On the role of unions in creating an ecological civilisation
The historical role of unions
Unions have a proud history of enacting some of the most important social changes in modern times. The quality of life enjoyed in Australia today is a direct result of hard fought for gains made by the trade union movement. We can count among these the 8-hour work day, annual and sick leave, relatively high wages, and environmental protections through green bans and ongoing campaigns such as the NTEU-backed Stop Adani campaign.
These achievements are not a given, and are constantly under attack from conservative governments and neoliberal ideologues. In light of this, we may include the very existence of unions as an ongoing achievement in itself.
Beyond, and related to, these predictable attacks, the union movement’s achievements are under threat in a much more general sense. Like everything else on the planet, they risk being eroded by anthropogenic climate change and the prospect of environmental collapse.
Indeed, if the union movement is to have a future, it will need to be in the context of an ecological civilisation.
Ecological civilisation: a problem and a promise
What is an ecological civilisation? This is difficult to say with precision, since an ecological civilisation does not yet exist. Australian philosopher Arran Gare notes that, in a technical sense, an ecological civilisation would involve maintaining heterogeneity, sustaining modularity, preserving redundancy, tightening feedback loops, minimising entropy production, producing nothing that cannot be recycled and recycling everything that is produced, building trust, and doing unto others as you would have them do to you. He notes that these principles would require multi-level, participatory governance, a kind of dialogical federalism that is perhaps best encapsulated by what economist Herman Daly and philosopher John Cobb Jr refer to as a global order constituted by a ‘community of communities’.1
As a vision of the future, an ecological civilisation must first be formulated in quite general terms. This is because calls to ‘sustain modularity’ or ‘minimise entropy production’ are futile on their own – they are technical solutions to an inherently cultural problem: nihilism.2 While leading intellectuals have increasingly recognised the need to be optimistic in the face of global despair,3 such optimism can only be cultivated through the proposal of a genuine and holistic alternative to our current situation. This relies upon a coherent grand narrative about who we are and where we want to go. In this way, the grand narrative of ecological civilisation provides the context within which otherwise isolated efforts can be meaningfully pursued. Thus the ideal of ecological civilisation serves as an orienting call to arms; it is a participatory project, and a challenge for individuals, communities and institutions to take up. It is through this process that the reality of an ecological civilisation will emerge. In this regard, what the concept may lack in precise detail, it makes up for in its creative potential, which is why Gare emphasises that an ecological civilisation must be, above all else, inspiring.
To achieve this, we require some general political ideals and in the spirit of ‘recycling everything’ we need not start from scratch intellectually. Though a call for radical change, these ideals should be familiar enough that they are accepted as reasonable by most people, and should ideally have a proven track record of inspiring radical change in the past.
Gare writes that the aims of an ecological civilisation should not radically depart from the ideals upheld in the US Declaration of Independence; namely, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.4 While this does not make the present incarnation of the United States an ecological civilisation – quite possibly the opposite is true – rather than a rejection of these ideals, what is required is a thorough re-interrogation and revival of them. To achieve this, we must first consider how these ideals have been expressed under the current regime of neoliberalism.
‘Life’ under neoliberalism
The affirmation of life must be central to the development of an ecological civilisation; it is the reason why we are concerned about climate change in the first place. However, what is meant by life can be problematic.
Under the influence of social Darwinism and scientific materialism, life has been reduced to nothing more than a competitive struggle – a Hobbesian war of all against all in which the meaningless reproduction of genetic material dictates the winners and losers in a game where the only rule is ‘the survival of the fittest’. This is at best unpalatable, and at worst completely unconscionable when we consider the logical implications of this view. But it is also totally meaningless insofar as it is tautological – those who survive are automatically deemed the fittest, while fitness is determined by those who survive. This amounts to saying: ‘those who survive survive’. According to such a view, surviving a game of Russian roulette is a reasonable measure of fitness.
Of course, this conception of life is not a very inspirational – dare I say ‘aspirational’ – one that would affirm life or emphasise its creative potential; a shame, since a theory of evolution really ought to do just that. While organic processes on the earth – along with its temperatures and sea levels – have moved on, it seems that Darwin’s theory remains locked into neoliberal stasis.
