Can a cause for the right succeed in the long run if it is pursued through unrighteous means? Can causes for the good be selective in their adherence to science? Or do righteous ends justify unrighteous means?
This is the crisis confronting environmentalism. It suffered a grievous loss at the federal election and the Adani red line is broken. This may be a crisis of legitimacy. The question is whether political environmentalism is turning off voters and hardening attitudes against the necessary effective policies to secure future sustainability. Are the means employed by political environmentalism destroying the possibility of Australia achieving the desired end of sustainability through consensus? Or is consensus unnecessary because the morally right end means the maxim “by any means necessary” applies?
Political environmentalism is undermining the cause of sustainability because short-term expediency and tactical opportunism is trumping long-term strategic consensus-building. Environmentalism has degenerated into the binary of cultural war when it needs to transcend such wars. Its leaders have led the movement into a zero-sum game, where political victory in one battlefield is countered by loss in another.
We should first explain what we mean by causes for the right.
Political parties seeking power in government are not in the business of the right. Electoral politics are by definition ruthless, with few holds barred. Lies, half-truths, fake news, negative advertising and dirt files are part of the repertoire of power in politics. One party’s Mediscare is the other party’s retiree tax.
Former Labor NSW state secretary and federal minister Graham Richardson captured the ethos of politics in his memoir Whatever It Takes. Noble and ignoble things are achieved by marshalling political power.
While causes for power are amoral, there are causes for the right. Civil rights and the antiapartheid movement are examples. Emancipation and antislavery are even older precedents. Such causes mobilise the political process and power for good ends. Conservation is such a cause. Few would dispute it is a moral duty of humankind regardless of political affiliation and preference.
Causes for the truth must be ethical, otherwise they suffer damage. Moral integrity is the great currency of righteous movements, but the political environmentalists have jeopardised the cause of conservation by allowing it to descend into the hyper-partisan battlefield of culture and politics.
It is exposed to the 51-49 per cent risk. When your party wins 51, then you may win tactical victories, but when it is 49 you have put your cause in peril. This is what has happened to Adani after the election.
I want to allege five profound mistakes the political environmentalists are making in Australia:
First, they are alienating the lower classes in their droves. This is the lesson of the 2019 election. The political environmentalists pushed climate policies that worked for the post-material middle class, but cared less about the economically precarious. More than the costs, it is the movement’s superior cultural attitude that pisses off the lower classes in such a visceral way.
Second, they are alienating indigenous peoples by pushing the costs of conservation on to those who have not created the crisis. Indigenous leaders such as Marcia Langton and Warren Mundine have highlighted the green lockup of indigenous lands from development.
These groups manipulate and exploit divisions within landowner communities. They divide and rule the same as mining companies do, setting up puppets that favour their agenda. We saw this in the campaign against the Kimberley Land Council. We see it in Cape York in relation to Wild Rivers and blanket World Heritage listing proposals.
Traditional owners supported conservation goals and helped create by agreement new national parks and other conservation tenures. But the political environmentalists are never satisfied. They want everything locked up.
They are making enemies of the country’s largest landowners because they use electoral leverage with governments to subjugate land rights. If they are alienating the land rights movement, which is more aligned to conservation than other sectors, what does that say about them?
A third problem is they are at the forefront of deploying so-called “new power” in their public campaigns. Through the diffusion of social media and decentralised campaigning, green groups began to seriously challenge the “old power”. GetUp co-founder Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms explain this development in their 2018 book New Power.
Breaking the old power monopoly is welcome; however, the dilemmas of social media and its susceptibility to manipulation and its effects on civil society and democratic governance are troubling. Twitter and Facebook have just created online mob behaviour. Hardly platforms for moral causes.
And the political environmentalists have used the new power to promote conservation and climate change action in as cynical a way as the forces against which they are pitted. Getup and Sleeping Giants use the same tools of manipulation as deliberately as Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica.
A fourth problem is the political environmentalists are highly selective in their adherence to science, and in so doing bring science into disrepute in public policy debates. Who really believed the black-throated finch was the environmental issue of Adani? The poor critters were used as a proxy for opposition to coalmining.
Why the charade? The Queensland Labor government should have been honest with the public and said: the policy question we face is whether the Galilee Basin should be opened up to coalmining in the context of its contribution to the crisis of global warming. But because they wanted to walk two sides of the street at once — intimating to greenies they did not support Adani while intimating to regional workers that they supported coalmining — they did not bring the crux policy question to a head and provide their answer to it.
They lacked the courage of their convictions and simply did not have the leadership to untie the Gordian knot that expanded coalmining in the Galilee Basin represents. And now the May 18 loss sees them stampeding over the poor birds and anything else standing in the way of their electoral prospects next year.
