Friday, October 25, 2002

Against the Flow

I was on an airplane the other day flying into Canberra from Adelaide. I was in a window seat, just down from business class where all the pollies were, factional heavies and high tech boosters included. I was to meet Bob for breakfast. He believed in the abstract economic flows of the global market, mathematics and the utilitarian calculus. Numbers spoke to him and he thought in terms of mathematical equations. It was a working breakfast as we were to talk about value, the water wars breaking out in NSW and compensation for the loss of water entitlements---what irrigators these days are prone to call property rights. I was to read a popular report on water in the Australian economy for the discussion.

It was an early morning flight, the sun was up and there was little cloud cover. We circled over the Murray Mouth, Coorong and Lower Lakes before setting off for the hustle and bustle, the enframing media flows and power plays of the policy capital of the nation. My nose was pressed to the window, as I was fascinated by the ecology of the vast estuary, the curving lines of the River and the human footprint in the river basin's landscape. What was noticeable about my reaction was not the aesthetics of the bird's eye view of the landscape, but my sense of belonging to this place. This was where I belonged. My roots were down there, I said to myself.

My companion saw things differently. She glanced through the window every now and again as she flicked through the morning paper. She was heading home via Canberra to her home in the northern part of the Basin: the Condamine-Balonne, one of the headwaters of the River Murray so to speak. North and South. Such different countries, yet part of the same basin. What we shared was that we both knew that the river was no longer flowing, and we understand that big changes in the agricultural practices of the Basin had to take place over the next decade.

Why do I mention this? Well, looking down at that human footprint I was reminded of a report I was reading about water in the Australian economy. It began by assuming that the water in the river country I was seeing below me was a scarce and finite resource to be utilised for economic development, and then it quickly moved on to consider opportunities for economic advancement. There was some stuff about methodology, simulation modelling, the MONASH model, spatial units and different macro-economic scenarios which I skipped. I was meant to write a one page, dot point summary of the report, but heck this was my own time. I had an hour or so to myself before I was expected to perform.

I have to admit that I just couldn't get past 'resource' and 'spatial unit' . That was economic speak for my 'ecology' and 'place'. The very word resource took the econocrats away from seeing the ecology of the river country as a life-support system for society. What their economic speak occluded was what we Adelaideans 'knew' in our bones: that we have to preserve the natural life-support system and processes of the river country if we were to sustain our own existence. The passionate water politics that has been coming out of Adelaide for the last couiple of years is driven by the acute recognition that it was vital to prevent the further degradation of these ecological support systems. Because they live downstream, people in Adelaide are intuitively aware that there is threshold point in the alteration and destruction of the ecological character or integrity of ecosystems when these will no longer be capable of providing the services to use (eg clean water). With the river gone Adelaide will become dependent on desalinisation plants for its drinking and irrigation water.

Resource' was too narrow to capture the value of ecosystems providing goods and services to human beings---the purifaction of water by wetlands, the detoxification and decompositon of wastes, the generation of soil and soil fertility, the role of trees in the hydrology of the basin, the maintenance of biodiversity and the provision of freshwater, fish and water for recreation etc. Did the econocrats actually understand that natural ecosystems help to support the economy and society?

Well, it was clear that those in Canberra who called themselves the decision makers did not. They had little idea that what they called 'the economy' was a part of the ecosystem, and onlya vague glimmer that the economy was dependent on the services provided by natural ecosystems. The 'economy' ruled Canberra. The Economy did this and that; and the politicians were always feeling its pulse to see how it was travelling. Their reputations depended on the 'economy' being in blooming health. For something so robust and magical---it ruled the world according to the decision-makers in Canberra---it always seemed to suffer from such a wide variety of ailments. How could something so divinely ordained be in need of constant massaging?

No one, just no one talked about the value of ecosystems. They did not recognize the high value of these ecosystems services to the economy.

In flickering through the report, it was clear that water was seen to be an input in the Australian economy, and the focus was on water's future role in an expanding economy. The report's argument was along the flowing lines. The greatest user of water in the Murray-Darling Basin was irrigated agriculture. This was concentrated in the southern part of the Basin, which only had a small faction of the resource. Water was fully allocated in the Basin, and if current growth trends in irrigated agriculture development continue, then water requirements would increase by 50%. This is clearly unsustainable. Water however, is not a limiting factor in economic growth, since the re-allocation of existing water entitlements can deliver increased wealth through shifting water to high value producers. Water trading is essential for re-allocation to high value users. Water trading will go part of the way toward the structural adjustment process of driving irrigators outof the industry. here is plenty of scope of new water development with increased efficiencies in the use of water by an irrigated agriculture using adaptive management systems. Water for environmental flows will come from improving the efficiency of the water distribution systems. Markets will deliver a bountiful future within enviromental constraints.

There was nothing here about ecology as a life-support system or ecosystems services. The report's message for Canberra is that policies need to be developed that ensure water is used to maximise its value to an expanding economy, with a bit on the side for the environment. The message of this market-driven politics was designed to appeal to the policy makers in Canberra. The market would do the trick in terms of water reform; and requiring water authorities to get a commercial rate of return on their assets was the right way to go.

The deeper hidden message that slips by without noticing was left unsaid. It is that public water services should become deeply, if not completely privatised, and that commercial imperatives should govern the supply of water. What is tacitly rejected is that water services should be returned to the government in order to protect the public interest. This is the dark shadow across our future.

