Transcript of Mik Aidt’s interview with associate professor Mark Diesendorf about ‘The Path to a Sustainable Civilisation’ – The Climate Revolution podcast episode no. 5
António Guterres: “We are rapidly reaching the point of no return for the planet.”
Reporter in Greece: “One moment, this is a thriving beach bar full of young holiday makers. The next, it’s a pile of rubble.”
António Guterres: “The consequences are clear and they are tragic. Children swept away by monsoon rains. Families running from the flames. Workers collapsing in scorching heat.”
Movie clip: “How’d you end up in here?” “Oh, well, I tried to start a revolution, but didn’t print enough pamphlets. So hardly anyone turned up except for my mum and her boyfriend, who I hate. But I’m actually organising another revolution. But now if you’d be interested in something like that, do you reckon you’d be interested?”
Female voice: “The Climate Revolution.”
Mik Aidt: This is The Climate Revolution. Or rather, it’s the fifth episode of a podcast series that we call The Climate Revolution. The aim we have with this series is to discuss and to look for that kind of ideas and thinking that’s going to kick off that energy revolution, agricultural revolution, and many, many other revolutions that we need to see if we want to win that race against time that we’re up against.
News reporter: “The United Nations wants countries to declare a climate emergency to lift the sense of urgency in combating global warming…”
Mik Aidt: While ecosystems are collapsing, humans are coming under pressure, cost of living crisis, food supplies cut off, people losing their homes, escaping the heat, or seeking rescue from flooding – the climate revolution is about taking this seriously. And today we speak with the lead author of a new book, which has that sort of vision that we need right now.
Mark Diesendorf: Right now, the priority should be to form alliances to expose the issues using independent media as much as we can, and to put pressure on decision makers, whether they be in Parliament House or in big business, to force them to change. So this is a non-violent, social revolution that is needed.
News reporter: “A state of emergency has been declared in New Zealand after cyclone Gabrielle…”
Sir David Attenborough: “We will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security.”
Ban ki-Moon: “We need a revolution. Revolutionary thinking, revolutionary action.”
Mark Diesendorf: It’s a gentle revolution because it doesn’t want to have power over, but it does want to have enough community power – or influence – to push the development of our civilisation into survival mode, and ultimately into thrival mode.
Mik Aidt: The sustainable civilisation – that’s what we are talking about. And that is what we should be talking about, honestly, all of us, all the time! How do we make our society, our global human civilisation sustainable? That’s what we should be talking about in media, with our neighbors, with colleagues and with our family members.
Movie clip: “You seek the Holy Grail?” “That is our quest. Our quest is to find the Holy Grail.” “Yes. It is.” “It is.” “And so we’re looking for it.” “Yes.” “Yeah.” “Yeah.” “We have been some time.” “Ages!” “Hmm!”
Mik Aidt: Mark Diesendorf. I think he’s most definitely seen the climate grail – and he would like to tell us about it. So that’s what we’re going to allow him to do in this episode of The Climate Revolution. He’s written a book about it together with the science journalist Rod Taylor, it’s called ‘The Path to a Sustainable Civilisation’.
Mark Diesendorf: My understanding of civilisation is one that involves a democratic system – a system which is fair to everyone, a system which lives within the environment. So you can see that it is an ideal, because many scientists and others have argued, and I would argue, that we are on a pathway now, which is leading to the collapse of civilisation.
And I think civilisation has an enormous amount of value. For a start, we human beings are the only one’s intelligent – so-called intelligent – beings that we know in the universe. There may well be many others out there, but it’s probably impossible to communicate with them. And so the human experiment is a very important one.
It matters to me what happens to humanity after I pass on. Although I know people who’ve said, ‘Once I’m dead, why should I care what happens to the rest of the world?’ Well, I do care. I think there’s something special here. We are the products of evolution. We have many faults. We have the capacity for great good and for building wonderful things. And we have the capacity for destruction and for evil.
So in a way, we’re conducting a great experiment. An experiment as to whether our kind of being can actually create a long term civilisation.
So I see the present civilisation as heading towards disaster on a number of grounds, some of which could occur very quickly, but I also see the potential. The need in me was to contribute towards potential solutions. This book, and indeed my earlier books, are all attempts to contribute to solutions.
Earlier on, I mostly worked on renewable energy and climate, so I was concerned with energy solutions, transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. But now I see the issue as a much broader issue, as the survival and thrival of human civilisation. And I’d like to try and contribute to that. And as an academic, as well as an environmental campaigner, one of the tools that I have is writing – writing articles, and in this case, writing most of a book.
Mik Aidt: And a book, in a way, becomes like a manifest for you: That this is where you’ve gathered all your thoughts in one place?
Mark Diesendorf: That’s absolutely right. I feel that although the writing of the book only took about nine months, an interesting period of gestation, it was drawing on my life experience, and there’s a lot in there that just came as I was writing, because it’s part of my growing awareness of the issues.
I started as a scientist. And now, as I was writing the book, I see that science is just one component. One has to think beyond science, beyond technology. It’s a social change – to economic change – to political change.
Mik Aidt: Now, that’s something that a scientist feels uncomfortable with. Isn’t it true?
