your own tongue you were thrashed. If you wet your bed you were made to stand outside in the freezing air draped in your urine-soaked sheet. If you answered back you were paraded in public humiliation with a shaven head and a hessian bag dress.

These dormitories, sometimes run by Christian missions and sometimes by the State, were subsidised at a rate per child 20-25% of that paid to orphanages housing non-Aboriginal children. Why? Did the authorities think these children ate less? Wore less clothes? Covered themselves more sparingly at night? Well, as it happened all these things were true because the managers had no money and the children were left cold, dirty and malnourished. Nor was much attention paid to their education - if they were taught at all it was in poorly lit, overcrowded classrooms with few if any books or writing materials. At best they learned elementary literacy and numeracy.

The adults and those children allowed to stay with their families did not fare much better. If they lived in town they would be unable to access housing and forced to live in makeshift dwellings on the edge of town. Their children would be refused school enrolment on the basis that their living conditions rendered them a health risk to other children. Yet if the family were moved to an Aboriginal community they would hardly be better off, because funding for the settlements was woefully inadequate.

Internal correspondence of the 1970s paints a terrible picture of continued gross overcrowding, cold unlined huts, lack of furniture, baths or sinks, blocked sumps, overflowing drains, smoke-blackened kitchens. At Edward River mission it was common for three and four families to share a hut; even so, many had to sleep outdoors by open fires. At Aurukun many families were still in bark huts; there was one tap for each ten houses and only six showers and one laundry for 650 people... At Yarrabah rampant hookworm and parasitic infestation was linked to malnutrition and water impurities, confirmed by data from 1973 to 1975 listing E coli present in 90% of water samples taken.

How did these people earn their living? Up until the start of the 20th century most Aboriginal people who were working were effectively slaves, unpaid and often forced into their work as stockmen or domestic servants for which they would receive meagre rations and cast-off clothes.

Then in 1901 a minimum wage for Aboriginal workers was set at between 6% and 12% of the white wage and, since employers frequently attempted to avoid payment, these wages were required to be paid into a government trust fund on their behalf. Although this money was supposed to support them, they didn't necessarily see any of it. Some of it was taken by the Protector in levies and charges. Some was kept as 'savings'. Meanwhile 'the people whose money it was continued to live, and die, in abject poverty'. Those who lived on the missions were rarely paid at all, and though forced to work would still be charged for rations if they had any savings in the trust fund.  These trust funds remain notorious - much of the money ended up funding State infrastructure projects and many people are still fighting a legal battle to get their wages back.

This began to change slowly from the late 1960s when trade unions began advocating for Aboriginal members, but each victory was hard-fought and often pyrrhic. In 1968 the Aboriginal Affairs department moved to paying cash wages, but these wages were less than one fifth of the rates paid to non-Aboriginal workers. Even if one accepts the Department's excuse that they also received subsidised housing, electricity and food (remembering the quality of this housing described earlier) the total value was less than a third of that paid to other workers.

In 1975 the Commonwealth Government passed the Racial Discrimination Act, effectively making such pay differentials illegal. Despite Crown Law advice that the State was legally liable for full award wages, the government continued to fight wage cases in the courts up to the mid 1980s. When they inevitably lost, rather than increasing budgets for the settlements they simply cut staff. Employment on Aboriginal reserves was reduced from about 2500 in the mid 1970s to under 900 a decade later, plunging the communities into poverty and leaving their already substandard infrastructure to deteriorate further.

What is striking about this story, of which I have only included a small sample, is not only its rank injustice but its recency. These things happened in my lifetime. While I was living with my family in a comfortable Brisbane suburban home, Aboriginal families were living crammed into bark huts or sleeping in front of open fires. While I was receiving an excellent State education children my age were being denied the tools for basic literacy. As I was starting my first permanent job with the State Government in 1983 (a job that included overseeing the welfare of a number of Aboriginal children) the government I worked for was still resisting the payment of award wages to its Aboriginal staff and sacking them to balance the books.

