Climate change obscures the real moral crisis


The 2007 election saw the Howard Government caught in a perfect electoral storm. Boredom disconnected the Coalition from the electorate, effectively muting any further policy initiatives or repackaging of their message, while WorkChoices and the refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol left the Government stranded in a kind of moral no-man's land without recourse to some higher agenda or greater moral cause.

But what we witnessed this election year was not simply the demise of a government that had fallen out of step with the values of the electorate. The Howard Government was a casualty of one of the more pronounced trends in global politics today: the simultaneous banalisation of domestic politics and globalisation of public morality.

As the role of national governments is dwarfed by the enormity of trans-national economic flows and the environmental crisis, and as people's habits are more and more enmeshed in the matrix of consumerism, any immediate sense of morality becomes de-localised and cast onto the global stage.

The core imperatives of this global morality are obvious: to mitigate the ravages of free market capitalism on the disadvantaged, and to arrest the effects of greenhouse gases on our environment. Needless to say, WorkChoices and the Howard Government's failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol were unforgivable in view of these imperatives.

By contrast, Kevin Rudd shrewdly aligned himself with the prevailing moral sentiment by revamping his social democratic façade, all the while pledging his allegiance to strong economic growth.

'Neo-liberals speak of the self-regarding values of security, liberty and prosperity,' he said. 'To these, social democrats would add other-regarding values of equity, solidarity and sustainability ... these additional values are seen as mutually reinforcing, because the allocation of resources in pursuit of equity ... solidarity and sustainability assist in creating the human, social and environmental capital necessary to make a market economy function effectively.'

This statement points to the substance of our moral crisis. The values Rudd espouses merely grease the skids of the capitalist machine.

Similarly, for Rudd, Al Gore and most other climate change centrists, the solution to our current environmental woes lies not in radically curtailing our industrial or consumerist habits, but in some supplemental technology that will neutralise the global economy's addiction to high emissions.

The belief in both instances is that the answer to our global problems lies further down the road on which we are already travelling; that capitalism is the cure for the disease capitalism unleashed.

This is not just impotent. It is positively harmful because it gives the appearance of activity and conveys a sense of morality, even while we neglect our most fundamental moral obligations.

Leading environmentalist James Lovelock has condemned the half measures paraded by Kyoto signatories as little more than 'each nation trying to gain brownie points for its diligence'. Our situation demands more serious measures. As Lovelock maintained in his response to the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, contiguous yet sustainable development is no longer an option:

'I see our predicament as like that faced by any nation that is about to be invaded by a powerful enemy; now we are at war with the earth and as in a blitzkrieg events proceed faster than we can respond. We are ... living on a planet where climate and compositional change is now so rapid that it happens too fast for us to react to it. For this reason alone, it is probably too late for sustainable development. Enlightened living of this kind might have worked 200 years ago in Malthus's time but not now.'

While Lovelock's 'Earth-at-war' stands for the absolute limit of global capitalism, it is imperative that we also recognise the internal or local limitations of capitalism.

Noel Pearson has been rightly critical of Rudd's reduction of the plight of indigenous Australians to the disparity between the 'privileged' and the 'disadvantaged'. Both terms presume some degree of integration in the economic-cultural dynamic of capitalism, but indigenous Australians are systemically excluded from the benefits of the free market economy, a state which no mere application of social democratic values can rectify.

'Aboriginal disadvantage', Pearson says, 'has become entrenched during the decades when social democrats, small-l liberals and conservatives influenced policy; many policies for indigenous Australians have been liberal and progressive.' Here too, we are forced to recognise capitalism's structural incapacity to embrace everyone within its sphere of beneficence; its inherent moral deficiency.

If the vacuous brand of global morality I've been describing has been spontaneously generated by capitalism as a palliative for assuaging our own guilt, then the fervour with which people declare themselves climate change 'true-believers' is simply a way of numbing our culpability and divesting us of our domestic responsibilities. Against this temptation to 'globalise' our sense of morality, it has never been more important to insist on the concreteness of local ethical commitments.

Australia has a great moral crisis on its hands — the ongoing tragedy of indigenous Australia. The irony is that for all Kevin Rudd's posturing on Australia's Kyoto obligations, it was John Howard who proved his moral worth by committing to a constitutional referendum on reconciliation.

Scott StephensScott Stephens is an author and theologian who lives in Brisbane, Queensland. He is the co-editor (with Rex Butler) and translator of the two volumes of the selected writings of Slavoj Žižek, Interrogating the Real and The Universal Exception.





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To suggest that John Howard was exercising morality in his last ditch attempt to curry favour seems naive. What Howard committed to was a referendum for a basic acknowledgment of our first peoples. Proper reconciliation is so much more than that and Howard offered no promise to even involve Indigenous Australians in developing this basic preamble to the Constitution. While some had hope the electorate saw through the ploy of the last minute conversion to hang onto power. There was no morality in that.
Angela Ballard | 13 December 2007

Of course Howard was desperate and brought out his big 'moral' gun. His speech to the Sydney Institute in October was, nonetheless, a remarkable event; it was as if his lagging electoral fortunes brought out the best in Howard. Certainly better than any of the populist tripe that Rudd peddled on his campaign. And before discrediting his gesture altogether, have a read of Noel Pearson's op-eds:,25197,22576741-5013477,00.html
Scott Stephens | 13 December 2007


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