Thursday, April 26, 2012

Always look on the bright side of life?

This is the first in a five-part series (parts two, three, four, five) that addresses a topic close to my heart: the importance of bad news and the strategic mistake of attempting to focus purely on the "bright side" of the cultural and infrastructural changes demanded by ecological crises. While frequently pointing out the kinds of steps involved in a healthy response is important, as is reflecting on the opportunities to embrace a better life afforded by our dire situation, nonetheless, unless we honestly face up to how serious and well-developed the threats we're moving into are, then any positive response is likely to remain shallow, ever tempted by tokenism and distracting gestures, and ineffectively tardy, since the worst that can happen if we delay is that we reach our bright green paradise a little more slowly.

My own PhD work on ecological fears in Christian ethics argues along similar lines. Facing the truth of our predicament requires us to experience and process certain emotions - including fear, grief, guilt and the disappointment or despair associated with dispelling certain false hopes. Unless we can locate these experiences in productive and meaningful ways (and I argue that the Christian gospel offers a compelling narrative at this point) we'll remain stuck in paralysing modes of thought: denial, distraction, desperation and despair.


Anonymous said...

Hi Byron

(Sorry, this is slightly off-topic, but I did scan your most recent posts for somewhere it would roughly fit).

I had cause today to read a speech of Menzies's', in which he says,

'I know that it is or was fashionable to speak of the new order which is to follow the war as if it will represent a sort of golden age of long life, reduced effort, high incomes and great comfort. It is a pleasing picture, but truth requires us to admit that it is probably false. Long years of the ruin and waste of war must be paid for. We shall work harder than before the war, not less. Most of us shall carry burdens greater than those we were accustomed to bear before the war. Materially we may well - as a nation and as a race - be poorer.

'But all this will be more than compensated for by the facts that our sufferings and victory will have preserved our spiritual freedom, that our goods will be more justly shared, and that a better recognition of human values will have quickened our sense of human responsibility.

'But let me say this in conclusion, that if to most or many of us the war is just an excuse for getting and spending more money, while the new order of our dreams is just a vista of an easy-going and comfortable majority supplied and fed by a laborious minority, we shall most assuredly lose the war, and the new order will be made in Berlin.'

His other views aside, I thought I'd invite you to meditate with me on how politicians used to speak of the future.

Hope the writing is flowing from your fingers as the spring thaw from Hermon.

Alan Wood

byron smith said...

Hi Alan,

Fascinating quote!

My impression is that there were more statesmen (not meaning to be gender exclusive, but we're speaking of age where national leaders were pretty much exclusively male) in earlier generations, who were willing to lead, not just follow, public opinion and who were willing to speak uncomfortable truths in order to do so. Now it may just be that this impression is the result of us being in the middle of our own age and so not yet able to see the wood for the trees, being so overwhelmed by politicians of mediocrity that we cannot yet see the giants (for instance, for clear-sighted willingness to speak unpopular truths, I do wonder whether Bob Brown's reputation will only grow with time) in much the same way that it is possible in every age to believe in a dearth of contemporary artists or novellists or musicians of great stature, since we are so overwhelmed by the mediocre mass that we don't yet see the gems whose work will last.

But then again, maybe the impression has something to it. Maybe a mass media cycle of unrelenting accusation and shallow analysis leads to leaders who are petrified of being cast as out of touch with the focus groups and who dread having their stirring honest speeches turned into nasty soundbites playing to the lowest common denominator. Maybe the intrusion of money into politics leads to bland corporate speak with a highly managed message to avoid startling the market horses.

I don't really know.

But it's a great quote.

Anonymous said...

Leading public opinion is a vexed issue in our contemporary democracies - who is an elected representative to differ from his electors? Following opinion polls is not just short-term fearful politics, it gains a respectable veneer of democratism.

I think you are right about seeing the wood for the trees. That will affect our perceptions. I don't know how often, for instance, Menzies himself spoke and acted against his sentiments here when it was expedient.

Your next paragraph echoes Lindsay Tanner and Don Watson. I find all this convincing because it suggests a mechanism for the perceived problem - the media cycle in which we all participate. I am reminded of Martin Luther's response to the peasants' revolt (as Mark Baddeley told it), where he did his two-truths-in-tension trick, but only one half of the argument got published initially, so he came out as a ranting supporter of the status quo ante. I think the soundbite and the hostile question ("I won't let you frame your thought, and I'll only broadcast half of it") can easily produce exactly that effect. And so instead of Paul Keating (who was hated), we get Wayne Swan (who is despised). Who would be a politician?

On the influence of bland business-speak, I think that has less to do with money in politics per se, and much more to do with the consumerist and market-liberal rhetoric of our societies. We worship money and consumption, and so money-makers are more admirable than advocates and servants. Thus politicians imitate businessmen, rather than businessmen imitating statesmen. I have nothing to back this up, but I think once upon a time managing directors looked forward to a peerage and a Quango, whereas now ministers look forward to consulting and directorships. The equilibrium between the two has shifted to reflect where we allocate honour and value in our society.

Blast, now in all conscience I have to go and pray for Parliament. God bless youse.

Alan Wood

byron smith said...

CCR: End game for the climate policy paradigm.

I agree with pretty much all of this. The call to climate responsibility is not another interest group or lobby trying to gain concessions. It is a moral concern that goes to the heart of what it means to be human. Pushing for tiny incremental policy nudges is to have failed to build a movement of sufficient momentum to change the world.

And I particularly liked this paragraph:

"To cry catastrophe! and then list benefits like green jobs and reduced oil imports to be gained if we take preventative measures, is odd and confusing behavior, like running into a crowded movie theater and shouting "Fire! ,,, and don't forget to buy popcorn on the way out, with all the unexpected traffic, it's on sale!""

byron smith said...

Alan - sorry for not responding to your second comment, which was worthy of far more than silence. I basically agree about the problem running deeper than money in politics, though I don't think it is inconsequential. Some politicians aspire to become businessmen. But some simply want to stay in power, which means gathering money for campaigns, which means allowing policy to be guided by major donors.