Saving Planet Earth
Historians and political scientists have classified recent world history into two distinct periods, with the end of World War II as the dividing line.
The period from 1901 to 1945 was marked by aggressive nationalism – trade wars, high tariffs, brutal colonialism, World War I, totalitarian rule in Russia, Italy, Germany, the Leninist–Stalinist model of Communism, Fascism, Nazism, the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust.
From 1945 to the present, as Christopher Browning recently put it in The New York Review of Books, “the post-World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military and economic agreements and organizations ... have preserved peace, stability and prosperity”. People are living far longer, even in the developing world. Life expectancy, globally, is now 70.5 years. Infant mortality has fallen, female liberation still has a long way to go but is much improved, and the threat of global war is remote.
This latter era has not been without conflict, of course – wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, civil wars in parts of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Balkans, the Cold War, nuclear threats and Stalinist control of Eastern Europe until 1989, Mao’s purges and famines in China, terrorism, mass displacement of refugees. Corrupt regimes remain commonplace. Increased consumption levels are destroying the environment and polluting air, sea and land.
Central among the threats we face in this post-World War II era, though, is the wrecking ball approach United States president Donald Trump has taken to the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, the Paris accords on climate change, the G8, the World Trade Organization, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Monetary Fund and any other organisation that attempts to address global issues. We can observe the rise not of totalitarianism but of “illiberal democracy”, a model that operates in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and now Brazil. It may well be entrenched in the US. China is a special case, mixing the worst elements of capitalism with authoritarian one-party rule.
Of course, there are existential struggles, too. Vested interest and the short term are preferenced above the long-term public interest in the US, Australia and many other nations. Homo sapiens has been transformed to Homo economicus. All values have a dollar equivalent. If politicians cannot place an economic value on maintaining the rule of law with refugees or taking strong action to mitigate climate change, then they are not worth pursuing. Universities have become trading corporations. With “fake news”, people can choose their own reality. Science is discounted. Opinion is more important than evidence. The politics of anger and resentment displaces the politics of rationality and optimism.
In Australia, both the Coalition and the Labor Party have demonstrably failed to show leadership on important issues. We are still reliant on coal for our electricity, despite the fact it’s a central factor in global warming. Transition to a post-carbon economy, rejecting punitive, populist and opportunistic policies about refugees, rejecting racism, involving the parliament in determining foreign policy and defence, restoring confidence in our public institutions, developing a bill of rights, promoting community cohesion, understanding the causes of terrorism and proposing rational ways of handling it, corruption in our system, and the corrosive impact of lobbying by gambling, coal and junk food vested interests – all intractable in our political deadlock.
The IT revolution, with capacity for instant retrieval of the world’s knowledge, might have been expected to raise the quality of political engagement and debate. Instead, social media has debased it. Cruelty and ignorance have become tradeable commodities in Australian politics and many politicians are comfortable with that. Debate has been oversimplified and infantilised.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison could be described as Trump Lite plus a combination of toe-curling folksiness, condescension and religiosity. Like President Trump, he is fundamentally incurious. On issues raised with him, he either knows the answers already, or has no desire to hear the case for and against a proposition. He is essentially a door-to-door salesman, a Willy Loman, who relates as well as he can to each client, tells them what they want to hear, then moves on to the next door.
“Boy! Have I got an offer for you. Moving the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem! Offer expires on Saturday, October 20 at 6pm.”
“Linking the drought with climate change? Well, that’s not an issue I have thought about very much. My main interest is getting your power bill down…”
“Or you can have a set of steak knives…”
It shouldn’t be this way. Australia today has a formal level of professional qualifications incomparably higher than any cohort in our history since British colonisation. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are more than 6.5 million graduates now living in Australia, 27 per cent of the population – nearly 14 times more than in the 1970s.
That ought to mean that the level of community engagement and commitment to working out complex issues and finding solutions ought to be at an unprecedented level. Right?
It could be argued, depressingly, that there is an inverse relationship between the growth of universities and the level of community engagement in politics. In fact, the level of political discourse was far more sophisticated in 1860s America than it is today in 2018 in either country.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican Party candidate to be elected president of the United States. At that time, access to education was rather primitive, except in some cities on the east coast, with limited communication by railways, roads, canals, telegraph, newspapers and postal services.
Lincoln was reflective and self-doubting. He talked in testable propositions, evidence-based, with sentences, paragraphs and chapters. He appealed to “the better angels of our nature”. He never used his own name in a speech. He never talked down to his listeners. He wrote wonderful letters.
On February 27, 1860, six months before his election as president, Lincoln delivered a very complex speech about slavery and its political implications at the Cooper Union in New York City. It was his first speech in New York and its impact was dramatic.
Four New York newspapers published the full text – 7500 words – and it was reprinted in hundreds of different formats throughout the nation. The speech rapidly transformed Lincoln from being merely a “favourite son” from Illinois to a national figure. It was a major factor in securing him the Republican nomination for president.
In 1860, the technology was primitive but the ideas in Lincoln’s speech were profound. His political views, published on broadsheets throughout the nation, were extremely subtle and nuanced, without bitterness, personal attack or exaggeration. He could always see the other side of an argument and often set it out, fairly. He was widely read but kept his religion (if any) to himself.
As he told congress in 1862: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present … As our [challenges are] new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves … We cannot escape history. We ... will be remembered in spite of ourselves …”
Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address in November 1863 at the dedication of a Civil War cemetery.
I have long speculated what Lincoln might have said in 2018.
Lincoln’s speech was only 272 words long. My draft is exactly the same length. There are 12 echoes of Lincoln’s text in mine, the words in inverted commas are Margaret Thatcher’s from 1988:
Eighteen years ago, humanity entered the 21st century, facing unprecedented challenges. Global population expands, life expectancy – both in rich and poor nations – and consumption levels rise unsustainably.
Earth’s raw materials are finite. Water, forests, arable land are under increasing pressure, compounded by “a massive experiment with the system of the planet itself” causing climate change and extreme weather events. Rich, powerful nations exploit weak, paralysed states.
Now we are engaged in a great global conflict of values. Gaps between inconceivable wealth and desperate dispossession create political instability, encouraging terrorism and fundamentalism.
Although science and technology annihilate boundaries, nations turn inward, reinforcing tribal values; political leaders retreat from global goals of compassion, reconciliation and mutual understanding. There is widespread racism, nationalism, militarism, religious hatred, democratic populism, suppression of dissent; we’re using propaganda, resolving problems by violence, promoting fear of difference, attacking organised labour, weakening the rule of law, using state violence, torture, execution. Evidence-based policies are displaced by appeals to fear and anger.
The great tasks before us are to dedicate ourselves to recognise that environment and economy are inextricably linked, and act accordingly. The human condition is fragile, and we must abandon rigid thinking, confusing prejudice with principle.
We must consecrate ourselves to saving Planet Earth, our home, where our species, Homo sapiens, lives and depends for survival. All nations, and all people, must dedicate themselves to protecting our global home rather than the short-term national, regional or tribal interest. We must highly resolve to save the air, save the soil, save the oceans to guarantee that our species, and the noblest aspects of its culture, shall not perish from the Earth.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 10, 2018 as "Saving Planet Earth". Subscribe here.