The plane was landing. Canberra was covered in cloud. A short taxi ride and then it was time to perform.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

An Insight

After watching online the speeches in Federal Parliament about the state of the nation whilst trying to work:

"But what happened to me? For all my anxiety I had to laugh. Never before had my eyes beheld anything so dappled and motley. I laughed and laughed while my foot was still trembling, and my heart no less. "This is clearly the home of all paint pots", I said.

With fifty blotches painted on your faces and limbs you were sitting there, and I was amazed, you men of today. And with fifty mirrors around to flatter and echo your color display. Verily, you could wear no better masks, you men of today, than your own faces! Who could possible find you out?"

F. Nietszche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trs. W. Kaufmann, Part Two, Section 14, The Portable Nietzsche, (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976), p.231.
Water Dreaming: A skirmish

In following the 'turning the waters inward' debate ---see postings in the Development section, politics forum, 'Drought, Telstra and Greening Inland Australia ' posting in ---I have been taken back by what has not been learned from our history, that you cannot conquer the western section of the Murray-Darling Basin. The big dust storm of the recent few days remind us of this. It forces us to read the book of natural history differently to the one that says the meaning of life is to subjugate the harsh, dry landscape with modern science and technology.

The cotton farmers are having a good go at conquering the land. They have pushed the graziers to one side and are busy grading out the land, putting in major capital investment, constructing very large-scale water storages and mapping the landscape of the river country in terms of the geometric regularities and perpendicular lines of parallel furrows. This is a new economic order backed by the language of scientific precision of a computerised agri-business that guarantees social control. The city fathers of Bourke say that King Cotton keeps the town alive. Their instrumental reason looks no further.

If it does, what they see is the way King Cotton is creating new economic, social and political order in the landscape of this part of the Basin river country. However, the new-found prosperity overlays the underlying the seige mentality. This mentality is becoming increasingly menacing and hostile to water reforms, which aim to return water to the Basin's rivers to ensure their health. The anger is deep and widespread. There is a sense of being both betrayed by the dreams of prosperous communities founded on closely settled bush life of the family farm, and abandoned by state and federal governments using neo-liberal market instruments to govern the country. Social tensions are rising, as many have built their life on the promise of water that never really arrived. Their misgivings about the environmental disorder ( eg,. the big dust storm this week) are deepening. And though King Cotton is remaking the landscape it is an agri-business, and so capital not labor intensive. (psst. Wanna a casual job killing weeds? The chemicals wont hurt you. We even have regulations in place).

The irrigated cotton industry is only occupying the country---much like an invading army. The only way to conquer the land, to radically make it over like the south-western section of the Basin has been, is to irrigate it. Unfortunately for King Cotton, there is just too little water to begin with; even if they succceded is squeezing every last drop out of the Basin's rivers and laying waste to the country in the process. And that old saw of 'once the region is settled then the rains would increase the water ' is laid to rest as a pioneering dogma by the current drought. Only a beach-head in the west has been established, and that is currently proving dam difficult to defend. Those doing so are enduring or just hanging on. Yet the yearning or desire to build a civilization in an arid landscape by harvesting the water from the seasonal floods of the Queensland rivers in the Condamine-Balonne region of the basin still lives on.

Still the National Party continues to secretly dream of exhausting the Federal Treasury by building gigantic dams to make over the west in the image of the eastern seaboard. What they are seeing is a perpetual mirage in the heat haze not a flourshing desert civilization. It may not be the drought that does them in. It will be the salt acummulating in the fields that will do it. What the death of the Chowilla floodplain in SA shows is that there is not enough water to carry the salt through the natural sink of the Basin to the sea. Salt and dust show the hollowness of the triumph over nature. It is an illusion of the epoch, destroyed from within.

The illusion once looked so real, especially when the Snowy Mountains hydro-electricity Scheme created an abundance of water, cheap inexhaustible water. The farmers cleared the landscape and flooded their land with cheap water. Water flowed everywhere, the brown land became green, and everyone watered their lawns, washed their new cars and marvelled at the spectacle of dust stroms sweeping across the cities. (By the way has anyone heard any neo-liberals say that the Snowy scheme is a socialist relic).

What our history informs us is that big water development, which set out to help the small farmers in the west of the Basin, is ending up making a lot of rich farmers even wealthier at the expense of the family farmers. The basin governments set out to tame the rivers of the basin and ended up destroying them. But the future of the arid west was never secured. Certainity proved to be elusive.

Today, in order to survive, the dreaming needs continual replenishing with some grand-scale water diversion scheme proposed by water developers and engineers whose job it is to encourage the development of the west. And the market pundets continue to say that scientific and technological progress willl come up with a solution that will save the west; the farmers and irrigators hope that the federal government will come to the rescue when the groundwater water runs out and the rivers run dry.

Sad to say, but the scenario looks like this: as the lands are begining to succumb to salt, the farmers will have to solve things on their own---isn't that the real message of the neo-liberal policy makers beneath their various Action Plans? The farmers won't be able to do it as many are too poor. So it looks as if a lot of land that cost us a fortune to improve will be left to waste.

