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Save us from our timid selves

By Peter Lewis - posted Friday, 26 September 2008

One of my favourite trade union banners reads simply “ETU Says No”. It was first waved in 1998 during the first battle against power privatisation but has been a regular fixture at most rallies ever since. From WorkChoices to War in Iraq; from guest workers to globalisation, the Electrical Trade Union regularly says “no”. And the Electrical Trades Union is not alone, like many of us on the progressive side of politics who find ourselves defending our principles.

We have become the voice against change, standing against what sometimes seems like a wave of history sweeping us to the right. These tides of change have been called many things: “neo-conservatism”, “American triumphalism” and “free market fundamentalism”; but whatever you call them they have fundamentally reorientated the idea of political activism, casting those of us who grew up on the left as the “new conservatives”.

And now at a point in time where the challenge of climate change seeks to redefine the political discourse in profound ways, we are invited yet again to say “no” - no to global warming, no to rising oceans, no to business as usual - some of us add to the chorus - no to coal, no to cars, no to western consumerism.


Two recent books explore this phenomenon from different angles, Robert Reich’s analysis of Super-Capitalism and Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s Break Through - an extension on their controversial essay “The Death of Environmentalism”. Taken alone each book makes valid points about the nature of politics in the modern world. Taken together, these points become a line.

For Reich the target is the false, even delusional, conceptions we have of the motives of big business that drive us into battles we can never win. For the authors of Break Through, it is simple misreading of human nature and the factors that will motivate us to take a paradigm shift as we adapt to the challenges of a carbon-constrained world.

Reich, the diminutive former Clinton Labour secretary, has long been the human face of free trade: his Work of Nations was a compassionate call for national governments to embrace the profound changes of globalisation and coach their economies to successfully compete on the new stage.

Twenty years on and Reich argues that the nature of capitalism has fundamentally changed, a new super-hybrid he calls Super-Capitalism has emerged, which delivers fantastic deals for individuals in their capacity as consumers and investors, but lousy deals in their capacity as citizens.

In their efforts to deliver cheapest products and highest returns. Corporations are in a frenzied state of constant war with each other, where the winners are those that can drive down labour costs and remove regulatory barriers to sustain double-digit growth figures.

Reich’s observations are stark, but it is his interpretation that is profound - that companies that pursue this course are not evil or self-interested - they are merely doing what they have been established to do. He exposes Corporate Social Responsibility as fundamentally compromised and political campaigns against corporate amorality as fundamentally dishonest.


Ultimately, Reich argues, we are confronted with a trade-off that forces us to be honest with ourselves. Do we want the cheapest prices and highest returns on our investments? Or do we require something more as citizens? If we do, we need to be honest about this and makes collective decisions to regulate business, rather than simply asking business to act contrary to the interests of their shareholders.

This argument lays in stark relief around the response to climate change. As citizens we demand immediate action; as consumers and shareholders business (rightly) tells us we have much to lose - higher energy prices, lower profits for companies in affected industries. Industry speaks out as our defenders as consumers and investors - arguing we need exemptions, compensation, special treatment.

But as citizens who recognise that the ongoing enjoyment of the planet is at stake we say there are things of more importance than low prices and high share returns. And, on this occasion, we demand government resolve the argument in favour of us as citizens who need to live and breathe in order to consume.

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About the Author

Peter Lewis is the director of Essential Media Communications, a company that runs strategic campaigns for unions, environmental groups and other “progressive” organisations.

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