In this regard, neoliberalism is more than just an economic theory; it is a complete existential philosophy. As Paul Treanor writes:
Neoliberalism has answers to stereotypical questions such as ‘why are we here’ and ‘what should I do?’. We are here for the market, and you should compete … humans exist for the market and not the other way around.5
Society is understood as a sum of individual parts. There is, to quote Margaret Thatcher, no such thing as society, only individuals. While Thatcher did go on to include families in her description of reality, this appears to be little more than an afterthought – a cynical attempt to save face with traditional conservatives.
But the notion of families raises some serious problems for the primacy of individuals. For instance, where does the reality of the family end and the fiction of society begin? As Daly and Cobb point out:
Your great-great grandchild will also be the great-great grandchild of fifteen other people in the current generation, many of their identities now unknown. Presumably your great-great grandchild’s well-being will be as much an inheritance from each of these fifteen others as from yourself.6
It is difficult to disentangle family from society after all – unless, that is, we dispense with concepts like sexual reproduction, genealogy, or time itself. Nevertheless, on Thatcher’s own account, neoliberals are quite literally, and ontologically, anti-social.
By contrast, basic to all the achievements of the union movement is a fundamental ethos regarding a general sense of dignity and solidarity that is extended to all members of society. This is premised on an understanding that society is something other than the sum of its atomistic parts, that individuals are social creatures – and political animals – who are not only emergent from society but only able to flourish because of society. This is a view that is not only well supported by Aristotle, one of history’s greatest thinkers, but also through appeals to direct experience. Biologically, every individual originates in a community of at least two. And our cultural and historical situation extends this pedigree much further. Show me the atomic individual and I will show you a chimera – or perhaps fifteen great-great grandparents.
Liberty: a special kind of oppression
Gare notes that liberty is regarded as the opposite of slavery, which the Romans understood ‘as being in a position of dependence on others who could harm [you]’.7
Universally, liberty is taken to be a good thing: no individual wants less freedom. Any state that would advocate for a reduction in freedoms is quickly identified as authoritarian – or worse, ‘nanny’. However, as geographer David Harvey notes, freedom is ‘just another word’8, a word that has been twisted to mean its complete opposite. Harvey writes:
Thirty years of neoliberal freedoms have … not only restored power to a narrowly defined capitalist class. They have also produced immense concentrations of corporate power in energy, the media, pharmaceuticals, transportation, and … retailing … The freedom of the market … turns out to be nothing more than the convenient means to spread corporate monopoly power.9
In light of this, there may be some truth to the alt-right claim that ‘liberal elites’ – an imported phrase that becomes rather ironic in an Australian context – rule the world. The caveat is that these ‘liberal elites’ are not, in fact, ‘cultural Marxists’, environmentalists or sessional academics. Perhaps underwhelmingly, the ‘liberal elites’ are the actual Liberal elites – the billionaires.
Under neoliberalism liberty has been simplistically redefined to mean the freedom from constraints. This is primarily equated with the freedom to shop,10 with the concept of citizen replaced by that of consumer, for whom governments work to seamlessly facilitate transactions; effectively the market’s pimp. Of course, freedom is also the freedom to exploit without any government regulation or ‘interference’ (read: societal oversight). This not only refers to natural resources, but also to people who have been reduced to instruments – to means rather than ends.
Freedom is really about the freedom of the market to subordinate individuals and communities to its end, which is infinite growth. This is an end which, by the way, is physically impossible on a finite planet where the laws of thermodynamics still apply.11
On current scientific knowledge, this only applies to our earth and every other planet in the universe. On this view, celebrating increases in GDP – the inadequacies of which have been well documented12 – is like congratulating someone on the spread of their aggressive cancer.
In this regard, neoliberal economists seem to function as the high-priests of a death cult; veritable necrophiles13 whose love of dead things – expressed in their accumulation of abiotic commodities and a macabre obsession with funeral-pyre (read: fossil fueled) power stations – would eventually see their own species reduced to a lifeless form. Freedom so conceived thus amounts to the freedom of an unrestrained market to fulfill its nihilistic death drive, killing not only itself, but its host: the community and biosphere.