Is this what neo-liberals mean when they talk about 'creative destruction'?

the current state of affairs We are still selling water cheaply to rich irrigators in an arid landscape, thereby using public funding to keep the whole crazy production machine turning over. And it is crazy: the state governments are subsidizing rich farmers; their excess production depresses prices; and their waste of cheap water creates an environmental crisis. Politicians in federal Parliament are now going tut tut about what water development has amounted to. Those who know about the craziness are too afraid to speak. Nobody is willing to take a hammer to the idol of water development. The federal government knows that it won't have to pay to rescue the salt-poisoned and water-logged land, or to restore the Basin's wetlands and rivers to health, or to revegetate the landscape. They will long be gone.

Universities for Sale or Rent?

Paul Kelly, in his article, 'Higher Education at the Crossroads, in The Australian (23/10/02) has said that Education Minister Brendan Nelson plans a cabinet submission late this year to redesign Australia's university system on a sustained long-term funding basis.

Nelson's vision, says Kelly, "is a five-to-10-year package, an injection of extra public funds, a greater contribution from students via partial deregulation of university fees, more autonomy and diversity for universities, a commitment to regional universities, equity-based programs for the underprivileged and an expanded Higher Education Contribution Scheme".

Kelly said this will be pivotal to the Howard Government's third-term reform credentials and vital for Nelson's own political future.

Kelly adds that one credibility test [of the above package] is whether the federal retreat from higher education funding is halted. The Group of Eight submission says: "Between 1988 and 2002 net government outlays per planned student place fell by 19 per cent in real terms . . . For every extra dollar that students put in through HECS a dollar was withdrawn from the public subsidy."

A package devoid of any extra public funding is untenable. It would signal the Howard cabinet had no will to secure a better system. Given competing fiscal pressures due to terrorism and drought, Nelson was left with no option but to seek a long-range plan that can deliver a tangible public funding increase over time. Nelson's plan is not a free-market system for fees. It is a modest injection of price signals into a system that has none."

We can give this a tougher description in terms of market-drive politics (see my posting on this on Saturday, October 19, 2002). Nelson's package represents a further shift in adopting market solutions to higher education. Our universities are being told by our politicians to attain high standards whilst being kept on short rations. With the funding squeeze the work got harder whilst the conditions got worse. This created pressure and a rationale for the partial transfer of higher education as a public human service to the market-place through creating markets. The instruments were introducing HEACS, corporatising public institutions, and getting them to compete against each and as profit-maximising corporations in an industry. Nelson's package is a further step in marketisation, or the commodification of a public service by instalment.

From this perspective our higher education institutions, which deliver a public service, are under seige from a market-driven politics. The inroads made have gone far enough for the old idea of scholarship in a liberal university to come to be seem as quaint and outdated as the stream engine.

Bob Connell in 'Rage against the dying light of the day', The Australian, Wednesday October 23, 2002, says that "the market agenda is like a new form of mining directed at social relations. The social is treated as a landscape from which commodities can be extracted". The result is that education increasingly involves the development of skills and capacities for the job whilst the social liberal idea of public education developing the capacities of the person fades in the background. Education for democratic citizenship has long been forgotten. The idea of a liberal education has been hollowed out so much that it is now empty of any content other than the privileging of traditional subjects.

O'Connell's theses are that education is inherently a social process, acting through social relationships, and that markets colonize social processes. His concern is to reflect on the ways we can take out of this. Presumably reflection requires more 'than raging against the dying light of the day'.

The question I want to address is: Can we say that the policy aim of market-drive politics in education is to facilitate the market's colonization of the social and public education?

Yes, if we hold that what drives market-driven politics is competition policy. Which is what? Well competition policy presumes that competition is the cornerstone for a market economy to achieve the wealth and/or welfare maximisation of the greatest number of people. Competition policy is the instrument used by a liberal government to ensure the 'workability' of competition through ensuring economic efficiency in the allocation of resources

Manfred Neumann inCompetition Policy: History, Theory and Practice, (Edward Elgar Publishing, UK, 2001), says that competition policy has four objectives. These are:
"--Establishing a competitive order as an end in itself to safeguard economic freedom
---Maintaining a competitive order to foster economic efficiency and technological and economic progress
---Providing for a level playing field of fair competition, which implies prohibition of deceptive and fraudulent practices, threats, extortion and blackmail as well as unfair advantage through government subsidies
---Maintaining a decentralised structure of supply because small and medium-sized enterprises are considered as the backbone of a democratic society." (p.1).

Neumann says the major advantage of competition policy is that it relieves governments from being burdened with a task they are unable to perform. An anonymous co-ordination of economic activities replaces the regulation performed by bureaucract and so governance by command is replaced by the governance through the market + public law.

Neo-liberal policy makers in Australia seem to have collapsed the above four objectives into one overarching one of wealth maximisation; rather than welfare maximisation, happiness, wellbeing or sustainability. So the public provision of higher education is being transformed into a market to achieve wealth maximisation, and the anonymous co-ordination of economic activities will govern the performance of universities.

Now we can come back to the Paul Kelly piece. Brendan Nelson's political strategy to achieve this is more sophisticated than the crash through or bust strategy adopted by David Kemp, his predecessor. That attempt failed. Hence the need for an alternative tactic. Kelly says that "given competing fiscal pressures due to terrorism and drought, Nelson was left with no option but to seek a long-range plan that can deliver a tangible public funding increase over time. Nelson's plan is not a free-market system for fees. It is a modest injection of price signals into a system that has none".