Mark Diesendorf: Many scientists do feel uncomfortable with the idea of venturing outside of science. Although there are a number of notable exceptions, and they are very important in the history of science and society. But yes, it’s true – that scientists who venture into public debate, which involves politics and economics and social change, tend to be looked down upon by many other scientists.
I had the experience at the University of New South Wales where I was working before my retirement, in the Institute of Environmental Studies, which is an interdisciplinary institute. So we ran the Master of Environmental Management program, and some of us did interdisciplinary research. And although we were an interdisciplinary institute, we were managed by the Faculty of Science. And the Dean of Science at that time, the “top dog in science”, he wrote articles attacking interdisciplinary work.
Personally, I thought that they didn’t stand up to examination, because many great advances have been made on the boundaries of different disciplines and beyond disciplines. But anyway, he didn’t like it. And basically, he closed us down.
Now, the master of environmental management continues now in the faculty of arts, humanities, et cetera, but the institute is no more, and I am nominally retired, although I’ve never been more busy and productive in my research and writing.
Mik Aidt: So it’s a very, very big topic you’ve taken on, and the words you use are ‘humanity’… it’s about ‘the future for humanity’. How do we begin, almost, this podcast and this interview? Maybe we could begin it with that you tell us a bit about what led you to write the book.
Mark Diesendorf: Yes, I’ll tell you how I became radicalised, if you like, as a scientist who felt the need to get involved in social issues. Probably the biggest event in my earlier life as a scientist was after I finished my PhD. Now, my PhD was in applied mathematics. Applied to conditions in the centre of the sun. So you would imagine this is so far removed from earthly issues. Anyway, I completed my PhD and was traveling to London to take up a postdoctoral position. And I stopped over in San Francisco to meet one of the scientists who had worked in the field of my PhD. He was at the University of California, Berkeley. But I was also aware that he worked at a government institution called the Livermore National Laboratory.
Anyway, I came to his lab at University of California, Berkeley, and he welcomed me and he congratulated me upon my thesis. And then he said, ‘My colleagues at Livermore are using your calculations to improve their designs of the hydrogen bomb.’ Now, that was a bombshell for me, because I thought that with my astrophysical work, I was far removed from such earthly considerations. And I knew at once that I did not want to do research for the military. And subsequently, when I thought about it, I didn’t really want to do research or science for big business either. I wanted to do science for the people.
So when I arrived in London, they were just setting up the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. And I immediately joined it. I listened open mouth to some of the great scientists and thinkers who founded the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. They were Nobel Prize winners. I didn’t really participate much, I just sat there listening, open mouth. But when I returned to Australia to take up a fellowship at the Australian National University, several years later, I found there was a Society for Social Responsibility in Science in Canberra, and it was basically set up as a voice for CSIRO scientists who felt constrained about speaking up about science and society issues. And because my position was at ANU [The Australian National University], I was safer than the CSIRO people, so they made me secretary. And before I knew it, although I was just a young scientist, I was speaking out to the public on issues like the French testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific in the atmosphere, at the time, and many other science and society issues. So I guess I became radicalised and in parallel with my academic work at ANU and indeed later in CSIRO, I was also working on the side as a campaigner on the environment, and subsequently on social justice.
So that’s a sort of history of the transformation of the young scientist trying to come to try to come to grips with the much broader issues that we’re facing.
Mik Aidt: And then you went into renewable energy in particular. I remember we invited you to speak some years ago here in Geelong when we were advocating for – and this was leading up to an election, by the way – when we were advocating for that we should go green, and you came as a spokesperson for that idea.
Mark Diesendorf: That’s right, and at the University of New South Wales, before I retired, I was working with a group of electrical engineers, electric power engineers, and we were building computer models of the Australian National Electricity Market running on 100 per cent renewable energy. We were one of the earliest groups in Australia to show that indeed it is possible to run the whole electricity system on wind and solar and existing hydro and a few other technologies that fill the rare gaps when we don’t have a lot of wind and solar. So I was working with my colleagues – initially a PhD student, Ben Elliston, who’s now Dr Ben Elliston, and professor Ian McGill at UNSW – and we showed, really, with great confidence that 100 per cent renewable electricity is possible. And then that leads to the idea that we must electrify everything: electrify transport, electrify heating, because wind and solar are becoming very cheap, and will continue to become even cheaper.
But in more recent years, after my retirement, I’ve come to realise that technological change, although it’s very, very necessary, is not sufficient. And one of the indicators of this is the situation of the role of fossil fuel in world energy supply. Back in 2009, I looked at the data: fossil fuels were responsible for 80 per cent of all energy use. So that’s not just electricity, that includes transport and combustion heating. Fossil fuels: 80 per cent in 2009. Now, in the decade after that, renewable energy in the form of renewable electricity has grown at an enormous pace, an amazing pace, which is very exciting, with the result that 10 years later in 2019, just before COVID hit us, on a global scale, fossil fuels were still 80 per cent of total energy consumption.
Now, how’s that possible, you would ask? How can it still be true that fossil fuels are still 80 per cent? And the answer is that global energy consumption has grown over that 10 year period, and much of the growth, especially in transport and in heating, has been with fossil fuels. So renewable energy, although growing extremely rapidly, has been chasing a retreating target.
