You and I are doing our bit for the environment.
There’s the cloth bag we keep in the car to carry our plastic wrapped purchases from Coles and Woolies. We’re assiduous recyclers and maybe even composters but are these enough? Disappointingly, these actions haven’t had much impact on the Murray-Darling water flow. The summers keep getting hotter. Craftily crafted projects sneak through despite the best efforts of regulators.
While you were watching Adani, a uranium project five hundred kilometres north of Kalgoorlie gained approval despite the protests of subterranean fauna. Forty years of resistance to this project by the traditional owners goes down another drain. As if things aren’t bad enough, a few weeks ago no-one could find the the Federal Environment Minister. Now we simply don’t know who it is.
The B team
There is no doubt that the environment is taking a clubbing but there is sunshine if you care to look; some of it glinting from corporate logos that badge exciting new “save the planet” projects. One of the most exciting is led by the B Team. This team was formed around the hasty assumption that capitalism’s Plan A has not worked or has stopped working.
Plan A was built using economist Milton Friedman’s world view which was to privatise everything and to expand government’s role to promote this policy. The government was to run the economy in the interests of capital while making sure the public interest didn’t get in the way. Our political parties’ current feverish and pointless discussion of surpluses and deficits is constructed within this framework. Friedman’s system also required the bulldozing of social capital to allow the market to rip.
Today, some of our business and political leaders agree that this system is not working as well as it should. Even worse it might not be allowed to continue at all. It has come up against something called democracy. Australia is a good example where, in recent years, the public has rejected a series of Federal Government budgets that appeared to have been formulated under Plan A. Further, ungrateful observers might reflect that people who made their money under Plan A may not be the first people you’d select to address either our environmental or economic problems.
So who is the B Team? Right at the centre is CEO Keith Tuffley, an Australian, a former merchant banker and climate warrior. Six years ago, Keith left his London corporate office job when capitalism couldn’t explain to him where it was heading.
Despite his love of the environment he had always “kept it separate from his professional life” in which he worked as an investment banker in the 1990s and 2000s for UBS and Goldman Sachs. It was time to put them back together so he enrolled in and completed a sustainability leadership course at Cambridge University. This wasn’t a mudbrick making, swale building, herb garden primer. As the university website explains: “Our executive education programmes help senior leaders develop strategic responses to corporate sustainability”.
The big picture
We are gathering big picture thinkers here and who is a bigger than the B Team’s co-founder the peripatetic Richard Branson. Running airlines, insurance companies, cosmetic outlets, cruise liners, private train lines, money shifting, space exploration, video gaming, retailing of anything and reorganising South American politics makes Richard a natural choice. We can soon expect to see a windsock on his planes and Virgin first class passengers dining with cornstarch plates and cutlery.
Who else is on the team? The head of Unilever, a company with a current problem of wage dispute issues with poor people in Sri Lanka and less recently in Australia. Remember when Gaytimes and Paddlepops were off the shelf two years ago because workers feared their wages were to be cut by up to 46%.
There is the Chairman of the world’s biggest insurance company, Allianz. The former head of PUMA lists as a co-founder. The head of Salesforce is there. I couldn’t find out what this company actually does because page after Google page kept shouting at me buy Salesforce shares.
The last team member we’ll discuss here is Sharan Burrow who is General Secretary of the International Trade Union Federation. As head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in 2007, Sharan combined with Kevin Rudd in the “Your Rights At Work” campaign. This project saw off John Howard and his appalling WorkChoices attack on workers.
WorkChoices was legislation that industrial relations expert, John Buchanan, described as the worst piece of IR legislation in our history. Kev and Sharan’s efforts gave us the Fair Work Act which Buchanan described as the second worst.
Ultimately, we will never know what the recent Labor / ACTU “Change the Rules” campaign might have given us. I looked with a jaundiced eye on Bill Shorten’s assurance that he would work with the Fair Work Commission to increase wages. Seemed a little hopeful in light of that body’s comfortable slashing of penalty rates. Excuse the digression and great to see Sharan on the team.
Philip Mirowski and the neoliberals
So these altruistic entrepreneurs have set their goal as saving the planet. Let me look at this with the other eye. Nope, looks the same. It still looks like a project to save capitalism. Around the time Mr Tuffley had his epiphany, American economist and historian Philip Mirowski gave a talk to University of Technology students in Sydney
Mirowski discussed the problem solving framework under neoliberalism. He argued that these problem solvers normally have three apparent solutions to any project. In specifically discussing the environment and climate change, he first named them as denialism; followed by market focused trading systems and finally geo-engineering. Denialism is run until people don’t believe it. Facts can make it hard to sell in the long run. We then move to trading systems.
Are we ready for the moral challenge?
This was where we were in 2007. You’ll remember Kevin Rudd’s “Our greatest moral challenge …”. The global financial crisis pushed economics to the front. Addressing the environment became a luxury. Since that time, each of these three solutions has been given a run in our media but nothing has happened. From a neoliberal perspective, everything is working as it should. The answer to any problem is another market. Sounds depressing?
Another of Mirowski’s favourite terms is Agnotology: the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt. Under neoliberalism the trade is in ideas as much as things. You either read the market accurately or you don’t. All success or failure is your own. The market is perfect. Should things keep going as they are and we reach a catastrophic phase for the planet then comes the real opportunity. That is when the grand geo-engineering solutions will find their way into discussion. Plenty of money to be made there.
A couple of days ago I was talking to friends in a local church turned cafe. They were persuaded that people are ready for the sort of change we need to address these problems. I am not sure. The economic implications contained in changing the way we live are massive.
Yet, we need to act on them not just for the planet but also for our physical, social and psychological wellbeing. It will take more than a cloth bag in the car and our supermarkets will have to get rid of the plastic. Will the B Team provide the answer? It’s CEO, Keith Tuffley, thinks so. For my part, I have a few trust issues. Maybe in the meantime he and his mates can simply help rather than lead.