Kelly then comments." Without this step Australia's eroding claims to international excellence will collapse. Nobody in government believes that public subsidy alone can solve this problem. The single most necessary reform is the destruction of the "one-size-fits-all" funding model that offers no incentives for institutions to diversify, specialise, excel or pay more."

Kelly concludes his piece by saying that "the cabinet must soon decide whether Nelson has got the politics right – or whether essential reform is a victim of too many compromises with too many people."

What we can infer from Kelly's evaluation of the market-driven politics at work here is that Nelson's strategy is a softly softly approach. Offer a bit for everyone to get them onside. The iron fist inside the velvet glove is competition policy as the driving force for reform. Then the economic efficiency processes of the market economy will get to work on the universities. Whilst this happening many commentators will say that the freedom of the markets will help achieve social justice. The argument would be that social justice is enhanced by opening up opportunities of wealth creation for everyone and not just for the privileged few. So there is no conflict between maintaining economic freedom and maximising welfare because a competitive liberal market order enhances both.

Meanwhile, our universities have been transformed from ethical public institutions in civil society to profit-driven corporations in a global education market. The (social democratic) liberal university we once new will have faded into history, and it will be only remembered by a few downsized aging scholars and the odd educational researcher in the corporate university.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

[10/23/2002 10:26:22 PM | Gary Sauer-Thompson]
A fool looks at FEDERAL TREASURY on Sustainable Development.

Treasury has begun to take a bit of an interest in environmental matters these days. And they should, given that the repair bill for the Murrray-Darling Basin over the next decade is probably around $60 billion. (Maybe we will have to sell Telstra to get the restoration going). Treasury is now aware that Australia has a history of economic growth that has lead to excessive environmental degradation. Treasury reckons they can work up some economic instruments to ensure that market processes work to help protect the environment.

I welcome Treasury's involvement. The more the merrier I say. The Basin needs all the help it can get. Pity a few more philosophers aren't rolling up their sleeves to give a hand.

I finally managed to get myself the Spring copy of Economic Roundup 2002 (I downloaded it from the Internet ). In this Economic Roundup there is an article titled, 'Sustainable development---to what end?' It sounds intriguing. The question I ask is: 'How does Treasury help us out with making sense of what sustainable development means on the ground in the Murray-Darling Basin?'

Well, the argument of Treasury's article is in the sceptical mode. Economists as sceptics? Whats happening? Treasury's concept of a sustainable path, follows that of Robert Solow. It is 'one that allows every future generation the option of being as welloff as its predecessors'. Treasury's argument has 4 steps.

The first point that Treasury makes is that sustainable development remains a nebulous concept. This is because:
(1) its current grounding on wellbeing, rather than need, is undercut by wellbeing being ill defined;
(2) there is a lack of guidance on what weighting should be given to the economic, environmental and social dimensions of development;
(3) there is a lack of common understanding on whether economic goals are improving-- some aspects are improving whilst others are declining according to The Australian State of the Environment Report
(3) there are weak and strong forms of sustainability. The former says that we completely substitute between forms of capital (using natural resources and the benefits they confer). The strong form acknolwedges the limitations imposed by natural thresholds, constraints or limits.

Treasury then says that one consequence of the lack of common understanding of what sustainable development actually means is that implementing the concept is much more difficult than envisioned. This is because the concept polarizes much of the debate between those who believe environmental protection is a precondition of social and economic progress and those who feel that economic growth should be given priority over environmental concerns. In turn a polarised debated may lead to the pursuit of singular policies that may not be consistent with sustainable development. (eg. green polciies that do not adequately consider jobs or flourishing communities; or economic growth that leads to excessive environmental degradation.

In the next step of the argument Treasury says that the absence of clear conceptual underpinning of sustainable development has meant that different stakeholders formulate their own interpretations of the concept based on their value judgements. This has often meant that sustainability has been taken to mean that outcomes that are environmentally desirable (ie the strong form of sustainability). This does notr provide enough flexibility to allow for tradeoffs between competing economic, environmental and social goals. This environmental interpretation of sustainability allows certain groups [ie. green ones] to impose their set of values on the rest of society.

In the last step Treasury says that what is not realised or appreciated by such [anti-liberal] groups is that policies pursued under the sustainable development banner involves tradeoffs, may substitute one form of environmental problem for another, and masks implicit value judgements about the relative importance between competing environmental outcomes.

In conclusion Treasury says that prioritising which environmental problems policy makers should deal with comes down to which values we should uphold. What we need to do is disentangle the different interpretations of sustainability, and then clearly spell out the tradeoffs involved in pursuing a form of development that maximizes the wellbeing of both currrent and future generations.

I have laid Treasury's intervention into the sustainability debates as best I could. Its all clearly stated and well written. What are we to make of it? It appears to be rather light on. More like posing a question for a philosophy I tutorial in ethical problems of instrumental reason.