The stances environmental groups take in relation to any number of issues — nuclear energy and aquaculture, for example — evince a selective adherence to science.
Does not environmental science tell us about the interconnectivity of the planet, and if nuclear power is used in Europe, Asia and the Americas, and contributes to lower carbon emissions, why is the debate on nuclear power not on the basis of science and the mitigation of risks associated with nuclear energy, instead of a green version of obscurantism?
The proponents of safer nuclear waste disposal in Australia (which included the late Bob Hawke) have got a point that is worth subjecting to science rather than outright prohibition. While the case for domestic nuclear power may not be strong, it is a substantial source of energy throughout the world, and as a uranium producer we are obliged to consider our role in the management of its waste. There are strong geopolitical arguments in favour of Australia assuming this responsibility and mitigating the large risks involved, which we are better placed to carry than most other countries. After all, it is the greenies who tell us the planet is one and national boundaries are environmentally meaningless.
The fifth and most fundamental problem is the political environmentalists have aligned environmentalism with socialism rather than conservatism. Another way of saying this is they have aligned environmentalism with progressivism rather than conservatism.
There is a fundamental philosophical problem at the heart of contemporary environmentalism. I do not mean in respect of the appreciation of the natural environment. I mean in respect of where our motive must come from in order to conserve the good things we have been bequeathed from our ancestors for the benefit of our future unborn.
This is the motive that is unanswered by the utilitarian calculations of liberals and socialists. Not everything is about price. Conservatives understand that some things are valuable because they are priceless.
English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s 2012 book Green Philosophy is the starting point for a new conservative approach to conservation. The approach is old — about stewardship and our responsibility to bequeath to future generations the gifts we received from our ancestors — but its application to the environmental crises facing our homelands, including global warming, is new. The climate obscurantists who are in the same binary as the political environmentalists and who think themselves conservatives should read Scruton. They should be the first to understand the conservation in conservatism but, alas, cultural war has caused a degeneration on all sides.
Progressive socialists don’t know what Scruton is referring to: oikophilia, the love of home that speaks to people’s connection with their environment, which animates their responsibilities.
Instead, they propose large schemes, imposed from above by state diktat, while doing violence to the most important engine of conservation: the local connection of communities with their environment, and their concern to leave their descendants what their ancestors left for them. Progressives are more concerned with environmental posturing, cutting the correct moral gesture, being seen to be more enlightened and selfless, in contrast to the deplorables and knuckle-draggers.
The green leaders all want to be the next Bob Brown, renowned for their own Franklin Dam or Wet Tropics. They trample over politically weaker communities such as Queensland property owners uncompensated for tree-clearing restrictions that underwrote our Kyoto target in the 2000s. It was John Howard’s federal government and Peter Beattie’s state government that dispossessed these landowners without proper compensation.
Indigenous landowners are another politically weaker community that are ridden roughshod over by political environmentalists.
The folly of all of this is now surely clear. What can be done?
Ever since Richardson alighted on the strategy of garnering the environmental vote, Labor began outsourcing its environmental policy integrity to the political environmentalists. This yielded electoral returns in 1987 and 1990 but ultimately led to Labor bleeding market share to the Greens and being held hostage to political environmentalism. Labor’s environmental credibility came from environmental group endorsements after adopting their policies and acquiescing to their demands.
Rather than undertaking the principal responsibility of government, coming up with policies that balance development with environmental sustainability, it did preference deals with the political environmentalists. Environmental groups became experts at marginal seat politics, turning 2 to 3 per cent of the environment vote to win 51 per cent victories for their pet campaigns.
The hook-up with GetUp is the apotheosis of Labor’s dalliance with political environmentalism. What electorate is not going to be suspicious of the next bunch of out-of-towners hectoring them about how to vote next time? GetUp was Bill Shorten’s long game at mobilising AstroTurf activism and it has all ended in tears.
Labor must define its own environmental credentials in its own right, not as an alliance with the Greens or as the lapdog of a certain environmental milieu. Watching Jackie Trad squirm as Queensland Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch approved the Adani mine this week told the whole sorry story. Labor can no longer walk two sides of the street at once. It worked for Annastacia Palaszczuk in 2017 but not for Shorten in 2019. Voters might be fooled once, but not all the time.
To develop environmental policies free from deal-making with the political environmentalists, Labor must balance human society and environmental sustainability. The last thing the environment portfolio needs is a progressive from an inner-city seat, surrounded by a milieu of political environmentalists. Labor needs to take environment policy back to first principles and get its philosophy right first.
The environment is too important to be left to the political environmentalists.