Cultivating Ecological Democracy: Opening Conference Speech
This is the text of Tim Hollo’s opening speech to the Green Institute conference, Cultivating Democracy, on November 15, 2019. Audio and transcriptions of the other presentations on the day will be posted in the coming weeks as they become available.
On behalf of the Green Institute and all of us here, I acknowledge that this is Ngunnawal country, it always was and always will be Aboriginal land, and I pay our respects to Ngunnawal elders past, present, and still to come. We extend that respect and acknowledgement to all the First Nations people with us today and over the weekend, and commit to listening to your voices, and working with you towards a future beyond colonialism, beyond racism and patriarchy and all the myriad other intersecting inequities which infect our current society.
Thank you so much, everyone, for coming to Cultivating Democracy. It’s super exciting to see so many wonderful, passionate, people, ready to jump into big ideas, challenge ourselves, and work together towards deep, systemic, social, cultural, economic and political change. I want to especially acknowledge our elected representatives with us here today. I haven’t seen all of you, but I think we have Senators Richard Di Natale, Larissa Waters, Rachel Siewert, Janet Rice and Pete Whish-Wilson, and Adam Bandt and Sarah Hanson-Young will join us later. And we have State and Territory MPs Mark Parnell, Tim Read, Rosalie Woodruff, Caroline Le Couteur, Abigail Boyd and Diane Evers. Thank you all for coming, but, of course, as we Greens have always acknowledged, parliaments are only one aspect of democracy. All of us have a vital role to play in democracy, and that’s what we’re here to explore in depth this weekend.
Democracy has never yet been complete. Certainly not, at least, in the “western” history of democracy. It’s always been exclusionary – of women, of non-citizens, of Indigenous people, of occupied people, of children, of “dissidents”, of those without wealth, of non-humans – all those other entities with which we coexist.
And, though we like to imagine history as a progression towards ever more complete democracy, that as we make each step we lock it in for ever to come, democracy is also fragile. The history of my own family, who were established, assimilated, middle class professional Jews in Europe in the 1920s and 30s before the democratic system they confidently believed would keep them safe, was ripped away, is only one story among countless of this fragility. People have recently started to talk about a phenomenon of “democratic retreat”, which is a fascinatingly passive term for the active theft, destruction, increasingly broadly violent war on democracy by those seeking to consolidate their power. Donations, privatisation, Investor State Dispute Resolution and much more hand political control to corporations; advocacy is suppressed, protest is criminalised, and police forces are turned into private militias for mining giants; we see extraordinary attacks on whistleblowers and public broadcasting and hear blatantly authoritarian claims from political leaders.
We are standing right now at an inflection point in history. The last few centuries of deeply anti-ecological thinking have led us to a point of intersecting crises – ecological crisis, social crisis, economic crisis, democratic crisis – where it is impossible to imagine the status quo continuing. That world is over, and we have two possible paths ahead of us. If we follow the road that those in political and economic power are insisting on, there is a non-zero chance of human extinction this century, taking with us a huge proportion of the diversity of life on this planet. And there is a very high chance of a plunge into autocracies, the destruction of most of our democratic rights and norms, leaving survival, for some, in a horribly impoverished world.
But there’s another road. A road to not just surviving, but thriving, together. And that’s the road we’re here to talk about this weekend.
It’s important to emphasise as we start these conversations: simply seeking to repair our existing systems is insufficient, and the sooner we acknowledge that the better. I make two contentions here.
Firstly, our current political systems – our democratic institutions and norms – are simply incapable of tackling the immense, overwhelming and interconnected crises we face. These systems are structured around, and built to enforce and buttress, the fundamental inequities – capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, resource extractivism – that are the cause of these crises. As such, they cannot enable the solutions. Secondly, these systems are uniquely ill-suited to enabling human survival in the far less hospitable world that they have created. In order to both turn around ecological collapse and generate the resilience we need to survive and thrive together in the decades ahead, we need to cultivate new democratic norms and institutions – norms and institutions based on the principles and lessons of ecology, as Indigenous people have always understood.
Ecological thinking is conceptually grounded in interconnection, diversity, and impermanence. Every part of an ecology is connected to, and has impacts on, every other part. A small change for one species or community can have huge ramifications for others. In ecology, resilience comes from diversity; over-dominance of one species will generally trigger collapse. Whereas in a machine, each part of the whole is replaceable, in an ecology the parts matter as much as the whole, creating a complex interplay, a coexistence, a balance of cooperation and competition, teeming with ambiguity and unintended consequences.
But we find ourselves today living in the hegemony of anti-ecological thinking. If ecological thinking values interconnection, diversity and impermanence, anti-ecological thinking is about disconnection, homogenisation and dominance. It’s a mechanistic, dualist, linear mode of thought, separating “man” from “nature”, from “woman”, from non-whites, tasking “man” with subduing the “other”. This is colonialist thinking; patriarchal thinking; capitalist and extractivist thinking. It is inherent in a representative democratic system which is designed to be vulnerable to corporate capture. It can be seen in the way governments enable private profit while suppressing public participation and protest. It’s horrifically visible in prison camps for refugees and the criminalisation of being black or brown. It pulls us apart, dividing in order to conquer, with, at its core, a mediaeval adversarial structure of attacking opponents and refusing to back down. With its insistence on the primacy of money, it leads to such insanity as gutting funding to fire services while smoothing the path for opening new coal mines. And the disconnection from nature and from each other has now seen our political discourse stunningly disconnected from reality in our world of “post-truth” politics.