The fool says that the argument shows how far Treasury needs to move before it can be taken seriously. If we relate this abstract argument to the Murray-Darling Basin, then we quickly realise how far behind the state of policy play Treasury is. The policy makers in the Basin have been forced by its severely degraded environmental condition to adopt the strong concept of sustainability. From the perspective of Adelaide the health of the River must come first because it is our life-support system. And the water in the Basin has been so overallocated that it has to be clawed back and future economic growth work within the constraints of water resources. Why forced? Well its not a case of the green groups imposing their values on irrigators and farmers. It is reality giving us us a good hard bite in the backside, and waking us from the dream of developmentalism.

Secondly,we do have a rough working idea of what sustainability means in the Basin. It has two strands: first, repairing the landscape (ie., restoring health to our rivers, revegetation to halt dryland salinity, increased biodiversity). Secondly, lessening the ecological footprint of agriculture by developing a sustainable form of agricultural production. the big dust storm today reminds us of this.

Treasury has a lot of catching up to do. Its economists should step away from their books and computers and take a look at the dust storms in the Basin and catch up to where the policy makers have actually got to in the Basin.

What are to make of this? Well Treasury no longer runs public policy as it once did in the 1980s. It is just another voice in policy debates now, and a minor one at that in the Murray-Darling Basin. The fools advice to Treasury is that society would be better off if the Treasury economists started using their computer models to help the green groups in civil society sort out how best to spend the $35 billion from the sale of Testra on repaying the environmental debt. The policies are in place ie., repairing the environment and shifting to a sustainable agriculture. Telstra will be sold in the near future. So what environmental projects should the money be spend on?

That is the question we should be asking says the fool. Not: what is sustainable development? Nor: sustainable development--to what end?

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

A Note on Globalization.

Public policy makers usually divide the participants in the public debates about globalization into globaphiles and globaphobes ie., those in favour of economic globalization and those who are against. (Think Alexander Downer ). This dualism is deeply entrenched in matters of free trade and environmental protection.(Think WTO) Some globaphiles---the trimmed-up liberals---usually call for the end of the nation-state or consign it to the historical rubbish dump.

Those who celebrate the role of global capital defend globalization as inevitable by pointing to the beneficial effects of competition, and this is then deemed to justifiy the policy agenda of deregulation, privatisation and labour market reform. Globalisation is held to be an unstoppable force, and so it is pointless to block it or to remain isolated from it by building enclaves and defensive walls. Or so the arguments of the globaphile politicians and Treasury economists often run.

Cosmopolitians also operate with a duality: an open world versus the bounded nation-state or the closed, local with the attachment to community. Working out from the imminent closure of the Murray Mouth (see: the postings on the River Murray in means that I am located in the local camp with its face-to-face community communication. It means that I am deeply attached to place ---ie., to the river country where I belong. It is part of who I am (ie., my identity).

However, this attachment to place is represented in negative terms by cosmoplitans. These post nationalists hold that my deep attachment to place is a strongly rooted and exclusive form belonging to place, and that this is used to counter the economic and media flows of global capitalism. Such a rooted attachment is a bad thing, as I have supposedly withdrawn into a sullen, warm, romantic community, become exclusive and have a defensive hatred for global capitalism. Cosmopolitians, on the other hand, are free spirits who transgress national borders, have nomadic lifestyles, favour hybidity and, as metropolitan globetrotters, are only residually attached to the bounded territory of the nation-state.

Don't you just love these dualities, this either or way of thinking with its good bad distinction, that does away with all ambiguity and contradiction And its all pretty pretty useless ---apart from having a bash at the likes of One Nation in the 1990s. Remember those days? Apparently, the anti-global stance of my romantic localism (read parochial populism) can be refuted by me being online and using the internet to read the gossip and chat of American conservatives. Don't ya just love the knock down arguments favoured by our politicians. Who is fooling who? It all makes me want to send them a copy of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil for Xmas. When are our politicians going to get serious and start doing some hard thinking about water reform? They are only just beginning to square off over 'structural adjustment ' in the Namoi Valley.

It is the ambiguity that is crucial here, as it eases us out of being imprisoned in the hard edged dualities that are claimed to nail reality down but actually miss all the important bits. Now, some will recoil and even throw their hands up in horror at this point. Whats this? Postmodernism? Well, what the hell. Life is just plain complex. (Too complex for analytic reason say my colleagues who are into dialectics but are afraid to say so). My mode of being in the river country is locally based, but this particular attachment to the place of the Murray Mouth and Coorong is overlaid by this locality being a part of a region (South Australia); which in turn is overlaid by it being the southern part of the Murray-Darling Basin. The Basin in turn is part of the nation, which is crisscrossed by the global flows of the world. I can be local and global at the same time.

So we have layers, levels, extensions and processes. And we also have lots of differences since the local areas of the Basin are quite different from one another as they have their own particularities. Hey folks, maybe Derrida wasn't such a crazy after all.

I posted this in anticipation of reading Federal Treasury's go at anti-globalising, pro sustainable development fools like me in their Economic Roundup, Spring 2002 ---or so I gathered from reading the journalists. I've asked Treasury to send me a copy sometime ago, but they are not good on customer service. Maybe they work strictly on userpays? Anyhow I hope that I have suggested that there is middle ground between the two standard options in our public debates: the 'forward-looking' option of rejecting nationalism, dismantling national walls, tariffs and regulations and embracing the global market: or the 'backward-looking' option of defending the nation-state, denying global interdependence and rejecting the global market.