Kidd applies the same analysis to Herron and Howard, and she doesn't hold back.

When Herron was a playful child at Home Hill, dormitory children of his own age in Yarrabah were dying from a diet of dry bread, black tea and shin-bone soup; when Howard was a youngster at Earlwood Primary, children at Ravenshoe lived in hessian and sheet iron shacks on a government reserve where the total lack of basic amenities excluded them from school for all of their childhoods. When Herron enjoyed his education at Christian Brothers College at Townsville, 180 of his Aboriginal cohorts across the water at Palm Island were crammed in a small poorly lit room while the best classroom, no longer needed for the eight white students, was allocated for record storage.

While Howard was winning accolades as an excellent debater and contemplating a university law degree, school-age Aboriginal children were still being contracted out to the pastoralists as cheap labour despite official records of frequent serious injuries. When Herron was carving out a medical career in Brisbane, epidemiological surveys showed malnutrition on government-controlled communities was the key factor in the deaths of 50% of Aboriginal children under three and 85% of Aboriginal children under four; infant mortality at Palm Island was fifteen times the State average, and the Queensland government was stripping the equivalent of nearly $206,000 from the mothers' endowment accounts for capital works on the mainland. When Howard entered Parliament, Aboriginal community workers were underpaid by almost 66%, and children were so hungry they stole scraps put out for the pigs.

Herron was vice-president of the Queensland Liberal Party when the State Coalition government left nearly 800 people at Mornington Island in rotting tents for a year while it disputed conditions on cyclone relief funds. He was elevated to president the year changes were made to the State's Audit Act so that the Aboriginal department could garnishee desperately needed social security cheques for rent arrears.

He was president from 1980 to 1983 while Queensland's Coalition government continued underpaying its Aboriginal employees although admitting, confidentially, it was breaking both State and federal law. How did he not know this to be the case? Howard became federal Liberal leader in 1985; he inherited the behind-the-scenes fight over wages, a fight whose blood terms of mass sackings and massive social damage were clearly defined by Bjelke-Petersen in 1978, a fight not then over. He must have known. Yet I have passed no record of his response.

Perhaps juvenile me, and juvenile Herron and Howard, had some excuse. Perhaps I even had some in 1983 when I started working in child welfare. In fact, the Aboriginal leaders I met in that job were kind enough to further my education on the other side of Australian history, beyond the little I had heard second-hand at uni. I still have a lot to learn.

By that time, Howard and Herron were well and truly walking the halls of power.  Yet less than two decades later they could talk about what earlier generations did, about different standards in that distant past, as if it had nothing to do with them.

This is the elephant in the room, the uncomfortable truth we continue to deny. These injustices are not ancient history. This is the story of now, the story of my generation, the story of friends, neighbours, colleagues, the history that is so close under our noses that we can't see it. Or won't.

John Herron died recently, but John Howard is still with us, mentoring the current generation of Liberal leaders. Auntie Jean is, thankfully, also still going strong and mentoring a new generation of Aboriginal leaders. Aboriginal people are not going anywhere. Sooner or later we will have to come to terms with history and make amends. Let's make it sooner.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Things I Learnt by Falling Off My Bike

So I fell off my bike.  No-one helped me do it, I was not a victim of anti-cyclist road rage or a careless driver using their mobile phone.  I was just riding down Mt Gravatt one morning six weeks ago after a little bit of rain and the wheels slipped out from under me.

I landed on my right shoulder.  Quite hard.  I broke my collarbone, bruised a rib and did something or other to my hip which meant I couldn't walk.  Six weeks on my hip is getting better although I'm still limping a bit, my rib is still slightly sore and I have a metal plate holding my collarbone together so it is gradually healing.

Still, it's not all bad.  At least I get an opportunity to learn stuff.  Here's some things I've learned.

