The piece below was presented as a talk in February 2020 as part of a UTAS public forum. The topic is to be further discussed an upcoming UTAS online public forum on 20 Oct, Living in a Changing Climate chaired by Christine Milne and also featuring Distinguished Professor Rob White, Criminology; Dr Kate Booth, Human Geography (author here); and Dr Vishnu Prahalad, Physical Geography.

Democracy or Idiocracy: How climate action is changing our understanding of politics

‘Change’ – the idea of change – appears to be one of our cultural obsessions. Simply defined as ‘an act or process through which something becomes different’, change takes on many different forms and functions: Transmogrify, mutate, reform, transform, adjust, develop, advance, innovate, modify, revise, transition, convert, morph, vary, overturn, revolute, intervene, overthrow… the list goes on.

The origins of the word ‘change’ appear quite Eurocentric, having displaced the old English word of ‘wend’. Instead of this mad, fast dash of change into an uncertain future that we are caught up in, there was once an understanding of wending, of wending one’s way through time, through landscapes and through places. There was a time, or more accurately, there have been times and places, when change occurred on smaller scales and appeared more tangible – more manageable and more negotiable – than it does today.

As a human geographer I will return to this idea of wending and place. But first I want to start by considering two different understandings of politics and then looking these within the context of climate catastrophe.

What communities around the country have experienced this summer – a summer of fires, searing drought, flooding rains and cyclonic winds – is what has been predicted by climate experts for decades. My apologies for stating the bleeding obvious: this is not a one-off spate of bad luck in an otherwise lucky country, but the future we face NOW. We are a country which has run its luck down. From the massacres and repression of indigenous peoples, the exploitation and annihilation of ecosystems, to the negation of forms of knowledge and understanding other than the ‘received wisdom’ of economic growth.

Australia is now littered with places defined by charred stumps, incinerated vehicles, un-identifiable rubble, cattle and koala corpses, and moulding plasterboard and soggy carpets.

This summer has made self-evident a landscape in which the economic, political and environmental constitution of national social wellbeing are well and truly fused.

Individual losses of wellbeing are social losses are economic losses are environmental losses are political losses. We are losing our identify and sense of hope. Homes and communities are disappearing, economic resilience is crumbling, iconic species and unique ecosystems are perishing. We are also experiencing an unprecedented fragmenting of our faith in democracy. Not just our faith, but an actual real-time loss of robust democratic political participation and processes.

We can no longer understand this nation and its fortitude and its wellbeing as dependent upon environment over there (we will take care of that in a compartmentalised kind of way, within park boundaries and on an issue-by-issue basis). And economy over here (measures of growth providing us ‘in theory’ with an unproblematic indicator that all is well, or otherwise). And politics over there in Canberra, or Hobart or Melbourne or Sydney.

The boundaries between the environment, economy and politics – if they ever really existed – have been dissolved. In some places, smelted together through extreme summer heat and fire. In others, diffused within rising flood waters or whipped up and blended by catastrophic winds.

Public recognition of this shift has risen dramatically, so that in the minds of some climate activists the years 2019 and 2020 represent two starkly different worlds in terms of what needs to be achieved and what’s possible to achieve. What was understood last year as radical now appears mainstream, with major political parties squabbling over who is the most dedicated to strategic climate action.

This would be exceedingly comedic if it wasn’t all so goddamn terrifying in its banality!

So at the moment I think its safe to say that both major parties have adopted the rhetoric of climate action – under significant duress and because of pressure from harbingers of economic growth such as the Business Council of Australia and global Central Banks. Both of these, and more, are ringing alarm bells for urgent climate action.

This may sound good. But for me this drive by business – the growth enthusiasts – is part of the nub of the problem regarding government inaction on climate change. It’s a problem because it interlocks climate action with the erosion of democratic faith and intent.

Business, the global financial sector, sees itself – is setting itself up – as the climate leadership. We are entering a brave new world of big business governance. A world that is very likely to be without the transparency, accountability and civil freedoms we may not always get in the current system, but that we are still able to demand within democratically informed societies.

So, as our elected governments have struggled to even to say the words ‘climate change’, and head for the hills on actual policy implementation – actually doing stuff, ‘politics as usual’ is looking – to put it bluntly – idiotic, not democratic.

Political philosopher and anarchist, Jacques Rancière observes that the politics we are experiencing, this idiotic politics, is no politics at all. Rather, it merely represents disputes over power or competition between multiple interests. This understanding dominates political news reporting, and a theme emerges – a lot of ‘politics’ is happening, but nothing fundamentally changes.

As our climate changes however, an alternative view of politics presents itself: that climate action should not and cannot be premised on squabbles over power and competitions between vested interests. The climate catastrophe we have entered is beyond, should be beyond this kind of politics.