Monday, October 21, 2002

An Epigram

After reading that the Labor Party in the Cunningham by-election attacked the Green's platform calling for a 60 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases over 50 to 100 years. Their candidate Sharon Bird claimed it would cost the region 10,000 jobs. Mark Latham, the party's new headkicker, then drove home the message that "greenhouse targets equals job losses". Yet federal Labor supports signing the Kyoto Protocol, saying the relevant greenhouse targets can be achieved without job losses.

"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."

F. Nietzsche, 'Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future', trs. W. Kaufmann, (Vintage, New YOrk, 1989), Part 4, para. 146, p. 89.

Labor Deserves a Serve

I heard bits of the speech that Simon Crean, the Leader of the Opposition federal Labor Party, gave last Saturday in the play called A Labor Party Conference. I heard different fragments on the various media flows of television. I heard other bits on the radio. Though it all becomes a bit of a jumble when one is not concentrating, what I heard saddened me. Labor had forgotten all about the environment. It had kissed it goodbye. Could that be the case? Well, I saw it on television. Maybe it was a commercial?

Then I came across more bits of Crean's speech in an article by Alan Ramsay, 'Drivel turns the Labor light out', in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 12, 2002.
My sadness deepened. Labor had chosen to walk down the path of development and opportunity. It had turned away from the pathway of sustainable development to embrace Australia Unlimited. This was a political party being shaped and reshaped by global market forces. It would not only work within the constraints of global market forces to ensure its legitimacy, it would also help to fashion its straitjacket. Maximium exposure to global market forces would do the job of reforming Australia. Labor would help ensure social justice but the environment would carry the cost.

The new message from modern Labor was crystal clear. Here it is.

Crean starts his speech by saying:

"I stand as leader of this great party to lay the basis of an election victory in two years' time. I stand as leader of the parliamentary party with the experience of having led our union movement. I know better than most the importance of a strong partnership between the two. And I stand here today knowing it's not our values that need to change. But something does need to change. It's us ... We must not be afraid of reform. We are the party of reform. And reforming Australia starts with us. Here. Now. Today ..."

Really Simon? I thought that Labor's values had to change along with cleaning up corruption within the party organisation and reducing the power of the factions. Why do Labor's values need to change? Here is the concluding part of the speech. It was the bit I saw on television and thought was a commercial.

"Some people ask what's in this conference for ordinary Australians. I say: a Labor government! Labor is back as the party of Australian values. The party of ideas and action. The party of strength and compassion. The party of security, opportunity and community for all. The only party that will invest in our nation's future. The only party that believes in a strong economy for a just society. That's what's in this for all Australians. We'll only win government and get these things if we reform ourselves. I want you to back reform and create modern Labor for modern Australia."

The compassionate party that is to reform Australia is indifferent to sustainability. It is 'the party of security, opportunity and community for all'; it is the party that believes 'in a strong economy for a just society.' It no longer believes in a sustainable society. In turning its back on setting the compass to achieve a sustainable Australia modern Labor has turned its back on those living in the river country. It fails to see the significance of our rivers running dry because it is blinded by the strong emphasis on the recycled developmentalism of the past.

In case the point was missed by those of the faithful looking for a touch of greenwash, Crean made it quite explicit when he invoked the old light on the hill that will help to guide us ordinary Australians through the darkness.

"When people overseas think of Australia," Crean said, "they think of a big country with opportunity for all. That has always been the great promise of Australia. It's the light on the hill. It's the simple idea we should look out for each other and invest in our future. That light and the hope and values it represents still shines in the hearts of the Australian people. But John Howard is trying to extinguish it. He's tried to downsize it, privatise it and outsource it. Delegates, our task is to go back to the source of the light on the hill. Recapture its spirit. And turn it into a crusade for a better Australia, based on Labor values. Security. Opportunity. Community."

There is very little awareness about reforming the Australian way of life to make it more sustainable here. We look out for each other but not the environment. Sustainability is not a Labor value. Labor's values are the same old stuff being repackaged under the Security label. Underneath this political marketing its business as usual ---'opportunity for all is the great promise of Australia'.

Labor has lost its nerve. It has no political courage. What good is community when the rivers have gone Simon? Reform is not about fiddling with the rusty bits of political machinery. It is also about changing the mindset of developmentalism. Simon, your party's values need to change.

Didn't you hear that message from the Cunningham by-election? Aren't you hearing it from the local communities in Sydney fighting to keep public land from being sold off to the developers. Haven't you heard it from the briefings given by the environmental scientists in Canberra? Haven't you your heard the arguments that business-as-usual is no longer an option in the Murray-Darling Basin?

What hope is there for those of us living in the river country? Well, we South Australians can kiss a healthy ecology of the Murray-Darling Basin goodbye. We South Australians will need to travel to Victoria to see what a river looks like. All that we have in South Australia is a series of storage pools for irrigators. Once we had a river. No longer.


I want to return to the use of the word 'pity' by Rose Gittens in his piece, 'Farmers who fail don't deserve pity', (The Sydney Morning Herald, October 16, 2002). I'm gnawing away at this like a philosophical dog with an old bone, because I reckon that we have a significant ethical fault line here.

The fault line is between the pro-pity and the anti-pity ethical traditions. I have taken exception to Gittens because he repudiates pity for farmers suffering from an extensive drought, rather than him being callous, harsh, brutal and full of contempt for the weak. Admittedly, that was my early reaction. But I want to describe the fault line.