As a student, I used to run the 800 metres, and it brings to mind the idea of coming into the finishing straight and seeing the officials running away with the finishing tape. Now, I know that I’m probably faster than them, I’ll eventually catch them, but by that time, the finishing time will be greatly delayed, and that’s the situation with climate change: That’s if global energy consumption and global consumption more broadly continues to grow at the pre-COVID rate, then renewable energy and the energy transition will not be able to catch up with it by 2050. It’ll catch up eventually, but not by 2050.
And in the meantime, the risk of crossing irreversible climate change tipping points, as they’re called in climate science, that risk becomes very much greater.
So we have to deal with the problem of consumption. We have to deal with the neoliberal economics notion that we can have endless growth on a finite planet. Because continuing economic growth inevitably means there will be some continuing growth in energy consumption, even if a lot of the economy is greened considerably. There’s always – even if we expand education – we still have to build new school buildings and equipment and so on. Similarly with health, the energy consumption will be much less than expanding air transport or something like that. But energy consumption will still increase.
And so we have to actually deal with consumption, global consumption. And because the poorer countries still need considerable further development, that means that the rich countries are going to have to cease growing their consumption. They’re going to have to transition to what we call a steady state economy.
Mik Aidt: What we’ve seen in just the last month is that climate is coming in fast and actually destroying and tearing apart a lot of that economy. Look at what happened in Beijing, where you see piles of cars in the flooding or the destruction and losses, not just of economy, but of human lives.
Mark Diesendorf: That’s right. And that raises the question: Why are governments still at best half-hearted about dealing with this problem? – the problem of climate change and the other related problems. There are many serious environmental threats right now. Loss of biological diversity, excessive extraction of freshwater and groundwater, chemicals in the environment, land use destruction. Loss of soils. It goes on and on. So the question that we have to deal with – and we try to deal with in the book – is: What are the driving forces that are stopping governments from acting really effectively to deal with these existential problems?
We argue that the key problem is the capture of nation states by vested interests. I mean, it’s pretty obvious when we look at the fossil fuel area, when our politicians bring a lump of coal into Parliament House and worship it, effectively. And incidentally, that lump of coal was provided by the Minerals Council of Australia, one of the big fossil fuel lobbies in Australia. And before giving it to the politicians, they lacquered it, so that the politicians wouldn’t get their hands dirty.
Scott Morrisson: “This is coal, don’t be afraid, don’t be scared.
Mark Diesendorf: So, we argue that it is not sufficient for the community organisations and academics and politicians to just address the specific issues like energy and deforestation and loss of soils and loss of fresh water and going into the social areas – poverty, social injustice, and peace. War and peace. It’s not sufficient. It’s necessary, but not sufficient to deal with the individual issues.
We argue we have to tackle the driving forces. And one of the main driving forces, we argue, is state capture. The capture of the nation state, the governments, the oppositions, the public service, the police, the military, of a nation, or of a region, or of a state, by vested interests.
And this is widespread. It isn’t limited to climate and fossil fuels. You look at the role of the weapons industry in Australia, for example. The body that is supposed to give objective advice to the Australian government on defence is the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ASPI. But, it is funded by the United States government, as well as the Australian government, and the weapons industries. It is not objective. It suffers from a conflict of interest.
Even the ABC interviews it as if it is some kind of an objective organisation. One could add the recent scandal, the revelation in the Washington Post, that the Australian Defense Department has been advised since 2015 by a group of retired United States admirals who were employed by the Defense Department – and some of them may well still be employed – to advise the Defense Department on naval technologies and ships. So is it a coincidence that the Australian government cancelled its agreement for diesel-powered submarines with France and switched to nuclear-powered submarines provided by the U.S. and possibly also by the United Kingdom? The government was being advised by the U.S. military industrial complex in effect.
So state capture is one of the key things that we have to address, and we can address it, because their tools are very obvious, and those tools have been exposed recently in the scandals about consultancies to the federal government. One of the tools is revolving jobs. There’s an intimate relationship in employment between the vested interests and the politicians, and the political advisors, and the public service on the other hand. And there’s a regular movement of jobs between both.
We see that in the energy sector. The chief of staff of our previous prime minister, Scott Morrison, came directly from the Minerals Council of Australia. And one of his senior advisors also came from the Minerals Council of Australia.
And we see it now gradually being exposed with the big consultancies who employ people coming from the public service and also embed their own people in the public service. So it’s not surprising that they get the main jobs.
State capture is really important. Revolving door jobs is one of their tools, and we can control that if we have the political will. Political donations is another tool that we can, in principle, control much more tightly. Concentrated media ownership has been an enormous problem in the climate issue with the Murdoch press basically attacking climate science – attacking it to the extent that even one of the Murdochs has spoken out against them and their attacking renewable energy. In the past we had controls on the concentration of media ownership, but that’s all gone. We have to reinstate those controls. We have to recognise that some of the groups set up by vested interests, like the Institute of Public Affairs, is funded by the minerals industries and many other big, politically powerful industries.
Therefore, it cannot be treated by the ABC – or by anyone else – as an objective source of advice to governments or to the community.
Dealing with state capture is one of the things that we can in fact do. But in order to do it, we have to have a strong push from the community, across the community, from the environment movement, the social justice movement, the peace movement, the public health movement, working together in alliances to get reforms to these situations, to weaken the power of vested interests, to decapture our nation states – and many other nation states – from the power of vested interests.
