The Gift Economy, Anarchism and Strategies for Change
Terry Leahy's website
Religion and the Environmental Apocalypse
Business Responses to Climate Change Policy
Letter to Greg Combet
Climate Code Red: A Timely Suggestion
The Social Meaning of the Climate Crisis
Sociologists and The Environment: Global Warming As A Case Study -- 2006
Apocalypse Most Likely: Agency and Environmental Risk in the Hunter Region
Women's Responses to Environmental Issues (Short Version)
On the Edge of Utopia: A Letter to the Green Parties (Part A)
On the Edge of Utopia: A Letter to the Green Parties (Part B)
Global Warming and What To Do About It
For the Eighty Percent - A Rap Poem
Lecture: Approaches to Environmental Change
Women's Responses to Environmental Issues (Long Version)
Waiting For the End of the World: Popular Responses to Environmental Issues in Australia
Some Problems of Environmentalist Reformism
Sociological Utopias and Social Transformation: Permaculture and the Gift Economy
Lecture: Deep Ecology
Waiting For the End of the World: Popular Responses to Environmental Issues in Australia
Given the well known facts of pending and current environmental crisis, social scientists must wonder why the populace of advanced industrial countries is unwilling to make a serious commitment to environmental change. The membership of environmental lobby groups is a small fraction of the population, a really good voting turnout for environmentalist parties is five percent and major political parties can afford to make a few minor concessions to environmentalism without actually dealing with problems effectively. For example in Australia the Federal Government committed itself to a reduction of Greeenhouse gases to the 1990 level by the year 2000 - at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. It seems very unlikely now that this goal will be met, let alone the more stringent targets also promised by the Australian Government at the same time (Johnston 1994). New coal fired power stations are still being commissioned and spending on energy research is paltry (Southam and Chamberlin, 1994). Australia's environmental budget is $184 million compared with a defence budget of $9.786 billion (Boson, 1994). Australia is typical of wealthy capitalist countries in largely ignoring environmental problems.

To begin investigating the response of the public to environmental issues I have carried out a number of interviews based on a snowball sampling of residents of a provincial industrial town. Initially I planned to discuss these interviews in terms of a division between interviewees who were participants in environmental lobby groups and interviewees who were not actively committed to environmental politics. It was expected that environmentalists might offer theories about the causes of public apathy and that other interviews might be used to assess the relevance of these explanations. However within this paper I shall be pointing out that discursive frameworks for interpreting environmental crisis cross these boundaries and are often shared by environmentalists and others.

Discursive frameworks for Understanding Capitalism and the Environmental Crisis

Social theory offers us a number of frameworks which have proved relevant to the interview data of this study. A strand of French theory that includes and precedes postmodernism may help us to make sense of the apocalyptic nihilism which I see as a key part of popular responses to the environmental crisis.

In the fifties and early sixties the Socialism ou Barbarie group was an ultra left grouping whose key theorist at the time was Cardan - now writing as Castoriadis. Cardan argued (1974) that crises were an unavoidable aspect of capitalist societies. This was because capitalist societies, unlike earlier technologically static modes of production, are absolutely dependent upon the willing participation and active responsibility of the subordinate class. Yet this participation and responsibility had to be constantly forestalled in order for the ruling class to retain control of production and the surplus product.

Considering the endemic crises of capitalist society Cardan argued that economic or political disasters did not necessarily generate a radical response. In recognition of the human species as agentic and creative he argued that crises might be weathered without any challenge to the system; a challenge would only occur if people were working towards a vision of an alternative society. He explained the apathy of the public in the present time as due to a number of factors. The workers' movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries developed a strategy in which increases in real wages were sought and achieved, gradually becoming the dominant goals of unions and left political parties with mass support. This development was a negotiated compromise with the capitalist class so that capitalism came to depend on the expanded markets provided by increasing wage levels. Paradoxically, apathy is a response to the success of these struggles; the deflation of a hollow victory. There is an increasing awareness that consumer society is no solution to the alienation of daily life in wage labour. Established political parties and trade unions do not address these issues. Apathy is a response to the inadequacy of current political strategies while no clear alternative presents itself. As well, apathy is a response to the takeover of political life by bureaucracy, yet another area of life in which decisions are in the hands of a small minority. People are excluded from political activities by a bureaucracy that does not allow them any real participation. They also express their resistance to bureaucracy by a refusal to get involved in political activities:

At best these are seen as the activities of 'specialists', cut off from the preoccupations of ordinary people. At worst they are seen as a tissue of lies and manipulation, as a grotesque farce with often tragic consequences. (Cardan, 1974: 91)

Cardan argued for the development of a mass movement that would put an end to alienated labour, making this goal the key strategy of a new revolutionary movement. For Cardan, then, apathy was merely a pause between the political strategies of the past and a more adequate politics that would reawaken the masses to a new revolutionary vision and purposive political activism.

A more recent analysis celebrates apathy as an adequate, even if unconscious, strategy. Baudrillard develops this idea in his essay "In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities" (1983). Withdrawal into private life is seen by Baudrillard as "... a form of actively resisting political manipulation" (1983: 39). He argues that hyperconformity is a strategy which undermines the system by pushing it into excess and sees consumerism as an example of this process at work:

They have turned consumption into a dimension of status and prestige, of useless keeping up with the Joneses or simulation, of potlatch which surpassed use value in every way. A desperate attempt has been made from all sides (official propaganda, consumer societies, ecologues and sociologues) to instil into them sensible spending and functional calculation in matters of consumption but it is hopeless. (1983: 45)

They haven't waited for future revolutions ... They know that there is no liberation, and that a system is abolished only by pushing it into hyperlogic, by forcing it into an excessive practice which is equivalent to a brutal amortization. 'You want us to consume - O.K., let's consume always more, and anything whatsoever; for any useless and absurd purpose'. (1983: 46)

In Baudrillard's analysis the movement from the expansionary hierarchical societies that we live in today towards a new mode of production - what he calls an implosion - is almost inevitably a violent change. Accordingly, we could consider the environmental crisis as a desired outcome in the sense that it will put an apocalyptic end to class society. It is a definitive consequence of an intended apathy and a rejection of responsibility. The environmental crisis drives the system to collapse by accelerating its own excesses (see also Baudrillard, 1988; 1993). While he notes that "communes, ecology, ZPG, drugs" (1983: 61) are attempts at a smooth transition to an implosive society he doubts whether such attempts could be successful. Presumably the masses will see the people promoting these solutions as merely a new political elite attempting to keep the system limping along.

