Published 01 June 2022
In the months leading into the Australian federal election, people concerned about climate change organised for political transformation with a vigour and hope previously unseen in this country. After almost a decade of governmental obstruction on a green transition, however, many of us remained doubtful about the prospect of how much would actually change. Even after an electoral term during which communities were besieged by drought, fire and flood, neither major party was talking much about climate. And then, on 21 May, the electorate chose a slew of ‘climate candidates’ across the country. As Rebecca Solnit summed it up in the early hours of the next morning: “I suspect… that if someone had told [Australians] how glorious the outcome would be a week ago, they would’ve been skeptical. And then it came to pass.”
Both celebration for the momentous turn we might have witnessed and a careful assessment of the opportunities and risks that lie ahead are in order. A comprehensive analysis of what might lie ahead is beyond the scope of this blog, but we want to start, or join that conversation.
“The democratic tipping point we now need to nurture is one where grassroots activism of the sort that changed the outcome of this election starts to really drive large-scale political change at the international level.”
First, the celebration. Earth scientists have long talked about climate tipping points – those critical thresholds at which ‘runaway’ climate change will set off cascading, non-linear effects across multiple systems beyond our control. But there are also the more elusive ‘social tipping points’ that might drive non-incremental, non-linear change across a range of interlocking economic, social and political systems.
Are we at or near such a point? Could we see other nations begin to reject the kinds of regressive political moves that characterised the 2010s in so many parts of the world? During those years, we watched with dread as parties of the right and far-right mobilised racist and nationalist discourses to deflect attention from climate change while doubling down on fossil fuel extraction and opening formerly protected and First Nations lands to invasive industrial projects. The democratic tipping point we now need to nurture is one where grassroots activism of the sort that changed the outcome of this election starts to really drive large-scale political change at the international level.
After being in the dark for so long, we sense the glimmer of a transformed social and economic landscape; but we are not yet there. This emergent, but still-fragile crack in the concrete of party politics as usual will only become an authentic rupture if the myriad nodes of creative resistance and pluriversal possibility that already exist in communities all over the world attract broader civil society support and if governments create the economic and policy environments in which such experiments in living otherwise can flourish.
The trajectory of US politics provides a cautionary tale. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 marked not only the first coming to power of an African American President, but also the entry into the White House of a justice-minded lawyer and community organiser who promised to put communities first. While we would not attempt here to diagnose what went wrong in the years that followed, we do suggest that part of the problem lay in the failure to adequately anticipate and build social and institutional resistance to the reactionary ‘lines of flight’ that emerged shortly thereafter. A far cry from the hope of 2008, in today’s US, the likely overturning of the landmark decision in Roe v Wade threatens fundamental reproductive rights, intensifying white supremacist violence continues to culminate in race massacres, gun violence remains rampant, and the Biden administration has begun selling leases for new oil and gas drilling on federal lands – a violation of a key campaign promise.
This comparison with the US is not to suggest false parallels between very different political cultures and systems; nor is it intended to diminish the magnitude of what may have happened in Australia. We make it to underscore that what is critical at this moment is to tenaciously nurture alternatives, while simultaneously resisting the predictable efforts to roll back and undermine their successes.
“After being in the dark for so long, we sense the glimmer of a transformed social and economic landscape; but we are not yet there.”
This moment then, is best understood as the beginning of something that will demand, to paraphrase Isabelle Stengers, full-scale cosmopolitical warfare on behalf of what we love – warfare on behalf of those communities who have already suffered devastating losses and those ecosystems currently struggling for viability. Activists and grassroots community organisers have successfully fought for a shift in representation at federal politics, but that struggle must go much further and faster still. In the coming months and years, this electoral success will need to be amplified to ensure that it is a truly transformative post-capitalist ‘becoming’. This means continuing to relentlessly push the dial on what seems ‘feasible’ in this age of what Angela Harris calls, ‘climate chaos’. And that starts with convincing the federal government that targets for emissions reductions by 2030 must be in line with what scientists have made clear are necessary to keep heating below 1.5 degrees.
In the face of extraordinary environmental violence and injustice — both fast and slow, near and far — how can we intensify the forces of change that have made themselves felt in this election? What are the political, legal, educational and artistic avenues through which we can most productively continue to amplify the voices of marginalised communities, both human and other-than-human, contemporary, ancestral, and future? How can we work to deepen connections with communities in the Global South to facilitate a more unified counter-hegemonic bloc capable of fighting both exploitation and expropriation?
“At a time of “code red” for humanity, it is urgent that we demand that this new government reject diluted forms of environmentalism that fail to seriously challenge the economic forces that have normalised and incentivised our home’s destruction. Now is the time to mobilise together to nurture the “tapestry of alternatives” that already exist in our communities, and to enact the political and legal transformations that tired politics-as-usual frames have cast as utopian or otherwise unthinkable.”
The good news is that in these years when the federal government has belligerently obstructed serious climate action, activists, communities and scholars have not simply been decrying their impotence. They have been busy co-creating and beginning to test a range of institutional transformations that could provide the basic infrastructure for the action required. These include expanding legal personhood to beings other than humans, extending rights to nature, rethinking justice through a multispecies lens, experimenting with deliberation and democracy in ways that open up participation not only to marginalised humans, but to other animals and ecological systems, creatively deploying existing legal principals to forge radical judgments in favour of nature and future generations, and more.
The time is now to push as hard as we can – to open the doors not just of opportunity, as Albanese suggested in his acceptance speech, but of justice, of accountability, and of action.
This year, World Environment Day calls for “collective transformative action”. The election, we hope, was the beginning of such a transformation. But at a time of “code red” for humanity, it is urgent that we demand that this new government reject diluted forms of environmentalism that fail to seriously challenge the economic forces that have normalised and incentivised our home’s destruction. Now is the time to mobilise together to nurture the “tapestry of alternatives” that already exist in our communities, and to enact the political and legal transformations that tired politics-as-usual frames have cast as utopian or otherwise unthinkable.
To hear more from Danielle Celermajer and Erin FitzHenry, join us online for the panel discussion ‘Redefining Who Matters: Institutionalising Multi-species Justice‘ on 22 June.
Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney, and Deputy Director – Academic of the Sydney Environment Institute. Her books include Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apology (Cambridge University Press 2009), A Cultural Theory of Law in the Modern Age (Bloomsbury, 2018), and The Prevention of Torture: An Ecological Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2018). She is Director of the Multispecies Justice Project and along with her multispecies community, she has recently lived through the NSW fires, writing in the face of their experience of the “killing of everything”, which she calls “omnicide”. She is the Research Lead on Concepts and Practices of Multispecies Justice.
Erin Fitz-Henry is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and the Development Studies in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, and a 2022 Visiting Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. She works primarily on transnational social movements, with a particular interest in the global movement for the rights of nature in Ecuador, the United States, and Australia. Her recent ethnographic work has focused on the use of these rights in contexts of large-scale resource extraction.