This is what I mean by a system incapable of tackling the crises we face, and uniquely ill-suited to enabling us to survive them. We need to rebuild from the grassroots up, and the best model to follow as we do so is the model of ecology.
The interconnection of an ecology rather than a machine, where the parts matter as much as the whole, implies deep democracy, based in participatory processes, with nested subsidiary structures from the local to the global, ensuring decisions are made by and for people at the most local level possible. It insists that you cannot tackle environmental problems separate from social and economic ones – and vice versa. It sees government’s role as enabling people and communities to find their own way together, within the context of equity and sustainability, backed by scientific and expert evidence, and within clear, democratically developed, limits to prevent abuse.
The recognition that diversity is key to resilience implies putting equity, decentralisation, and universalism at the core of ecological democracy. Neither erasing differences between people nor rejecting the other, it embraces coexistence. It will flip political practice from an antagonistic adversarial model to a cooperative, agonistic, consensus-based one in our more participatory democratic processes. Respecting complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity, it will see us replace linear, simplistic, silo’ed solutions to individual problems with systemic approaches that recognise a plurality of issues, causes and solutions, to be finessed and implemented at the local level by the local community.
The principle of impermanence helps us understand that government and economy are no more than tools that we invented and can reinvent; institutions need to change, not just to keep up with changing circumstances, but because new generations might be well advised to revisit them to construct their own models of trust.
What does this vision of ecological democracy mean for the Greens? For how we campaign and work in communities, and for what we do with our role in parliaments and in governments.
To take the example of the climate crisis, there are clear lessons for both policy and activism, for cutting pollution to zero and for cultivating the resilience we need to survive. Some of this we’re already doing; some is a small step away; and some is a shift in approach. Ecological Democracy tells us that climate policy can’t be boiled down to an “efficient” carbon price. Climate policy is everything from supporting locally grown food and community transport initiatives to encouraging renewable energy cooperatives; from removing the ability of corporations to block action to officially granting the Great Barrier Reef the legal right to exist; from giving Indigenous communities the right to say no to coal mining on their land at the very least, to enabling citizens to decide how their suburbs are developed for their own use rather than for developer profits. Climate policy is structurally replacing the discount rate in economic models with an interest rate to ensure we properly value our responsibility to future generations rather than deliberately reducing their value. Climate policy requires democratic participation at the hyperlocal level and at the global level, and every level in between, not just because local communities understand how to implement solutions for themselves, but also because this democratic engagement is vital to holding back the dark, exclusionary impulses that climate disasters are likely to exacerbate.
On the campaigning side, what if we deepened our electoral outreach into community building? What if we used our doorknocking and letterboxing to let people know about local sharing groups and community gardens, repair cafes and sports associations, invite them to get involved in them, and invite them to community meetings to co-design more local climate-positive, social cohesion projects? What if we held thousands of citizens assemblies, supported by and connected through those local groups, through unions, interwoven with Indigenous truth-telling and leadership, actively embracing Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Community groups, new migrants and refugees, or just gathering around a bunch of streets, to discuss what each community can do locally, or across geographically spread interest groups, collectively to confront and prepare for the climate crisis? What if each of those assemblies sent representatives to regional assemblies, or even just shared what they’re doing through online clearinghouses, so they could learn from and inspire each other, and so they could consciously see their local action as a vital piece of collective action which is building power, challenging the anti-ecological hegemony, and cultivating the ecological alternative, growing up through the cracks in the pavement?
A lot of social movements at the moment are mobilising around the 3.5% figure, drawn from Erica Chenoweth’s research, as the proportion of a population needed to reach a tipping point. But the number’s being quoted, usually, without understanding that it’s not about policy change – it’s about overthrowing oppressive regimes. Well, our Federal government is well down the path to being an oppressive regime. And the change we need is far more than policy change. And, what’s more, we represent over 10% of the population. If we serious and strategically get to work, cultivating new democratic institutions and norms from the ground up, we will see our support base growing broader and deeper, we’ll activate local and regional communities to take action where they are as part of a greater whole, we’ll create the social cohesion we desperately need, and we’ll be ready, with the solutions in place, when governments finally go too far and the people won’t stand for it any longer.
That is what this weekend is about.
So, today we’ve got four sessions all in plenary, so you don’t need to miss anything, with 15 brilliant speakers to introduce you to some big, challenging ideas. I want to take the opportunity to thank all our speakers, who’ve given their time to us today, to share their work and inspire us: Tjanara Goreng Goreng, Lidia Thorpe, Paul Collis and Krystal Hurst will discuss Indigenous democracy, how we can decolonise democratic ideas and practice, and rebuild guided by Indigenous expertise; Simon Niemeyer, Amanda Cahill, Tim Dunlop and Nicola Paris will explore ideas new and old for deepening democratic involvement, from participatory decision-making to protest and activism; John Quiggin, Celeste Liddle, Clare Ozich and Elise Klein will bring forward a diverse array of ideas for democratising the economy, from challenging corporations to workplace democracy to challenging the centrality of work itself; and Virginia Marshall, Natalie Osborne and Nicky Ison will look at the intersection of ecology and democracy, from governance of water rights to community energy to reclaiming the city as a commons. There’ll be Q&A’s for each of the four sessions, giving you the opportunity to interrogate the ideas, chaired by Tjanara Goreng Goreng, Larissa Waters, Adam Bandt and Sarah Hanson-Young. And then, over the weekend, we’ve got a series of deliberative sessions, digging into the ideas together, cooperatively, learning by doing, being ecological, making the path by walking it, like wombats do.
So, shall we get into it?