Saturday, October 19, 2002


My involvement in political life means that I am unable to read as many books as I would like to these days. All I can usually do is scan books quickly.

I am currently 'reading' a book by Robert Kirkman called Skeptical Environmentalism: The Limits of Philosophy and Science, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2002).

This text is primarily concerned with the more basic principles (ie.metaphysics) that inform the work of many academic environmental philosophers, rather than debates over concrete matters of policy, such as the issues pertaining to the Murray-Darling Basin. Being a sceptic (a Humean mitigated sceptic) Kirkman seeks to raise doubts about environmental philosophy, especially its speculative project that seeks to construct an ecological world view (or metaphysics). The core of this metaphysics holds that the natural world is relational; that humans have a moral obligation to respect and preserve the relational order of nature; and that widespread acceptance of these claims is the key to solving the environmental crisis.

I introduce this book into the Oz blogosphere because it offers an evaluation and critique of environmental philosophy that transgresses the standard position held by many of the dogmatic defenders of a fundamentalist Enlightenment. This position conventionally holds that environmentalism is a new religion that is hostile to science (ie natural science and economics). Hence it is against reason. For a crude version of this thesis see the Oz blogger Aaron Oakley who wrote on Monday, October 7, 2002:

"I am a Perth-Based scientist. I used to be a member of the Wilderness Society (In the late 1980's). Through what I learnt as a science student in the early 90's, I came to realise that the Green movement had abandoned science and reason in favour of hysteria. The greens were more interested in poisoning public opinion than getting to the truth. Thus, the Greens would use any argument, no matter how badly thought out, to sway the masses."
"Welcome to! Here we will examine all the schmucks who abuse science for political purposes (Greenies, politicians, etc).

Here environmentalism as a religion has been reduced to hysteria. Others reduce it to nonsense. This does not allow much space in the public forum to have a public debate in civil society. The public sphere ( ie., a network of communication/dialogue, information and points of view) is no longer considered a sounding board for problems that need to be solved in liberal democracy and to furnish them with possible solutions.

In contrast, the philosophy book by Kirkman does recognize what environmental philosophers do, namely to identify and then critique the destructive way of thinking that is culturally embodied in our conventional, instrumental relationship to nature. This way of thinking says Kirkman has generally been identified as the mechanistic view of nature traditionally that is associated with Descartes and Newton and a reductionist natural science. This view is seen to reduce the non-human world to a mere collection of isolated physical entities with no value or purpose of their own. The speculative project of environmental philosophy, says Kirkman, seeks to replace this metaphysics with an ecological/organic one centred around relatedness.

Kirkman argues that this speculative project should be abandoned as speculative nature philosophy (eg. that of Hegel) spins a cobweb of concepts that bears little relation to reality. Hence it has severe limitations. ( In passing Kirkman is unfair to Hegel as the latter was philosophically engaging with the key concepts of the mechanistic metaphysics of the natural sciences of his time, and arguing for an organic metaphysics. Hegel not does do away with science. He philosophically engages with it through an immanent critique.

An organic metaphysics came with the development of an ecological science at the end of the nineteenth century. Kirkman is good on tracing the metaphysical debates within this science as ecologists endeavoured to work out what an organic metaphysics could actually mean and refine their concepts. However, those workign on speculative philosophical project simply pick, choose and appropriate the bits that suit them. However, science may one day show that the natural world is fundamentally relational and that an organic metaphysics may not be firmly grounded in reality, ie true. This uncertainity about the correct metaphysics places limits to relying on ecological science, or drawing conclusion from the sciences.

Kirkman's scepticism seeks to transform this speculative project in order to open environmentalism up to more promising directions eg. environmentalism as advocacy. Philosophers have an important role to play in the public discussion of environmental problems-these problems have cultural, moral and political dimensions- and philosophers can act to expose the illusions at the core of our currrent self-understanding. It should take a practical stance by taking a more direct engagement with concrete philosophical problems. They can do this by acting as advocates for one point of view (whatever that is) and by participating in public deliberation as mediators and facilitators. In the latter role they can clarify the terms of public discussion and debate, raise important questions, and point out the limits and consequences of various arguments.

