Living in a Warming World: A Reflection on the Series

“We didn’t hear about victims.  We heard about citizens in motion.  People who organised, door to door, through networks like the Sydney Alliance, to contest the distribution of power that has seen the elderly, the very people most vulnerable to heat stress, are being moved from social housing in the city centre to the very hottest parts of the city.” Dr Frances Flanagan reflects on the ‘Living in a Warming world’ lecture series.

Frances Flanagan opening the Warming World Series. Image by Eloise Fetterplace.

The ‘Living in a Warming world’ series was conceived with the intention of digging beneath the all-too-depressing national political frame, and bringing together people who were getting on with the practical business of creating a more equal, democratic and sustainable future for Australia.

The speakers in this series have been people of a particular kind.  They have been impatient and refused to wait for national permission to start building a better Australia. They were not enchanted by economic myths of rising tides that lifted little boats. They were not beguiled by corporate social responsibility fantasies that it is possible to rapaciously extract resources from the commons and pollute with one hand and somehow ‘even up the leger’ by giving generous community funds and charity grants with the other.

Nor were they content with the transient offerings of togetherness most commonly available in our society – neither the pleasures of shared consumption of cheap material goods; nor the gratifications that come from consuming equally cheap political messages, the kind that are focus-grouped and targeted to deliver a short-term hit of reinforced assumptions, devoid of any genuine offering of shared democratic power or responsibility.

No. Instead we heard from people for whom the projects of building democratic solidarity, equality and environmental rejuvenation were never separate, but always inherently entwined and mutually enforcing.  People who immediately recognised that the transition to a 100% renewable energy system was not a technological or scientific challenge but a political one, and a political one of a particular kind: It wasn’t a challenge that was about the flicking a switch from one energy source to another. It was about remaking Australia in a manner that offered both economic and political equality as never before.

That perspective meant that, in every lecture we heard, there were a few features of the usual conversations about inequality and environmental change that were missing.  We didn’t hear much about emissions targets and statistics, nor about international agreements, nor even about communication ‘narratives’ or ‘words that work’. But rather, we heard stories about places, the people who dwelled in them and the struggles they engaged in over how the ordering and sharing of power.

We heard about places that were hard and hot to live and work in. Like the warehouses and greenhouses where National Union of Workers members worked in Northern Australia, or the early learning centres in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged parts of Penrith, where children don’t get to go outside in summer because the temperature on the softfall coverings of their playground is over 70 degrees in the sun.

We heard about poorly thermally designed houses on the urban fringe, designed on the cheap by private developers without eaves or cooling features because they were built for profit and not liveability. In these places, it isn’t just the high cost of air-conditioning that is a barrier to health and comfort.  It is the removal of shade-giving trees, drinking foundations and public transport that would enable them to get to pools, the river or shopping centres.

We didn’t hear about victims.  We heard about citizens in motion.  People who organised, door to door, through networks like the Sydney Alliance, to contest the distribution of power that has seen the elderly, the very people most vulnerable to heat stress, are being moved from social housing in the city centre to the very hottest parts of the city.  Citizens who have looked on the ‘premium ecological enclaves’ that have become a feature of our city, now available to the wealthy alone, and agreed it was not good enough to have a city like that.

We heard from an organised and ambitious collective of solar citizens, demanding greater control for everyday people over their energy needs and pushing back against the power of big energy companies.

We heard about workers coming together to create Cooperative power, an enterprise collective owned by members of unions, community groups and NGOs that is taking back the commons, combating the cost of living pressures and forging an inclusive transition to clean energy.  And we heard about the 90 odd other community-owned renewable energy projects that sit beside them across Australia.

We heard of the resourcefulness and resilience of the people of Euroa, in regional Victoria, as well as the Yorta Yorta people on the Murray; Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities both marshaling their knowledge, connections, resources and ingenuity to protect and strengthen the places they love and care about.

As well as statistics, one other thing was strikingly absent from the conversation, and that was any sense of preoccupation with disciplinary boundaries or institutional competition. We heard from a geographer, a thermoregulatory physiologist, a designer, a political theorist, a civil servant, an anthropologist, a trade unionist, an army corporal, a writer and heads of local and a global NGOs.  All of them spoke from a viewpoint, that was informed by one or more disciplinary backgrounds, but none fixated on their particular vocabulary and mentality as being more right than the others.

What they shared was the intellectual courage and the intestinal fortitude required to think about these knotty and joined-up challenges, and say, what can I bring to this from where I stand? And to act on the answer to that question with steady determination.  In most cases, their philosophies of change were inchoate, rather than explicit, but I do want to share one, that was articulated by Kate Auty, ACT Commissioner for Sustainability and Environment, that can be said to commonly apply to all our speakers.  It was to ‘start where you are. Organise. And show what you did.’

When taken together, I want to suggest, perhaps audaciously, that these speakers provide a glimpse of the contours of a new order that is coming into being.  This is a transition from a fossil-fuel, extractivist, private-interest based inequality order, to a new egalitarian order, that is founded on renewables, that is participatory, egalitarian and grounded in (although not confined by) the local.

Of course, like any historic transformation, it is not linear or simple, and I would be being a terrible historian if I was to suggest that it is wholly new.  There are manifold and long historical continuities between the forms of participatory and non-extractivist politics we have heard about, in both our non-Indigenous and Indigenous pasts.  But whether we call it a resurgence, or call it a revolution, it is important to understand that this movement is one with only occasional banners, and banners that – when they are unfurled – rarely fit the full expanse of the endeavor that is being undertaken.

What is taking place is a shift on many stages, in the town halls and local libraries, around dinner tables and on rooftops and footpaths in the country we live in. Its fruits will not be on immediate and gaudy display in political slogans, and will endure beyond any particular election cycle.  They will be in the slow recalibration and raising of expectations among Australian citizens, and the re-building of a shared sense that we can and must have a society that is in service to a vision of human and environmental flourishing.  From that vision flows demands for the re-distribution of power in our economy, cities, workplaces, businesses and professions.

Dr Frances Flanagan is the Research Director at United Voice and a Research Affiliate at the Sydney Environment Institute. She holds a DPhil and MSt in modern history from the University of Oxford, and bachelors degrees in arts and law from the University of Western Australia. She is the author of Remembering the Revolution: dissent, culture and nationalism in the Irish Free State (Oxford University Press, 2015), as well as a range of academic and non-academic publications on the past and future of work, environmentalism, gender and social change. She has been a senior scholar at Hertford College Oxford, a Royal Historical Society Marshall Fellow at the London Institute of Historical Research, and a researcher at Birkbeck, University of London. Frances also serves as an Advisory Committee member of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Centre for Workforce Futures at Macquarie University.