Mik Aidt: If we just talk about Australia, what does that look like in the reality of Australian politics right now? Are you thinking that this would be a job for the independents to take up? Or how do we get to a point where we actually see enough people in Parliament who think like you?
Mark Diesendorf: Well, certainly the Australian Greens are aware of many of these issues, and they have policies on a number of them, but not all of them. And as you suggest, It is very important that the independents start becoming much more aware of these issues.
Andrew Wilkie is very much aware of the capture of state governments by the gambling industry, for example. But we need all the independents to be aware of the scope, the huge scope of capture of our nation and our individual states by vested interests.
If we go to individual states, then the emphasis is on different industries, to some extent. Fossil fuels are still very powerful in the states, but also the gambling industry, also the property development industry – very powerful in the states. The mining industry is powerful in some states – Western Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory – less powerful in the other states.
So we have to work together as a community to apply much greater pressure. And this means that we need more than single issue groups working on this issue, but we need the single issue groups – if we call environment a ‘single issue’, it’s really a medley of issues, but… – they need to allocate some of their time and some of their resources to form alliances, to work together, to weaken state capture.
Now there are some signs that the first steps are being taken. There is an Australian Democracy Institute – I’m not sure if I’ve got the name correct – [Australian Democracy Network], which has been set up by the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Australian Council for Social Services and the Human Rights Law Centre.
That has potential, and in fact they produced an excellent report on state capture, but I suspect they don’t yet have the resources in there to campaign publicly, which I believe they should. And if not, then other groups have to take that up. So there is a way forward on state capture, but it requires organisation. The strength of the community is in its numbers, but that strength can only be realised if people cooperate. So the strength means that to get the strength, the power of the community, we need organisation of the community – organisation so that a very large force can be applied.
It’s not enough just to get a few politicians saying the right things. We really need a movement from the community that goes well beyond Parliament House, that includes demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, you name it, that creates and delivers its own media and social media much more powerfully. We need a major campaign to weaken state capture.
And so far, I’ve only discussed one aspect of state capture. But perhaps later we might come to the other aspect, which is the capture of economics by a very narrow and poorly based set of ideologies. And that also is a form of capture. Capture not just of the state, but the propaganda has spread through the whole community in Australia, and around the world. Propaganda that we can have endless growth on a finite planet. Propaganda that governments should be small, taxes should be small, the main decisions in our community should be made by the market. Now all that is nonsense and very poorly based, and very dangerous. And that is the other driver of environmental destruction and social inequality.
Mik Aidt: If we used another word, it sounds to me like that what you’re talking about, in a sense, is a political revolution, or a community revolution?
Mark Diesendorf: Yes, it’s both. It’s a community revolution that potentially can drive a political revolution. But in politics, most politicians do not just respond to a reasoned argument. There has to be force – pressure – behind it from the community, telling them that they will lose seats and they will lose votes if they don’t actually act.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt is supposed to have told a delegation of people that were lobbying him: ‘Okay, you’ve convinced me. Now get out there and make me do it.’
I think that shows a real recognition of the realities of politics: that without very strong pressure from the community, and it has to be very strong, at best, we will get a few political gestures.
So we have the current situation that the present government – in terms of climate a vast improvement over the coalition government – the present government is putting some resources into renewable energy, but at the same time, it is supporting the development of coal fields and gas fields and the export of coal and gas.
It’s not going to work that way. That kind of politics where you do a bit of both is going to lead – and is leading – to disaster. Disasters that we’re seeing this year in the Northern Hemisphere and could well see, again, in our coming summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
Mik Aidt: You’ve made me very curious now about your book, because you talk about something here that is very close to my heart. Could that book then be what ignites that revolution we talked about? Tell me about the content of your book. Let’s hear what’s in the book.
Mark Diesendorf: Okay, so the early part of the book – the first two chapters – talk about the issues: Obviously the environmental threats, the threats to social inequality, and social injustice. And then we write about: where we want to go. What do we mean by Sustainable Civilisation? And what we do mean is: one that is both ecologically sustainable and socially just. And peaceful. It’s a big ask.
Then we have a major chapter on energy. I guess that’s my particular field. It discusses how we can make the energy transition. It shows that we have most of the technologies that we need. It shows that the main barriers are non-technical. And already we start to see the barriers in the vested interests, the capture of the nation state. It reveals the problem that I mentioned earlier on: that despite the rapid growth of renewable energy, fossil fuels are still 80 per cent of global final energy consumption, and that’s because of the growth in consumption. So that raises the consumption problem.
Then we have a chapter on state capture, capture of the nation state by vested interests, along the lines that we’ve discussed. Following that is a chapter on economics, on transitioning the economic system. Because it’s not enough to deal with state capture by fossil fuels and gambling and property and pharmaceuticals and so on. We also have to deal with the economic system, which is helping to drive the growth in consumption. And which is still pushing the propaganda that ‘governments should not intervene, just leave it to the market’. If we leave it to the market now, we will go down the tube, down the plug hole, basically. It is too late to rely on the market.
There are some market measures that will help. Like a carbon price. But we need to do far more than that. And so the economics chapter first summarises some of the failings of the existing dominant economic system, which is basically the ideology of neoliberalism, allegedly backed up by the pseudoscience of neoclassical economic theory.
