Melbourne Uni’s Watermelon Patch

They’re big on painting the world a glorious and sustainable green at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, where sundry academics, together with alleged comedian Rod Quantock, preach climate doom while quoting Marx and yearning for the day when Havana sets the standard for urban life

clown professorAustralia’s top tertiary institution is Melbourne University, most recently ranked as the thirty-second best in the world. Actually, it’s like the curate’s egg: good in parts. Some MU people cure cancer and poke atoms. Then there’s the university’s Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI). 

This institute is not housed near the student cafe in a room with unwashed coffee cups and a Che Guevara poster. The MSSI’s advisory board includes Nobel Prize winner Peter Doherty (1996: medicine/physiology). Others on this board include a former State Governor (David de Kretser, 2006-11), two professors, a heavy from the National Australia Bank, and a Melbourne city councillor.

MSSI lists five professors as staff (including Tim Flannery). The MSSI executive committee boasts 14 professors, including the doyen of global warming science, David Karoly. Officially-titled “associates” are of similar lustre, although I do note that this team of 16 since last April has included 18-year Captain Snooze mattress salesman Rod Quantock, described generously as “comedian, activist and climate-change researcher”. Quantock’s academic qualification, just by the way, is having failed Melbourne’s Bachelor of Architecture degree after spending five years getting to Year 3 of the six-year course.

Quantock, father of two, says his role at MSSI is “researching impacts of climate change, resource crises and population overshoot on the day-to-day lives of Australians.” His big project of late has been “Peak-a-boo and catch CO2a multi-platform investigation into the Limits to Growth and the impossibility of building a carbon neutral world without burning an awful lot of carbon to build it thus defeating the purpose: Catch CO2!” You can watch Quantock doing his doomsday schtick in the clip below. Try not to laugh too hard, especially at around the 3.40-minute mark, when the funny man launches into an extended rave about how, because oil is running out, petrol will soon be too expensive for audiences to attend his shows. Successful comedy demands keen timing, but Quantock’s was sadly out of whack when making that prophecy.

Given that he is a “Climate Change and Resource Futures Expert”, he  might finish up as “IPCC Working Group 11 vice-chair Rod Quantock”. Who can tell? In the strange world of climate politics, anything is possible.

Here’s  an example of of Quantock’s recent climate-research expertise, drawn from 37 minutes of mutually pleasurable intercourse with Radio National’s Philip Adams:

“Tony Abbott said coal is good for humanity, really that is criminally insane…  absolutely ignorant…these people are mad.”

The sort of climate talks he gives include (follow the link and view the clip):

“We are about to open the gates of hell and throw our children through them…   in the gas chamber of our choking atmosphere (f)orests and reefs will become deserts and icecaps will melt… Everything from worms to civilisation will be extinct within the lifetime of a child born today… 

“These are not the rantings of a madman. If you want the rantings of a madman, you’ll have to go to any one of the many deluded fossil fools and unctuous toadies who swing from the teats of the Dark Lords of Carbon.

“There is no time for the denier, no room for the sceptic and no punishment too great for the liar…”

Generally, MSSI’s output is unusual.  While many bits of universities, e.g. science, education, engineering and medical faculties, set out to promote the country’s growth, MSSI research can be found respectfully citing the Communist Manifesto and campaigning for “de-growth” , i.e. economic contraction. Indeed, it even advocates Cuba as a template for Australians to embrace growing their own food at home. MSSI people proudly let the cat out of the bag by  acknowledging that “greening” our energy will drop living standards severely, thus putting themselves to the left of the Greens, who always say the economy will do just fine because of all the alleged new green jobs.

Another MSSI stalwart is Dr Sam Alexander, who writes:

The “world’s shrinking carbon budget requires degrowth and reduced consumption in high consumption societies. That is not an implication many are prepared to accept, even amongst many or even most participants in the broad environmental movement. Indeed, this blindness – it might even be wilful blindness – is arguably the environmental movement’s greatest short- coming.”

He approves of another (non-MSSI) scholar, Steb Fisher, recommending that Australia and  other developed countries drop their overall consumption to something like 1/16 of current levels. Alexander writes,

“Living sustainably on a full planet does not merely mean recycling, composting, and buying efficient light bulbs …. Rather, it means fundamental lifestyle change to an extent few people dare to envision…One planet living might involve a revolutionary shift toward organic urban agriculture, a la Havana in Cuba… it might involve giving up private cars and regular air flights…   More generally, it would surely imply doing without many comforts and conveniences that many ‘first world’ consumers take for granted today.”