As Jean Baudrillard writes in The Illusion of the End:
Ironically, we might say that we are watching the liberation of fossils, just like everything else.14
Though not typically regarded as a prophet of ecological collapse, Baudrillard leaves us with a prescient warning:
this mass resurgence of fossils and relics is troubling … we should be wary of all these phantoms ripped from their tombs … When our past has been exhumed, when all that had disappeared has reappeared, the dead will outnumber the living … then we shall be cast … into fossil space, the space of the kingdom of the dead.15
More so concerned with the cultural artefacts of the Anthropocene than its geological processes, it is a phrase that begs the question: how long until the advocates of neoliberalism come to regard the extractive fossil fuel industry as an act of liberation in itself? Fossils are released from their earthly imprisonment, only to be liberated further in their very consumption, which necessarily involves entropic emancipation from highly ordered forms into gaseous plumes of CO2. On this view, calls to leave oil and coal in the ground could be spun as a draconian denial of freedom – an affront to the individual dignity of fossils. This is a dignity that would otherwise see ancient and prehistoric flora and fauna unceremoniously disinterred and committed to the flames.
While it may sound absurd, the same debased logic applies to the purely euphemistic ‘freedoms’ that are afforded workers under the guise of ‘flexibility’ – a flexibility more in line with coerced contortionism than Tai Chi. Sold as sexy and emancipatory – with ‘agile’ the adjective du jour – it is in truth a call for a spineless fluidity that is typically postmodern. In the same way that access to secure and affordable housing is not really as ‘exciting’ as life on the street, nothing limits one’s freedom more than the burdensome stability of full-time employment. This is a logic that says the more vulnerable you are, the freer you are. Ultimately, it is the freedom to be at the mercy of others, an instance of doublespeak that would make even George Orwell blush.
Suffering the fate of still-living fossils, rather than committed to the flames the liberation of workers simply consists of being thrown to the wolves. Freedom may just be another word, but the question is: how did neoliberalism get it so wrong? More to the point, why did we let them get away with it? The challenge is to redefine what is meant by genuine liberty in opposition to this fake simulacrum.
Happiness, or ‘The pursuit of GDP’
Related to this is happiness. Inspired chiefly by utilitarian philosophers – and in typical economic fashion – ‘happiness’ is gauged through the application of cost-benefit analysis along a one-dimensional axis of ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’. Pleasure increases happiness, while pain detracts from it. Everything has its price, and whatever trauma has been endured can be offset by the appropriate dose of ‘pleasure’. At its most base level, this is a prescription for heroin.
It does not take an enormous imaginative leap to consider the implications of this for the union movement. The premise is that work is unfulfilling, painful and something to be avoided at all costs. Wages are sold as a form of compensation, with pay rises sought to offset this pain. Aldous Huxley had a name for this: soma. Reaganites called it ‘trickle- down’ economics. However, despite the absence of any drought-breaking rains, a religious faith in the market persists – any adverse pain experienced workers and communities is simply numbed by the distributive justice of an apathetic market, with whispers of ‘growth’ and GDP suitably functioning as the opiate of the masses.
Based on these principles, typical attitudes towards unions are familiar: ‘what’s in it for me?’ That is, ‘what are the costs, and what are the benefits?’ This may help to explain why inspiration to join a union can materialise and dissipate spontaneously; often lasting only as long as an EBA negotiation or when a dispute with employers is already well underway. The union is an afterthought, a means to an end in which membership functions as a short-term investment for the individual – not the long-term benefit of the collective. It is a typically neoliberal, user-pays arrangement.
This failure to think intergenerationally is particularly evident in terms of climate change. At best, action on climate change is viewed as a painful necessity – something that will minimise immediate pleasure for some future, impersonal and abstract ‘good’; life on earth. However, according to the supreme lack of concern shown by many, it seems that the general consensus is that we would be better off dead – perhaps unsurprising given the aforementioned conceptions of life and liberty.