MY position is that since human beings function badly as social animals if they suffer too much---eg.if they go hungry, do hard physical labor for long periods, or have to live in a world of dust storms ---then they need some basic welfare support. They are vulnerable and need a help through diffitult times. That is ethical pity and it underpins democratic citizenship. This is what is rejected by Gittens and, suprisingly by many of the Oz bloggers. They had deep compaasssion for those who suffered from the Bali bombings. Our bloggers felt their pain and this was linked to their own lives and their vulnerability. So they responded with ethical pity. and mourned their loss and the nations. (Nations like family's need to mourn) But there was no ethical pity expressed for the poor suffering farmers. They could eat dust. Their requests for basic welfare was treated as a handout. Alan McCullum was an exception.

I want to break this indifference to the plight of the farmers by introducing this description from Francis Radcliffe from the early 1930's, when he visited the arid pastoral belt of inland South Australia and south-west Queensland. It is quite different in tone and emotion to that found in John Quiggin's 'Dust' piece on Thursday 17 October. See (I don't know how to do links). John's was an urban aesthetic response to dust.

Radcliffe lived the dust not just drove through it in a car from house to office. He says that when the wind blew sand it penetrated everywhere. He says:"We breathed sand, drank sand, ate sand; and when we blinked our eyeballs grated".

He then describes the effect living in the duststorm country had on him as an observing scientist reporting back to the government on the conditions of the farmers. Basically it broke him and his scientific objectivity.

"...the vastness, the loneliness, and the desolation of ... [the region] broke through my mental defences; and once they had cracked, it was impossible to weld them together again ... [I became] sickenly conscious of the immensity and emptiness of the land .. We seemed to be looking around the bend of the earth ... I though it was just about the cruellest and most inhuman world that it was possible to conceive ... I was uncomfortable and nervous now: later I was to be really scared---scared that something in my mind would crack, that the last shreds of my self-control wouldsnap and leave me raving mad ... My mind was dominated by one idea---- to get out of that ghastly country before I went crazy."
See F. Radcliffe, Flying Fox and Drifting Sand, 1938.

This is Australia's version of the 1930's dustbowl. Even if the duststorms signified human irresponsibility in the face of natural disaster ---consequences of the pastoralist overstocking the land---we would feel compassion, pity and concern for the extreme suffering they had undergone. We can imagine ourselves in a duststorm every three day, with big ones every week, for months on end and we would be willing to grant welfare support to help fellow Australians endure a nightmare. So why not ethical pity today? Are the farmers not involved in circumstances beyond their control? Is this not preventing them from living well? Is this not something we can relate to as fellow citizens?

Radcliffe gives us an insight here. We need to make judgements when it is appropriate to express ethical pity. We judged this to be so in the case of the Bali bombings. This was a case in which the losses suffered by a 'reversal of life' (terrorism) had serious and significant importance for us a nation. It was also the case with farmers in the 1930s living in 'dustbowl' conditions. The weakness and vulnerability of those suffering were appropriate occassions for ethical pity. And I would add, so to for those caught up in the current drought. This makes life very difficult to live and the deprivation can give rise to suicide.

Hence the ethical fault line. A partying of ways. Those who say no to ethical pity to farmers suffering loss are repudiating pity as an ethical virtue in favour of being strong and independent. They are anti-pity advocates. Their response to suffering, sickness and desolation, is to endureso they can become strong and independent entrepreneurial types. Of course they would say they have no ethics. They do economics. They stand for science and reason. Ethics is for the softhearted. We all know the line of argument and some know the crude positivism that sits underneath it.

But an old philosophical dog has no difficulty in smelling the ethics buried in the soil of economics. What we have is an anti-pity ethical tradition that puts power and sufficiency at the centre. This need not stomp over others as it can put self-respect and self-responsibility at the core.

Sunday, October 20, 2002


After being ear-bashed by a neo-liberal 'fundi' about the future when sharing a glass of red from the Limestone Coast in SA .

'To those who love the age.-The ex-priest and the released criminal keep making faces: what they desire is a face without a past.- But have you ever seen people who know that their faces reflect the future and who are so polite to you who love the "age" that they make a face without future?"

F. Nietzsche, the Gay Science, trs. W. Kaufmann, (Vintage, New York, 1972), Bk.3, para. 161, p. 199
Lawyers and economists: In bed together? Part 2.

After the various detours of the last few days I now want to return to the way that Ken Parish basically concurred with the Ross Gittens' piece, 'Farmers who fail don't deserve pity', (The Sydney Morning Herald, October 16 2002; reprinted in The Age as 'Wake up, cityslickers: a drought is just bad farm management').The headings say it all.
I interpreted Ken's 'hear hear!' to mean both getting in bed with economic reason and doing away with pity for the suffering farmers. I would now add that neo-liberal reason has contempt for the petty agitators trying to benefit from the farmer's big loss; and an indifference to the losses from the drought being of deep importance or significance for the farmer's attempts to achieve a flourishing human life.