Before moving to consider an alternative view of politics, I want to unpack why and how this kind of politics is inadequate for climate action and, I believe, is ultimately undemocratic. So, I’m going to use the term ‘undemocratic politics’ here.

Jacques Rancière describes how this undemocratic politics makes opposition, dissent and attempts for radical change, invisible. It does this by prescribing names and places to things – naming things, applying labels to things and ascribing the places where these things belong and this effectively confines, curtails and silences opposition and dissent.

This undemocratic politics, for example, identifies citizens calling for change and names them/us protesters and activists. It then proscribes where these people and their protest activities can take place. If these protesters remain where they are supposed to be – allowed to be – then they in effect become invisible to those without interest in what they/we have to say.

A more concrete example: A lot of protesting in Hobart takes place on Parliament House lawns. This is a place for action and activists that has been and can very effective, not the least because it speaks directly to Parliament and our democratically elected Parliamentarians. However, it is also a place that is officially sanctioned for protest activity; it is a place where protesting is expected and allowed. When a group to people – of citizens – gather on parliament lawns, probably holding banners and placards, they are instantly identifiable as protesters and can be easily ignored or marginalised.

So, while it is indisputable that Parliament Lawns can be a place of democratic participation, it also is a place where dissent can be confined and effectively silenced through this confinement. It is a place where democracy can be repressed.

This is where the powers that be allow expressions of opposition and where citizens are understood simplistically as protestors and activists and not as grandparents, students, workers and so on. Here people can be ignored as they can be labelled and as this labelling is sanctioned by the powers that be, then they can be marginalised – as complainers, as troublemakers, as marginal voices. They/you/we lose their/your/our status as full citizens.

In other words, there is mutual agreement through the structures of power that frame our lives of where and how protest should take place. Adhering to this implicit agreement through always gaining approval for actions, for example, not only stifles the possibility of change, but can also enable a breakdown of democratic participation and processes in supporting the status quo; in supporting the power structures that are unjust and lack accountability and transparency.

So, how might we think and do politics – and activism – differently?

Jacques Rancière and others argue that to do politics democratically we need to step outside the structures of power and step away from state-sanctioned protest activities. We must participate in dissensus: acts of disruption that upset that which is already named and placed. It is this that can enable politics proper. This can allow different voices and opinions to be heard and for those to take a position of validity and influence.

A recent example, I think, is some of the traffic disruption actions undertaken last year by Extinction Rebellion. These actions stepped outside of the system in order to challenge the system, and they did so without fear or favour. They challenged the powers that be, and also – and this is significant – challenged what many environmental groups thought about activism and public opinion. These traffic actions placed little emphasis on whether some people onside with climate action would be upset by the disruption or the consensual green-base being fragmented by the disruption. Instead, by calling into question the very systems we are all a part of, these actions embodied the activation of a real, democratic politics.

To change the very systems that are facilitating and supporting climate catastrophe, we must not only disrupt governments who fail to take climate action and industries which pump out CO2. We must pursue dissensus and activate politics; we must change how we protest, where we protest and overall, redefine politics away from the idiotic and towards free and just public participation. Through this, democracy not idiocracy may prevail.

Finally, I want to return to the ideas I began with – of change and wending. I, for one, in 2020, feel like I’m inhabiting a strange and dangerous land. I am negotiating grief over the fires, the plastics and the idiotics, fear over the virus, the infinite growth juggernaut and the idiotics, and love for life and all those near and dear (and definitely not for the idiots!).

I am also filled with fury. To try the climate criminals.

To annihilate rolling and unravelling injustice. To explode the infinite growth fallacy.

But for me there is also a provocative and more subversive way of engaging with climate action. And this relates to Jacques Rancière’s perspective on politics. This is to approach the city (and beyond) with a democratic political ethos. To transform our understanding of the cityscape from a site of shopping, over consumption and seemingly immutable power, to one in which every street and open space, every office and shop, every nook and cranny, every individual and group is a potential nexus for activism and protest.

To look at the city less as a place of mad, fast dash of climate catastrophe. Neither as a place that needs to be completely transformed to bring about more equitable and progressive change – there are not enough resources on the planet to achieve this. But as a place where politics – politics for climate action – wends its way in, findings it way into every space and place. And climate action becomes the new normal. The new, new normal everywhere not in just recognised sites of protest like Parliament House.

All with the aim of not finding ourselves in the near future, in a far stranger and more dangerous place. As in my mind there is one thing worse than climate change, and that’s opening our eyes every morning to fire-ravaged landscapes, wave-eroded coastal settlements and drought-parched crops, under the thumb of voracious fascist forces.

Dr Kate Booth is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Tasmania. Her research is motivated by an interest in place and places, and the possibility of political dissent. She is particularly interested in the co-production of financial and economic processes and urban places and life.