This is a useful and clearly written book. ( I have not deal with the moral obligation to respect and preserve the environment. Another Interlude perhaps). Its conception of philsophy in public life as advocacy captures what I have been trying to do in political life, and the way I have deployed the tools of philosophy in public debate over the River Murray.
It would be a pity if this text were not widely read. It shows our political masters in Canberra that though the disciplines of humanities cannot increase the wealth of our nation though the innovative application of high-tech research, they are useful in terms of the fostering the public good of enabling a civilised liberal society.

Friday, October 18, 2002

Market Driven Politics?

I am still troubled by the Ross Gittens piece, 'Farmers who fail don't deserve pity', in The Sydney Morning Herald, (October 16 2002). Today I want to come at this piece from a different angle. In another post I will return to Ken Parish and the role legal reason could play in steering the Murray-Darling Basin community to a more sustainable mode of life.

What troubles me is the neo-liberal indifference to the plight of farmers in the Basin and the lack of concern shown for the decline of regional society. I want to use the concept of market-driven politics to capture and then probe the significance of this indifference. This is a detour, but one that may help us to develop a more normative legal reason that could help to steer development in the Murray-Darling Basin in a more sustainable direction.

( For those who care about scholarly things I have taken the concept of market-driven politics from: C. Leys, Market-Driven Politics: Neo-liberal Democracy and the Public Interest, Verso, London, 2001).

Neo-liberals accept the decline of society in regional Australia and are untroubled by it. What they see are market processes shifting resources from inefficient producers (family farmers) to more efficient ones (agri-business). This is deemed to be a good thing, cos it stops the farmers sucking on the agrarian socialist tit. It does away with subsidies including drought relief. The family farmers will then be consigned to the rubbish bin of history through the government's promotion of capital mobility.

So what is driving the adoption of good management practices in the Murray-Darling Basin are global economic forces. These are disciplining agricultural producers to become more competitive. Consequently, what lies behind behind the CoAG water reforms of the 1990s (and their enfolding into National Competition Policy ) is the radical reform of the Murray-Darling Basin in the interests of international competitiveness.

As I understand it, the strategy of opening up the Australian economy in the 1980s by the Hawke-Keating Labor Government was designed to create a wide-ranging deregulation institutional framework to ensure that Australian companies become internationally competitive. The wealth of the Australian nation depended on this modernisation of the national economy ie. exposing the economy as much as possible to global market forces.

This is crude understanding, but it is good enough for I want to do here, which is to articulate my concern as to the significance of neo-liberal indifference to the pain regional and rural Australia is undergoing.

Now it strikes me that, as a result of the above a fundamental change has taken place in politics during the last two decades. Prior to the 1980s the market was politically controlled by government. Now politics is market-driven, in the sense that national politics is being managed to adapt Australian society to the pressures of global market forces. (I admit that the language is a bit Darwinian -adapting to a changing environment in order to survive- but this does seem to be what is happening ).

You can see this process of adaptation with the universities, the public health system and water. Take water: it has been commodified and, what was once a public service, is now an industry geared to profit making. Under the Olsen Government in South Australia the provision of water as a public service was eyed as an unexploited potential market, and they basically prised open for the big transnational water companies. And in the Murray-Darling Basin the commodificiation of the environment is well underway - the Productivity Commission is now talking in terms of creating markets for ecosystem services through the creation of new property rights.

What we can infer from this crude account is that a market-driven politics exposes more and more of society to market forces. What is the significance of this for those of us living in the Murray-Darling Basin? One way of getting a handle on it is to lookback and reconnect with Karl Polanyi's idea of a market society. By this he meant a society in which market forces were not under political control. He issued a warning about the social costs of this. He said:

"To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment ... would result in the demolition of society ... Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as the victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighbourhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed. "
K. Polanyi, 'The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time', (Beacon Press, Boston, 1957), p. 73.

