Imagining the future

Imagining the future
Griffith Review 52
Talks / Lecture

digital rendering of street scene
Recording date: 
9 June 2016

The future is almost within reach, but the portents are challenging; rarely has the future seemed so difficult a prospect. One of the sternest challenges we face is to imagine the future before it arrives and then attempt to shape it. Will the buzzwords ‘innovation’ and ‘agility’ come to mean anything more than increased efficiency and wealth for the few?

Coinciding with the 500th anniversary of Thomas More's Utopia, Griffith Review founding editor Julianne Schultz launches Griffith Review 52: Imagining the Future. Professor Schultz is joined by co-editor Brendan Gleeson of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne, and distinguished writers and Griffith Review contributors Jane Gleeson-White and Libby Robin, in a conversation around themes arising from our urgent need to address the world ahead.

In association with the Griffith Review.

Transcript

Transcript of ‘Griffith Review 52: Imagining the Future’

Speakers: Cathy Pilgrim (C), Julianne Schultz (S), Jane Gleeson-White (J), Brendan Gleeson (B), Libby Robin (L), Liz Bolton (LB), Audience 1 (A1), Audience 2 (A2)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 09/06/2016

C:         … Waverley Library Award for Literature and was short-listed for the 2013 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, The Age Book of the Year Award and the Queensland Literary Awards. Jane is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of New South Wales and writes prolifically about everything book-related on her blog, aptly named Bookish Girl. Dr Libby Robin is a Canberra local and a long-standing Petherick reader here at the library.

She is professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University, senior research fellow at the National Museum of Australia Research Centre, and an affiliated professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. She has won national and international prizes for her work in history, zoology and literature. So please join me in welcoming our highly esteemed guests to the National Library this evening. [Applause]

S:         Thank you very much for that warm and generous introduction. I’m Julianne Schutlz and it’s my great pleasure to be chairing this conversation this evening with Brendan Gleeson with whom I co-edited this edition of Griffith Review, Imagining the Future, Libby Robin, who is a scholar here in Canberra, and because it’s an issue about the future we are very pleased to be able to dial Jane in by Skype, so she can join us from Sydney in the … so thank you, Jane for being there on the screen. I mean we can see you, but you can’t see us. [Chuckling]

J:          See a pretty picture of the library.

S:         Very good. [Chuckling] The idea for this edition really came about as a conversation that Brendan and I had oh, I guess about a year or so ago now when we were talking about the limits we thought were existing in terms of trying to have a conversation about what the future might be and where those limits were occurring in the academy, in public policy, in the media. And what might be done about it.

We were very conscious that there were clearly identified mega-trends, you know, the big trends around climate change and automation, globalisation, urbanisation, those big movements which are reshaping the world. And yet we … as we talked about it we felt that there was … it was very hard to get a handle on how one could take some sort of agency over what that future might be and attempt to sort of shape it a little bit more than just being at the whim of the global forces as they were playing out. And as we had that conversation we became very aware of the sort of limits within the academy and within the media, you know, to try and even begin that process of imagining.

So that was sort of where we started which was [chuckling] the beginning of a … quite a long journey. I think that one of the things that became very clear as we started commissioning pieces for the collection and really sort of digging down into it a little bit was that there was a sort of nice milestone in that this year was the 500th anniversary of Thomas Moore’s Utopia, and so you start sort of thinking Utopian and futurist, that that was a sort of a good anchor point in a way for doing this.

But we were also very conscious that, you know, that was all sort of rather dysfunctional and negative, and so to try and sort of get some sort of sense of how you can deal with this in a positive and sort of almost hopeful sort of way. And that’s … so what we struck on in terms of the collection, and we were very fortunate, I mean to have a really distinguished group of writers, including for the first time in Griffiths Review, two Nobel Prize winners, rather than [chuckling] just one, as we’ve occasionally done. When Al Gore actually decided to sit down and take to his study one day and write some responses in response to questions that Don Henry had put to him.

So we have these very distinguished writers and thinkers involved in the edition. But we also commissioned a series of reports which were sort of extended journalism, both looking at the energy situation in Australia, looking at medical change … medical evolution and medical science. The situation in relation to advanced manufacturing and also in relation to the sort of automation of the bush. And so between the sort of thought pieces we’ve got these sort of very serious pieces of considered reporting, which I think add a really particularly strong dimension to the edition.

That won’t be the subject today, because this is a Canberra audience, so we’re going to go for the brainy stuff. [Chuckling] And I want to start that by asking the question of each of you, whether we’ve got the language right to even be able to begin to address the future? To be even begin to think about it? Brendan, in your piece you write about the limits of science and the secular. And you raise questions about this might be reframed if, in that great phrase, the spell of melancholia is to be lifted.

B:         Thanks Julieanne. Well, as is typical of me, I raise questions without adequate answering them [chuckling] if you’re referring to my [chuckling] essay. In my own thinking, and I’ve been an academic pretty much all of my adult life. I’ve tried a few other things and I wasn’t a success. So I speak from that perspective and that experience and academia and I have a view on where it is. And I think that it has been in retreat really from the sort of place where it would … has been and could be in terms of offering perspectives and language on the future.

And, you know, we can have an extended discussion about what I mean by that and why that’s happened, but certainly you don’t … I don’t know whether Libby would agree, but I don’t … you don’t hear it in academic discourse much, discussion about the future and particularly in any imaginative way it comes back in a possibly and more mechanistic, machinic forms like intergenerational reports that scare the living daylights out of everyone, or presume things like population ageing are a bad thing or things that have to be accounted for, that kind of stuff.

So I think academia’s at low ebb in terms of its ability to … and its confidence in adding to I think a conversation we really need to have, which is what sort of future … not only what future we’re walking into, and this scholarship can help us with that, forecasting and things like that, and Tim Flannery’s essay I think is quite useful in help us understand that … but I think it needs to do more and to help recharge our imaginative batteries and energies. And it’s … yeah, it’s … it hasn’t had the language, and I think you were … to do that, I think you were … just to finish, I think you were going to ask me about Terry Eagleton and his hope and optimism.

S:         Later I’m going to ask you about that. [chuckling]

B:         Later. But there’s an example of someone who is trying to, you know, work with the language, I think, from a … well, a scholarly perspective and say what … you know, what’s right and what’s not.

S:         But what you do interestingly in your essay, and it’s quite a personal essay in some ways, because you’re talking about the limits of your social science training, your resistance when you had your exchange with the theologian about the … you know, about the good city or the good enough city, and how that challenged your thinking as a sort of serious social scientist.

B:         Well, it’s … it is a personal story. It’s a … being a bit of a Freudian, it’s the story of repression kind of coming out in one way because I … brought up as a thorough going Catholic and I still … and I don’t feel bad about that upbringing at all actually. But, you know, very steeped in all that and I would have carried it into my early, you know, scholarly training. But then it was a process of con … subordination of that if I was to become a true academic. You know, generally, that was the way I interpreted it. I understood I had to become a secularist, I had to make that transition.

So in a sense what I’m saying there is there was always an uneasiness in myself in repressing that kind of history. And the questions that still come from that personal history, about … for me they didn’t just go away, about the spiritual and the like. But also recognising that … and finally, I think, it’s better scholarship to understand that a lot of the Enlightenment thinking and the traditions that we scholars are the bearers of, if you like, has been informed by that sort of faith/science dialogue.

The Enlightenment was really as much about that as anything else. So there’s a … for me it’s recognising that in the essay, and I think … and making the case that I think in these times, which are dire times, I think that we need more than ever to restart that dialogue. And so my story’s a personal one about how I was asked to engage a theologian around this idea of the good city. And it kind of rocked me to my boots a bit, that experience, and I’m still thinking about what that means for my own outlook and my own scholarship.

S:         Yeah. It’s interesting. It’s an interesting synthesis. Jane, I’d like to bring you in here, because you write about the way the language of economics is the lan … lingua franca of policy, but that it’s very limited. And talk a little bit about how it can be reframed taking in the six capitals of finance, manufacturing, intellectual, human, social and natural capitals. But you’re coming at this again in … a bit like Brendan in a sense, that you come out of it with both a literary and an economics background, and you come to some new space as a result of that. So maybe you can talk about that language of economics and its limits and its possibilities.

J:          Yeah. Thanks, Julianne and it’s very nice to be here on my computer. That’s a very interesting segue from Brendan’s because the father of modern accounting was a Renaissance monk. So already in, you know, the modern sort of economic paradigm, and in fact what I would say the capitalist paradigm, there is a combination of, you know, well there, the father of this system was a mathematician and a Franciscan friar. So that’s a very interesting aside. But yes, the language of economics ironically … so, within economics, as any economist knows, the two very important components of twenty-first century, and in fact all life, society and the environment, are considered as externalities.

And economics seems at a loss to address these, but extraordinarily I found … you know, and coming from, as Julianne said, a background in literature, you know, so poetry is my first love and I’m a … I wouldn’t … I’m not even an economist, but I’m reluctantly or less so now, I was reluctantly very interested in economics. And I’m even less … or even more reluctantly interested in accounting, but it was among the accountants that I found the revolution taking place that had passed by academics, scholars and certainly economists.

And I think it’s because accountants deal with the daily material life and the way that we do business, and they were the first to recognise that the daily functioning of business is largely destroying the planet because the sole … ’cause businesses operate with one sole legal obligation which is to maximise profit. And so they can destroy rivers, you know, cut down forests, ruin and sort of exhaust humans and, you know, local communities and still they make a profit. So these costs, environmental and social costs, aren’t considered in the regular accounts that were bequeathed to us by the Renaissance and Luca Pacioli who codified bookkeeping in the fifteenth century.

So accountants were the first to attempt to consider, and they’re only just doing it now, bringing in other sorts of values to their accounts and these values are expressed at Julianne mentioned in terms of capitals, which are really … which is really just another word for store of wealth. So those … so we have the traditional financial capital, which is money, and then manufactured capital, which is the machinery and the plant, you know, the traditional wealth of the manu … of the industrial era, roads and infrastructure.

And then there are the new values, two of which are of the information age, which is intellectual capital and human capital. And that’s in shorthand, geeks and their software. And then there’s social capital and natural capital, and that’s the wealth of society and the wealth of nature, both of which are run down mostly in the daily activities of business. And so in this accounting paradigm I found a fascinating new language that can be applied to economics to talk about.

‘Cause equally at a national level we are pretty much governed by the measure of GDP and that equally does not take into account the destruction to nature and our social world. So we’re all very well aware of the running down of our societies and our social infrastructure as well as the destruction to the planet of economic growth. So I just … you know, it is a fascinating new language which for the first time understands that commercial activity is embedded in society and nature in a way that economics has never done before.

So this is, you know, the new thinking that I’m wanting to do and that accountants and some economists, one of which I’ll speak about later, are beginning to do now, you know, so it’s absolutely brand new. The new accounting paradigm was only published in December 2013, so, you know, like Brendan I probably raise questions without answering them, but I think that’s the work of the future and, you know, the imagination is to think out loud about possibilities and to … as, you know, you both also mentioned, to work with inter-disciplinary fields so that we can sort of cross-pollinate.

S:         Yeah. Look, I think that that’s … that raising those questions is really the crucial first step because if everything’s a given you … there’s nothing left to imagine. So I don’t think either of you should apologise [chuckling] for asking questions.

J:          Well, thank you.

S:         I’ll come back to some of the issues raised by your book and the reaction to that emerging language of accountancy a little bit later, but Libby, could I just bring you in at this point, because I think that there’s a nice segue between what Jane was talking about and your interest in creating a space for creativity and innovation, and more expansive thinking.

L:         Yes. I’m a historian by training, so I’m … I’ve been interested in the history of past ideas about the future. And one of the interesting things is that in fact who’s the expert for the future has changed over time. In the fifteenth century, before the Enlightenment, the expert was the person who had a hotline to God, the prophet. You’d ask the prophet what was happening next. What’s coming up? In the nineteenth Century we would have had science fiction writers, Mary Shelley, writing about Frankenstein, 1808. She was imagining the future. She was our expert. And we … so we had that person.

In the 1950s, CP Snow said scientists have the future in their bones. So the expert is a scientist in the 1950s. And now we talk about economics, the economics of the future, the accounting systems of the future. And yet economists actually discount the future, they don’t count the future when they’re doing their accounting. So I guess what my piece comes out of is the desire to get more futures possible. More experts. More different imaginations working together. There shouldn’t be one future, there should be many futures.

And that’s where my piece is coming from, that passion of how do we actually think outside this box? Rather than listening to the language we’re given, we should be critiquing who gets to speak. Why is it that it’s always a certain sort of voice that gets heard? And like you say the theologian used to be important and then they’ve sort of been excluded from the discourse of the academy. I mean theology courses are actually in separate institutions in this country, but that’s not true in Sweden, for example.

So theologians are part of the humanities in Sweden in a way that they’re not so much in Australia, because we have a separation of church and state. These things matter as to who gets to speak for the future. I’m not saying we need to go back to prophets and seers, but I’m just saying that there are more ways of thinking about the future then just the economics of the future and the business of capitalism in the future.

S:         One of the things that you raise in your essay which is published in our online extension for this edition, is about the way the process, you know, the bureaucratic process constrains things and the example you give is the diminishing … and when … the extraordinary working hours that we have in Australia. And then one of the strong pieces in your piece is about the truncated grant application process, you know, and how that’s sort of basically eaten the summers of most academics and in the case of people like Brendan, who are assessing them, eaten the rest of the year. [chuckling] So we might come back to that …

L:         Sure.

S:         … as we go along. The storms this last weekend I think have really highlighted the … you know, the very real and present threat of what climate change might mean. I know it’s not the sole explanation, but clearly there’s a … there is a climate change dimension in what we’ve seen in these storms, what we saw in the fires in Tasmania over the summer. We have a fantastic photo essay of the destruction of those peat forests up in the Cradle Mountain area. Long periods of environmental history just been obliterated.

And I’m just wondering, given that when you try to imagine the future, climate change is clearly one of the big factors that we need to take into our thinking. And you’ve each talked about that in different ways. And I just wondered how you stop from feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of climate change? And how you might begin to think that people have some more agency in responding? Brendan?

B:         Yeah. It’s a big question. The awfulness of what we’re being told through science. I work with, you know, senior physical scientists at the University of Melbourne and, you know, they are very vexed and perplexed about the lack of, I guess, take-up. But it’s … it … popularly and the refusal and all that kind of stuff. But the message in one register is pretty awful. And now it’s manifest, so there are more … the more awful stories coming about, you know, what’s going on in rural Australia.

Now we can see this dramatic play on the coast and all that, so there’s an awfulness. And what do we do about that? Well, my … one … an area that I have an interest in concern, a burning concern as a parent, is in young people. And I think if we … there’s evidence that they are really doing this hard with the awfulness and the … and if we lose them and their spirit and faith in the future, and ability to imagine a safer and better future, then we’ve lost a lot. More than we should tolerate.

I was at the World Environment Day function at Melbourne University the other day and there’s Kate Auty, who's your new ACT Commissioner of Environment, wonderful person who we’ve let go to come up here. After Kate spoke, and Kate’s very good, I’m sorry if I’m drawing you out and embarrassing you Kate, but Kate’s very good at talking about well, what’s the alternative? Where are we going? Let’s do something better. It’s underway. Let’s … you know, that’s a narrative. Where can we go? What are we doing? Here it comes. Something better. That performative thing, I think, is really, really important area of practice for us, as people who might feel they have the opportunity for leadership in the space.

And just to close that comment, it was revealing to me that the young Student Environment Officer who spoke after Kate, came up to me afterwards and she’s been leading the divestment campaign at Melbourne and Melbourne’s still dragging its feet on that issue. And she said to me, and I don’t think she’d mind me saying it in this context, she is really frightened about the future and she’s an activist striving but in a relaxed moment offstage she said, you know, we’re really, really frightened. So I think we have to really, really take that into account because where that leads … we get great people like that that will still commit to activism but are suffering.

But where it does lead otherwise, and I hear this from colleagues who teach in commerce and business, they don’t want to know. They don’t … it’s too awful and let’s just get on with what we’re studying here, which is micro-economics or whatever, right? So there’s a … it leads to disenchantment and fear, but it also leads to turning off. And I think that explains partly what’s going on in middle Australia and why … I mean we’re in the grip of a … in the teeth of a climate emergency, why isn’t that almost the central thing in the national election? It’s because a substantial proportion of the electorate have turned off and that … you know, I’m yet again raising questions without answering them. So I’m sorry about that.

S:         That’s good. Libby, you have ex … you know, you’re involved with students. I mean is that something that you’re finding as well?

L:         I find students … I work with … in a school of environment society and people really want to make a difference, the people who I work with, and they are actively engaged and generally incredibly positive. But I think the people who are trying to find a single solution from above are really depressed. There isn’t one. But the … if you work with artists and performers and the culture institutions, actually there’s a lot of hope. I’ve been working in Germany in the House of the Cultures of the World with a big group of people, looking at positive responses, ways of getting people engaged and switched on.

But it’s a lot of little things. So you have to frame the problem in a way that one person can make a difference. Not that it’s too big for me to make any difference at all. And so I think that the reframing of climate change as an issue … we’ve got to do something other than put sandbags under houses that are already falling off cliffs. [Chuckling] I mean that’s absolutely … it’s a metaphor for our times, those images of the sandbagging. I mean it’s too late. And we … everything about that storm has been predicted, it’s a little earlier than predicted. But it … there’s nothing … those houses on that cliff cannot be saved. We have to do something different, not … we have to be kind to those people, but actually those houses can’t be saved and we don’t want to lose lives as well as houses.

S:         Jane, you’re nodding there. Do I take it that you were somewhat surprised to find that accountants were feeling some agency in this, or …

J:          Yeah. I find Libby’s comment earlier about … which sort of dismissed accountants and economics, is part … well, is not part of the problem, but I think one of the great tragedies of today is that the arts discard, you know, economics and accounting ’cause they … you know, because they have been so complicit in creating a world that … of inequality and the destruction of the environment.

So when I see that these … well it’s not economics yet, but it’s accountants, coming … trying to come to terms in very kind of particular ways with the great problem of climate change, then I am paying attention to those accountants ’cause they’re working with the material world, and, you know, there’s … I think I might talk about it a bit later, but there’s a new sort of corporation that’s been invented in America. It was invented in 2006, called the benefit corporation, which is kind of analogous with this new accounting paradigm because it has invented a corporation that must make a positive material contribution, not just to financial wealth, but to society and the environment.

And unless we can change the way that we do business every day, which provides our food, our clothing, our housing, our … you know, the material part … the material components of our lives, then we’re not going to change anything. So I think it’s a mistake to … you know, because I’m initially trained in literature and only subsequently in economics and accounting, so I would much … I’d be much happier seeing around writing a poem or, you know, writing a novel, or writing about literature, which is what I started out doing, than being, you know, in the mess of accounting and economics.

It’s not a very pleasant world and it’s tediously boring. But I think it’s incredibly important because it’s there that the material world gets … or, you know, the matter of our earth is managed and transformed into things that make our lives possible, including the buildings that stand on those cliffs, and including the sandbags that may or may not support them, and including the possible walls that may, you know, eventually support the structures that remain. So, you know, if we sort of ignore the material circumstance of our lives, which is the manner of economics and accounting, then I think we do so at our peril. Those of us who work with our imaginations I think those fields need imaginative people more than ever.

S:         Interesting. It’s … Brendan, or Libby, do you want to respond to that, or … you don’t have to, just if the …

L:         Well, I wouldn’t mind saying the …

B:         Perhaps.

L:         … principle of discounting the future is actually an accounting procedure whereby … but you could explain that …

J:          I’d say that that needs to be reformed. Accounting is enormously flawed. Both these fields are, but they’re beginning to reform it. So I’m not contradicting what you said then, I’m just saying that accountants, some, few, revolutionary accountants are addressing exactly that … those sorts of problems.

L:         Well, I guess what I’m saying is not that we shouldn’t have accountants, but that we should have more voices as well as accounting ...

J:          Oh …

L:         … deciding what our future should be. That’s all.