A Fundamentalist

Margie was the interviewee whose position is most readily fitted into the framework of Baudrillard's analysis. A mother of three children, she says she has no paid work in order to make time for her responsibilities as a mother. Both she and her husband are from a working class background, currently her husband works in secondary industry in a semi-skilled position. They are glad that a recent deal between the union and the company means that he works four twelve hour days followed by four days off. This allows time for the family to be together, for short family holidays and so on. Although she is puritannical on some issues - monogamy, the dangers of adolescent sexual liaisons for girls - she is certainly not an epitome of the ascetic puritan. In this interview she claimed that she was lazy and confessed that she was unable to give up smoking depite the fact that it went against her religious principles. On another occasion she pointed out that she and her husband never save money but spend it quickly on holidays. Although she stays home for the sake of the children much of her time at home is devoted to leisure - mostly reading "anything except science fiction". Although she finds her housework boring she relieves the tedium by putting on music, ordering albums from America of her favourite Motown artists if they are not locally available. Despite a history of diabetes in her family she is big drinker of soft drinks and eater of cakes and is slightly overweight in consequence.

Margie's attitude to environmental issues is heavily influenced by her adherence to the point of view of a fundamentalist sect. Although she studies with this sect she did not want me to refer to the sect by name. She cannot claim membership since she smokes. Even here Margie distances herself from actual participation in the group with which she identifies most. As Margie interprets the views of this sect, environmental catastrophes are only to be expected in this period of history. On the other hand there is no need to worry about this outcome of current trends:

Terry: So do you think there are, kind of, going to be environmental disasters around the corner or do you worry that that's a possibility or ...

Margie: Umm, if the world was to go on as it is, yes I do think that here'd be disaster around the corner but this is where it gets hard to explain. I think because the world was created, that everything in the world was created. I don't believe in the evolution theory or the pea and ham soup - So having taken that from the bible I believe what the bible says, that there's going to be a sorting out period and then we'll have more or less what they say, the great tribulation and then armageddon, then the thousand years of peace and I think that God himself will fix everything up - 'cause believing that there is a creator and there is a God I believe that he created it so any mess that's made, if he so chooses, he'll fix. If he doesn't choose to fix the hole in the ozone layer, I've no doubt that in the thousand years it won't harm you so it all boils down to believing that yeah, well - I believe that he created everything. Since he had the power to do that I think he can do anything, so I don't really worry about it too much. Does that make sense?

Also in keeping with the views of this sect she does not vote. To support a political party would be to show a lack of faith in God's ability to sort out all these problems in the near future. It would be mistaken to see Margie as a dupe whose opinions are merely derived from the teachings of her chosen sect. Instead what must be understood is that her use of this sect is based in much longer term strategies for dealing with the political. Speaking earlier in the interview about her favourite types of reading she identifies two key genres - historical romance novels, especially Georgette Heyer and true stories about the past, as long as they are not about real events which are emotionally disturbing because of their vivid recency:

I like reading things about people that lived in another period. True things, I love reading about that. Anything that's not going to hassle me out. Will not read anything about Nazi concentration camps. And things like that 'cause they give me nightmares. So that frightens me because it happened, what is it now, fifty years ago ...

Later, after a critique of the green movement as extremist, she admitted that this was not really based on solid evidence since she avoided the news:

Margie: I don't actually know any greenies or - and I hide from the news.

Terry: Will you explain that, you hide from the news.

Margie: Well, I don't watch it, and I don't listen to it, Oh well sometimes I hear things 'cause my husband watches it, you hear certain things but I don't go out of my way to keep informed about what's going on in the world - It's the ostrich syndrome.

Terry: Well why do you think you do that? Do you find it boring or do you find it ghastly?

Margie: Both. Both actually. I, I don't know. The news. I don't like to know about wars. I don't like to know about wars which have been going on for years - over there. Most things I don't think that you've really got much power to change, being one person on your own. Umm So it's no good getting het up about it. And, and I think it just sort of stems over from when I was a child and I first heard about concentration camps. And I used to think that if you were Jewish, in Germany at that time, you would have had to have had three things, you would have had to have had, been really aware of what was going on and understand it, and to have been rich enough to get out. You know and I thought well, Gee I don't want to know about it (laughs).

Terry: You mean if something like that's going to happen you'd rather it just happened, you don't need to know about it ...

Margie: Yeah, who needs ulcers before.

So Margie not only avoids political participation of even the most minimal kind, but also avoids information. Tracing this attitude back to her childhood she refers it to the horrors of extreme political violence, the ever present reality of wars even if they are "over there" at the moment. The individual has no hope of influencing political events and to think about them is to invite nightmares into one's life. If such nightmares are to take place in your own reality it would be better to receive them unannounced and at least to have enjoyed the period prior to these events without ulcers.

These statements are in tune with another passage in her interview where she begins by talking about the kinds of disasters that constitute armageddon. Wars are first on her list and she refers to the book "1984" in which wars are manufactured to ensure the obedience of the population, and to the way in which wars are used by governments to rescue countries from depressions. The reference to "1984" suggests some consciousness of her apolitical standpoint as a strategy of active avoidance - she ensures that she is not used in some political game with tragic consequences. The suspicion with which she views politicians is also manifest in a passage where she explains why she thinks wars are inevitable. She begins by pointing out that within a country politicians within a party "fight", and of course, are fighting with those of the opposing party. No wonder countries end up at war with each other. All this indicates that "man can't rule himself" - people are greedy, struggle for power, land or whatever and utopia does not exist. At another point in her interview she makes it clear that she did not vote prior to her conversion and that in those days she did not vote because she felt that the gerrymander of seats made politics unfair.