But Alexander can see that campaigning politically for a Havana-like lifestyle would create  “obvious ‘public relations’ issues”. Degrowth “may not be the best term to use if mainstreaming that position is the goal”, he admits.

A frequent element in MSSI research publications and issues papers is this disgust with capitalism, along with eager forecasts of its imminent doom from over-consumption and climate horrors. Some examples:

MSSI’s Director Brendan Gleeson, says that capitalism’s “death agonies will likely generate many wild quests for salvation through vulgar resource exploitation”. And then there’s this:  “We should reconceive and replot our exit from capitalist modernity, not as retrenchment to misery, but as quest for a new human plentitude (sic). Freed from the diktak (sic) of capitalist growth, and its straitened materialism, our species could discover fresh forms of realisation in things without ‘value’, at least as presently conceived. A post-accumulative political economy is the premise for a new urban modernity…”

This Melbourne University icon quotes admiringly from ‘radical philosopher’ Ivan Illich, who talks of “the looming demise of promethean capitalism” and who invites us to  ‘…imagine the children who will soon play in the ruins of high schools, Hiltons, and hospitals’ (1977:23).’ This, quotes Gleeson, “was not the Dark Age intoned by catastrophism, however, but the opening scenes of a ‘convivial modernity’, of children celebrating through play the downfall of the modern pretender, Prometheus.”

John Wiseman, MSSI’s deputy director, who had this to say at last year’s green gabfest in Copenhagen, as well as this:

“… dominant neoliberal and ecological modernization paradigms, which critics argue fatally bias global climate governance mechanisms against genuine mitigation outcomes and ‘forestall more radical critiques that argue that capitalism and sustainability are inimical’ (Ref 155, p. 348).”

Graham Turner, MSSI Principal Research Fellow (ex-CSIRO) in a paper headed, “Is Global Collapse Imminent?”:

“Regrettably, the alignment of data trends with the LTG (Limits to Growth) dynamics indicates that the early stages of collapse could occur within a decade, or might even be underway. This suggests, from a rational risk- based perspective, that we have squandered the past decades, and that preparing for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.”[i]

Susan S. Fainstein: “In this paper I argue that the term [‘resilience’] obscures underlying conflicts of interest that are better understood by turning to Marxist concepts of structural antagonisms and dialectical materialism.” She quotes approvingly:

“In its uncontrolled drive for universality, capitalism creates new barriers to its own future. It creates a scarcity of needed resources, impoverishes the
 quality of those resources not yet devoured, breeds new diseases, develops a nuclear technology that threatens the future of all humanity, pollutes the entire environment that we must consume in order to reproduce, and in the daily work process it threatens the very existence of those who produce the vital social wealth (Smith 1994, p. 59).”

Dr Sam Alexander, who writes: “Should people campaign for the Greens and try to radicalise them? Should they try to agitate and organise for a socialist revolution? Or should they essentially ignore governments and just set about ‘pre-figuring’ the post-growth alternative at the grassroots level, within the shell of the existing growth economy? Finally, will the transition be smooth and rational, or proceed through a series of crises and responses? These questions have no clear answers, but the movement for a post-growth economy will be stronger for taking them seriously.”

MSSI Director Gleeson, a geographer/urban planner, was formerly based at the University of Ireland, Maynooth. He told an Irish audience three  years ago that global warming would likely make Australia  ”a place to leave, not arrive, a place to be childless, not fertile — a withering society … Australia, the desiccated continent, is already witness to record droughts, soaring average temperatures and plummeting catchments for the cities.”  (Current Melbourne dam storage: 76.48% of capacity).

He went on to predict that with global warming, Ireland could become one of only a few habitable ‘lifeboat’ regions for climate refugees, while megacities in Africa, India and Asia “go under, taking with them a substantial proportion of our species”.  This stuff was too much even for colleague Dr Andy Kerr, director of the Edinburgh Centre on Climate Change,  who assured the BBC, “The whole world won’t be coming through Ireland or the UK.”

Despite global warming, Ireland in 2010 and 2011 suffered such icy winters that  the country had serious water shortages as a result of burst pipes. Without missing a beat, Gleeson claimed that extreme Irish winters were actually consistent with global warming, er, climate change.

