In the normal course of events, thirty or so years from now, I and most other Australian voters my age will be dead. In the normal course of events, thirty or so years from now, global temperatures will have risen by around 1.5°C (celsius). Between these two propositions lies the fate of modern democracies as we face the deepening uncertainties of the future. We carry on as if we are in the normal course of events. Elections come and go; governments form and fall; the banal mendacity of public discourse washes over us like a fetid tide from which it seems we are unwilling to lift ourselves. Yet these are not normal times. It is our fate to live on the cusp of an abnormal course of events.
One of the most remarkable, yet little remarked upon features of the inexorable rise of neoliberal political discourse in the last forty years has been the insistence on an intergenerational mandate. In practice, neoliberal invocations of this mandate are typically disingenuous. The living, so the reasoning goes, have no right to inflict recklessly accrued debts onto those who are yet to be born. Hence governments formed by popular mandate must govern in the interests of those who have yet to be enfranchised by cutting government expenditure, privatising public services, and deregulating the prerogatives of finance. The neoliberal insistence on the intergenerational mandate is merely a rhetorical device intended to frame arguments for austerity. Yet the oratorical presumption of such an ambit lies precisely in its hollowness – if the living may not inflict debts upon the non-existent, then how can it be justified that those who have grown to maturity in an era of resource richness and a viable environment inflict their loss (by deliberate choice) on those who follow?
Leaving aside the neoliberal mendacity of it, let’s take the idea of an intergenerational mandate seriously for a moment. If that truth is told, democracy must be described as a system of government designed to sacrifice the expectations of the yet to be, to those who have long since departed. Democracy is built on the mandate of the dead. From education to employment: the inheritance of the young is determined by those whose stake in the polity is spiralling toward the grave. Well beyond the point of mortality, the polity is shaped by the decisions the dead once made. It is the living who cast votes, but it is the dead who demand a reckoning for them.
Generations of political philosophers have glossed this simple fact in terms of the rights and obligations of paternalism. As John Stuart Mill put it in 1859, the entitlement of adulthood is consolidated in the ‘absolute power’ it exercises over the young. This power is supposed to extend:
the whole period of childhood and nonage … [to] make them capable of rational conduct in life. The existing generation is master both of the training and the entire circumstances of the generation to come … If society lets any considerable number of its members grow up mere children, incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to blame for the consequences.
Mill thought the drenching in power of the ‘entire circumstances’ of one generation by those preceding it was entirely justified by the end of making them ‘rational’. Rational in this sense means precisely what one imagines it to mean – the acceptance of the framework (legal, political, economic and sacred) of privilege and entitlement by which the former generation humbles those who are to follow by demanding they perpetuate it.
In the normal course of events, the intergenerational inheritance of deceased mandates might be considered a tragedy of the human condition: regrettable, but unavoidable. We do not live in the normal course of events. In recent decades Australia has experienced protracted public enquiries into the intergenerational predation perpetrated on the young by religious and secular institutions alike. From the horrors of Church-sanctified child abuse to the terrors unleashed by state policies of Aboriginal child separation, we cannot – now or any longer – pretend that the privileges of age are innocently exercised. Yet we stand on the precipitous edge of a new intergenerational fault line.
The world is changing before our eyes. We all know it, even those who deny it own it in the endless repetition of their denials. I remember when as a boy, I would read the heroic tales of Britain’s men of empire, bravely staking life and limb to ascertain knowledge of the far horizons. Captain Cook, the Enlightenment’s demiurge, who ‘discovered’ a Pacific of islands and peoples unknown, so the invasion mythology goes, even to themselves. Captain Scott of the Antarctic, courageously striving unto death to reach the pole; undone by a love for his dogs and the pragmatic Norwegian, Amundson, who ate his. Such tales of empire were already an anachronism when I encountered them. How much more so now? Now, entire Pacific islands are being overborne by the waves, and the frigid pole itself is at risk of melting. Indeed, scientists now estimate that the North pole will be entirely ice-free within 100 years.
What lies behind these tectonic changes are numbers that seem either vanishingly small, or astonishingly large. The earth’s population is now well above 7 billion and rising fast. The demands this level of population places on the earth are notoriously difficult to evaluate, but one of the most illustrative is the Ecological Footprint. This measure attempts to calculate how many hectares of productive earth are needed to support one person, and how much we actually use, per person. At present, that per person measure stands at 2.8 hectares. This is how much of the earth’s finite resources (of arable land, crops and livestock grown on the land, water and clean air) we actually use, each. Our problem is that the best measure we have says that the earth only has the available capacity for 1.7 hectares per person. As population and levels of consumption (and waste) increase, the gap between actual use and available global capacity widens.