Margie's alienation from political life is therefore based in a fear of political fanaticism and the terror that it can unleash, a resistance to politics as a site of manipulation and a conviction that her participation could have no significant or worthwhile consequences. All these views affect her attitudes to environmentalists and are used to explain her own lack of involvement in their campaigns. Her first introduction of the topic of environmentalists casts them as carping moralists. Asked about what she saw as environmental problems she first cited the hole in the ozone layer, next the effects of oil leaks on wild animals and then went on:

Margie: I don't know. Other than that there's always the greenies going on about not cutting down wood and so on and so forth. Not much. I don't really know much. I don't seem to be worried about it too much.

Terry: What do the greenies go on about then?

Margie: Well, I think that they're all into natural things and trying to save our natural resources and they don't want to cut down the treees, and they don't want you to kill off the animal life, which is all well and good, and it's good of them to do that, to be interested in and to take that part of their life, but sometimes I think maybe you've got to learn to stand back. I mean cutting down the rainforest is awful, yes, but people do need fuel, don't they and things like that. I mean you've got to sort of decide when it's right to make a stand and when it's right to let other people get on with their life.

The phrase "always the greenies going on" identifies environmentalists as a coherent political grouping, patronizes them with a diminutive nick name and suggests that their moralising is predictable and excessive. By contrast Margie herself is not worried. Their sympathy for natural things is commendable up to a point and their altruism is conceded. The phrase "I think maybe you've got to learn to stand back" puts the environmentalists in the role of children who have yet to learn to be impartial. Their problem is that their moralism can interfere with other people's real needs. She goes on to cite the issue of the recent bushfires and burning off as an example. While she later concedes that her analysis is based in hearsay she argues that environmentalists prevented the burning off which would have saved the bush from the wild fires. What seems to me significant in this claim is that it places the environmentalists in the role of a power block with the political weight to veto a policy which was backed by the Fire Brigade, property owners and farmers. Crucially this credits them with the kind of political influence from which Margie feels herself excluded.

Later Margie returns to the view that the problem with environmentalists is that their emotionalism is politically dangerous:

I'm basically saying on human nature, using human nature that people when they get fanatical about something lose their sense of - what's the word - judgement, you know, they don't, they don't, they're involved, they're not standing back.

Here she assimilates environmentalists to the Nazis that she talks about elsewhere in the interview - they are fanatics and lose all sense of proportion. Their simplified view of the world in which the environment always comes first poses a threat to the well being of other people getting on with their lives. Her comments here echo Baudrillard's explanation of the response of the masses to all attempts to get them politically involved:

They distrust, as with death, this transparency and this political will. They scent the simplifying terror which is behind the ideal hegemony of meaning ... (Baudrillard, 1983:10).

The class issues involved in Margie's analysis cannot be ignored. She sees environmentalists as part of a distrusted middle class elite. At one point in the interview she is asked to characterize environmentalists and says that they are likely to be well educated and have a lot of "get up and go". She could not be part of such a grouping "on all sorts of counts"; for one she is "too lazy". Environmentalists are seen as part of the powerful political elite which is trying to influence and morally control the rest of the population. They are purists and fanatics and their hard work is a sign of a puritan ethic that she eschews. This suspicion of the middle class and professionals is not restricted to environmentalists and politicians. During the interview she also criticized teachers who shout at children - they are trained to look after children and should not display the lack of control that is understandable in a parent. She expressed her critical appraisal of established religion - the misuses of the church by ministers and priests for their own ends, and claimed that this critique preceded her recent conversion.

Margie's interview fits in very well with the framework suggested by Cardan and by Baudrillard. Her political alienation is premised on the idea that the political elite are not readily influenced by people like herself. Politics is seens as a realm of dangerous antagonisms and fanaticism with terror the likely outcome. In such a situation the most adequate response is a retreat into private life in which political events are always "over there" until the point at which their disastrous consequences become unavoidable. The present period is identified as one in which the evil consequences of political life will be manifested in armageddon. Margie's millenarian religious beliefs allow her to face this consequence calmly in the expectation that God will eventually restore order, something which humanity is incapable of on its own account. Looking at this position from the outside it can be argued that this wilful and extreme refusal of participation amounts to a strategy in which tendencies towards crisis are not opposed by any mass participation in ameliorative action.

Two Industrial Workers

Another interview revealed similar themes of political alienation and avoidance of political participation; a response which resists the environmental movement as a type of politics. This interview took place at the home of a student who was also a long term industrial worker and a work colleage of the other two interviewees. Mostly the student, Ken, took the role of assistant interviewer and facilitator; in cases where he had strong disagreements with his colleagues he remained silent, allowing me the scope to draw out these points of view.

Like Margie, these interviewees had a bleak view of the long term future. For Ian and Peter, the vehicle of apocalypse was not armageddon but unemployment through automation and the takeover of Australia by the Japanese. They began their interview by talking about the reduction in numbers at their own plant to less than a third of the work force of previous years. Those laid off had mostly taken voluntary early retirement and had been happy to do so at the time but now regretted it, being bored and unable to get new employment. It seemed likely that in the near future their plant would be phased out altogether or replaced with a much smaller operation. They were aware of the difficulties that young people of the next generation faced in getting employment. Ian's son had been unable to get work despite going on to year twelve at school. Peter mentioned a family across the road whose grown up children were in a similar situation. This situation was used as the basis for future projections:

Terry: So, what - If things go the way they're going - what do you think things will be like in Australia for your kids when they grow old?

Peter: Oh it's - I'm frightened to think about it really. Yeah, I - I think, urgh, I mean so far, maybe not so much for my kids, maybe their kids, uhh, the way things are going now I don't think there will be any work for anyone, I don't know what's going - I, I've always thought that the Japs, I mean no matter where you go, on holidays or anything, full of Japs, I think in years to come I think this place will be nothing but Japs, I think the people over there will be over here, and ...