This warning is a nightmare vision. But we should not dismiss it out of hand as madness. What is happening in the Murray-Darling Basin indicates that when left to themselves market forces will undermine and destroy regional society. This process of destruction is creating social and political havoc, and the basin states and commonwealth are desperately trying to manage the fallout. Secondly, what is also happening in the Basin indicates that a self-regulating, liberal market economy will not by itself protect the ecology of the basin: the health of the Basin's ecology will continue to deteroriate. Thirdly, though the basin governments are endeavoring to facilitate a repair of the landscape (eg., the National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality and the Living Murray project's plan to return water to the river) these same governments have been reshaped to be more market-driven, and so they will continue to increase the exposure of the Murray-Darling Basin to global market forces. So more and more of society and nature in the basin will be commodified and more goods will be produced by agri-businesses. This is the world of King Cotton.

I'm not sure where this line of argument takes us. What troubles me is that, though an ecologically sustainable Murray-Darling Basin is in the public interest, I doubt the capacity of the liberal state to achieve it. I also fear the consequences of the erosion of democratically-determined values, institutions and practices from a market-driven politics. Yet reform to achieve sustainability in the basin depends on community engagement and participation.

I'll stop because I have used the concept of market-driven politics to capture what troubled me about the neo-liberal indifference to the pain and suffering of those living in the river country.
The only thing I want to add is that what is happening in the Murray-Darling Basin will continue to make the environment (especially water) a political explosion point.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Lawyers and economists: In bed together?

The title comes from the way Ken Parish basically concurred with Ross Gittens piece, 'Farmers who fail don't deserve pity', in The Sydney Morning Herald, October 16 2002. This article says Ken deals with the drought; the "Farmhand" appeal; the Telstra-orchestrated campaign to "drought-proof" Australia by shock-jock Alan Jones and others; and most of all the long-standing propensity of Aussie cow cockies and farmers to engage in expedient agrarian socialism.

It is a solid piece says Ken. Gittins trenchantly criticises the time-honoured rural habit of sucking on the public nipple/capitalising profits and socialising losses. He quotes Gittens to this effect then says "Hear! hear!"

So legal reason not only concurs with economic reason, they fade into one another and become one-neo liberal reason. Presumably public law becomes the regulatory hand that lightly guides and directs economic liberty. This neo-liberal reason then engages in a form of bush bashing of agrarian populism for its irrationality. This allows little room for a public discussion/conversation about the Murray-Darling Basin.

There are two ways we can tackle this in order to create a space in the public forum for a conversation or debate. One way is tackle how economic reason hooks itself onto the scientific Enlightenment (atomistic, mechanistic etc), wraps itself in its heritage and makes this tradi tion its own . This pathway involves a long detour about the Enlightenment that takes in a critique of an enlighting scientific reason that enframes the world to deconstruct the duality or rationality and irrationality that is often deployed as a political weapon against opponents. Or we can show what is ignored by a neo-liberal reason in its bush bashing and use this to recover alternative voices. We will take the latter pathway. Its easier and more relevant to the world of public policy.

What is problematic about this neo-liberal strategy of critique- the farmers should stand on their own two feet and become proper capitalists- is that it overlooks the high level of awareness of natural resource management problems in the Murray-Darling Basin. The problems of dryland salinity, overallocation of groundwater and diversions of water from rivers, landclearing are well known. It is accepted that these signify a degraded landscape and that such a landscape with negatively impact of agricultural production. Once this is granted we see ourselves at a fork in the road of development:one way is the big nation-building dam schemes that presume a limitless supply of water for irrigators. The other way is ecologically sustainable development.(ESD).

Public reason has accepted - ie developed a consensus- that the former pathway (making the deserts bloom or drought-proofing the nation) is closed. It is not poltically feasible from the perspective of south western Australia. So the only way to go in the Murray-Darling Basin is the ESD route. This is what is left unsaid by the economic rationalists. They are more concerned with rejecting nationalism, dismantling national regulations, embracing the global market and fostering smaller government, lower taxes for business, deregulated labour markets and liberalised investment regimes. These two strands generally come together to form an argument that there is no alternative to neoliberal policies because globalisation,makes them inevitable. Despite all of this continually filling up the public policy space the ESD pathway is accepted by the basin state and commonwealth governments in terms of where to go, and it is being implemented on the ground. Markets will help to achieve this, but these are markets directed towards ESD.
The basic problem is that nobody is sure what ESD means on the grround. Sure it means stopping landclearing, preventing salinity, returning water to the rivers, planting lots of trees and generally repairing the damage that has been done over the last two centuries. This is the task of repairs, maintenance and improvement to restore health to the landscape. But what lies beyond that? Even the greens aren't sure.