S:         I think you’re probably in furious agreement on that. ([Chuckling] Yes.

J:          … well I think we’re agreed. [Chuckling]

S:         I was very much struck though, as you were all talking, and there’s a quote from Simon Corbell, the Environment Minister here in the ACT, in Kathy Marks’ long essay about environment … energy futures and what’s actually happening on the ground in terms of developing a more sustainable energy sector. And here she quoted him as saying you’ve got the levers if you want to use them. I just keep telling people there are levers you can use. It struck me that that’s a really … you know, it’s a really … at one level it’s an obvious thing to say, but on the other it’s a really important thing to say, that rather than feeling, oh God, it’s just all out there, it’s all too hard. But in various forms of positions of power and influence and in the sort of ideas space even, I mean there are levers that can be used.

L:         And scales for those levers.

S:         Yes.

L:         I mean I think Simon Corbell’s scale is … the ACT is doing very well in energy transformation because it’s the sort of scale that it’s possible to do it on. So some levers work on some scales and some levers work on other scales.

B:         I think there’s a project of dusting off some of the old levers and getting them moving again. Arguably, the Victorian government did that in its most recent budget, when it went out and borrowed and said, you know, against the kind of neo-liberal consensus and that standing order against that, against the institutional embedding of the accountants, Jane, (chuckling) when it’s great to hear that there’s innovation going on amongst academics and thinkers and I’m certainly aware of that, but …

J:          It’s not amongst academics.

[Chuckling]

B:         … that …

J:          Fortunately.

B:         Well, yes.

J:          Oh, not in what I’m talking about.

B:         Not all. Yes, I accept that. But the other … the terrible stuff that Libby has talked about has become so deeply institutionally embedded. I mean if you … we know that story through my book previously and the way that it’s just … it’s … it has an iron-clad grip on the bureaucracy and state treasuries and the like. So there’s an argument that we need to stop spooking ourselves and recover and get back into action. Some of those old levers. So I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Simon Corbell in 2002 when he was first elected, helping to advise to set up the Land Development Agency here.

And that … boy, did that go against the consensus. That you would intervene in a land market against developers. Oh, the pushback we had, this is … that’s old style thinking, you can’t do that anymore. But, you know, he pushed on, he led on, that thing was set up. Arguably it’s been very, very successful. So I think there’s a story there. There’s all sorts of, you know, the Prime Minister goes on about innovation and new mechanisms and this, that and the other, but I think we need to turn to the old levers for another look at least these times.

L:         Well, I think if … history is the lever here too. Tony Judd, who’s a New York Times journalist and historian, has written about our present discontents and he talks about the normal that actually is only three decades old. And sees that as limiting the future. You can’t think more than three decades ahead if you can’t think more than three decades back. And actually we have to be thinking a hundred, a thousand, 25,000 years ahead. How do we do that with this sort of … so there’s a spatial scale as … that we talk about, but there’s also a temporal scale that we’ve got to think bigger and bigger and bigger futures, and we’ve got to think of we as maybe seven generations, not just our lifetimes.

S:         Yeah. It’s interesting. I mean it seems to me that Australia is particularly resistant to change. That we … that we’ve lost those old levers and we haven’t found the new ones. It seems to me that it’s very clear in the rhetoric in the election campaign. You know, there is a plan for a new future which involves education, growth, that’s about it. But there’s not a sort of drilling down into what that might mean. I mean we know that we’re on the cusp of really profound changes. But if you listen to what’s been said in the public domain at the moment you would actually have no serious sense of what’s really at stake.

And so there’s a sort of … you know, there’s a gap obviously in the political language. I’m just interested in whether there are lessons that we can learn from elsewhere about how change occurs? And Jane, I want to come to you first, because your book Six Capitals, the most recent one, I mean has an extraordinary reaction internationally. I mean it was voted one of the top 20 business books in the US last year. I mean you’ve been speaking at seminars in the US and Europe, you know, extensively. What has been the reaction in Australia?

J:          Shall we say muted [Chuckling] and I think there … well I should say that the UK only caught on last year, so Australia may … this may be the year for Australia. But I mean I think the sorts of comments … and obviously I’m not explaining this clearly enough, because the sorts of comments that Brendan and Libby are making are about an accounting paradigm and a neo-liberal state currently existing, which are not at all what I’m talking about. And, you know, I mean …

B:         We know. [Chuckling]

J:          Oh, good. [Chuckling]

S:         It’s why we want you to talk. [Chuckling]

J:          That sort of thing we recognised, which is part of imagining the future. And it’s because of the power of those matrix that govern … you know, I loved both your essays and I was particular … you know, Libby’s essay on the matrix that govern scholarly work is heartbreaking and we’ve all experienced firsthand. But I think it’s because those numbers and that sort of neo-liberal thinking is so powerful and so pervasive that we have to find ways to think around it, or beyond it, you know, imagine our way … ourselves out of it. ‘Cause it’s … you know, it’s got a watertight grip, certainly on public policy. So, yes, how … I … you know, I mean I think Australia is very slow to take up the ideas in my book, but they’re … you know, they’re elusive and maybe complex.