We show in some areas that it really is a pseudoscience. And that we really need a broader framework, an interdisciplinary framework, and we have one: It’s called ecological economics. It’s not a branch of economics. It’s an interdisciplinary field.
We then argue the case that because of the growing environmental potential disasters that we are experiencing – including, of course, climate change – we actually have to stop the growth in consumption on a global scale. And as I said previously, because the poorer countries still need to develop and they will have to increase their energy consumption, and even if it’s renewable, it will still turn the wheels of factories and motor vehicles and everything faster. It will still have increasing environmental impacts. But it also means that to give space for the poorer countries to develop, the rich countries – and that, of course, includes Australia and the United States and most of the European Union – the rich countries are going to have to cease growing in physical consumption. And by physical consumption, I mean, in the use of energy, in the use of materials, which is growing at a huge rate, in the use of land. And in population, because actually, ironically, it’s not the population growth in the poorer countries, countries of Africa, that is a real threat to the environment. It’s the population growth of the rich countries, because the rich have by far the biggest environmental impacts.
And that’s true whether we talk about the rich 1% with their private planes, their motor yachts and their ownership of many properties, huge properties. But we too, if we think of the Top 10% of the rich in the world or the Top 15 or 20%, then we are also in that. And we are also having far bigger environmental impacts than the average on the planet.
We have to talk about how we can redesign our economy so that it works without the growth in energy and materials and land and population. There have been a number of studies that show that it is possible. There are models, different kinds of models, some are macroeconomic models – and I’m actually very skeptical about almost any macroeconomic model – and some of them are biophysical models. That is: focusing directly on physical things like energy and materials and land. They show that although it’s not easy – if we simply just stop economic growth, we go to recession and unemployment on a massive scale, we don’t argue that at all – but if we combine a range of policies, which provide the basic services for everyone, then the whole game changes.
And what we’re talking about here is transitioning to a state where everyone in our community has the basic services of availability, of housing, of public education, of public health, public transport, parks, and national parks, libraries – the basics. And if everyone has the basics, then the drive for endless growth is weakened considerably. People live better, but we have to combine the universal basic services, as they are called, with a job guarantee.
Now, it was sort of interesting that during the early phases of the COVID pandemic, there was actually talk about giving job guarantees to farmers in rural areas. It was quite astonishing. But of course, what we’re now talking about, is a job guarantee for everyone who is unemployed in the market system and wants to work.
Now a job guarantee is not like work for the dull because people will be free to move in and move out of the jobs that are provided. The jobs will be funded by the federal government. The jobs will be provided by all levels of government and by community organisations that are registered and checked for the validity of their proposals.
And there are many jobs that are greatly needed in our community that the market does not provide. The market is concerned with profit. Environmental remediation very, very rarely gives profit. And there’s a huge potential for that. There’s potential for citizen science, members of the community to do some work that would be really helpful in monitoring pollution, for example. In monitoring biodiversity.
It is happening on a limited scale, but it is unpaid. It should be paid, providing support to people who are very old, or less able, although obviously they need trained people, there’s a huge role for untrained people in basically talking to people, providing some companionship, visiting, and so on. That too could be paid.
So the job guarantee would pay at a basic wage, and during times of recession in the market, the numbers of people paid by the job guarantee would increase. During times of boom, or boom periods, many people would move from the job guarantee into the market, where they would be paid more.
And so, the job guarantee plays the role of a kind of a buffer. At present, the buffer against boom and bust is unemployment. Throwing people out of work. Under a job guarantee, we have a much more civilised – if I can use that word – much more civilised system of buffering the ups and downs of economies.
So, together we’re talking about universal basic services and a job guarantee. This gives people a stake in our society. It will also have an influence on the politics, because people will have much more say in the big decisions. But the beauty of it is that they will see the value of making the kind of transition that we’re talking about.
The transition is not one to go back to living in the caves and the trees. In fact, the real danger is that either through massive climate change or nuclear war that will destroy societies and we go back to small isolated communities, in some cases warring with one another. We’re talking about a transition to maintain civilisation, not a transition to destroy it.
I can see no reason why we cannot make that transition given the political will. We don’t lack the technologies. What we lack is the social organisation, the economic system, and the political support to make that transition possible. And that’s the real challenge: to get the message out to people.
Mik Aidt: What we lack is examples, isn’t it? Is there any where in the world where this system you are talking about is actually in place?
Mark Diesendorf: On a small scale, scattered around the world, there are communities. We can go from the scale of community renewable energy projects. I have to declare an interest: I have shares in the Hepburn Wind Farm and several community solar projects. They show what can be done on a very small scale. Then, as Tim Hollo points out in his book, ‘Living Democracy’, there are a few other examples on a larger scale.
The city of Barcelona in Spain – or should I say in Catalonia, which is a province of Spain – is running the city with very strong living democracy, with very strong community inputs.
We’ve seen, in the past, a transformation of the Basque region of Spain, the area known as Mondragon, by the formation of a whole set of cooperatives. Consumer cooperatives, producer cooperatives. This was originally a very poor region and it was transformed – initially by two people, a trade unionist and a priest. Strangely, they worked together, and they started the movement that has created this amazing system of cooperatives and which has built the wealth of that region – from poverty to wealth.
