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Not easy being green

It could be argued that most politicians enter public life with the best intentions. But such intentions are soon sacrificed to party expediency, narrow self-interest, and short term political goals. Here, the politician hopes the public won’t notice they’ve given up working for the common good, that they act only to keep the public distracted by relying on a form of sleight-of-hand resulting from the separation of words from deeds.

It therefore says a lot about Australia’s democracy, when a person like Bob Brown is seen as a political anomaly, rather than the norm. For over two decades Brown has been shaping his political mettle by bringing his words and actions into closer accord, trying to protect our long-term national and global interests, often at personal expense.

A cynic could argue that he can afford to behave the way he does because, not being in a major party, with all its pressures and responsibilities, he has the least to lose. But to argue this would be to miss the point, and that is that Bob Brown behaves the way he does out of necessity; solely because he—along with everybody else—actually has the most to lose.

It is this point that Brown is trying to convey in his latest book, Memo for a Saner World. ‘It consists of stories from along the road I have taken’, he says, in the introduction, ‘as an environmental campaigner concerned for all humanity and as a Greens senator, with discussion of some of the issues on the way’. These campaigns include the Franklin River blockade, the logging of both Farmhouse Creek and the Styx Valley, and more. As a senator for the Greens, he discusses the need for strong human rights and environmental protection laws, reflects on how the Greens behave in government, and exposes the violence directed against environmentalists in Australia and around the world.

He even includes an interesting essay regarding the consequences of his interjection of George W. Bush’s parliamentary address in October 2003: this exercise in free speech came after Bush’s earlier visit to Manila, where five opposition members walked out rather than be lectured by the President without the right to reply or question. Following Brown and Kerry Nettle’s actions in Australia, Bush’s planned address to the British parliament was abandoned, for fear that, emboldened by such displays of democracy, dissenting British MPs opposing the war in Iraq would protest.

What causes most concern about Bob Brown, however, is that some of the language he uses, both in these essays and elsewhere, may appear counterproductive. In the opening piece, ‘Earth Spirit’, he cites an Irish correspondent and anti-environmentalist, who sees all greenies as ‘chunky-sweatered folk who ramble at weekends, hug trees on Wednesday and spend the rest of their time polluting every conversation with scare stories about holes in the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect’. In the same essay—where he argues, ‘We are the universe thinking’—he risks playing into such stereotypes. And yes, he does also include an essay about global warming, holes in the ozone, and the greenhouse effect. Faced with this, it is possible to see how some would react by withdrawing into their fears and prejudices.

All interest groups—and the Greens are no exception—have their own expressions and their own language. This works well for groups who are not interested in communicating with anyone outside their own areas of interest, such as government and big business. But this does not work well for groups whose interests extend beyond itself and its own immediate members, such as those concerned with humanity and the environment. The challenge, if such groups wish to remain relevant, is to create a new language which can connect with these other, sometimes opposing, sometimes complementary, groups.

Bob Brown is most persuasive when he avoids using a ‘green’ rhetoric, which he occasionally slips into, especially when attacking market fundamentalism and excessive materialism. His best moments, and happily these comprise the bulk of his book, are when he effectively uses against them the language of those opposers, and demostrates that a good economy is dependent on good ecology; that narrow self-interest is ultimately self-defeating, and that a broader conception of human interest, common to all, is not only possible, but necessary.

It is a pity that Bob Browns don’t grow on trees.

Memo for a Saner World, Bob Brown. Penguin, 2004. isbn 0 143 00034 9, rrp $24.95

Matthew Lamb has a PhD in Literature. He lives and writes in Brisbane.




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