S:         Brendan, you were struck by Al Gore’s response to this thing about how you imagine an alternative and the … and how that might be progressed. You know, his thinking has sort of changed.

B:         Yeah. I … I’m no expert on Mr Gore, but we’ve had, at Melbourne, some interaction with him through a couple of visits over the last couple of years, and Don Henry, who may be known to many people, has joined our institute and works quite closely with Al Gore. So what’s the story there? Al Gore, as many would know, has been a … you know, a leading global figure in pushing and including through cultural forms, awareness of and response to the global warming, the climate emergency and all that kind of stuff. And as I understand it he’s been … you know, incredible energy, he’s up with Don Henry in Beijing at the moment. He just keeps going around the world training, training, influencing and all that kind of stuff. So his narrative and … but what I sensed and Don believes to be the case his narrative has shifted to little bit … somewhat less now, I’m talking about the emergency and just talking about the new society that’s going to emerge, that’s coming. It’s on its way. And that found a particularly powerful and receptive audience. It was a particularly powerful … sorry … message and found a very receptive audience at the University of Melbourne last year when he came and spoke to about a thousand students. And … so he did the kind of the horror slides, the cooking planet in five minutes. The rest of it was about the opportunities of the new economy. And he’s actually, you know … connecting back with Jane … he’s now just going around the sort of Maginot line of neo‑liberalism and just saying there’s a new economy coming. Right? We’re dragging our heels here, not in the ACT, but elsewhere. But it’s just … it’s coming, it has to come. And it’s going to be full of new opportunity. So it comes back to that question about how we deal with this awfulness and horror. He … he’s quite mindful of that, I think, and so he’s practising this different narrative.

L:         And a lot of the leadership is coming from the business end because it’s actually … this is where the future opportunities for business are too. So there’s no question that the conversations that … I guess the political conversations are probably the most conservative. We’ve got interesting things happening in Climarte and other arts led initiatives in museums, performances. A lot of energy out there. And we’ve got a really positive … there are positive models around.

But there’s a sort of … we can’t talk about climate change. Why can’t we talk about climate change? What’s going on? What’s repressing that conversation? I think partly we can’t maintain the rage, we can’t be in crisis all the time. It’s a long slow burn. It’s a slow catastrophe. It’s got to be managed quite differently from floods and droughts and things perhaps. Brendan, do you …

B:         There’s so much at stake here in Australia. I mean I think … I wrote a piece in Meanjin last year, which tackled this question. It … Bruno Latour, the great French theorist at the moment, described the Australian … this is a year or two ago … what did he call it? The Australian strategy, in a major international speech. It was in Stockholm or somewhere like that, Copenhagen he delivered it. Oh, it went all around the world, everyone was talking about Latour’s speech. And, oh, Australia featured. We nor … I don’t think we normally feature in Latour’s … in fact he’s going to be with us in a couple of weeks' time.

But he talked about the Australian strategy of walking backwards, sleepwalking backwards into the future, if I can [Chuckling] … right? So there’s ah, ha, ha, you know, Australia and in Europe and you go thinking oh, what’s going on over there? And, you know, I kind of think I don’t hold to that, that view of Australia. I think we’ve been enormously imaginative, adaptive and we’ve got an incredible history of innovation and all that. I’ve have to reach for my gun when I use that term these days, but you know what I mean. [Chuckling]

We’ve … you know … but what has been particularly at stake here is power and money and resources in the resource sector in the last … it’s all very well to be lectured from Europe and places that don’t have resource sectors, so those power and those politics didn’t play in the way they are playing out here in a really dramatic and deep way. And it’s never quite to the surface, just about what interests are at stake in the carbon economy.

L:       And those interests aren’t necessarily Australian. In fact they’re generally not. [Chuckling]

B:         Exactly so.

S:         Jane, this is a good place to draw you back in as well and your work. You draw on Kate Raworth’s work from Oxford and she describes the doughnut of possibilities between the environmental constraints and the capacity for human … you know, what people can actually do. It’s quite a different sort of tool. Do you want to just describe that, because it answers some of the stuff the others have been saying.

J:          Well, very briefly, she’s an amazing economist, young economist working in Oxford, who is trying to get away from the idea of, you know, the economics and the idea of economic growth and this endless planet, you know, available to be exhaustively mined and littered and polluted and destroyed, you know, which is not factored into regular economic morals. So I think you mention in your essay, Brendan, the need for limits, and so she agrees with this and, you know, conventional economics has no limits and she imposes two limits on her new model of economics which she sees as two circles, one inside the other.

The outer circle is the environmental ceiling beyond which the planetary boundaries can’t be pushed if human life is to be sustainable. And there are nine different planetary boundaries. They were set up by Rockström et al in an essay in nature in 2009 and they include things like climate change and wide adversity loss and freshwater. So all the things that human and other life require on the planet. And then there’s the inner circle, or the social foundation, and they are seven key … or the 11 top priorities that were agreed upon by governments in the run-up to Rio ’20, which are the limits below which human life cannot happily exist on the planet. So they are things like food, water, energy, education, health.