1. Don't Fall Off
Actually I already knew this.  It's just that now I know it more.  Don't ride too fast for the conditions.  Concentrate around the bends.  Brake appropriately.  Etc etc.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

2. Wear a Helmet
My list of injuries does not include a head injury.  This is entirely down to my helmet, which having done it's job will now be allowed to retire to a place of honour.  If I had not been wearing it, that chunk would have come out of my head.  Or something like that.

Wearing helmets is compulsory in Queensland, but it was not always so.  In my invincible youth I rode bare-headed, including a ride from Brisbane to Sydney with some friends at age 18.  They became compulsory in 1991 but I was already wearing one by then.  After spending six years in Maryborough, where there is not much traffic, I found returning to Brisbane roads scary.  Plus, I had become a dad.  Last month I finally needed it.

There's been a lot of debate in recent years about whether helmets should be compulsory or not.  Compulsion is an interesting question, but I will be buying a new one and wearing it when I get back on my bike.

3. Support Public Health
I have always been a supporter of a good public health system.  Everyone should have good health care, not only those who are rich.  I could probably afford private health insurance, but it's very expensive to take it out in your 50s.  So I pay the full medicare levy.

This year I've finally got my money's worth.  The ambulance arrived within 10 minutes.  I was wheeled straight into Emergency where half a dozen people simultaneously fussed over me.  I got operated on just two weeks after the accident.  I'm being treated by highly skilled, compassionate staff at the Princess Alexandra Hospital.   The system works.  Don't undermine it with funding cuts and privatisation.

4. People Can Be Nice
Of course my wife has been fantastic in caring for me, as she always is (although I don't always need this much care!).  My kids have helped out, my siblings.  Friends have visited me.  My clients have been very understanding and compassionate.

But I'm also thinking about people I don't know very well, or at all.  I'm not close to my neighbours, we just nod and wave, but pretty much all the long-term neighbours in the street have seen my sling and asked how I'm going.  And complete strangers have been nice too.  The first person who helped me after I came off was a fellow cyclist who saw me sitting by the roadside, stopped to check on me and called the ambulance.  When I first started walking after the accident I was very slow and walked with a stick.  People would see me a long way off at level crossings, stop and wave me across, and wait patiently for me.  I did not have a single person try to race through ahead of me, or beep me because I was too slow.  Seeing an injured person seems to excite compassion in most people.  It gives me hope.

5. Don't Stop Riding
A few people in my age group have suggested to me that maybe it's time to stop riding the bike now.  I thought about it.  I do it for my health, but I'm definitely not very healthy at the moment.  But four things made me decide I will keep riding.

The first is that although in this specific sense I'm not very well at the moment, I'm in good health overall.  This is partly the luck of good genetics and growing up in a middle class family, but it is also to do with healthy lifestyle and regular exercise - mostly through a lifetime of cycling.  This general good health has made it much easier for me to recover.

The second is that the accident was entirely my own fault.  Often cyclists get injured because they get hit by cars, and this tends to make them very shy of going back out to face the beast.  In my case the beast is me.  In any case, while I've fallen off a bike before, this is the first time I've suffered a serious injury.  It's the first fracture of my entire life (unless I broke my rib that other time...), and my first general anaesthetic.  This doesn't mean I won't have another, but my chances are no worse than before.

The third is that I know very well we all need to reduce our carbon footprint.  Cycling is one small personal way I can contribute to that.  If I didn't ride my bike to meetings and events, I would often need to drive.  And the momentum of cyclists pushing for safer roads is a key way to reduce transport-related emissions.

And finally, I love cycling.  I've done it all my life.  When I'm out walking I see cyclists rolling by and think, 'I wish that was me'.  It makes no sense to cut out parts of my life that I love as I get older. If we live without risk we live without joy.  If I get injured again, so be it.  The unhappiness of never being able to ride again would injure me more.

Unless I have a serious head injury.  So I'll still be wearing that helmet.  And also, going a bit more carefully around those corners!

Also, I'd like to pop up and have a look at this view again.