Terry: So what will your kids be doing then?

Peter: I don't know, I'm too frightened to think.

Ian: There's nothing for the kids now so what's it going to be like for their kids if they ever do have any?

Peter: If companies still keep on going on, like with computers, cutback, cutback, there's going to be no jobs anyway.

What is presupposed by this scenario is that companies and capitalism will still exist in their present form; shareholders will be attempting to make a profit by cutting staff through automation and this process will lead to the wholesale unemployment of the Australian working class. This is a frightening prospect in itself but what accompanies it is an even more dire analysis. The powers that be will collude in a total takeover of the Australian continent by the Japanese. What is hinted at here is nothing less than the extermination of the local Australian population, already made redundant by changes in technology.

Like Margie, Ian and Peter generally avoid political participation and their approach to environmental politics is framed within this context. In important ways, Ian is more in favour of political action than Peter. At one point he says he would support an environmentalist party by voting for it if if its other policies suited him. He characterizes his wife as an environmentalist and says that she gives financial support to environmental organizations, though he does not. As well, he suggests that if it came to the crunch he would not be averse to getting into an "argument" with the police on an environmental issue. On the other hand, for the most part Ian agrees with Peter that environmental political action rarely achieves anything, and ultimately takes a second place behind other leisure pursuits. A characteristic remark is his description of environmentalist protests against logging:

Terry: Do you worry about Australia's native forests?

Ian: What can you do about it?

Terry: Cut down for wood pulp or ...

Ian: (More loudly) What can you do about it?

Terry: What do you mean by that?

Ian: Eh? Well they're going to cut the trees down, they cut them down, won't they? My missus is a greenie, she supports the greenies. She supports them moneywise too, but I don't, you know. But I'm not going to go out there and tie myself on the bloody tree and let'em fight and do what they do. I believe in what they try to do but, umm, not much you can do about it.

Later in the interview he discussed an ineffective campaign to stop an ocean outfall polluting a beach and drew this conclusion:

So what can you do about it - nothing. So, I mean, they whinged and whined trying to get it stopped, to build that up there, but that still got built.

He blamed this decision on government, "the bastards", and refused to place any responsibility on an electorate that did not want to pay increased taxes for environmental reform. Ian's discussion proposes a political structure composed of three elements. On the one hand are the powers that be - "they". Secondly there are those who ineffectually "whinge and whine" in opposition to the decisions of these powers. By implication this is a humiliating position of supplication that is all too often ineffective. Finally, people such as himself retain their dignity by avoiding such hopeless confrontations. Later he admitted that in specific circumstances environmental action could be effective - as in the successful campaign to retain an area of waterfront bushland for a park. Here he implied that the source of success lay in the fact that it was a local issue in which local people were directly affected and made up the bulk of protesters - there was no point in getting involved in campaigns which were not germane to your particular local interests. Nevertheless he would not generalize from this success, seeing the failure of attempts to stop the ocean outfall as much more typical. Overall he suggested that leisure and family activities had a much higher priority than ineffective and humiliating attempts to influence governments. He is a keen surfer and also enjoys fishing and assisting the children with their sporting activities.

Peter's position was a much more strident defense of his lack of participation. This was not just restricted to environmental matters, he also explained his lack of particpation in union affairs in the same way. His most definitive statement on this was in response to a question about the kinds of people who might be members of environmental organizations

Peter: Oh, I don't really, I'm not, I'm one that I've never ever had much to do with that sort of thing, it never ever interested me, umm I mean people do everything because that's what they want to do, you know and Greenpeace, or demonstrating about something, you know, I'm not that sort of - I'm never ever interested in anything like that - umm -

Terry: 'Cause uhh?

Peter: I don't know. It just, I've always though it doesn't make any difference to me, what I say, you know, so -

Terry: It's not going to make much difference.

Peter: No.

Terry: So you'd rather be, spend your time with your family.

Peter: Yeah.

Terry: What sort of things, would you do on your days off.

Peter: Well, we like, we like uhh, picnics, barbecues, umm, uhh, markets, things like that, you know, or just, just going to a place where we can, the beach or something.

Terry: Do you go fishing?

Peter: Love fishing, when I get time. I've got a sixteen year old boy, he's off today, he wants to go - relaxation, you know. But even if tomorrow they say right, we're gonna, say for twelve hours we gonna, big meeting, out the gate, I wouldn't go, 'cause it doesn't make any difference to what I - I get all the information from Ian or Ken.

The approach taken to political activism here is that it is one of a number of possible activities that one could pursue according to personality. Peter does not see any need to explain his failure to participate, both on environmental issues and also in union affairs except to say that he is not that sort of person. Later on he characterizes environmentalists as people who are "strong" on an issue and will "get into an argument", and that personally he will "stand back". Like Margie, he sees politics in terms of conflict and maintains that his own approach is to avoid conflict. It is unpleasant and his contribution would make no difference to the outcome. The only exception he makes to this is in cases where his family is involved directly:

If something happens to me or the family, well, naturally I'll stand up for that.

In much of the interview I attempted to call this distinction into question. For example I pointed out that much bush had been cleared for housing and that this had an affect on Peter's leisure. Peter's response to such examples explained another aspect of his suspicions of environmental politics. He pointed out that in a case where waterfront bushland was to be cleared for development he personally would be in favour of keeping the bush. However, he explained, this perspective was a product of his own circumstances; he was happy living where he did. On the other hand, the perspective of those who might want to buy waterfront land would naturally be different. By implication their more strongly personal desire to live on the waterfront should not be opposed by his less direct interest in saving the bush for occasional use for family picnics or views. Similarly he argued that air pollution and noise pollution was usually caused by industries that had the full support of the local community and it was not up to outsiders to ban these activities.