And so this is just her beginning … her book isn’t being published ‘til next year. Her book sort of expounding this. But this is just her sort of imagined beginning to a new way of thinking about economics with an … you know, so human life can subsist within these, or exist, happily co-exist within these two boundaries. Boundaries which don’t exist in contemporary economic paradigms. So, yes, that’s her attempt to imagine the future of economics.

S:         Sounds …

L:         Can I just chip in on that?

S:         Just very briefly, yeah.

L:         The … Kate Raworth’s work is most important with Oxfam which is …

J:          Yeah.

L:         … of course an NGO. This is a really interesting place for economics to be happening. It’s … and Rockström et al work … the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which is actually a part of the Academy of Science …

J:          Yeah.

L:         … not just Stockholm University. It’s … so we’re actually seeing different sectors weighing in and doing really interesting things on the edge. I think sometimes universities are caught in their own large systems and it’s harder to do more innovative edgy things …

B:         Absolutely.

L:         … than say with Oxfam and the …

S:         Yeah.

L:         … Stockholm Resilience Centre.

J:          That’s a fantastic point, Libby. Kate published her big essay about what she calls doughnut economics a little unfortunately I think, given the obesity crisis. But she calls her system doughnut economics and she published the essay in an Oxford … Oxfam think piece and only subsequently has become … she’s a fellow at Oxford University where she teaches sustainable economics. So, yes, that’s really a fantastic point.

S:         Well, as somebody who’s been in favour of synthesis, you know, which is what we do with Griffith Review, I’m all in favour of this. Now I want to ask you each one quick question before we go to questions from the audience, and it’s a bit cheeky. I’m wondering … given that we’re in the middle of an election campaign, I’m wondering if each of you could describe what an election campaign that was really concerned about the future, and aware of the global constraints, might look and sound like, rather than the rhetoric that we’ve been putting up with of a plan, a plan, a plan, and so on? So, just quickly.

L:         Should we start with Jane so she doesn’t miss out. [Chuckling]

J:          I’ll be very brief because, you know, just spontaneously my election campaign, or, you know, the ideal one that I would like to hear would start with the Barrier Reef as its foundation and acknowledging that that is not only one part of the most … part of the most critical … or probably the most critical wealth of Australia, but also the planet, and, you know, everything would be … would sort of go from there.

So how best can we change the way that we do business to … you know, so we’re not mining and transporting carbon emitting ore through the Reef and how then do we change our science and our thinking and our politics and our communities and the way that we live so that we … so that preserving the Reef is our number one national priority?

S:         Libby?

L:         I … well I was very impressed with Q&A on Monday night. I think town hall meetings in Tamworth tell you what people in Tamworth are concerned about and we need politicians who represent their electorates a little more closely.

S:         Brendan?

B:         You’re asking us to fantasise so …

S:         I am indeed. Yes.

B:         … I’ll free feel. I would think it would look … my perfect one would look and … for the moment, would look something like I imagine it was after World War II when there was a great feeling that after being through those cataclysms of depression and war and, you know, basically system breakdown, we need a new dispensation. And I wish we had an election that was striving … different models from conservative to progressive, but saying we need a new dispensation. And final sentence, and a national conversation that put to the front and centre indigenous peoples and indigenous knowledge to finally help us to better understand what … how do we really get some long-term dispensation that allows us to live sustainably in Australia?

S:         Okay. Good. That’d be a good start, all three. Okay. Now I’d like to take some questions from the audience. But first of all I want to single out Liz Bolton if you’re here. Liz, you wrote a very interesting piece that was in the conversation yesterday about importance of getting the arts into this climate conversation. I just wonder whether you either want to say something or ask a question of the panel? There’s a microphone beside you.

LB:       Yeah. Thanks. Is that working? Yeah. Thanks so much. Yeah. When … in the discussion about trans-disciplinarity, I’ve got a literature background as well, but I found a lot of answers about the problems with people responding to climate has … have come from the sciences, from cognitive science and brain science. And the irony of a lot of this amazing innovation in brain science is that it tells us that our most important guides for helping us to survive since we’ve been, you know, ape-like is our feelings and our senses. And that the neuron pathways in our brain form as a secondary process to us picking up sensory signals from our environment.

And one of the examples is that, you know, we’re born with this very mushy brain and … which … but the way we can live in the Arctic or we can live in the Sahara or we can live in any sort of environment, is because we take in senses from our environment that allow us to build these neuron pathways like a software package which allows us to survive. And so this conclusion is that us as moderns, we don’t have the right software package at the moment. And thinking’s not going to cut it because the … our thinking is defaulted.

And so we have to go back to the getting the sensory signals of what we’re facing correct and the emotional signals and so fear is not necessarily a bad thing because evolutionary psychologists explain that it’s a very important signal for us to hear that fear. It’s telling us something very important and that’s how we survive, by hearing those emotions.

And even the positive emotions like I’m hearing in Jane’s voice, the excitement and happiness when she talks about the possibilities with accounting and it’s … that’s telling us something, that feeling, that when we talk about neo-liberalism we get that hardened, ooh, feeling. (Chuckling) That’s telling us something. So that’s why I’m saying artists are so important because our brains are stuck, we have to get these sensory emotional things happening. And that’s why we need them.

S:         Excellent.