Here’s some current Gleesonisms, from his Melbourne University-published paper in June called “Coming Through Slaughter: Ecology of the Urban Age”. Although only a short paper, Gleeson manages to quote approvingly, not once but twice, from Marx’s Communist Manifesto as what can only be read as a celebration of capitalism’s imminent death. In case we miss the point, he emphasises:

“Despite overwhelming and increasingly painful testimony of its failure, we seem unwilling to indict capitalist modernity and set about its replacement. In the maw of inaction, the heralds and apologists of the dying order assert new certitudes as means for delaying its end, and the termination of its endowments on the powerful and the vested.

“We should not fear terminal social crisis, because, like death itself, it is part of the human condition, the necessary prelude to rebirth of prospect.”

We learn that “Marx and Engels scorned the boasts of the industrial bourgeois” who “like the sorcerer…is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells” (Marx & Engels 1985[1848 ]:85-6).” [The reference is to the Communist Manifesto].

As Gleeson continues,

“In Marx and Engels memorable words, cities ‘rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life’.” Gleeson comments, “Observing the towering follies of contemporary urbanism, we may conclude that idiocy is no longer a uniquely rural affliction.”

Gleeson’s prose style perhaps leans towards the overwritten. In reference to the slight and beneficial warming the world has seen over the past century — 0.8degC — he has this to say: “The fire in the heavens that sears us now is all our own work”.

To get through the Gleeson extracts below, readers might first consider disabling their exaggeration-detectors. Guffaws are permitted; indeed, many will find them unavoidable:

“The growth compulsion is a beast that must be fed with live bodies and precious resources… Countless lives have been tossed into the furnace of reform and innovation….

“Modernisation… A charnel house of growth, again reflected in our ecocidal cities. Our long run despoliation of Nature was speeded up and we now face both the legacy of industrialisation and our more recent experiments with neo-liberalised capitalism. New gales threaten…Climate change and resource insecurity are the greatest of these natural tempests…”

“The era of adolescent self-harm must pass to a new maturity where we can live peaceably with Nature and with our own roiling ambitions for freedom and realisation…”

“To restore human prospect, Homo urbanis must dismantle its own work, the material and ideological apparatuses of Promethean modernity. They must be held to account through critical scientific interrogation and brought to heel by politics. Where to begin? So much of contemporary modernity seems like dangerously flailing pieces of machinery, uncoupled to wild play by a disintegrating industrialism.”

“The collapsing natural order surely points to first priority, a political economy that is hard wired for growth. It is a death machine that endangers homo urbanis and all that depends upon us…”

“Global warming shrouds the great celestial motif of human existence. The sun, hitherto the source of all life, is now darkened by the threat of unmediated potency. A failing atmosphere cannot restrain the its (sic) awful power…”

“Climate denialism expresses not sublime refusal of suppressed reason but the depressive anxieties of power. The aggressive disporting of scepticism in western media and politics is thus a refusal to behold the darkening sun of human prospect…”

“Power, besieged by righteous foes, by truth, by nature, clings to burning cities. Better to rule in hell, than to serve in heaven. Neo-liberal urbanism’s stubborn subscription to growth is a deathly text to be read in this light…”

“Something awful is being born, but also something new. The odds, if we take them, are in our favour. In the next world we can be monarchs of the beautiful waste.”

In his understated way, Gleeson says we should deploy  our “miraculous powers” and direct them “at clearing out the sclerotic consensus of liberal democracy, to restore liberty, the central discovery and legacy of modernity.” Self-describing as “a suburban kid from Melbourne”, he figures that in our future, roasting world, we can learn adaptation from hot-desert Aborigines and their “great testimony of human survival that is sung, danced and wept all around us.”

Among the MSSI’s seed-funding projects in 2013  was one on “Vocal Climate Change Deniers” by Professor of Political Science and MSSI executive member  Robyn Eckersley, who jetted  to Limawith a gaggle of MU colleagues for November’s COP20 climate jamboree. Her research into ‘the epistemologies of climate deniers (sic)’, will ‘contribute to the growing research on climate change denialism and strongly position us for funding towards a larger project” about “statistical representativeness of different types of denialism”. One hopes she includes the denialists at MSSI, who have yet to acknowledge the 15-18 year halt (depending on which measure is cited) to global surface temperatures. Go, Robyn!

Tomorrow: On yurt life and personal hygeine, according to the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.

Tony Thomas blogs at tthomas061.wordpress.com

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