This article was first published in issue 8 of SHIFT magazine.
Radical activism and mainstream politics may seem an unlikely flirtation at first blush, but a courtship is under way, and commitment is on the cards.
A new initiative has sprung up to bridge the chasm that separates activism and the necessary transition to a sustainable economy from the sphere of mainstream politics. Seeking to embolden Green policy and politics in Australia, Beyond Green is developing an online platform and physical networks aimed at strengthening and deepening the connections between activism, economic transition, and policy, and democratizing the discourse around our environmental crisis.
Beyond Green grew out of Generation Alpha’s Brisbane-based collective in Australia after members agreed on the need to extend beyond activism into policy and economic transition, in order to adequately address the complexity of our environmental predicament. Citing the economic policy orientation of measures suggested by writers such as Ozzie Zehner and Naomi Klein, Beyond Green is venturing beyond the traditional parameters of environmental activism.
Activism with an unashamedly political flavour
Launching with a bang in early 2015, Beyond Green is responsible for the boldest challenge yet to the planned exploitation of Queensland’s Galilee Basin by corporate coal mining giants. The Galilee Blockade is a warning to Big Coal that we, the people, demand to be heard and taken seriously when our land, water and livelihoods are threatened by land-clearing, pollution and fossil fuel emissions.
More light-hearted campaigns so far launched by the collective apply a fun, creative approach to tackling tough issues that are difficult to garner public interest in. Change The Day Triple J, for example, is a controversial low-ball challenge to the celebration of Australia Day on January 26th, a day that for many First Nations Peoples marks invasion and the beginning of an occupation to which they have never ceded sovereignty. A call to change Australia Day to an alternative day that can be fully inclusive and celebratory is a step toward truth and reconciliation. Such initiatives can most effectively be taken by media platforms such as Triple J radio, which has both institutional power and a moral responsibility to shift perceptions.
Data retention in Australia has also emerged as a controversial topic of late, and surveillance overreach looks set to spin out of control. In response, Beyond Green launched a successful campaign to both raise public awareness of the dangers of such overreach and send a clear message to the government that the breach of Australians’ privacy is unacceptable. So far the campaign has been a cheeky hit, according to Beyond Green spearhead Ben Pennings.
“Thousands of people around the country cc’ed Attorney-General George Brandis onto all their emails… This ironically led to a tightening in Federal Parliament’s and Apple’s IT protocols after activists managed to get the emails direct to Brandis’ phone – while he was being censured in the Senate!”
Australians are not known for being overtly political, but when it comes to threats to Australian values and the rights Australians hold dear, a creative and fun campaign can have the effect of transforming public discourse.
Radical steps to tackle the roots of our crisis
Candid about the narrow window of time we have to take actions that will avert far-reaching environmental catastrophe, Beyond Green are aiming for an injection of deep green realism into the veins of policy. We don’t have time to waste on telling electorates what they want to hear for the sake of scoring votes; we need informed leadership and the willingness to act fast, and to apply pressure from the grass roots.
When asked why Beyond Green is a necessary step, Pennings comments on the environment movement’s inadequate response to our environmental crisis. In spite of the many successes the movement has had, the crisis shows no signs of abating.
“50 years of a modern-day environment movement has seen many wonderful battles won, ecosystems and species saved, destructive developments stopped. But these 50 years have been the most destructive, with the movement not even getting close to stopping the raging torrent of violently extractive growth economics. Worse, much of the movement now is not even trying.”
It is not that the environment movement isn’t acting; a great deal is being done, but it is not getting to the crux of the problem. Without addressing the root cause of environmental destruction – the economic growth imperative – little can be done to halt destruction, and the mainstream environment movement simply does not recognize economic growth as the driver of ecological harm.
“Economic growth is seen as OK, even desirable, so long as it is powered by a slightly greener fuel source… The movement needs to explicitly recognize ecological and economic limits – that we can’t just tinker at the edges of an abusive system of living and just hope that things will somehow work out.”
It shouldn’t need pointing out that perpetual economic growth on a finite planet is a logical impossibility, or that there is only so much we can extract from the earth, only so much toxic waste we can generate, before we breach critical boundaries. In fact, there is an abundance of evidence suggesting humanity has already far exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet—we are now living as if we have a second Earth up our sleeve! To attempt to continue growing the economy despite this reality is tantamount to a kamikaze mission of global proportions.
