The postmodern politics of climate change
Whatever the ultimate effects of the Copenhagen Conference may be, it was an excellent example of the postmodern mode of politics that increasingly dominates contemporary societies.
Postmodernism has various characteristics, but the relevant one here is the assumption that there is no ‘real’ world and that what we take for ‘reality’ is a text, narrative, or stream of images which lack any underlying referent. Politically, this attitude manifests itself in a disconnection between the symbolism and substance of an issue accompanied by an obsessive concern with that symbolism and an ultimate disregard for the substance. Central to this literally unreal and increasingly sinister situation are the state’s efforts to deal with the omnipresent media. The latter operate on a 24 hour news cycle and myriad government agencies have been set up to manage the sort of politics this creates, in what is increasingly referred to as a ‘PR State’. Much of Australia’s extraordinarily large 114 person delegation to Copenhagen consisted of people associated with such tasks.
Allied to this postmodern divorce between image and reality, operating within the transient 24 hour ‘spin cycle’, is the pre-occupation of NGOs and militant groups with circus-like protests, demonstrations, and spectaculars designed to attract media attention and public sympathy without contributing anything tangible to the debate, except deliberate disinformation. This created a vast reservoir of potential distraction at Copenhagen, with over 22,000 NGO activists being granted credentials to attend the conference. At the level of pointless spectacle, such protesters attracted media attention by stripping down to their underwear, dressing as clocks or aliens with green skin, demanding people give up cars for bicycles, parading around with inflatable plastic kangaroos, insisting that the world stop eating meat and become globally vegetarian, and that all national borders be opened up to ‘climate refugees’. Subsequently, the protests turned to violence, with barricades being torched and demonstrators hurling fire bombs at police. In Sydney, Greenpeace (who are apparently completely above the law) once again assaulted the Opera House to unfurl a banner demanding a ‘climate treaty now’, as if such a predictable and platitudinous stunt contributed anything meaningful.
In the realm of disinformation, the prize must go to Al Gore who appeared in front of video images of a collapsing glacier to declare that the South Pole will be ice-free within five years. Significantly, he made the point that melting ice is very valuable propaganda because of its visual impact. Unfortunately for his case, he was forced to quickly recant when the factual basis of his claims was revealed to be completely bogus. Nevertheless, the image (but not the retraction) will still be fixed in peoples’ minds. Elsewhere during the conference, alleged representatives of ‘small island nations’ wept on cue, including a delegate who had apparently never lived in the country he was representing, but who insisted that the earth was now the Titanic and it was time to launch the lifeboats – following scripted ‘spontaneous’ remarks uttered by various Green politicians at the conference. Similarly, a Greenpeace activist from the increasingly fascist state of Fiji achieved global media coverage for her tearful claims that her country would soon be under water, despite it being made up of volcanic mountains rising up to 1300 meters above the Pacific, and experiencing a sea-level rise of only 3mm a year.
Such deliberate misrepresentations are linked to a further feature of this type of postmodern politics: the assertion of a militant and intransigent stance and violent denunciation of all compromise. All of this is then cloaked with the trappings of high moralism and the attribution and acceptance of guilt and shame, especially by the leadership of Western countries, which specializes in self-laceration. The best example of this moral blackmail was the ongoing threat of a walkout by the so-called ‘developing’ countries, over what they deride as the inadequate offers being made to gain their assistance to prevent the alleged apocalyptic effects of climate change – apparently they are prepared to help avoid the end of the world, but only if the price is right: $200 billion per year. One of the leaders of this grouping is a Sudanese politician who lives in New York and whose head of state cannot attend because he has been indicted for crimes against humanity, and who compared developed nations to the Nazis over their insistence that measurable targets be firmly established and observed. Another leading country amongst these ‘developing’ nations demanding massive funding and free access to patents and other intellectual property but little or no accountability was China, which is the world’s third largest economy and principal polluter.
As far as Kevin Rudd is concerned, his performance in the final hours of the Copenhagen talk-fest well illustrated the characteristics of postmodern politics. Taking his cue from the opening video of the conference, which targeted the deliberately contrived fears of children, he invoked in his speech a letter he had received from a 6 year-old child he referred to as “little Gracie”. At a moment when the world is poised to make momentous and possibly quite disastrous decisions, based on incomplete, erroneous and misleading information, and affecting the future for centuries to come, Rudd lamented that the conference could be “letting down little Gracie” and urged that the issue should be resolved in whatever way would make “little Gracie” happy. In other words, it appears Rudd believes the innumerable intractable issues that must be comprehensively and intelligently addressed by such conferences can be just wished away, and that the point of the Copenhagen exercise is simply to achieve an outcome, however lunatic, that will placate young children who are inclined or instructed to write letters to the Prime Minister.
It appears not to have occurred to Rudd that the media will see this as crass opportunism (which it did), and that responsible and thoughtful adults might resent this blatant piece of sentimentalism and attempted manipulation, with the contempt for them that it implies. Alternatively, he may be perfectly aware of these dangers but quite cynically calculate that more support will be mobilized by invoking ‘little Gracie’ than by carefully and methodically addressing the actual issues. Such are the calculations of postmodern politics.
Domestically, of course, Rudd needed some form of resolution to justify his insistence that the CPRS legislation had to be passed before Copenhagen and that Australia had a moral leadership role to play – a chimerical aspiration whose absurdity was clear to many but not Rudd himself. In the absence of such a resolution his whole approach would risk being revealed for what it was – a ridiculously over-hyped piece of grand-standing and self-promotion.
More generally, however, Rudd himself has become both an exponent and a creature of postmodern politics, obsessing all the time about the appearance and symbolism of his actions (and inactions), desperately seeking to impart a ‘spin’ to how they are perceived, and consequently failing to achieve actual outcomes. Aside from the CPRS and Copenhagen farces, excellent examples of this syndrome include the failure of the GP super clinic scheme, the associated non-action on the health system, the National Broadband Network imbroglio, his cringe-worthy attempt to insert himself into the Vatican processes considering the canonization of Mary MacKillop, and the overall inertia and paralysis that characterizes his government.
Ultimately however, Rudd will prove to be a victim of the same transient postmodern processes that he presently exploits. His support will prove to be quite evanescent as the vacuity of his style of postmodern politics becomes more obvious. This will be particularly the case amongst young people, who presently regard Rudd as an amenable authority figure but will quickly drop him once he becomes ‘uncool’, and this may occur quite soon as his performance in connection with the CPRS and the entire Copenhagen extravaganza deservedly comes under attack from all sides.