Like Margie, he resists environmentalist politics within the context of a model in which outsiders interfere with the deeply felt needs of other people. He related a story in which a neighbour "an old woman" was "snooping around" his place and called the Fire Brigade because he was burning off some papers - an illegal activity. Describing their arrival he creates a sense of invasion of his private space - "there must have been half a dozen blokes there and he's come into my place and he says ...". Within the framework of Cardan's perspective, Peter protects areas of decision making against the constant threat of bureaucratic control, something experienced as an everyday reality of work and as an increasing intrusion in other fields of daily life. Environmentalists are readily seen as another arm of bureaucracy.

These issues were not unrelated to the dangers of environmental politics to the jobs of those involved in damaging the environment. Peter is a keen fisher and has a small runabout to go fishing with his son. I asked him whether he thought commercial fishing should be banned in areas where large commercial catches were making it hard for amateurs to get fish:

Well there again, Terry, I don't really - I don't really get involved in that sort of thing I mean - uhh, I mean if they're fishing they're fishing for a living, those guys aren't they? Why should I stop 'em? I mean they don't come up to me and say well listen, uhh, you've been there twenty years, how about giving my son a job, something like that, you know. Uhh, it's probably higher up that's got to do something about it ...

In this passage, Peter actually invites government to take a firm line but also indicates that he personally will retain his neutrality by not becoming involved - despite the fact that he is affected quite directly by commercial fishing. What is also suggested by this example is that he is unlikely to support environmentalist proposals that may cost people their jobs. The people "higher up" are given the unenviable task of protecting the environment without affecting people's jobs. Many interviewees in this study claimed that a problem with environmentalist groups was that they were insufficiently sensitive to the needs of other people for employment.

What became clear in other parts of the interview is that Peter and Ian blame the political elites for environmental problems and for the crisis of unemployment that is prominent in their analysis. As Cardan argues for the population in general, so also for these interviewees; a strategy of political withdrawal was part and parcel of a disillusionment with political life and political elites. The vehemence of comments about politicians was distinctive. This issue was first raised in connection with the failure of government to deal with the problem of unemployment. Ian and Peter were adamant that one part of the solution to unemployment was for the government to find jobs for the unemployed, training them on the job for future careers in skilled work. The unemployed would be paid to engage in socially useful tasks under state direction. It was agreed that environmentally useful work such as restoring farmland and developing alternative energy sources would be an appropriate use for this labour force. Ian also argued that another part of the solution to unemployment was that imports should be closed off to ensure employment in local industries. To Ian and Peter these joint solutions to problems of employment and the environment seemed obvious. The failure of governments to carry out such plans must be due to malicious or lazy inactivity by the political and economic elites running Australia:

The government scratches your back, you scratch their back, they look after themselves, they don't care a stuff about the poor old workers.

A persistent thread running through their account of governmental failure was an isolationist nationalist critique. There was no need for increased taxes to pay for employment schemes or environmental policies; "billions" were being wasted overseas in aid schemes for places such as Ruanda, money that could be better spent locally aiding farmers or assisting the unemployed. Ian favoured a return to the White Australia policy and a total ban on imports and exports. Unemployment was the fault of a callous government bringing in immigrants instead of training native born Australians to fill jobs:

That's another, that's another thing, see, they brought qualified people into the country to fill our, our, where our gap wasn't instead of teaching our kids the jobs. They didn't want to teach our kids the prenticeships and that sort of stuff. They said, ohh well, just get the wogs from over bloody seas and fill up the holes, because they're already trained.

He went on to agree with the suggestion that this was because it was cheaper to employ those already trained. It is significant that "they" is used in this passage to refer to an alliance of political and economic elites in Australia, working hand in glove with complete disregard for the population as a whole. This critical analysis of politicians and the current government was also brought into play to explain why it was unlikely that the government would do anything serious to deal with environmental problems. Discussing the greenhouse effect I argued that considerable investment in alternative energy would be necessary to curtail greenhouse gases. Sympathetic to this program, Bill and Ian doubted whether the government would implement it:

Terry: So do you reckon you can rely on the Australian government to do something about this or not?

Ian: No.

Peter: I think their main worry at the moment is Bob Hawke's book, isn't it? There's another thing that happens with the government. they've got nothing to do but - talk about rubbish.

Ian: Need a change of government.

Peter: I'm not real, how should I put it, uhh. I'm absolutely disgusted with the government, because they're actually doing nothing for Australia. They don't seem to be doing anything. God they must be creating jobs for people and that, you know, I mean they've got it too easy, I don't know. There's nothing but rubbish they talk about on tele with the government. They're always arguing about so and so said this and so and so said that, well that's a lot of rubbish, I mean.

Ian: They've got too much fringe benefits.

Peter: It doesn't matter who's in power, they're all really the same, they're not strong enough. I mean as soon as they come into power, well they go overseas, and that's about it, I mean what are they doing for us?

This is the age old image of politicians feathering their own nests while ignoring the needs of those who elected them. Both parties are seen as equally guilty and what is necessary is a drastic change in direction. One way of treating this material is to suggest that politicians are here scapegoated for problems which the political and economic order of capitalism is unable to solve. Ian and Peter refuse to acknowledge that an electorate that votes consistently for the best combination of increased living standards, full employment and lower taxes cannot readily solve the economic problems that face Australia or deal with the pending environmental crisis. In the economic realm problems are created by lower market prices for some Australian raw materials and competition in manufacturing from new plant and low wages in the third world. In the context of the environment, crisis seems likely without a commitment to greatly increased government expenditure and an end to an economy based in growth in consumer spending as the key to full employment (Trainer, 1985; Trainer, 1991; Trainer, 1994).

On the other hand the sense that Ian and Peter have that politicians are manipulating the electorate may be regarded as a "partial penetration" as Willis puts it in another context (1983). The fact is that these stark truths of economic and environmental reality are hardly ever put clearly to the electorate by political leaders, who continually promise that in government they will have no trouble creating full employment and ever increasing living standards with a minimum of environmental damage and lower taxes.

The ultra conservative response of these interviewees can be seen as "hyperconformist" in Baudrillard's sense of the word. For a start their refusal, in common with most Australians, to deal with these problems in a realistic way means that the political order cannot but continue its commitment to a fatal strategy of economic growth, low government spending and long term economic and ecological disasters. As well, the alternatives that Ian and Peter propose actually imply a radical attack on capitalism in Australia, although they themselves seem unaware of this. As indicated above, the central platform of their utopia is an isolationist economic policy. Ian explained this proposal after inveighing against the government for sending aid to Ruanda, explaining that jobs could be created without increased taxation so long as "billions" were not sent overseas in aid:

Ian: My point of view - look after the people in Australia first. Bugger what's overseas. Whatever happens over there happens over there. It's not our fault, we should look after your own country first. My point of view, we should stop all imports, shut the country off and live by ourselves.

Peter: What about the exports, they're sending oranges over there, now.

Ian: Ohh yeah!

Peter: We'll have to pay, we'll have to pay for extra oranges soon 'cause there won't be any around.

Terry: So what would you say if someone said that the result of that would be that Australians would be a lot poorer.

Ian: Why would we be poorer?

Terry: Well because, umm, it would cost us more to produce what we import. Like say overseas, like you know, right, your tape deck, right, your car, all that, it's made by really cheap labour OS and brought into Australia and we send our minerals, our wool, wheat, stuff over there.

Ian: Why? Why should we send our minerals over there? Why can't we [Terry interrupts with an answer and is talked down] say right. We got, we got, we got our own car factories that went broke because the stupid Japanese mob bring their cars over here. Right, fair enough. We got Holden, Holden.

Terry: [We'd have to pay more.]

Ian: No we don't have to pay more money. If Australia looks after Australia. I mean look after ourselves. Don't worry about anyone over there - see you should look after your own people in your own country.

Terry: Cars would cost more for Australian to buy than they do now. Is that a problem?

Ian: It's not a problem if we make 'em ourselves. If we made our own cars.

Terry: Would they be as cheap as the Japanese imports?

Ian: Why won't they? We're not worried about the imports, but then we'd be making our own cars, that'd be made by Australian people.

The idea that Australia subsidizes the third world while suffering economically from cheap foreign imports may be regarded as a piece of racist scapegoating. It does not acknowledge the way in which standards of living in the first world are underwritten by low wages in the poor countries (Bennett & George, 1987; Trainer, 1991). However this racism is hyperconformist in the sense that it becomes a rationale for a proposal that would deeply challenge the capitalist class in Australia and in practice might work out to be a lot less racist than the current exploitation of the third world.

Ian and Peter's utopia in fact has a close resemblance to utopias proposed by environmentalists and by Third World radicals. For example Daly and Cobb (1991), and also Trainer (1985), argue that on strictly environmental grounds the global market in consumer goods is very wasteful of energy and undermines the possibility of localized community production in which consumers are intimately aware of the environmental consequences of their consumption and have the means to influence the productive process in an environmentally benign manner. Likewise Third World radicals and environmentalists argue that the production of cash crops and consumer goods for affluent countries diverts resources away from local subsistence production and often results in ecological devastation - as for example in the clearing of rainforests in Brazil to provide beef for the hamburger market in affluent countries (Bennett & George, 1987; Shiva, 1989; Trainer, 1991). The "Other Economic Summit" of poor nations makes this demand of the first world:

Keep your wealth. Enjoy your consumer civilization. Withdraw completely your interests, companies, investment, tourist resorts, and good humanitarian intentions from our countries ... we will never find ourselves worse off than we are today (New Economics Foundation, 1994: 15)

Ian and Peter's utopia is a call for an "implosion" of current society, to use Baudrillard's term (1983). It proposes a reversal of the process of expansion and imperialism that has characterized capitalism and class society in general, a contraction and localization of economic and political activity.

What may be more important than the details of this proposal as a political program are the metaphors in which it is couched. There is much evidence for Cardan's view that the rejection of the political is an expression of a sense of alienation in daily life. In the heated discussion of Ian's proposal I continually argued that it did not make sense economically; that such isolationism would have disastrous consequences for our living standards. On the one hand Ian denied this outright, but he also became increasingly vehement that it did not matter; the central issue was that we Australians would be making "our own"cars. Although this proposal is framed as a kind of nationalist capitalism the emotional force of the statement is a claim to ownership and control of the means of production. There is a sense that the current globalization of capitalism removes decisions from any possibility of control at a local level. As I shall show below, this relates to very real experiences in working life. As well, the term "our own" cars and the nostalgic reference to Holdens is a demand for a cultural control of production. Consumers would take an active pride and pleasure in driving cars that were produced by their own community for their needs. Although none of this is seen by Ian and Peter as anti-capitalist the details of this proposal and the reasoning behind it are in total contradiction to the logic of profit and the market.

Related to this is a second theme that is common in this interview - that of "caring" and concern. If the communist utopia of Marx's early writings is a gift economy in which products are produced to be given away and in which relationships express community and concern for others, the distopia of capitalism is that decisions are impersonal and show no concern for others (Vaneigem, 1983). In the quoted passage Ian expresses this critical evaluation of capitalist society in the statement that "you should look after your own people in your own country". Economic isolation is preferred to the global market as a means to ensure that everyone in Australia is cared for by being provided with meaningful work. The same theme is present in the statement quoted above that the government does not care about the "poor old workers". It also comes up in Ian's explanation of the success of the Japanese car industry. He argues that each plant is a "happy family - happy plant" because workers are looked after by the company which also ensures that their children get a job. A similar statement is made in connection with Japanese tourists in Australia. According to Ian and Peter they spend all their money in Australia at Japanese businesses - this is because the Japanese know how to "look after each other".

Another topic which raised similar themes was that of overseas aid. As we have seen, Ian and Peter were very hostile to overseas aid throughout most of the interview. Nevertheless there was a point at which this position was softened. They argued that overseas aid in money, which came from taxes, was to be opposed because the recipients already possessed sophisticated armaments and would use aid to buy more arms. However aid given in kind from the surplus produced in Australia was another matter and would be a suitable gift to those in need. What gets expressed here is again the sense that decisions are taken out of the hands of ordinary people; there is the defense of a sphere of private control against encroachments by governments. As well there is the implied utopia of a gift economy in which real control over products is expressed in a way that is direct and not mediated by a market and cash.

Cardan's view that political apathy is related to the experience of alienation at work can find support in this interview. Ian and Peter were very cynical about the role of the union. On the one hand they were critical of it's distance from the workers, the way in which it had worked hand in glove with the company to restructure the plant by laying off staff. On the other hand they accepted these events as inevitable given the the threat to close the plant altogether. A comment which reveals the sense of alienation from the union was this statement of Peter's:

If the union's got something to say or that, I think they go back to the company and let them know before we sort of know, you know. I think the union's just about as strong as the company, like they're in with it together.

In terms of their experience of work they mentioned a number of specific grievances. One was the way in which shift work cut into and interfered with family life. Another grievance was the way in which the company always put production before maintenance. The result was that the job was harder than it needed to be and also that workers would be blamed for faults that were actually caused by faulty equipment. A major complaint was the loneliness that had been brought about by severe reductions in the number of staff on shifts:

Yes, like years ago there, I mean five or six years ago, I used to enjoy coming to work, where, when we had a break or - you'd play, there'd be enough people there for a game of dominoes, you know, you'd talk, where now, if you don't read a book - it's just really boring.

When the interviewees were asked whether they had any sense that there work was a contribution to the well being of the community they all said that they felt they were just there to do a job, to make money for the company and that they were not appreciated for their work. Given the opportunity they would not work in the plant:

It's just a job. you're there to push the stuff out and you push it out. You're only. If you've got stuff to make for export, for America, we had a couple of months, a couple of years ago now, we haven't done that for a while. Well all you do, that's going to America. It's just a number on a screen. You know where it's going to. You just make it and that's it. Export stuff, it's just export stuff. You don't make much difference about it. The company don't give you a slap on the back and say, ohh well done, you done this, you done that, you don't get no appreciation, you're only just a number and that's it.

Following this there was some discussion as to whether managers might be rewarded with a new car if they exceeded their targets. They agreed that they had no way of knowing how the company might treat staff at the management level. They recalled occasions when the workers had been given some recognition after a year of very high production:

Ken: A few years ago, we broke the record and we were taken, the three or four departments, we were all taken to the rec club and they had food and beer and drinks for that afternoon, for four hours, that's, that was what they gave us, nothing else.

Ian: Bugger all.

Ken: We got a biro.

Steve: It didn't work.

These comments relate strongly to the theme of "care" mentioned above, the feeling that elites in power in Australia do not care about the fate of ordinary people and ignore attempts to influence them to look after people. As Cardan and Baudrillard argue, this experience can become a reason for avoiding political commitment - there is nothing to be gained from such wasteful use of one's leisure time since no one cares or will listen. This critique is based in an accurate assessment of the economic and political realities of capitalist industry. Companies will relocate to a more efficient plant or situate their plant in an area with a cheaper workforce and there is nothing much that can be done about this. Morally, the interviewees are critical of such conduct for it's lack of concern for the welfare of ordinary people, but pragmatically, they believe there is nothing to be done about it. The political organization that could be expected to represent them, the union, is not trusted or at any rate has no answer to this pressure.

This analysis was also to applied to the issue of industrial pollution at the plant itself and in neighbouring plants owned by other companies. Ian raised this issue to begin with, announcing early in the interview that people sometimes took issue with him, accusing the company of being a polluter. What they did not realize was that smoke coming from the plant was merely steam and not a pollutant. While both Ian and Peter argued that their company had improved its control over wastes, they agreed that this was in response to tighter legislation and to actual prosecutions by the Environmental Protection Authority. At the same time, they were aware that their company and other companies were still trying to get round the legislation. Later in the interview, Ian pointed out that his company and neighbouring companies had developed the habit of allowing toxic or offensive chemicals to be released at night so that emissions were not visible in the day time:

Ian: Well Starkie Point pump it out more times and no one knows about it either. There's a - well my mate works over there and he said there's a pipe that runs in the river and they'll come in there on a day shift and they got a settling bed full of garbage, that's there at four o'clock. When they come back the next day it's all gone. Now he said there's a pipe and it pumps out in the river. Well I don't know, that's only just talk.

Terry: Well how are they getting away with that?

Ian: That's right, how are they getting away with it?

Terry: Well, what do you reckon?

Ian: Well you work for a company, you shut up, you don't say things like that, do you? I mean you, there's not many jobs around now.

Here there are a number of ways in which Ian defends industrial workers from charges of complicity in industrial pollution. Firstly, he argues that members of the public are sometimes ill informed and mistakenly believe pollution is taking place when it is not. However as the interview continues he acknowledges that actual pollution does occur. However this is the fault of management, not the ordinary worker - "it's higher up that do all that sort of stuff". The ordinary worker naturally keeps quiet to preserve their job, rather than blowing the whistle on their own company. In turn management is driven by the profit motive. Peter and Ken took up this theme:

Terry: Why would a company try and get round environmental laws like that, you know, like pollution and dumping stuff in the river?

Peter: Well it probably costs them too much to dump it anywhere else, I suppose, it'd be just as cheap just to throw it in the river, I don't know.

Ken: It just comes down to money.

Peter: Yeah I'd say the money aspect that's for sure.

Ken: It's all split up, like most companies, all split up into little cells, and this cell has to make this much profit, above their budget, or whatever it is, and that's the way, so if they can dump the stuff this way then they don't have to spend so much money.

In other words, top management puts pressure on managers of each cell to increase profits for their section. However decisions to cut corners are made at the cell level so top management appears to be free of direct responsibility. As with the analysis of the organization of work itself, this is a picture of a political structure in which decisions are made by an elite which is not readily influenced by ordinary workers. To attempt to prevent pollution by calling polluting practices into question is to risk one's job. So the interviewees explain their inactivity here in the same way that it is explained in the broader context of environmental politics or party politics as a whole - there is nothing that can be done.