On this issue, utilitarianism simply reverts to an anti-philosophical adage: ignorance is bliss. If thinking about environmental destruction upsets you , then just avoid thinking about it – enjoy the moment. However, one might think that pain is a necessary response to such destruction, and that a suitable reaction would be anger. On this front, utilitarianism is escapism writ large, and while it prevails, we may as well meet the prospect of action on climate change with a shrug of the shoulders and a pathetic mutter: ‘Que sera, sera.’ Or, to use the discipline specific equivalent: ‘Laissez-Faire.’
Evidently, the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have been perverted in their current application. Life has become a meaningless, competitive affair, freedom has become the freedom to dominate others, while ‘the pursuit of happiness’ has been revealed as ‘the pursuit of GDP’ – a quantitative measure that is rationed out to mask injustice. But these ideals can be much more than this. Rarely considered is what is to be gained through action on climate change. Aside from maintaining the conditions required for life, up for grabs is the prospect of a more fulfilling and meaningful life within an ecological civilisation.
It has historically been the role of unions to uphold inspiring vision s of the future and to be the organisational vehicle through which such visions can be realised, not only politically, but culturally and socially. In the context of climate change, the role of unions as a driver of social change takes on increased significance and urgency. It should help that, in responding to environmental threats, the very mindset that undermines the biosphere also seeks to undermine the union movement itself. More than an understanding that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, the union movement ought to regard this as an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, all the while staying true to its most basic pursuit: a higher quality of life for all members of society. This is something we should have little difficulty extending out towards non-human nature.
If we would ask of Thatcher where families end and society begins, then we must also ask of ourselves: where does society end and nature begin? Sierra Club founder John Muir perhaps put it best when he said: ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’16 Just as there is no atomic individual, there is no atomic society – social and environmental justice are intimately related, and we cannot have one without the other. If unions – if anyone – is to have a future on this planet, it needs to be a genuinely green one. For this reason, the union movement needs to understand itself as being situated within a much broader project: as an active participant in the creation of an ecological civilisation.17
- Arran Gare, The Philosophical Foundations of Ecological Civilization: A Manifesto for the Future, London: Routledge, 2017, pp. 182–183; Herman E Daly and John Cobb Jr, For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, The Environment and a Sustainable Future, Boston: Beacon Press, 1989, pp. 176 –189.
- See: Arran Gare, Nihilism Inc.: Environmental Destruction and the Metaphysics of Sustainability, Como: Eco-Logical Press, 1996.
- Noam Chomsky, Optimism Over Despair, Chicago: Penguin, 2017; Naomi Klein, No is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, USA: Penguin 2017.
- Gare, Ecological Civilization, p. 213.
- Paul Treanor, ‘Neoliberalism: Origins, Theory, Definition’.
- Daly and Cobb, p. 39.
- Arran Gare, ‘Introduction: The Future of Philosophy,’ Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 8, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1–18.
- David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 5.
- Ibid, p. 38.
- Arran Gare, ‘Law, Process Philosophy and Ecological Civilization’.
- Paul R Ehrlich, Anne H Ehrlich, and John P Holdren, ‘Availability, Entropy, and the Laws of Thermodynamics’ in Herman E Daly and Kenneth N Townsend (eds), Valuing the Earth, pp. 69–74; Herman E Daly, ‘On Economics as a Life Science’ in Valuing the Earth, pp. 249–266.
- Alexander Tziamalis, ‘Why our obsession with GDP ignores harm done to welfare and the world’; Stephen Letts, ‘The GDP myth: The planet’s measure for economic growth is deeply flawed and outdated’.
- Erich Fromm, ‘Malignant Aggression: Necrophilia,’ in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973, pp. 411–481; Gare, Ecological Civilization, p. 218.
- Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992, p. 73.
- Ibid, pp. 76–77.
- M Shellenberger and T Nordhaus, ‘The Death of Environmentalism,’ Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World, p. 9.
- In this regard, Gare explicitly identifies the role of unions in creating an ecological civilization. See: Ecological Civilization, p. 183.
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