The truth of the matter is that nobody is really sure in government. Telstra is going to be sold but what will the money be spent on beyond repairing the country? What we do see are rural communities in decline, country town dying and youth suicide. We understand that the impact of the global economic flows will mean that more people will be forced to leave their place and community in the river country. Economists call this process 'structural adjustment' and they are willing to do a quick cost benefit analysis and toss a bit of compensation to the losers. This goes by the name of drought relief. It is sless sucking on the socialist than paying out those who have no future and forgetting about them. I guess its a bit like what the Hawke-Keating Government did in the 1980s when it reduced tariff protection, thousands were thrown out of work and states like South Australia were derided as rust buckets without any get up and go.

Now what is so striking about neoliberal reason is its indifference to the fate of whole communities that are going to be up rooted through a decade-long process of water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin. It is indifferent to the decline of rural communities - because it derides them as closed rural enclaves of reactionary emotionalism that is anti-enlightenment. Yet many people in rural communities do not want to be forced off their land, rejected from the place they have made their home. They belong to the river country. It is their place. So they have to reinvent themselves to create a way of living that cares for and protects the river country whilst enabling them to make a living. Nobody is sure how this can be done. It is what people are talking about and trying to work across the basin.

So this is a long way of saying that bush bashing is no longer very helpful in the formation of public policy terms. The neo Nietzschean pose of firing arrows at the idols of socialism a la Ross Gittens is less cleaning out the debris to make way for the new and more the ignorant bully boy, who rants and raves and loves to bash heads. This may sell newspapers but it is not going to solve the problems in the Murray-Darling Basin. Legal reason should be wary about being in bed with this form of economic reason. It should treat it as one night stand with a bit of rough trade, then having had the experience of slumming, reflect on the way it, as a public reason, can help us to walk down the ESD pathway into our future. It can us to negotiate the decade long process as we reinvent ourselves through building anew using the rubble of the past.

Economic Rationalism and the Bush Again
The recent commentary by the economic rationalists (or neo-liberals the term I prefer), such as Ross Gittens, Alan Woods and P.P. McGuiness, on the bush, drought, and drought-proofing Australia gets two things right. This is the bad mangement practices of farmers and irrigators and the economic and environmental unsoundness of gigantic nation-building schemes to turn the northern rivers inland. Here they agree with the greens. We are at a cross road since large scale development of unlimited water resources a la 21st century versions of the Snowy Mountain Schemes is at an end.

What is problematic is their assumption that the self-regulating market can be relied on to solve the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin. What the market will do, through its instruments of property rights, pricing and trading, is to ease the family farmers off the land. This is okay say the neo-liberals because the farmers eased out through structural adjustment are the inefficient ones who are undercapitalised. Selling their water rights will enable them to retire with dignity. These entitlements to access water will be purchased by more efficient corporations- eg., the wine industry in the Barossa and Langhorne Creek regions of South Australia . So we have a shift from low value adding to high value adding and more bang for the meg of water. It is so wonderful how globalization works for the public good says their economic reason. We are progressing to a more enlightened world. Those who oppose us are irrational and unenlightened.

What is not mentioned by the neo-liberals is the social turmoil their 'structural adjustment ' causes. (It is mentioned by the politicians in terms of compensation for the harm caused to local communiites by the market). Rural communities are in decline and there are few examples of reinvention in terms of sustainable forms of agricultural production that address the problems of dryland salinity and enhancing environmental flows.