Now, one has to say that perhaps protection of the environment was not one of the key goals in that growth, but it shows that we can transform economies by community action, and there are other examples scattered around the world. But they are very small scale. They are very valuable in community education, in providing a precedent and an example. And Tim Hollo argues that they could spread across the world and create a new kind of democracy. I see their value, but I don’t think they will spread in time.
I really think that what we need now is strong pressure from the community, not just to build their own little ecosystems, but also to put enormous pressure on those who hold the reins of power, and to change the politics of the situation at that level.
I don’t think we have time to wait for living democracy to spread across the whole community, although I think there’s an enormous amount of value in the idea and in Tim’s book, but I say that right now, the priority should be to form alliances to expose the issues, using independent media as much as we can, and to put that pressure on decision makers, whether they be in Parliament House or in big business, to force them to change.
So this is a non-violent, social revolution that is needed. It’s got to be non-violent. It’s a gentle revolution because it doesn’t want to have power over, but it does want to have enough community power or influence to push the development of our civilisation into survival mode and ultimately into thrival mode.
Movie clip: “This could cause a riot.” “Good. Maybe we need one.” “The only way we’re going to make it through this is if we trust each other.”
Mik Aidt: But Mark, when I hear you talk about these things, like ‘cooperative’, that is translated by Sky News to ‘communism’. ‘The Greens and all these people in their cooperatives are a threat to our way of life,’ they will be saying. I can hear it. They don’t want to downsize. They want that growth. They want to think that ‘Next year i can buy an even bigger car’.
Mark Diesendorf: Well, that is the propaganda that they are being given. But I think if we offer them universal basic services, and a job guarantee, they will be less dependent upon the power of the 1% that I heard you speaking for. You were speaking for the [richest] 1%. And the 1% want to simplify the issue. It is eaither capitalism or communism. Well, that is nonsense. There is plenty in-between.
There is a huge range of potential societies and political systems – not just two alternatives. And as it happens, it could be argued anyway. we haven’t really seen true communism, we have seen a dictatorship of Stalin, which was horrific. And many of the people who joined the Communist Party in Australia at that time, following the ideal of communism, when Gorbatjov revealed the crimes of Stalin, they were horrified and they left the party. So we are not talking about communism versus capitalism.
In the kind of society that we envisage in the book, markets will still exist, but the difference will be that they will exist in a system where so-called economic efficiency is not the main goal. Environmental protection and social justice are the primary goals. Efficiency comes after environmental protection and social justice.
We are not trying to abolish markets. We are not envisaging a communist system. We are envisaging an improvement, a great improvement, in the existing system, which means that it might survive for a few thousand years, instead of what we are looking at now: it is rather doubtful that it will survive for the rest of this century even.
So I guess that is the first answer. The oversimplifications are really useless. There is a wide range of possible societies, economies, and political systems that would satisfy our path to a sustainable civilisation. There is not one pathway. The problem is that all of the pathways, if they are serious ones, are pretty rocky and thorny.
Mik Aidt: And difficult to sell. And I guess that becomes the really… the key point here: how do we sell your story?
Mark Diesendorf: Well, I think one of the issues is getting the message out, as you say. So far, I have not managed even to get any discussion on the ABC. Although I have tried very hard, and continue to do so.
Getting the message out is important. But our book is not the only book. There are some very good books. I have mentioned Tim Hollo’s book. Jason Hickel is one of the world leaders in this discussion of transitioning to a sustainable society, economy and political system. He puts more emphasis on destroying capitalism, and there is no doubt I would agree with much of what he says about the destructive role of capitalism. But I don’t think it is likely that it will fall over overnight. What I do think is likely, very likely, is that we can push over neoliberalism.
Because neoliberalism with its emphasis on decisions by the market, small government, low taxes and all that, neoliberalism has failed on many occations now. But particularly in two recent occations: the global financial crisis and the economic recovery from the COVID pandemic. In each case, goverments had to give up on leaving it to the market. They had to intervene. In Australia, they created hundreds of billions of dollars – they basically created the money to keep the economy going through the pandemic. And they had similar actions through the global financial crisis [in 2007] which totally violate the so-called principles of neoliberalism.
But then, much to my annoyance, they announced, of course, after the problem is over, we will go back to the old system. Well, no they are not. They are not going to, because neoliberalism is now being challenged and attacked all around the world as being totally inadequate for dealing with the problems that we are facing.
So we can knock over neoliberalism, and then the next step is: we have to deal with the arguments that neoliberalism is supposed to be based on, neoclassical economic theory, which is supposed to be a science.
Well… I am a member of an international research group of scientists and economist that are working on what I see as a kind of a follow-up to the book, and we are examining the foundations of neoclassical economics very critically. And what we find is that it does not by any stretch of the imagination satisfy the requirements of a true science. It is mostly nonsense. Mostly assumptions about the nature of human beings, about the nature of markets, about the nature of economic growth, which do not stand up to examination. And which are contradicted, in may cases, by observation.
So I think that is the next step: While we fight against state capture broadly, we also have to push much more strongly for a change in the economic system.
I mean, I have been involved with the interdisciplinary field of ecological economics for decades, and one of my disappointments in the field is that it has developed independently of neoclassical economics, and the practitioners of ecological economics, most of them are very reluctant to come out and directly critisise the dominant economic system, neoclassic economics. I have actually been told by one leading ecological economist: ‘Mark, your approach is correct, but it is not suttle. It is not nuanced.’ Well, time has run out for suttle approaches in my view, and I think we do need both the nuanced approaches and a direct attack on neoclassical economics which is dring us to environmental destruction and social injustice, very rapidly.