This unprecedented growth in human population, and the concomitant effects it is having on the earth and its ecosystems, is the driving force behind the naming of our era: ‘the Anthropocene’. This is a term advocated by a growing number of geologists and environmentalists who study the long passages of time stretching way back beyond the relatively recent rise and extinction of the dinosaurs, to the very origins of the earth of itself. What sets our era apart from all the preceding ones, they argue, is that now the earth and its natural systems bear the indelible imprint of human activity measured in such things as species extinction, the deposition of plastic (which is now so pervasive it will appear as a distinct layer in the geological record of sedimentation), the accumulation of waste, and the release of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), and other gasses (notably methane given off in plumes from landfill sites, and from the melting of Arctic permafrost) which intensify the ‘greenhouse effect’ that is causing catastrophic global warming. The Anthropocene is the era of catastrophic global warming; an era in which we must calculate the odds of a 1.5°C world, or a 2°C world, or a world of yet higher temperature rises.
What is at stake in a 1.5°C world? Currently, the only global framework for reducing carbon emissions is the Paris Agreement signed by 195 countries in 2015. The idea behind that framework is that a global system for reducing the emission of CO2 is needed in order to keep global temperature rises to between 1.5 and 2°C over the next century. Vanishingly small, but with astonishingly large consequences. There is nothing comforting about keeping the world to no more than a 2°C rise. We are already well entrenched in the sixth mass extinction event recorded in the earth’s geological record. This is an extinction of species across the board – vertebrates and invertebrates, insects, birds, fish and mammals, and plants. This is the life on which we depend for our own sustenance, for our health and wellbeing, and for the very air we breathe. This life is being killed off very largely because the climate-specific ranges that have sustained these species no longer exists, or because relentless human consumption is eating other species into extermination. Temperature rises, sea level rises, increasing frequencies of severe drought and wild fires, of seasonal flooding, and of intensifying human demands on ecosystems are driving this cleansing of life from the planet.
By best estimates, a global 2°C rise is now irreversible. Whatever success we now have in reducing carbon emissions will not lead to reductions in global temperatures over the next century. What a 2°C world will look like is not easy to say. The effects will be regional, and variable at the extremes. Without doubt though it will be a world in which every proportionate rise in temperatures will incur costs in the form of reduced options for the future. There will be greater reliance on already scarce supplies of fresh water, there will be greater exposure to variable yields from arable land, there will be greater demands on the capacity of the natural world to supply both basic needs and our unbridled aspirations even as the evidence of severe strain on ecosystems on land and at sea are growing more apparent by the day. Already, polar and glacial ice and permafrost are fast melting away. Sea levels are continuing to rise, as they have steadily done since the 1880s. Current estimates (by NASA) are that sea levels will rise over the next 100 years by up to 26 inches (or around 65 cms). As that occurs it will force the displacement of anywhere up to 143 million people from their homes and livelihoods. It does not take much imagination to foresee the derangements that this level of global mobility will cause. At present there are over 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Their mobility, and their entirely reasonable wish for a home, for shelter, security and an opportunity to lead a decent life have created political tensions across the ‘Western world’ – despite the very evident fact that the vast bulk of these people are residing in some of the world’s poorest countries outside the ‘Western world’. Think about the neurotic paranoia harnessed by governments who have already been using immigration as a weapon for political advantage. Now think about that in a world where 143 million more people have been forced to look for new homes. Welcome to the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene is an era in which time itself seems to bend toward the future. An enormous fold has creased the passage of time, arching the immediate present into the future. In the Anthropocene, the dynamics of human existence, of desire and production, consumption and waste, of reproduction itself all manifest the future before our eyes. For aeons, life on earth evolved in interminable time. For about 2 billion years, stromatolites were the only form of life on earth that slowly converted the toxically carbon-rich atmosphere into a breathable, oxygenated concoction. It has taken humanity less than 200 to begin the reversal. At present rates of carbon emission we should have the job done in another few hundred.
In the Anthropocene, projections of the future have no purchase in the present. We are presented with scenarios that range from the disastrous to the catastrophic, and in each case the urgent contingencies they demand are a direct result of the choices, dreams, expectations, the daily carelessnesses that each one of us commits, right now. The present in which we live, this very moment, is laying a burden of necessity upon our children and grandchildren. The Paris Agreement is the framework that is supposed to enable future generations to inherit an earth that has not become hostile to the persistence of complex societies. To the best of our knowledge, that is a world where global warming is kept to no more than a 2°C increase over the next century, with either stable temperatures or gradual reductions thereafter. The Paris Agreement is the mechanism that is supposed to get us to that future. For Australia alone, this would mean reducing our current carbon emissions by 26–28%, below 2005 levels of atmospheric carbon by 2030, and reach zero by 2070. This is the scenario for a 2°C world. The only problem is that Australia will miss its own Paris target by around 1.1 billion tonnes. Australia is far from alone in this. Despite the Paris Agreement, global carbon emissions are rising, not falling. By current estimates, global carbon emissions are consistent with a 3°C rise in temperatures by 2100. The 2°C world is already history and it has not yet come to pass. In the Anthropocene, the future has already imposed itself on the present.
It would be easy to describe the 3°C world to which we are heading at accelerating pace as a disaster or even as a catastrophe. Yet I don’t think that any of these terms quite capture what is happening. It is not that the future is not looking bleak. It is just that the catastrophe is unfolding right now, and has been for some time. Catastrophe has been what we have chosen to call the normal course of events; a normal that never was. In a 3°C world, life as we know it will probably not come to a screeching halt. What we will probably see is more of the same. More species extinctions, greater environmental hostility to human and non-human life, increasing scarcity of basic resources – of food, clean water and breathable air. This is the normal we have been living in for some time, and it will continue to be the case for our children, their children, and their children. This is catastrophic normal.
Because the gap between the present and the future has been so compressed in the Anthropocene, the idea of an intergenerational bond can no longer be regarded as a quaint or impractical idea. It is not a new idea of course. Long ago, in the 1790s, the Irish parliamentarian and theorist of conservatism Edmund Burke conceptualised the political bonds that hold society together as a ‘partnership’. At the base of any social accomplishments, whether they be learning and the arts, or commerce and war, lies the active will of many individuals to work in harmony and strive for the perfection of their art. The great lesson he drew from this sociological truism became a staple in conservative thought to this day:
As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
As Burke saw it, the function of government was to preserve the institutional structure that binds us together and becomes an inheritance from the dead to the unborn. Royalty and parliament, aristocracy, universities, the courts and its laws, the church and the preservation of property were the kinds of institutions he had in mind. Without them, a society would become a mere collection of individuals bound by no particular purpose but their self-interest. With them, he argued, our narrow selves would be helpfully hemmed in by the timeless truths that held our forebears to their purposes, and to which we too should orient our aspirations and affections. To engage in the great task of political deliberation, Burke argued, demanded a consideration not only of our own interests, but the interests of our progeny, and their progeny, and all the successive generations who will bear the burden we have borne: of handing to the future the traditions and virtues won by experience.
Conservatives have always professed themselves to be the devotees of Burke and his delicate defences of the naked prerogatives of the firstborn. The problem of course, is simply that the Burkean intergenerational contract is a complete fiction. Burke thought the present was bound to the future by a bond of trust – a superintending trust that we (the living) govern them (the yet to be) in their best interests by preserving traditions (of the dead). The very idea of this paternalistic superintendence has become so preposterous as to be laughable. Not because we are not connected to the future generations – we are – but because we are eating them with a cannibalistic ferocity that is hardly to be credited.
We are now bound to them, to our distant progeny, in a way more intimate than at just about any time in human history. For the last 10,000 years, every human accomplishment – complex societies, agriculture, philosophy, writing, literature, history, medicine, science – all of them have taken place in an era of remarkable climatic stability: the Holocene. This was an era in which global temperatures stayed roughly within a 4°C range, a range optimal for the production of carbohydrates that are the basis of every complex society: wheat, rice, corn, potatoes. We are now in the Anthropocene, a geological era marked by the traces of human effects on climate, ecosystems, and even geology itself. Everything we do now, whatever we consume, how much of it we consume, every failure to act will have an inverse effect on the life choices of our not-so-distant descendants. We are now eating their future.
The British economist John Maynard Keynes once famously observed of the tendency among economists in his own day to insist on waiting out the short-term market fluctuations until a longer term equilibrium is re-established, that: ‘in the long run we are all dead.’ Quite. As a criticism of the ardent non-interventionism of his own day, Keynes had a good point to make. Markets are what we make them, and they do not move in holy cycles from equilibrium to disequilibrium on their own. Yet, in a political sense, Keynes was quite wrong. Polities are institutions suspended awkwardly between their consolidation in the past and their projection into the uncertainties of the future. No polity endures forever, yet in modern democracies we carry on as if ‘the people’ who express their will at regular elections is somehow eternal. At each election we assume that by casting our votes we express the living soul of sovereignty, the power that is said (more in hope than in expectation) to reside in our collective good sense. Popular mandates, in other words, are a demonstration of the trust that will become the birth right of our heirs and successors. How wrong we are! Democracy as we know it is a form of government most purposefully designed to enshrine the present mortality of the electorate in perpetuity. Democracy as we know it is built on the mandate of the dead.
We deliberate and consult our interests and vote, and we consign our progeny to a future our votes have made all but certain and that they will have no capacity to change. Wasn’t it ever thus? Hasn’t one generation always cast the next into the shadow of its own will? It has, but it has never done so in such a way as to ensure their offspring inherit an earth so compromised by our consumption as to afford those future generations less opportunity than we received to benefit from it. What monstrous presumption makes voters think they may cast their ballots for themselves? We assume that our interests are those that should predominate. We are the populace whose will should be made manifest, and yet the vast bulk of us will be dead within the coming decades, before any of us see the worst of the 3°C world we are making by our complicity with governments and entire political and economic systems premised on catastrophic climate change inaction.
We continue on as if we are in the normal course of events – look at our recent election – and the debates that consume us are about tax loopholes for those with shares (franking credits or dividend imputations), or with rental properties (negative gearing), or about the facilitation of corporate giants making record profits siphoned into off-shore havens miraculously free from taxation. We seem constrained to want to vote for government parties offering us more of the same – minor key variations on the same neoliberal repertoire. Where is the urgent action to address our increasing carbon emissions? Where is the will to decarbonise our economy? Where is the willingness to prevent the wholesale degradation of our natural inheritance – from land clearing, to coral bleaching, to the draining of entire inland river systems to benefit a coterie of foreign investors and domestic rent-seekers? There is no urgency because too many of us carry on as if we are in the normal course of events and we do not see the catastrophe before our eyes.
Government is conducted now, perhaps as never before, by a political class of self-selected time-servers. A growing number of MPs, at all levels, owe their positions to patronage within their respective parties, shepherding them from think tank apparatchik to lobbyist or parliamentary staffer to pre-selection in a safe seat sandbagged against the possibility of loss. And we vote for them! We vote for them because they embody the system functioning normally. Their election to office is the comforting disappointment we feel when the system runs in the normal course of events.
For the last 10 years or more, at a time of mounting scientific concern around the world at the intensifying problem of the ‘greenhouse effect’ causing catastrophic global warming, successive Australian governments have wrestled with how best to do precisely nothing to address the problem. Some have striven and fought in vain, others have disdained the very problem and contemptuously thumbed their noses at any who dare to challenge their contempt. We now have a government, through its own perversity or the voters’ continental indifference, that wants to be seen to be doing something while actually doing nothing. This is our world now, the catastrophic normal. Totally normal that the house is on fire and we can all smell the smoke. Totally normal that by unspoken agreement we have decided that if we just stay in the living room, keep watching the tv and checking our social media feeds, we won’t need to worry that our bedrooms are ablaze.
Around the world democracies such as ours, modelled on the Anglo-European and American exemplars, are in real trouble. After 40 years of almost complete ideological certainty about the necessity for governments to pursue neoliberal public policies geared to the liberation of global finance and the concomitant practice of privatisation, deregulation and austerity, the present moment is one of deepening doubt. Around the world, governments are now caught on the horns of a dilemma of their own making. The promises made to sweeten unpopular sales of public assets to private interests, who are then empowered to regulate their own services, which are then offered back to the people for a profit, have simply failed to materialise. The scandalous disasters of privatisation and industry self-regulation have grown too numerous to rehearse. The fruits of such recklessness have been on the one hand, growing deficits of trust placed in governments, and on the other an all but non-existent scope for any single government to act because they are at the mercy of financial interests and corporations armed with a power of investment and disinvestment without cost, and gifted the impunity that comes with legalised tax evasion.
