“We don’t want job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals, which won’t change the fact that there have been bushfires or anything like that in Australia” - Scott Morrison
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, as the cliché goes, was convincing the world that he didn’t exist. In many ways there’s an even sneaker devil that pulled the same trick; old Mr politics.
People accept that politics exists of course, but its domain tends to be underestimated. Things like taxes, welfare, laws and council regulations get to be politics, while things like weekends, free time, being involved in your community, or your financial stability, are regarded as being and depending on something else. Maybe we call it ‘market forces’. Often we call it nothing, and either claim that these things are indicative of individual choices, or maybe just the whims of chance. But don’t be tricked; these things are political choices.
The extent to which the very fabric of our lives is political has been suddenly lifted out of obscurity with the international Coronavirus effort. Suddenly, it’s very clear that things we took for granted as ‘just the way things are’, are political decisions about the way our lives look. How often we go out, what we do, the jobs that are essential to our society, who we spend time with, whether a few bad weeks kills a business, or leaves tenants homeless, or bankrupts a family… these things can be, and currently are shaped by political decisions. The moratoriums and assistance packages currently being discussed by governments internationally should tell us not only that the current response to the Coronavirus is political in nature, but that the decision to allow businesses to fail, families to sink into permanent inescapable debt and to let landlords dump people on the street are also political choices, and not as we might assume, permanent unchangeable laws of the science of economics.
“Over 100 Democrats have signed up to support the $100 trillion Green New Deal. That's a beauty. No more cows. No more planes. I guess, no more people, right?” – Donald Trump.
We don’t need to go and depress ourselves with the nightmare visions of the post-climate change reality we find ourselves hurtling towards, but we can reacquaint ourselves with some of the greatest hits. The Australian bushfires, various international heatwaves, flooding in Indonesia and Canada, the increasing likelihood of the storms we already know and love, give a quick sample of intensifying weather. We can add the emergence of various health crises, characterised by an increase in tick and mosquito borne diseases, increased incidence of suicide, and the viral emergence of whatever is lurking under the rapidly melting permafrost. Finally, we can’t forget the classic detail of rising ocean levels reclaiming the land, leading to massive displacement of people and all the social and political consequences that entails. If you think the Syrian refugee crisis is big news, Baby, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
All of this points towards a horrifying vision of the future, where the social, political and even environmental fabric of our lives is so fundamentally disrupted, that we are entering a unrecognisable new world, where the securities and comforts of our current age are stripped away.
Of course, this future is another political choice. History itself is not being drawn inevitably towards a post-climate society. This future, if it arrives, is simply the result of the political choices we make to continue business as usual, to maintain our carbon emissions, to indulge empty decade-old fantasies about the new technologies right around the corner that will relieve us all of the burden of major change, to maintain the structure of our economy, to continue designing houses, work life, transport, cities, agriculture in the same way. The alternative of course, would be disruptive to people living now. It would mean many of us would have to experience doing things in new and different ways, and a small number of people – the Bezos, Rhineharts, and Bransons of the world - would have to surrender the massive wealth and power that ‘business-as-usual’ has helped them grip onto. To choose a present where these things are left undisrupted, in exchange for a future where our children and grandchildren die or suffer, is a political choice.
“We ought to be talking about the things that we can do and still maintain a strong economy, because we’re not going to be able to address it unless we keep a strong economy.” American Senator Mike Rounds.
To decide to weather the amount of disruption to the economy and to society required to avoid these consequences is indeed a political choice. It is a difficult one because it forces us to confront a dramatic reality; that we are telling older people that they ought to bear the burden of changes that will bring benefits they will never fully see. It is, like much of politics, a zero-sum game, where there are winners and losers. The level of disruption Climate Change mitigation asks of us is nearly unthinkable. Was nearly unthinkable that is.
Because of course, in our current moment we are presented with a similar zero-sum political choice; do we allow much of the economy to grind to a halt – or do we allow for large numbers of elderly and vulnerable people to simply die for the good of the nation? For the most part, even in this late stage of capitalism, literally sacrificing Granny and Gramps to the economy has proven too unpleasant a proposal for all but the most venomous international regimes (Brazil’s Bolsonaro being one particularly grotesque example). It turns out that you can make political choices that disrupt and upheave our lives, keep people home, restrict the economy, prevent travel, change the way we work, protect renters, save businesses from going bust, support vulnerable workers… the list of previously unthinkable political choices that are now manifesting in policies internationally continues to grow.
The political gatekeepers of the limits of political possibility are about to have a challenge on their hands; how do they continue to tell their younger citizens that the changes that would salvage their future are just too disruptive, when they’ve witnessed the flexible boundaries of the political imagination? With the world watching, new generations have witnessed just how far we can go for a good cause. It is difficult to imagine that young people will forgive governments who decide that their future is unworthy of these same bold political decisions.