We are still seeing neoclassical economists who support neoliberalism come out and say: ‘Really, it is not as bad as it is being painted by its critics. It has a human face.’ Well no, no, it does not.
Movie clip: “We are going the wrong way.”
Fireman: “You are killing us. You are killing Australia”.
Movie clip: “And the humans, what can they do but burn!”
Mik Aidt: So Mark, when you say “we”… You were two people writing the book. Who’s your co author?
Mark Diesendorf: My co author is Rod Taylor. He’s a science journalist, particularly strong in the IT area. And he was co-editor of a more academic book that was published last year. It’s called ‘Sustainability and the New Economics’. This was an edited book, and so it had chapters by many different people, including myself. And at the beginning of 2022, Rod and I got talking about the need for a more coherent book that put things together and actually made a coherent argument. So that’s really how the actual writing of the book started.
Rod wrote the very good part of the introduction, where he used the history of the Titanic as a metaphor for the whole human situation that we’re facing now. You can imagine: the Titanic was “unsinkable” – like the present civilisation. It was told that it was the latest of the best, the captain was under pressure from the owners to travel as fast as possible through the iceberg field, despite the risks that had been identified. And disaster struck, and the interesting thing is that most of the deaths occurred in the poorest people on the ship, those who are in the bottom of the ship. As you can imagine, very few of them survived, and the least deaths occurred in the richest people who were on the top of the ship. Many managed to escape and survive.
So it is quite a good metaphor. I haven’t described it as well as Rod does in the introduction to the book. But, it sets the scene.
Mik Aidt: Also there’s an analogy there to climate change where we hear that very soon the parts of the world that will be unlivable because of the heat, 95 per cent of it is in areas that we call the developing world, meaning places that are struggling with the economy already.
Mark Diesendorf: Yes, sadly, the rich world, the global north, is responsible for most of our environmental threats and social injustice because of colonialism and now neocolonialism, and the poorer world, the less developed world, is suffering the impacts more greatly. Although right now, it’s quite clear that the whole world is going to suffer the impacts, and there’s no escape, even for the rich.
I suppose they can jet to the south of Tasmania or somewhere – or the south of New Zealand – and maybe survive that way. But really, this is a global problem, and it needs a global solution, and it needs action at the international, national, and sub-national levels. And again, that’s part of the challenge, because the international organisations are currently unable to really bring strong agreements to bear on individual nations.
Mik Aidt: So Mark, if, if people who’ve been listening to you now talk about these things, want to get hold of your book, where is it? – and is there more: Are you beginning to produce videos and other material?
Mark Diesendorf: Well, I strongly recommend that interested people go to the website of the book which is SustainableCivilisation.com. On that website, you can order the book online, the publisher is Palgrave Macmillan. And we recommend that you go to them, because they’re a lot cheaper than some of the other suppliers at present.
And on the website we have some some videos. We have a two minute video. We try to introduce the key issues. This was done for an international conference, in just two minutes and it introduces state capture, and that outlines the key issue.
We also have a podcast of a book launch that we held in Canberra recently. The book launch had the keynote speaker Richard Dennis, the CEO of the Australia Institute, [who] gave an excellent keynote address. And then my co-author Rod and I spoke. So there’s a 40 minute podcast up there, which introduces some of the issues.
And there are a number of articles too. Short articles. I published an article to try and publicise the book. I published an article in The Conversation that also gives an introduction to some aspects of the book, and some of the issues in the book. I’d strongly recommend the article in the Conversation as an introduction to the book. Again, you’ll find a link to that article on SustainableCivilisation.com.
Mik Aidt: The Sustainable Civilisation. How we can transition to a new civilisation that is not just sustainable, but socially just, healthy and less militarised. As we’ve heard Mark Diesendorf explain it, the solution is to build a social movement which is so big and so strong that it can apply overwhelming pressure on government and big business, and weaken the power of the vested interests, the fossil fuel interests, the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and so on, and strengthen the democratic decision-making.
The building of this social movement is… and that’s the good news that I can bring to you: it is already happening. I know that because I speak with those people who are building it. Some of them have organised a meeting, for instance, at the Melbourne Town Hall on the 9th of September 2023, under the headline ‘Stepping Up Together’.
I’ll put a link out to that event in the podcast notes on TheSustainableHour.au. Because really, for us here in Australia, maybe that’s where the climate revolution begins: when we step up together.
So join us on the 9th of September. Have a look in your calendar and consider whether you would like to join us on the 9th of September, at the Melbourne Town Hall.
Movie clip: “How bad is it?” “That’s the problem, sir. We don’t know.”
Mik Aidt: I will leave you with two short statements – arguments, you could say – for what needs to happen now. First it is the British author George Monbiot who was guest in a tv debate recently, and then: one of humanity’s leading spokespersons for a sustainable civilisation, Sir David Attenborough.
George Monbiot on Novara Media: “Actually, everything we have to do is change the system. We have to overthrow this system, which is eating the planet with perpetual growth. I mean, since when was GDP a sensible measure of human welfare? And yet everything that governments want to do is to try to boost GDP. Now, people like the OECD or the World Bank say, “Oh, we’re not asking for a lot of growth, just 3 per cent a year.” That means doubling in 24 years. Yeah, we’re bursting through all the environmental boundaries and screwing the planet already, and you want double it? Double all that? Double it again. Keep doubling it. It’s madness. We’ve got to find a better way of measuring human welfare than perpetual growth.
We’ve got to start ramping down all fossil fuel production and leave fossil fuels in the ground, and at the same time, and this is a nice bit of it, it turns out that through massive rewilding, ecological restoration, you can draw down a load of the carbon dioxide we’ve already produced. Huge amounts. Allowing the forests to come back, the marshes to come back, the sea floor to recover from trawling and stuff. They draw down carbon dioxide and can take us a long way towards stopping climate breakdown, at the same time as stopping ecological breakdown. There’s time, but we can’t do it by just pissing around at the margins of the problem. We’ve got to go straight to the heart of capitalism and overthrow it.”
Sir David Attenborough: “There just could be a change in moral attitude from people worldwide, politicians worldwide, to see that self interest is for the past. Common interest is for the future.”
Mik Aidt: If you want to be part of the climate revolution, find your role. Contribute with what you think you are good at. My name is Mik Aidt, and you can reach me on the email address firstname.lastname@example.org
Movie clip: “I have seen the grail! I have seen it”
Female voice: “All revolutions seem impossible until they are inevitable.”
Podcast sources – in order of appearance
00:03 António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General: “We are rapidly reaching the point of no return for the planet”
00:09 ABC News on 30 July 2023 at 00:35: Reporter in Greece: “One moment this is a thriving beach bar full of young holiday makers. The next it is a pile of rubble.”
00:19 António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General: “The consequences are clear, and they are tragic. Children swept away by monsoon rains. Families running from the flames. Workers collapsing in scorching heat.” Twitter/X-post and speech on 27 July 2023.
00:25 Movie clip: Marvel, Thor: Kaorg speaks to Thor about revolution: “I tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets, so hardly anyone turned up. But I am actually organising another revolution. I don’t know if you’d be interested in something like that?”
01:25 NineNews reporting on António Guterres’ call for governments to declare a climate emergency
02:04 Mark Diesendorf speaks briefly about priorities: expose the issues, use independent media, and to put pressure on decision-makers to force them to change. (Continues at 2:47)
02:30 ABC News: Report from extreme weather event: “A state of emergency has been declared in New Zealand after cyclone Gabrielle…”
02:34 Sir David Attenborough: “We will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security.”
02:40 Ban ki-Moon, United Nations Secretary-General in 2011: “We need a revolution. Revolutionary thinking. Revolutionary action.”
02:49 Mark Diesendorf: “It’s a gentle revolution, because it doesn’t want to have power over, but it does want to have enough community power, or influence, to push the development of our civilisation into survival mode, and ultimately, into thrival mode.”
03:34 Movie clip: Monthy Python and the Holy Grail: “You seek the holy grail?” “That is our quest. Our quest is to find the holy grail.” “Yes, it is.” “Yes!” “And so we are looking for it.” “We have been for some time.” “Ages!”
04:24 Mark Diesendorf interview begins
49:48 Movie clip: The 100, s1 e5 at 26:20: “This will cause a riot!” “Good. Maybe we need one.”
49:51 Movie clip: The 100, s2 e8 at 8:20: Abby: “The only way we are going to make it through this is if we trust each other.”
58:16 ABC Lab: “We are going the wrong way!”
58:19 7News Sydney: New South Wales Rural Fire Service firefighter: “You are killing us. You are killing Australia!”
58:21 Movie clip: Marvel, The Avengers: “And the humans, what can they do but burn?”
1:06:05 Movie clip: Marvel, The Avengers: “How bad is it?” “That’s the problem, sir: we don’t know.”
1:06:32 George Monbiot, British author, excerpt from Novara Media in April 2019: “Actually everything we have to do is change the system. We have to overthrow this system which is eating the planet with perpetual growth. Since when was GDP a sensible measure of human welfare? And yet, everything that governments want to do is to try to boost GDP…”
1:08:01 Sir David Attenborough, excerpt from BBC’s ‘Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World’: “There just could be a change in moral attitude from people world-wide, politicians world-wide, to see that self-interest is for the past, common interest is for the future.”
1:08:45 Movie clip: Monthy Python and the Holy Grail: “I have seen the grail! I have seen it!”
1:08:50 “All revolutions seem impossible until they are inevitable.”
. . .
00:02 Alex Aidt: Icecream (also at 00:50, 01:25, 1:08:23)
00:59 Wayne Jones: A Quiet Thought
01:32 Unicorn Heads: Wolf Moon
01:38 Serge Pavkin: Dawn (also at 03:07)
01:59 Monthy Python and the Holy Grail – fanfare (also at 03:33)
02:04 Anno Domini Beats: Coast
02:30 Twin Musicom: A Dream Within a Dream
03:58 Wayne Jones: Connection (also at 49:54, 1:04:02)
49:28 Wayne Jones: Resolution
1:07:59 Density & Time: Ether-Real
1:08:20 Unicorn Heads: Dreaming in 432Hz
A big thank you to the musicians for allowing us to use this music in the podcast.
. . .