Neoliberalism has hollowed out the public sphere. Public goods from health care to aged care, conservation to education, are increasingly regarded as private goods: goods for which ‘the user’ pays to feed the profits of ‘the provider’. Even the hackneyed idea of a ‘common good’ seems now an anachronism, cast adrift on a rising tide of private aspiration. There is however, another aspiration that lingers almost secretly in our breasts: to live in decent societies where public mechanisms ensure that the vulnerable are cared for and the young well educated, where home is at least affordable, and work may be an opportunity to develop rather than a perpetuation of vulnerability in a succession of underpaid ‘gigs’.
If that aspiration is to live, those who harbour it must find ways to manifest it in the Anthropocene. Behind the reckless neoliberal substitution of the common good for a set of private rents, behind the facile regurgitations of conservatism, behind the growing resentments and political derangements of this global moment, lies the festering great sore that governments like Australia’s are doing their best to ignore: the catastrophic normal of a 3°C world.
Way back in 1859, John Stuart Mill defined the sphere of action in which each individual should be at complete liberty to think, speak and act as limited only by the harm principle. We should, according to this principle, be at liberty to think, speak and act precisely up to the point at which harm is deliberately inflicted on others. If there is no harm to others, there is no right to curtail liberty. For Mill, it was merely a truism that the young were simply too wilful, or too ignorant, to know where or how to interpret the harm principle:
It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage.
As Mill made clear in his On Liberty, the same logic we used to deny the young was precisely the same logic we used to deny the ‘unenlightened’. As neat a rationalisation of imperialism as it was possible to articulate in a text that liberals persist in reading as a passionate defence of liberty. Yet what kind of liberty is it that condemns that young to the tender mercies of the soon-to-be-dead?
The soon-to-be-dead are making a shambles of this world. We cannot afford to let this disaster unfold. There is but one way to prevent it, and that is to enfranchise the young. It is an argument that runs counter to what seems common sense. How can children, who know nothing of the world, exercise their vote intelligently? The question itself, asked for generations by the old in chastisement of the young, is a monumental impertinence. As we stand on the brink of a 3°C world made the soon-to-be-dead, we must ask in reply: why have the old, who knew too much of the world, so repeatedly cast their votes with such a mountainous lack of intelligence?
As the world burns its way to a 3°C future and beyond, while our governments steadfastly do nothing and continue to divide by demonising immigrants and Islam, young people around the globe have been showcasing their greater wisdom and courage. School strikes are merely the tip of the iceberg. The young who can see how neatly they have been stitched up by the soon-to-be-dead are showing us another way forward. That way forward will not be constrained by the ideologies of yesterday. The question is no longer whether we should choose between some form of utopian socialism or yet another version of pointless fascism. The question before us is how long we can afford to pretend that we should carry on as usual; as if the normal course of events can be left to run indefinitely?
In 1859, John Stuart Mill warned that if the current generation of adults failed to exercise its ‘absolute power’ over the young to make them ‘rational’ then ‘society has itself to blame for the consequences.’ As we face a global future in which the foreseeable consequences of our own inaction are too awful to contemplate, the empowerment of the young is surely one not to be regretted, but welcomed. The urgent necessities beyond our own immanent demise now demand the mass enfranchisement of the young.
‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.’
Since writing this article Australia has endured what was supposed to be the ultimate ‘climate change election’. In the event it was anything but.
A comfortable conservative victory by parties campaigning on the government’s woeful track record of climate change denialism and policy inaction is a confirmation of this nation’s stark division. Those voters who acknowledge the need for urgent governmental action on the unfolding global climate emergency, and those for whom such urgency is unnecessary, or for whom the catastrophe itself is a deceit, are polarised in furious disdain, or undisguised contempt for one another. Some have sought refuge in the mathematical quirk that more people voted for parties that acknowledge the need for a governmental response to climate change, than for those parties who don’t. Try as we might, history is written by the victor and the grapes of wrath taste sour. The undeniable fact this election has demonstrated is that a vast swathe of the Australian electorate is entirely unwilling to vote for climate action on the evidence so amply heaped before it. On the evidence of rivers literally drained dry, of Australia’s grotesquely disproportionate and avidly accelerating contribution to global species extinction, of the invasive bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, of repeated catastrophic bushfires and erratic tropical storms. Those Australians most obviously, publicly and loudly self-identified with the need to act urgently to avert this growing catastrophe are precisely those pointedly excluded from a franchise that may yet avert it. It is the young to whom the future belongs, but what kind of future will it be? The answer to that question lies in the gift of those who doggedly remain in sole possession of the mandate of the dead.
Image: Dikaseva / Unsplash