But there is at present no politician or party in Australia campaigning on a platform of degrowth or a steady state economy. Brave policy is needed, and it will require a courageous and informed electorate to demand it. But Pennings is optimistic about the potential for change.
“Beyond Green recognizes that the insanity of economic growth must and can be stopped – voluntarily, justly, and through increasing the wellbeing of human communities.”
Justice is central to both how and why an economic transition needs to take place. Beyond Green makes clear that there can be no economic justice without transition to an economy that sustains life, moving away from our current model of transforming nature into commodities in a perversion of the concept of wealth creation.
Political shock therapy
It’s almost as though our political system needs a form of shock therapy, a shock to the system that issues a timely wake-up call. But is this realistic? Can change really be expected to come from the top-down political system? Even one that is shocked and awed?
Pennings flags a profound lack of faith in the current model of electoral politics as a means for achieving meaningful change, but he believes that a groundswell of pressure from communities can shock politicians into changing tack.
“Beyond Green has an interest in electoral politics, but not because that’s where systemic change will happen. Systemic change will come from grassroots movements, not Green politicians or Green NGOs funded by corporate foundations.”
Beyond Green recognizes that, although meaningful change emerges through the cracks in the existing system, there is clearly a need for more popular involvement in deciding on the direction of this change. Asked whether they are involved with any particular political party, Pennings responds that:
“We’re not linked with the Australian Greens but we definitely want to influence them – we want them to take on braver policies that recognise ecological and economic limits, that we need radical changes to the way we live. We also want Green politicians that recognise their main job is to explicitly support grassroots ecological and economic transition and social justice movements that represent our only chance for systemic change.”
Working with a political party that more closely represents the grassroots movement—which constitutes the majority of its voters—makes sense as a starting point. But joining the dots is no mean feat: a strategy is required to connect grassroots environmentalism and the degrowth movement to a political party in order to facilitate a confluence of these ideas, and establish a channel for developing policies that reflect the crises we collectively face.
“We are encouraging people involved in grassroots activism and economic transition to join the Greens so the party can be better integrated with movements for economic, ecological and social justice. We plan for this to lead to policy that better represents the economic and ecological realities we face, that recognizes we haven’t got the time for incremental multi-generational change.”
While connection with The Greens represents the path of least resistance, Beyond Green does not rule out engagement with other parties, as pressure from multiple directions is more effective than pushing The Greens further to the margins.
Democratising the development of policy
The nuts and bolts of Beyond Green’s policy platform are in the works as we speak, with a basic framework being established to guide the development of brave – and detailed – policies to introduce into Australian political culture. But first cab off the rank will be direct engagement with The Australian Greens, a bit of a stir-up that will keep the party on its toes and accountable to its supporter base, Pennings reports, somewhat cheekily.
“The internal policy processes of The Australian Greens will be the first port of call, something bound to cause ruckus within the party.”
The actual policies to be proposed by Beyond Green are being kept under the collective’s hat for now, as the process of policy development is at least as important as the eventual content. Once the framework is in place, these policy proposals will be developed by volunteer working groups in accordance with the principles of deliberative democracy. The process will be transparent, with an online platform for public comment, suggestion, and critique—all essential elements of a functional democracy. Background material will be provided to users of the site to contextualise the group’s work and objectives, as an informed electorate is best positioned to deliberate effectively over the direction of policy.
For those concerned that the deliberative process runs the risk of descending into a talk-fest that breeds non-participation, Pennings lays these fears to rest with the assurance that hard work and higher levels of engagement in action will be rewarded with a larger stake in decision-making. This will not be a free-for-all which can be hijacked by those who make demands and then expect others to roll out the policies that will meet them.
“There will definitely be a form of do-ocracy where the folk more involved get more say than those less involved.”
The deliberative process of policy development enables envelope-pushing beyond the boundaries of what is politically appealing to the mainstream, Pennings points out.
“There is license to explore and promote policy that some would currently see as politically too unpopular.”
That license comes not a moment too soon, and to be sure, sincere activists and transitioners have earned it. Connecting activism, transition and policy provides a potential pathway toward a sustainable future that bypasses the time and energy wastage of disconnected work in isolation by groups competing for the public’s time, attention and trust.
Beyond Green is beating a track from which many inroads can be made, and we would be wise to join them on their journey.