LB:       So that’s why I was writing we need 60,000. [Chuckling]

S:         Thank you. That’s a very good contribution and indeed Libby … the image of the sandbagged houses in the beach near Sydney, in Collaroy, was actually probably one of those images which cuts through in a way that’s … you know, it takes to an emotional space. There are a couple of other questions. There’s a person in a blue jumper and the guy in this jacket over here.

A1:       Jane mentioned externalities and the way economists …

S:         That’s … can you just … can you hold a little … yeah.

A1:       Is that … how’s that?

S:         Yeah. That’s better.

A1:       So Jane mentioned externalities and the way that social and environmental factors are external to the consideration of economics and I want to know whether people think we can reform economics by internalising those externalities, or is capitalism fatally flawed?

S:         Jane, there’s one for you. [Chuckling]

J:          Well, that’s a fantastic question and I have to say it’s what I ask myself almost every day. And that really is the absolute knife edge dilemma that I sit on because internalising externalities … you know, so I started out thinking of course we have to internalise externalities because I was very persuaded by Raj Patel’s example of a $200 hamburger which I’ll briefly describe, which is effectively if we internalise all the social and environmental costs of a Big Mac, it would not be $4, which it was at the time of Raj Patel’s thought experiment, but it would be $200. So that would make the price signal, you know, so that we wouldn’t just randomly drive by and get a Big Mac on the way home because it would be $200.

So I started out thinking that internalising externalities was the way to go and this new accounting paradigm attempts to do that, but of course that is part of a neo-liberal sort of capitalist agenda and I do think capitalism is deeply flawed. And I would like to hasten its demise. So that is what (chuckling) made me look beyond it to the benefit corporation which thinks, you know, beyond the profit motive and also which got me … I totally love and support Brendan’s comment about indigenous knowledge and ways of understanding this continent as being, you know, incredibly important for the future and the present and the past.

And so at the end of my book on this new accounting paradigm in my despair and asking myself that question, I look to other ways of thinking about valuing the natural world and, you know, the other so-called non‑financial values that this new accounting paradigm sets out. And I found myself in Bolivia and, you know, other places in Central America where they’ve enshrined the rights of mother nature and they’re trying to elevate nature, you know, to the equivalent of human beings giving it rights so that it can stand in court and contest development and human … economic needs in its own right. So, yes, I mean your question, I ask it to myself every day.

A2:       I recently came across a discussion where the work of Peter Victor was been talked about which was A World Without Growth, where he modelled the trajectory that said if you did something radical now it would never work. If you waited too long it would never work, but if you plan a decade or two decade long strategy to get to zero growth, that’s the only hope for kind of a balanced global environment. And I just wondered whether there were any comments on that view, ’cause the growth paradigm is the capitalist paradigm and the biggest problem is that we believe we have to grow and therefore we’re trapped in the paradigm.

S:         Yeah. Brendan, do you want to …

B:         Yes. And I think this connects with the discussion just previous to this. I … my understanding of capitalism, I’m persuaded by political economy which tells us that it either grows or it doesn’t exist or it dies. It’s hard-wired for growth. And I’ve written about this so … the writings of David Harvey, but many others, that compound material growth is absolutely essential for markets and market society and all that kind of thing. So the idea that we can shift it to some other more benign, non‑compounding model or a model that doesn’t grow or a model that has … somehow has benevolent forms of growth, I think is actually fiction ultimately. And I do think though that the market, the capitalist system as it is now is in a really serious and possibly [unclear – 51:46] terminal crisis. And it’s suffering a crisis of over‑production of which global warming is a sign of that to some extent. That really appears insoluble and now the growth of [unclear – holfictive?] capital and other non … you know, forms of capitalism are only throwing up more and more dilemmas. So I think that’s to play out and I think we’re in the teeth of that thing playing out. And so I think whether one subscribes to an anti-capitalist view or not, it behoves us to prepare for something else and to think about, imagine the future based on other political economic models.

L:         Maybe we have to rescue the futures … the future from the futures market. [Chuckling]

B:         Boom boom.

J:          Yes. Well said. I’m very keen on the non-growth model. It’s not Kate Raworth’s model, she’s still vested in some sort of sustainable economic growth, which is an oxymoron of course. But I am interested in … there’s a new sort of way of thinking, another circular one, called the circular economy, and for example, in Cowra, in New South Wales, there’s something called the Cowra Low Emissions Action Network, CLEAN. And there are many of them around the world, which try and re-use all the waste that they have generated and, you know, remanufacture things and … so recycle everything. So in other words, the waste of their community is used to, you know, generate energy and other things. So that’s a model that I’m … that I think is a way of the future and it’s very interesting.

S:         I think on that note, which touches on the sort of question of hope, which we didn’t explore in great detail, but I think that there are lots of examples of reasons to be hopeful, that we should hang on to. I mean it’s a difference between hope and optimism, which I think is an important distinction. So I’d like to thank you all very much for your generosity and brains that you’ve brought to this conversation. I think it’s been a very interesting one and I’d like to thank you for being involved it and you for participating. Thank you.

[End of recording]

Download transcript 117.74 KB

Recent audio All recent audio