A Very Necessary Revolution

Pardon my noise… But just like everyone else, I have an opinion on the taxing state of carbon that is at least as partially informed as anyone else’s. Perhaps slightly less so, given the investment of a quarter of a lifetime in the ecological economics game. Perhaps not. You don’t have to read this after all…

As some might know, the current Australian Federal Government (to provide all its capitalisations, despite the fact that that Government is really nothing more than a Coup…) has recently launched itself into the carbon tax game. The aim is to deliver the world’s first and best testimony to political responsibility following the occasion of the failed Copenhagen Climate Change Summit of 2009.

But the negotiations thus far to sequester a policy on carbon pricing are much more of a testimony to the failures of human kind when it comes to humans paying any kind of mind to humans other than their individual selves. Self interest, in other words, is rising to the top in these discussions just like the sludge in an overused septic tank. Self interest applies here just like it does to the passage of traffic through a roundabout. The rules of roundabouts and the rules applying to this particular exercise in policy making go something like this: ‘I am here. I matter most. Give Way applies to everyone but me’.

Now in the classical economics game, we have a long track record in ascribing all kinds of powers to the objective force of the marketplace. Let the market rule. The marketplace will sort things out. Rewards go to the most efficient, and appropriately undisguised signalling (think of an oncoming steam train) goes to those who need to get out of the way. Once upon a time, an economic instrument like, say, a carbon tax, would simply be imposed and, if the policy settings that underpinned it were even vaguely well-considered, the market would head off approximately in the direction intended. More or less. With policy tuning via legions of bureaucrats to steer as we go. We know any policy will be incompletely considered as even economists know less than all that’s needed to be known about the situation at hand. Thus, we expect the repair-as-we-go approach is what will happen. That’s why we spend billions and billions on those legions of bureaucrats who weave and cast their way though the fertiliser of tax payer tenured salaries.

But as politicians find themselves in ever more marginal electoral positions, their bravery to launch policies of the more experimental kind diminish in direct proportion with the margins they hold. So, given that this current Australian Federal Government is one of the most precarious of recent times (being a Coup founded on alliances between Labor, a Green Party completely unused to be taken seriously and a bunch of intellectually feeble independent nutters – an assortment of religious and rural fundamentalists) you’d have to wonder at the strategic merit of launching a policy of such heroic proportions as a carbon tax. It must have been obvious from the start that any policy made in an environment such as this will be more bandaid than a thick skinned instrument through which market forces might wield their way.

A bandaid policy is what it has become. So much so that you really have to wonder at what madam Prime Minister’s actual intentions might be.

Right now, that great fundamental bulldozer of human-caused climate change, the coal industry, is making a case for its exemption from the tax! The sheer unmitigated gall of that pox of an industry to take such a stance is simply breathtaking; but completely expected. The problem is that under present circumstances of enfeebled government empowerment, the Coal Industry is likely to get its way. But there is more! All those wonderful family folk out there who fume up the environment with their cars are to be exempted as well. As will be any ‘small business’ operating in situations of less than carbon neutrality (what ever that might mean). So, who is this tax actually going to impact on? And what was the point of such a policy in the first place?

Let’s go back to basics. The entire point of delivering an instrument of change into a marketplace that generates climate changing ‘externalities’ is to mitigate those externalities to some kind of a lesser degree. The idea is to make it more expensive to gas up the planet, and reward practices and lifestyles that are of a more environmentally agreeable nature. Putting it another way, the idea is to change the behaviour of all players in the climate change game – that is, you, me, and the coal industry, just to name three. The idea of an economic instrument is to bluntly exert influence through the pain reception centres of the hip pocket nerve. This saves all that appealing to the ‘common good’ and related moralising that would seek to change behaviour if we chose to work outside the machinery of the marketplace. Because, after all, it’s way too hard to build policies that appeal to our sense of right-doing, right-thinking as the primary motivating force. We know the difficulties likely through such a course whenever we enter a roundabout…

But with all the fragility of the current political marketplace right now, our Prime Minister may actually do better by appealing to the moral virtues of her constituents than proceeding with what will be one gigantic bodged blight of a patchwork policy as this carbon tax is going to become. I, for one, will simply seethe with resentment as I watch the plutocratic coal and oil industries smirking at us from the bogs they are making of a planet we and every other species currently share.

Personally, I would vastly prefer to attack the climate change problem set outside the instruments of that very market place that created the issues we face in the first place. Any policy instrument as bandaided as that with which the Australian Government is currently involved is likely to make matters worse; by taking the heat off that now almost comatose sense of self-responsibility that has caused human-caused climate change in the first place. With ‘households’ (or ‘family’s, with whom our Government appears to be endeared), the coal industry, the oil industry and every other major agent of destruction involved in this current environmental war taken off the hook, we, the actual perpetrators can sit back and blame whoever or whatever the residual industry this new tax will actually hit once all the power haggling is done. We can revert to now officially sanctioned complacency for ever more (until the seas rise and the tropics take over the alps…). Rather, what needs to be done is to rub the noses of ALL users of our global climate roundabout to the fact that every single player is facing a Give Way sign, all at the same time. There’s a few good ways to catalyse change of this kind. The easiest is to let the system fail and hope that the survivors will, finally, find an existence that actually works with the Gaia our generation has despoiled. Or, we could start to actually use the power of engagement that current communicative technologies have enabled. Maybe it’s time for a new era of deliberative democracy, powered and empowered through a grassroots surge of serious self-responsibility taking. If that sounds a bit arcane, the opposite actually applies. All this means is that we need to dismantle the failed old-school top-down managerialist model of big policy making and empower the bottom-up instead. Grass roots revolutions of the most necessary kind. Arab Spring. Cultural shifts. We all face a Give Way sign when it comes to managing the planet we share.