As an aside, consider the ethics involved here around the emotion of pity. For neo-liberals the farmers are the preachers of pity. Pity is a virtue for the weak. Pity is to be scorned by those who are strong. Those weak ones asking for pity are asking for help (subsidy). The way of the global market is too hand and demanding to give help. What should be praised is hardness. Hardness, not pity, is what is needed to become successful and powerful self-creators and commanding entrepreneurs in the marketplace. Pity is the sentiment of those earthly poor who are pathetic and worthless creatures.

What is being denied here is that the suffering of the farmers is closely linked to an acknowledgement of one's own vulnerabilities and incompleteness. The contrast with the suffering caused the recent Bali bombing could not be starker. With the Bali suffering there is an open acknowledgement that the pain of these Australians has a commonality with the rest of the nation and us. Here other Australians like ourselves see the suffering as a possibility to do with us and we endeavour to understand it on the basis of our own experience. (Is this fear?) This commonality with farmers is what is denied. Hence we are indifferent to, and unconcerned with, the farmer's pain and loss. So pity for the farmer's loss and suffering is repudiated.

What the moral voice of neo-liberal reason adds is that strong, self-sufficient, entrepreneurial types should not give way to pity. Strong, self-commanding people do not want to be dragged down by the bad acts of others. The suffering of the weak that results in them wanting to suck on the socialist tit throughout their life fills our strong neo-liberal characters with disgust and makes them nauseous. This is the moral voice of international financial markets that are deeply opposed to national governments compensating those who have suffered from the fall-out of global economic flows with redistributive fiscal policies. This fall-out is seen to be the ground for the politics of retaliation fuelled by envy, resentment and hatred.

I have argued in previous posts that we have reached a fork in the development of the Murray-Darling Basin. The recent attempts by the basin governments to return water to the rivers by way of environmental flows indicate this. We have taken the fork signposted 'ecologically sustainable development' (ESD), and this pathway is one where wealth creation works within the ecological limits of the basin. Those like Gittens have yet to accept the existence of the fork. They are caught up the illusion that business-as-usual is still a possibility.

This pathway of figuring out how wealth creation will work with the ecological limits of the basin is our future in the next decade or so. The problem confronting policy makers is that we don't know what ESD actually means on the ground. We know what we want to achieve -healthy working rivers and repaired landscapes - but we don’t know how to get there.

Instead, what we get from those who see themselves as the master calculators of this nation's future are magic bullet solutions along the lines of 'drought-proofing the nation', or the technical fix that the self-regulating the market will solve all our problems in the basin. The fundamental faith of the proponents of both solutions is endearing, given that they are speaking from the citadel that has the sign of 'enlightenment' above the doorway. The instrumental reason of these noble or great 'architects' is in danger of becoming a hostage to their unspoken faith. Then they would no longer be playing a role as an actor on the public stage of political life.

And those commentators/journalists who perform their roles as if they are great artists say that fundamental faith is dying out in political life! Maybe we are all acting in a tragedy whilst the set television replays endless, self-referential texts for loonies performing the role of scientific utilitarians calculating the politics options for market-driven politicians.

If we take the ESD pathway, where wealth creation works with the ecological limits of the basin, then a legal reason can have a job that is over and above simply being the light hand that constrains the negative liberty of economic activity in the marketplace. It can act in terms of a steering role, that is based on the duty of care to our land and rivers embodied in the various state acts relating to the management of natural resources. A legal reason as public law could pay a role in helping to resolve the coordination problems of the market and the bureaucracy. Tradeoffs are going to have to be made on the ESD pathway, and a legal reason in a liberal democracy could help facilitate this by making laws that are rationally acceptable as distinct from being coercive. The law could help farmers, irrigators and those who live in local communities across the basin to reach an understanding on how they are going to make the tradeoffs between wealth creation, flourishing communities and healthy rivers. This normative agreement about the amount of water allocated to a river, salinity targets, biodiversity standards provides a stable cultural context in which individuals can strategically pursue their interests.

Since the water politics of the basin involves a fundamental value conflicts, then there is a need to find a minimal area of agreement of the general norms - eg sustainable development- acceptable to the basin community. Most agree that we should care for our rivers; give their health a high priority in public policy; and act to ensure that water is returned to the Basin's rivers, even if this is at the cost of less economic growth and reduced personal wealth. By building an area of agreement upon this area of normative consensus, a legal reason as a public reason could help to steer the basin community towards a more sustainable mode of life.

This would give legal public reason possibilities and allow it to break its relationship with a neo-liberal economic reason. It could even consider helping to foster a liberal democracy and so acting to countervail the tendencies of a market-driven politics. It could even help to defend the public domain of res publica and foster healthy democratic institutions

After having coffee with two federal liberal politicans in federal parliament about where we are going in the Murray-Darling Basin.

'On the way to happiness. A sage asked a fool about the way to happiness. The fool answered instantly as if he had merely been asked about the way to the nearest town: "Admire yourself and live in the street." "No", replied the sage, "you are asking too much; it is quite sufficient to admire yourself." The fool shot back: "But how can one constantly admire without constantly feeling contempt?"'

F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Bk 3, para. 213. trs. Walter Kaufmann, (Vintage, New Yorrk, 1974), p. 209

After reading a famous economist on how a liberal market society really works.

'You utilitarians, you, too, love everything useful only as a vehicle for you inclinations; you, too, really find the noise of its wheels insufferable?'

F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trs. W. Kaufmann, (Vintage, New York, 1989), part 4, para. 174, p. 92.