Muddle-headed greens see themselves starring in a Thoreauvian romance

Our age presents itself as a historical hall of mirrors. Every new turning reminds us disconcertingly of somewhere we've been before. New songs on the radio have the obscure savour of melodies from times past; new movies seem to reproduce older ones, like ghostly tableaux vivants. No wonder young people often seem nostalgic for the blurred images of movements that expired long before they were born. After all, they're staggering into this mirror maze unaided. So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the grand spectacle of outrage last week against the Rudd Government's emissions trading scheme white paper had such a familiar appearance.

Uni students in dreadlocks and cheesecloth sandbagged ministers' electorate offices, as if miming the apocalyptic imagery of the unilateral disarmament movement in the death throes of the Cold War. Green leaders called for a human chain to surround Parliament House for the first sitting day of 2009 as if, like those yippies and hippies who encircled the Pentagon 40 years ago, they might cause it to levitate by collectively incanting the word om.

Most strikingly of all, green groups called for a national campaign of civil disobedience, roughly after the manner prescribed by the earliest hippie of them all, 19th-century American solitary sojourner Henry David Thoreau. Like their orange boiler-suited colleagues in Europe, activists plan to shackle themselves to existing power plants or disrupt the building of newones. Then, like the sage of Walden Pond, they can act out the belief that, under an unjust government, "the true place for a just man is also a prison".

Green groups have been channelling the spirit of Thoreau for some time. In September the inimitable Al Gore made headlines by calling for Thoreauian civil disobedience on a global scale. Why, if only he were young again, he told us, he'd be chaining himself to coal-fired power plants, too. Greenpeace's Indian division, inevitably, has invoked the spirit of Mohandas Gandhi, the most famous of Thoreau's acolytes and a well-known enemy to all types of industry.

Now Greenpeace Australia's climate change campaign co-ordinator tells us that, by lamentably failing the planet on climate change, Kevin Rudd has sent conscientious activists everywhere "a clear signal that our political system is not up to the task". This means "people who are demanding action on climate change have little choice but to take matters into their own hands". Thoreau and Gandhi all rolled into one.

No doubt, if you're caught up in our hall of historical mirrors, it's gratifying to gaze into the glass and see in your reflection the image of those noble souls who ended the slave trade in the 1830s, opposed chattel slavery in the decades leading up to the American Civil War or brought down the Goliath of British colonialism. The problem with channelling the past in this purely intuitive way, though, is we necessarily do so through the distorting glass of our imaginations.

For Thoreau, my ineffable human conscience is always the most important thing, and I'm not fully human until I choose freely to express it in all of my deeds and words. However, the mass of men, being mere dutiful citizens, are not like this. Because they refrain from freely exercising their moral sense and subsume their will to the wishes of the magistrate, "they have the same sort of worth only as horses or dogs". At the same time, Thoreau insisted, any and every man could experience this special insight themselves, would they but take the time. Just exile yourself to a lonely pond and the essential truths of life will unfold. This spiritual vocabulary is still alive in the grand oratory of climate change. Simplicity v excess. Purity v impurity and cleanliness v dirt. The moral integrity of the individual v the snares and wiles of the wicked world.

Yet the Thoreauian analogy works only up to a point. You can look into your heart and see that the slave trade and chattel slavery are offences against human nature simply because we're all humans and our god (whichever they may be) has decreed us all to be free and equal. Yet like most Australians, I expect, I have no capacity to judge the scientific debates on climate change and its causes in any fashion that would satisfy my inner voice. In practice, I'm forced to rely on my commonsense intuition that so many scientists and public authorities wouldn't be expending so much time and money on the issue unless they were sincerely worried about something. In Thoreau's terms, I'm forced to subordinate the call of my conscience to the expertise of others, like it or not.

None of the alternatives to this posture are particularly credible. You can lapse into a kind of political mysticism, according to which the voice of Gaia somehow speaks through you, regardless of your personal competence. Or else you can simply echo the instincts of others around you who happen to think and dress much as you do, who have the same tastes in interior furnishings and who choose to live in the same neighbourhoods. But that's hardly an expression of individuality.

In the end, the most troubling aspect of the bluster on climate change policy is that, in its implausible claim to have some private access to the truth, it devalues the currency of truth altogether. Perhaps the most striking table in the white paper is the one that compares emission projections with projections for population growth. If that table is correct, the Government's 5 per cent to 15 per cent targeted reductions are broadly in line with those of the European Union and significantly in advance of the promises of president-elect Barack Obama. I have no idea whether the data in that table is reliable. But I haven't yet seen any of those uttering howls of outrage contesting it.

As it happens, Greenpeace recently commissioned its own proposal for a global energy revolution. Figure seven of the document's executive summary compares energy output from different sources, if Greenpeace's own recommendations are accepted. On these figures, renewable energy sources would almost double as a percentage of output between 2005 and 2020. But coal-fired power output (now with capture and storage, presumably) would stay more or less constant. This sounds plausible but also rather spiritually unsatisfying.

And it's hard to see how exactly it can be reconciled with Greenpeace's other call, the one that asks for a new generation of Thoreaus to chain themselves to the gates of the world's coal-fired power stations. Before they stride out on their private journeys to Walden Pond, I'd suggest those earnest, idealistic young folks prepare themselves a few packed lunches.


Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me (John Ray) here

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