Conclusions

This is an exploratory study and definite conclusions must depend on further interviews being gathered. What was striking about the interviews gathered so far was the apocalyptic despair that characterized the future visions of non-environmentalists and environmentalists alike. Another interviewee predicted social collapse on the basis of the moral decay of the capitalist class; their embrace of consumerism, vanity and ostentation and the abandonment of a productivist ethos. As far as the ordinary population were concerned, he believed that there was a growing lack of respect for authority that had affected the capitalist and the communist world alike - the future would be grim but it was impossible to predict what might follow capitalism.

Those who were active in environmental issues tended to expect apocalypse in the form of environmental disaster - over population and land degradation; a sudden catastrophe caused by atmospheric change; the gradual worsening of soil, water and air quality. In one sense it might be expected that environmentalists would embrace apocalyptic visions of the future as part of the discourse of environmentalism (for example Gordon and Suzuki, 1990). However it is significant that none of the environmentalists believed that the social appeal of environmentalism would grow to the point where real environmental change was likely; they tended to think they were fighting a losing battle.

There were two exceptions to these scenarios of disaster. Ruth was a strong liberal supporter who was convinced that capitalism would gradually solve environmental problems and implement the necessary environmental controls as new technological solutions became available. Just as standards of living had improved in her generation and the generation before, so too would they improve in the foreseeable future. She was not politically active and regarded environmentalists as useful extremists - their presence goaded the more moderate parties into making necessary reforms. While Ruth's viewpoint can be seen as a sensible and realistic accomodation to capitalism (Parkin, 1979; Abercrombie, Hill & Turner, 1980) it can also be seen as a strategy of hyperconformism. If environmentalists are right about the pending problems of global capitalism this moderate support for the continuation of an economy of growth and consumerism is in fact a fatal strategy. By doing nothing and not becoming seriously acquainted with the environmental issues that need to be addressed, Ruth is no different in practice from Margie, Ian and Peter who sit with their hands folded waiting for apocalypse.

Another optimistic scenario was drawn up by Jacob who was one of a group of unemployed youths that I interviewed. Asked about the kind of utopia they would like to see come about Jacob envisaged a gift economy in which we would become like a tribal group he had seen on a TV documentary. There would be no private property and goods and services would be provided as gifts by members of the community acting in voluntary organisations. This utopian vision echoes some of the themes mentioned by Peter and Ian. While Ian and Peter envisage a future of nationalist capitalism they actually propose to provide jobs as a gift to the unemployed, whether this makes sense in terms of the market or not. Similarly they envisage Australians making "our own" cars for "our own" people and "looking after" each other whether this makes sense in terms of the market or not. Their deep critique of workplace alienation is also addressed in Jacob's vision since alienated isolated paid labour is to be replaced by community based voluntary work in which appreciation comes from the consumers to whom the products are given.

The environmentalists I interviewed offered two explanations of the failure of environmental politics to gain mass support. One was that people were not concerned about the environment. Although they might give some lip service to environmental issues they would not back up this lip service with any real support. Another explanation was that the population was manipulated by capitalist hegemony within the mass media. The capitalist class were bent on making a profit regardless of environmental effects and their media supported this strategy. Neither of these explanations finds a great deal of support from the interviews discussed in this paper.

Interviewees were aware of environmental problems to a certain extent and were involved to some degree in recycling and other environmental practices. However their ignorance of some environmental issues was not necessarily accidental but was part of a strategy of disengagement from politics that was implemented in relation to party politics and trade unions as well. Their political inactivity could be interpreted quite well within the frameworks offered by Cardan and Baudrillard. As Cardan argues, interviewees experienced a sense of alienation at work and an inability to intervene to improve their daily life at work. They generalized this experience to argue that there was little point in political activism as powerful political elites would not listen. They regarded political activists of the left and right as a remote and potentially dangerous elite of argumentative extremists that were better avoided. Politicians and unionists in power were self seeking and ruthless, ignoring the needs of their constituents.

As Baudrillard's perspective suggests for the population at large, the interviewees' response to their disaffection from capitalism was not to attempt to change it by political activity but to retreat into leisure activities and domestic life in which they had a sense of control and participation (see also Willis, 1991). To use Baudrillard's terms, this is a "fatal strategy" of hyperconformism. The interviewees expected the current political order and economic order to collapse in disaster but had no intention of becoming involved in any attempt to prevent such disasters from taking place.

These attitudes underlay their response to environmentalism. Environmentalists were seen on the one hand as middle class moralists whose actions were typical of a political elite that ignored the needs of ordinary people. On the other hand they were seen as "whingers and whiners" who were foolish enough to waste their time trying to have an influence on the decisions of the political and economic elites who really made all decisions. It was not at all surprising to be told that environmentalists believed that capitalism would end in disaster. The interviewees already believed that capitalism was heading directly towards disasters of one kind or another, and they had already decided to do nothing about it.

This paper provides cold comfort for environmentalists. Environmentalists will inevitably be involved in political struggles and will want to recruit political support. This paper has looked at some of the deep seated reasons why people will choose not to be involved. The mere fact of a political conflict being involved would seem to be sufficient for the activity to be shunned; political activists are part of a distrusted elite, political conflict is a site of unwanted hostility and aggression, environmentalists may well be like other political fanatics who do not consider the needs of the people affected by their campaigns, it is better to spend your time enjoying your leisure than being involved in a worrying and useless activity. Something this analysis can explain is the disparity between the widespread enthusiasm for environmental campaigns that are not the subject of any political conflict and the narrower base of support for environmental campaigns which are overtly political. Activities such as whale rescues and clean up days get the kind of mass following that environmental lobby groups do not easily match. Such events are also political but they can be enjoyed as leisure without any fear that participants might be asked to contribute to a political conflict.

 

References:

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Trainer, T. 1991, " A Green Perspective on Inequality" in J. O'Leary & R. Sharp (eds.) Inequality in Australia: Slicing the cake, Melbourne, William Heinemann Australia.

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