Reality: the only game that counts

The pricking of the bubble that was endless economic growth should be a lesson to us in tackling climate change. [30 September 2008 | Peter Boyer]

We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t sometimes pretend that something was real that wasn’t. Make-believe enriches our lives. But it also threatens our well-being when we apply it in the wrong places, as the twin crises of climate and the economy are making all too clear.

Free-market economics was an idea which figured its time had come in the 1980s, when the economic theorist Milton Friedman and his acolytes provided Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher with a whole new way of looking at business and government.

Politicians were drawn to the idea that the invisible hand of the market would virtually guarantee eternal prosperity. They turned the classic 18th-century economic thinking of Adam Smith into a kind of religion,  while choosing to ignore his clear warning not to neglect the public good.

This was the quasi-religious basis for the key government policies of business deregulation and the privatising of public assets that so dominated the political landscape of developed countries, including Australia, through the 1990s and into this century.

Business leaders have been allowed to pursue their interests with increasing freedom and power, even at times instructing government on business-related policies. Former Howard government insider Guy Pearse, in his book High and Dry, described how coal and oil interests dictated climate and emissions policies for the previous federal government.

In the current crisis threatening the global economy, the Friedman paradigm has hit a brick wall. But its many shortcomings – and the lazy, often self-serving thinking with which politicians applied it – ought to have been obvious without the economic train wreck now before us.

The uncritical acceptance of Friedman’s hypotheses has involved a lot of pretending. Rejecting rational appraisal of strong contrary evidence, we pretended that the free market couldn’t possibly self-destruct and that it had an underlying survival instinct which would ensure positive results.

There are clear parallels in the way we’ve approached climate change. Just as it was convenient for politicians and others to accept the dominance of the free market, so have we gone alone with the mindset that our fossil fuel use couldn’t possibly change the composition of the atmosphere.

We’ve done that because fossil-fuel power for our industries, our transport and virtually our entire lives has been cheap and convenient. It’s awkward being confronted with evidence that these activities are changing our climate, so we’re inclined to shut it out and pretend nothing is amiss.

It’s worth noting that many farmers are in the vanguard of calls for climate action. Depending on reliable temperatures and rainfall, they see trends that urban people can overlook. It was living among farmers that persuaded our previous premier, Paul Lennon, of the reality of climate change.

The connections between global finance and climate go further. The unfettered growth that seems fundamental to governments’ perceptions of success has fostered unprecedented levels of consumer spending – and that has a direct connection with the destabilisation of our climate systems.

As we consume more, driven by government and business appeals to “keep the economy growing”, so do we draw down our planet’s natural resources – its minerals, its agricultural and marine productivity, its surface water and groundwater reserves… and its finely-tuned climate systems.

When it comes to cash and climate there’s no place for pretending. The only way is to get real. So long as we persist in behaving as if nothing’s wrong – even when our heads tell us otherwise – the situation can only get worse.

• This Friday, climate change will be the subject of two separate events in Tasmania. “Walk to Work” day is a nation-wide event organised by the Pedestrian Council of Australia to promote healthier bodies and cleaner air – you can register for the walk at • Also this Friday, “People for a Safer Climate”, a new coalition of concerned Tasmanians, is organising an after-work rally at Franklin Square, Hobart, at 5.15 pm.

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