What is also not mentioned is that we are into a new phrase that can be called repairing the country ( ie. fixng up the long term damage in the Murray-Darling Basin such as revegetating the country and returning water to our dying rivers). This is beyond the horizons of the public commentary of neo-liberals. They accept a depopulated countryside where large agri-business produce commodities for the export market. Sensibly, the neo-liberals do draw the line at cotton and rice because they use far too much water, but they do not say how the market will structurally adjust the cotton and rice industries out of business. Basically the neo-liberals accept in the name of economic reason that rural communities will continue to decline along with the natural resources of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Political reason, in contrast, says that there is a need to both repair the country (that is big bucks- $65 billion over a decade) and facilate a shift in the culture of regional communities. To save the Murray-Darling Basin regional communities will need to reinvent themselves, and redefine agriculture so that it is both an ecologically sustainable form of production and includes the management of ecosystems services as a public good. This requires a major social program to negotiate the decade-long process of social change. It will be fraught with political conflict.

October 17.
Comments recently made by fellow bloggers, Ken Parish and Robert Corr, to Ross Gitten's response to the drought and proposals to drought-proof Australia, 'Farmers who fail don't deserve pity', in The Sydney Morning Herald, October 16 2002, failed to mention another voice in the ongoing conversation about water politics in Australia. This is the public voice of the newly-formed Wentworth group of environmental scientists.
I post their media release in full because their opinions are considered and their judgements are sound. Their opinions takes us beyond the hit and miss ones of the media.

Statement by the Wentworth Group
10th October 2002
A group of Australia’s leading environmental scientists, who have adopted the collective name of “the Wentworth Group”, are advocating radical and fundamental reform to halt further degradation of Australia’s landscapes.


The problem of Australia’s degrading landscapes is 200 years in the making.
Australia cannot be drought-proofed. We need to learn to live with the landscape, not fight against it. We are using more natural resources than the current resource base can sustain.
Reversing rivers is a simplistic reaction to a complex set of problems. We have sufficient knowledge now to set a new direction – this will involve a radical change in land use towards practices that can buffer the highly variable climate that is intrinsic to Australia.
Protection and maintenance of what we have is at least ten times cheaper than restoration and repair of lost function.
There are at least 5 specific areas, which we believe require fundamental reform, and we will be preparing a document on these and other solutions to be presented to the Prime Minister and Premiers to set out a path to achieve these reforms:
§ Water rights – we need to clarify property rights and the obligations associated with those rights.
§ Landclearing – we must end broadscale landclearing of remnant native vegetation immediately and assist rural communities with adjustment.
§ Changing taxation and price signals to pay the full cost of production of food, fibre and water (including the hidden subsidies currently borne by the environment).
§ Restoring environmental flows to stressed rivers (such as the River Murray).
§ Paying farmers for environmental services (clean water, fresh air, healthy soils).

The Wentworth Group
Ms Leith Boully: farmer, chair Murray Darling Basin Community Advisory Committee
Mr Peter Cosier: environmental policy specialist, World Wide Fund for Nature Australia
Prof Peter Cullen: freshwater ecologist, Australian Environmentalist of the Year 2001
Prof Tim Flannery: paleontologist, author, Director South Australian Museum
Prof Ronnie Harding: zoologist, chair WWF Australia Scientific Advisory Committee
Dr Steve Morton: ecologist, Chief Sustainable Ecosystems, CSIRO
Prof Hugh Possingham: ecologist, chair Commonwealth Biological Diversity Advisory Committee
Dr Denis Saunders: ecologist, former chief research scientist, CSIRO
Prof Bruce Thom: geomorphologist, chair 2001 Australian State of the Environment Committee
Dr John Williams: agricultural scientist, Chief Land and Water, CSIRO
Prof Mike Young: resource economist, Director Policy and Economic Research, CSIRO

This is the voice of an ethically-informed and politically-engaged natural science in public policy making that aims to shift the policy compass to an ecologically sustainable Murray-Darling Basin. This is a rare beast in res publica and it makes explicit what Gittens (and Padraic P. McGuiness, 'Farm support: remember the lie of the land', in the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 October, 2002), had only gestured to:a sustainable form of agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin;