Friday, May 5, 2017

Freeways: driving further to lower paying jobs

What does it say about values when governments plan new freeways?
  1. They expect there will be no job creation near where people live
  2. They expect we will drive, in our own time and at our own expense, further and ultimately in more traffic to get to work
  3. Charitably, they want employers to have a greater catchment for hiring so they can find the best employees for the job
  4. More realistically, they want employers to have a greater catchment for hiring so they can make a greater number of people compete for a job, which drives overall wages down.
Upshot: they are saying they want you to spend more time and money getting to work, in bigger traffic jams, to a job with lower wages.

These points also broadly apply to most public transport upgrades, even though they are less problematic since mass transit public transport is much more efficient to run and cheaper to use than private car use, meaning that ecological impact (not mentioned above) is much more favourable - but basically it's to the same ends.

And this doesn't even touch on the social and ecological impacts of outer suburban sprawl in and of itself
Freeways and urban sprawl: the millstone around our neck

Friday, April 14, 2017

Labor Left should be forced to eat its Greens

One of the sad ironies of current official politics in Australia is the venom shown towards the Greens by the Labor Left.

With carefully scripted social media talking points and dodgy homespun memes, they decry the Greens as fakes and sellouts. They call the Greens the party that (for example) voted against carbon trading (a strange rewriting of history, the Greens dragged Gillard to the table on carbon trading.). The Greens allegedly destroyed democracy by agreeing to Senate voting reform (it's hard to see how that changed much at all, but probably dashed the hopes of a few of Labor's preference-harvesting dummy tickets).

This anonymous pro-Labor anti-Green twitter account is "Learning to ignore hatred & anonymous reverse racists & bigots" but still hasn't learned about irony apparently.
It all gets a bit silly sometimes. One pro-Labor keyboard warrior (who has now blocked me) called me as bad as Hanson because I said I didn't care if the Greens voted against emissions trading, as I don't support emissions trading anyway.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

SUDDEN STOP: a manifesto


Socialist Universal Development through De-growth, Equality and eNvironmental sustainability to STOP catastrophic ecological overshoot and cascading social injustice
(or invent your own better acronym!)

"Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake."
—Walter Benjamin*

The following is a brainstorm, a quite incomplete summary of many strands of my and other people's thoughts, hopefully a discussion starter more than anything else; the gestation period for it was relatively long, but the labour only as long as the train ride home in the evening, hence the roughness and no doubt the many important points left out.

  1. Humanity's ecological footprint is larger than the surface of the Earth, and growing, meaning we are moving into a global ecological deficit seen in developing crises such as climate change, extinction rates. This presents the clearest danger to the medium and long term development of human culture and social reproduction (which rests ultimately on a healthy ecology), and the short-term physical wellbeing of most humans (on a scale of years to decades).
  2. Human and social development is required for the vast majority of humanity to take active stewardship of the earth's ecology (ie manage and mitigate our unsustainable impact) as current wealth and power inequalities have large parts of the world struggling to survive and finding it hard or impractical to care for ecological concerns, while the tiny powerful elite are the owners of a system that is incapable of assimilating ecological concerns.
  3. Ecological modernisation narratives that see solutions to human ecological impact in greater use of technology involve many useful and essential insights into specific problems, but leave the overall system of endless exponential economic growth untouched.
  4. Increasingly, the basic requirements for health and happiness are potentially available to all humans: housing, clothing, food, healthcare, education, communication, democratic participation in society. Yet the dominant capitalist system seeks to sell more and more commodities which are for artificial needs, while a majority of the world are lacking many or some of the essentials
  5. Economies that can supply poor people with most of these are possible (witness tiny, impoverished and economically beseiged Cuba which supplies all the first five to a reasonable degree, with a major deficit in communication and a deficit of uncertain size in democratic participation).
  6. In the wealthy countries, we could superficially designate much of the working class as part of a global "consumer class" that also incorporates much of the (proportionally smaller) "middle class" of poorer countries. The world's poor are increasingly composed of traditional workers, precarious workers, and poor rural workers including those still in traditional peasant roles.
  7. This artificially designated "consumer class" is culturally hegemonic as the vision of prosperity that much of the world's poor aspire to, but the planet's ecology and natural resources could never supply the kind of lifestyle and commodities that the "consumer class" enjoys to all people.
  8. Traditional left programmes have revolved around winning more, materially, from employers and from capitalism. This is still clearly relevant for a lot of the world's poor. However, for parts of the world where the "consumer class" is numerically predominant, the economic struggle is no longer radical, whereas political struggles over the nature of socially generated wealth come to the fore as the motor of anti-capitalist politics: why are the poor of the consumer class struggling to access healthcare, but not less essential (and resource intenisve, wasteful) consumer goods such as many electronic devices?
  9. As capitalism grows it runs out of physical space, increasingly spreading waste, industrial and urban development, commercial projects etc into more and more of the globe. At the same time it runs out of space in the fourth dimension, as capital cycles are sped up, workers overworked, turnover of consumer goods and fads sped up.
  10. Seemingly radical individual solutions for the "consumer class" such as "ethical" consumption or dropping out into boutique informal economy experiments are increasingly commercialised and turned into yet another commodity, or at best serve as a pressure release valve whereby anti-systemic thought is turned into a harmless diversion with little overall impact.
  11. For the majority poor population of the world, the aspiration toward wealth as seen in the global "consumer class", as portrayed on TV, etc is not matched to lived reality. In lived reality, growth tends to mean impoverishment in demeaning and dangerous factory work, pollution, unsustainable resource extraction, and often violent dictatorship or conflict as local and global elites use poor countries as pawns in their games of world domination.
  12. What unites both poor country masses and the "consumer class" is the need to call for a stop to business as usual; a sudden stop even. No pasaran, draw the line, not one step more. 
    "They shall not pass"
    Anti-fascist banner from the Spanish revolution and civil war

Monday, March 6, 2017

Victoria's Climate Change Act and the limits of the Paris targets

With the passage of a  Climate Act that mandates a target of zero net emissions by 2050, Victoria is formally in the leadership among state and Federal governments.

If the response of Victoria's climate-denying LNP Coalition opposition is anything to go by, the Andrews government must be on the right track: the LNP voted against the climate bill, adding to their opposition to the state's renewable energy target which they declared only weeks earlier. In light of the wrecking tactics that state and federal LNP parties are using against climate action, a clear state target to initiate action is obviously welcome.

If not being climate deniers or the LNP are the only metrics, the target is fine, but this article will seek to address the target on its own merits, not those of its opponents.

Friday, March 3, 2017

How to fix Australia's NEM electricity grid


Why the NEM is a disaster, climate action is the primary casualty, and four essential steps to fix it.

This is a rough draft. As usual, I have an idea which I think is great and then someone else beats me to it: John Quiggin on the ABC website. Well my article is nearly finished (haven't put all references in yet & needs a lot of tidying) but in the interests of timeliness, here it is.

The recent media focus on South Australia's blackouts has brought to the surface the festering problems of the National Electricity Market (NEM) system that serves SA and the eastern states. On the one hand, an oligopoly of mostly private corporations owns and manipulates the system to their own benefit. On the other hand, despite repeated studies showing Australia could easily go to 100% renewable energy (the latest in February 2017), governments talk of new coal power stations and even grant extensions to existing, highly polluting brown coal generators.

A severe storm caused SA's statewide blackout in September 2016, knocking over power pylons that may have been neglected in maintenance since the 1999 privatisation of the state's power grid. Commentators from the ABC to the more predictable Coalition MPs leaped to blame the state's high percentage of wind energy despite knowing that it had nothing to do with the blackouts.

A February 2017 set of rolling blackouts during a heatwave in SA saw renewables once again blamed by Coalition MPs, despite the fact that the state's most efficient gas generator was sitting idle because its owners find it more profitable to sell the gas for export.

Power price spikes in SA in 2016 were also blamed on the state's wind farms and solar, despite a planned outage of the lines that import backup electricity supply to SA from Victoria at the time. Price spikes are normal in such a situation of shortage. More recently, wholesale prices of electricity have been running at the same level as those SA price spikes for all of 2017 so far in Queensland (which has very little renewable energy) This has barely made the news (presumably because there are no wind farms to blame).

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Ecosocialist takes a look at economic paths away from capitalism

Economics After Capitalism: A Guide to the Ruins & a Road to the Future
By Derek Wall
Pluto Press, 2015
Reviewed for Green Left Weekly
Derek Wall, ecosocialist activist and international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales, has written a primer on the main strands of economic critique of globalised capitalism.

It is a short and easily readable book, well suited to someone looking for a starting place. For those already embedded in one of these strands, it provides a welcome introduction to some of the others.

It is written in a pedagogical rather than polemical way, promoting understanding before judging — although Wall does not shy away from explaining his own views in the end. This is a great format.

“Globalisation” has been so transparently unstable and unfair that it has generated its own internal critique from Keynesian “insiders” like billionaire investor George Soros and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Wall says that despite their genuine insights, and those of John Maynard Keynes whose views he also outlines, these figures are “vaccinating against anti-capitalism”. They want to save the system by repairing it. Whether this can succeed is another question.

Melbourne's western grasslands: going, going…

Published in Green Left Weekly, 5/2/2016. An earlier version with references first appeared here.

Although about 99% of Victoria's volcanic plains grasslands have been destroyed by development, some outstanding remnants of this unique ecosystem persist, especially on the western fringes of Melbourne.

The grasslands ecosystem was listed by the federal government as critically endangered in 2008. But at the same time, the then-Labor government of Victoria was initiating an expansion of Melbourne's Urban Growth Boundary that would severely impact some of its best remaining areas.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Geoengineering: Striking targets or missing the point?

This is a response to Phil Sutton's latest paper, StrikingTargets,published by BreakThrough (in Melbourne, not the controversialist US think tank of the same name).

I take issue with the central proposition of the paper, that “Key climate/earth system parameters that need to be restored to safe levels are:
  • ocean heat content
  • global surface temperature
  • ocean acidity
  • sea level”
Geopiracy by ETC Group
How feasible is that list? Are there mechanisms that can reduce ocean heat, for example? Water has a high specific heat capacity, meaning it can absorb a lot of heat energy yet only gain temperature slowly. The reverse is true: it takes a relatively large amount of heat loss before it cools appreciably. (this is due to its molecular structure, the same reason CO2 can hold a relatively high amount of heat in the atmosphere).

The climate science that I've seen referred to over the years on this topic suggests that ocean temperature rise is basically irreversible on human lifetimes. If we stop adding greenhouse gases and stop adding heat to the atmosphere, it may gradually cool back to where it was, but over centuries. In the meantime, warmer oceans means warmer climate and there's not much can be done to change it. Warmer oceans and climate also drive sea level rise.

I haven't seen research on how fast ocean acidification may be reversed, but I suspect it's similar if not slower.

I'm very happy to hear of research which contradicts me on either of these points, of course. But in the meantime, there is only one crucial parameter that we know for sure we can control: the excess greenhouse gases being added to the atmosphere every day, month and year.

(You could add that we can also stop destroying the biodiversity that gives ecosystems some stability and/or adaptability in the face of climate change. Indeed, biodiversity loss is a close second to climate change on the scale of major ecological threats to human civilisation. We will have to work to reverse this, too.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Markets, Economies and other imaginary friends

For years, I've been telling anyone who's willing to listen (and a few who probably weren't) that markets don't exist. Really, they don't. Not in the sense that many refer to them.

Richard Denniss has a fantastic piece in The Monthly debunking the mythology about “The Economy” that dominates contemporary politics like the arcane dogma of a medieval priesthood. He largely covers the points in this blog, but in a broader context. You should read the whole article, but in discussing the mystifications of economics, he says this:

Like the gods of cultures past, “the markets” can be angry. They can be vengeful. And they can punish non-believers. We must consult them cautiously. To simply inquire into the fall in the iron ore price, for instance, might spook them.
While markets are real, it is absurd to suggest that they have feelings, needs or demands. A market is a place where buyers and sellers of a product come together. It might be a physical place, like the fish markets, or a virtual place, like eBay or the stock market. But markets never have feelings.
Appeals to “let the market decide” are frequent in discussing technological innovations, such as renewable energy. Conservatives have often declared that governments have no business in “picking winners” when it comes to wind farms and solar – because it is the job of “the market” to choose. Of course that's their rhetoric for public consumption; in private they are backing the incumbent “winners”, fossil fuels. But it also illustrates their worship of the mystical market-gods quite well.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

What is the "revolutionary legacy" of the Black Panther Party?


This post has been rescued from the depths of my facebook account where I originally posted it in April 2013. 

What are the lessons of the Black Panther Party?

I just attended a great presentation by former Panther member, Billy X Jennings, who was brought to Australia by Socialist Alternative for their annual Marxism conference.

Billy explained a lot of things about the Panthers that match the impression I've got from reading a half dozen or more books by other former members. Not everyone though.

One audience member suggested that “I think I speak for most people here when I say it wasn't your community programs but your revolutionary legacy that inspires us”.

Billy responded that the “survival programs,” as the Panthers called their social programs, were their key legacy.

The naivety of the question, which totally missed so much of the talk (and the introduction by aboriginal Australian activist Gary Foley), astounded me (see below for a video of the talk).

Yet it is probably a common enough misconception. The idea that the Panthers started as a militant, gun-toting, bad-ass group of revolutionaries that degenerated into a community self-help group serving breakfast to schoolkids.

That is so far from the truth, however, that it is ludicrous.