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We are all Green now

By Peter McMahon - posted Wednesday, 13 June 2007


The current US President George Bush and the Australian Prime Minister John Howard have, interesting enough, simultaneously announced they will act on global warming. Bush and Howard were the last important hold outs, and their announcements signal the start of a new age.

There will still be argument about exactly how to act, but the principle that action is required has been established. Slowly but surely, politics will be reshaped to focus on dealing with the greenhouse gas emissions problem.

What is most striking when we look at the current political situation is the triumph of the set of ideas that have become known as “green”. Energy policy, transport policy, urban design, pollution, habitat destruction - these were the key issues of concern to environmentalists from the outset and they are now central to the global warming debate.

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I first came in contact with these ideas when I went to university in 1975. The book Limits to Growth had recently come out and a series of commentators were ringing alarm bells about the state of the planet. Responding to this wind of change, my very first essay as an undergraduate was on transport policy.

Some of these ideas were off the mark in their predictions, underestimating the potential in new forms of organisation and technology, but the basic message - that there were physical limits to economic expansion - was right. However, just as this concern started to coalesce and governments act, there was a sea change in world affairs and concerns about the physical environment were pushed into the background.

Basically, a new version of Rightist ideology, known as neo-conservatism, which focused on markets and in particular large corporations as drivers of global development, arose to challenge the authority of governments.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who championed these ideas, were elected leaders of their countries, beginning a trend to leaders who disparaged the role of government in social development.

At the same time, more capable information technologies enabled new forms of industrial organisation, higher profitability and the rise of industrial and financial markets. Once the Cold War ended, full-blown globalisation occurred and it was about economics, everything else lagging far behind.

Concerns about the physical environment, population growth, resource depletion and pollution faded into the background, and increasingly so did governments. At the end of the 1980s, warnings were sounded about what the pollution from fossil fuels was doing to the global climate, but this was mostly ignored as globalisation got into full swing.

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Those of us who were concerned with the environment all those decades ago did not think of ourselves as “green” as such. For most of us it was a question of balance. It was obvious to us that economic development had to be matched with social fairness and environmental responsibility, otherwise trouble would ensue. Many thought it would the social inequality - the great problem of the previous two centuries - that would cause the crisis, but this was not to be.

I sometimes think my own concern with “balance” comes from my early childhood, most of which was spent in the bush. Often we had no electricity, and no running water, so such things were not taken for granted. Furthermore, you could die all too easily if you failed to pay attention to the environment. Getting lost could mean death by thirst or exposure, and a careless mistake could burn out property and threaten life. In the bush, especially at night, you can feel the vast power of nature, and you know to ignore at your peril.

So the ideas of the environmentalists, that we had to pay attention to the natural world and not get so caught up in the value of our own clever creations, was to me just common sense.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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