Staining the walls of the palace of public discourse

Thursday, 23 May 2013

There's No "I" in Team, But There is in Hypocrisy

Over the weekend, I caught up with an old friend and, over a drink at the North Bondi RSL, we got to talking shop.  My friend works for a "global oil and gas major" - as they like to say - but you can hardly notice the horns on the top of his head.  He was bemoaning the lack of science in the "fraccing" debate, particularly here in Australia where the discourse of this topic has been over-ridden by the unholy trinity of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

If you rolled your eyes at the preceding sentence, then this article is just for you.

My friend's complaint was that the science simply does not support many of the allegations employed by the detractors of "fraccing".  His arguments and his evidence-base, I must say, are pretty comprehensive.  Maybe not conclusive (which is perhaps beyond the limitations of science in any event), but certainly worthy of fostering a genuine dialogue on this issue.  Yet, in this country, the fraccing debate is essentially over: for it is far easier to convince people, especially politicians, with fear than it is to do so with rationality.

My friend recounts stories of being assailed by other parents at children's birthday parties with well-parroted lines about his company's role in "killing the planet" (he jokes he might join Phillip Morris next).  To them he replies, "Did you enjoy your hot shower this morning?"  It's a good line that taps into an inconvenient truth that lays at the heart of much "green" rhetoric, where the debate about the environment is often configured as "the people versus the faceless evil corporation from central casting".  Us vs Them.  This was nowhere more evident that when the Gillard Government introduced the Carbon Tax - a tax, we were told, that would be borne by "the big polluters".  Them, the others.  But this distinction between Us and the corporations that serve us is not only arbitrary, it is a myth invented, ironically, to make us feel comfortable and allow us to continue our quest for consumption in unchallenged detachment from the consequences of our demands.  You see, by and large, it is not Them, the corporations, that are the problem, it is Us.

Corporations are not moral, but nor are they necessarily immoral.  They are, in fact, amoral.  This is not only all that we should expect of Them, it is all that is appropriate.  We are rightly critical and suspicious of any commercial organisation that claims moral authority or justification for what it does or what it would like to do (this is part, but only part, of the reason why so many of Us find Gina Rinehart unpalatable).  Corporations do not make moral distinctions, they (in the vast majority of cases) operate within the laws of the day to deliver us what we demand and, in doing so, make money. This "amorality", of course, necessitates the close regulation of commercial enterprise - for the best we can ask of them is to contest their game within the boundaries we set.  These regulations, and the intensity with which we enforce them, turn corporations into a reflection of ourselves.  To look into the face of corporate Australia is to see our own demands and social values staring back at us.  One cannot expect moral leadership from a reflection.  Change can only come from one side of the mirror.

Furthermore, from within the luxuries and comforts of a capitalist economy, we can and should question the laws and regulations under which organisations operate, we can and should question an organisation's ability to deliver to our demands (Ford Falcon anyone? No?), but we cannot question their desire to make money. It is, after all, the "profit motive" that has given to us so much wealth that we can, with straight-face and without hint of irony, demand our ridiculous comforts as god-given rights. O brave new world that has such people in it.

But the ugliness of our comforts, the stinking exhaust of the engines of consumption, is difficult to confront.  So we must externalise the blame for it.  It is not my insistence on living in air conditioned climate between 21 and 21.5 degrees, that causes coal to be burned and CO2 to be emitted into the atmosphere.  No, that's not my fault, that's those "big polluters" again, destroying the planet for their own gain and that of their shareholders - which reminds me, I really must check how my superannuation fund is performing.  No, clearly, the blame lays with those corporations that are not making the changes that I'm not willing to make myself.

But none of this is to suggest that we should return to some kind of agrarian lifestyle or embrace the tenents of national socialism.  Our challenge is not revolution, it is simple self-awareness.  The awareness to accept our responsibilities, because the sense of responsibility begets change in ourselves - those gloriously insignificant changes that flow through democratic governments and market economies to change the world.  The awareness to recognise that we and our corporations live side-by-side, branches entangled, inside our glass house ... [fades to static]

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