GOVERNMENTS —  governments of all stripes — have an abiding contempt for environment groups and environmental activists. 

Governments hate deeply and skilfully, but environmental groups sit, permanently unchallenged, at the top of their hierarchies of bile. 

Environmental activists tell inconvenient truths.  They threaten the cosy power monopoly that vested interests wield through their control over the personnel and processes of government.  It is the lot of environmental activists to be demonised by governments, pilloried as nutters and fanatics who refuse to take the umpire’s decision — that umpire being the electoral mandate governments claim. 

In effect, their detractors claim, environmentalists set themselves against democratic process.

It is on this matter — how to judge the actions of environmental groups against the imperatives of democracy — that I want to pass a few sketchy observations today.  The democratic condition is in a parlous state all over the world.  It has been reduced to the arid notion of regular elections between two bland and homogenised political parties that offer no greater order of choice than do two soap powder brands on the supermarket shelf.  It is George Bush’s stated mission to export democracy to the world — but what he means by ‘democracy’ is a political system in which voters get to regularly (though not frequently) choose between an oil baron and a defence contracts millionaire — verily, Tweedledum or Tweedledee.  It is tinsel democracy — all bells and whistles.  Its linguistic currency is the portentously-rendered cliché.  It is democracy’s hollow shell.

And then there’s the electorate, the great and wise voting public.  Would that it were so — but we voters have, instead, been reduced to pitiful bundles of electoral neuroses, our larger sensibilities so benumbed by a vague fear that the good times might suddenly end that we abandon conscience and principle at the polling booth door.  We do this, too, because most of the business of government is too technically complex to be adequately understood and analysed within the begrudged snippets of time that are all that most of us are willing to accord any issue — and this applies to politicians almost as much as it does to voters.  Thus it is that, by default, the seat of decision-making slips from view, because it slips out of the formal political system and into remote, invisible sites of power — economic power, technological power, the power that comes through possession of crucial but arcane knowledge.

And so we are left with the empty shell of democracy.  The barren, meaningless structures of democratic ritual.

There is a solution to this.  It consists in the reinvigoration of what is often called the public sphere.  It consists in civil society reclaiming politics from formal structures and the shadowy sites of power that formal structures screen and protect.  Because democracy is not primarily about institutions and formal mechanisms — regular elections, for example.  Democracy is rather a condition; a characteristic, a quality that determines how information is made available and made sense of, how discourse proceeds, and how conflict is mediated.  It is about real people having a real and meaningful input into the decisions that they must subsequently abide by.

There is a wonderful, passionate little book by the marvellous Mormon writer, Terry Tempest Williams.  It is called The Open Space of Democracy, and in it she writes:  “if we cannot begin to embrace democracy as a way of life; the right to think, discuss, create and act —  if we fail to see the necessity for each of us to participate in the formation of an ethical life — if we cannot bring a sense of equity and respect into our homes and governments, then democracy simply becomes a form of idolatry.”  A vision of democracy as ‘a way of life’.  One in which the manifold processes by which public opinion is formed are acknowledged to be as important as the subsequent enactment of the public’s collective opinion.  And hers is, too, a vision of democracy that mandates ethically-imbued rather than merely selfish public activity — when we vote, for instance.  In such a vision power does not squirrell into the dark corners where money talks its sinister talk.  In such a vision the government’s puppetmasters — I am thinking specifically of Tasmania now — can no longer so manipulate their tame creatures that the forests that cradle the island’s very soul continue to be trashed even though survey after survey confirms that 70-80% of voters want to see an end to the destruction of the clearfells, though lacking the requisite courage of their convictions, most of them, to vote accordingly.

As democracy retreats, becoming merely conventional and ritualistic, aridly formal and institutional, the last and best hope for the recovery of democratic vitality lodges in the activities of environmental groups.  More than any other active presence within the contemporary political mix, environment groups can reclaim control of the terms under which life is lived for civil society and from the captains of industry and their lickspittles in government.  They, more than any other force within public life, insist that we are citizens first and foremost, not mere market-reactive consumers — that, prior to the realisation of individual consumer satisfactions comes the duties of commonality; of fellow-regard; of the responsibilities attendant upon membership of a community.

A community is, of course, usually understood as a human community, one of reciprocal and other-regarding relationships among people brought together by the contingencies of geography.  But the ambient ecological context within which our lives nest and by which they are shaped also constitutes a larger community of life.  Almost uniquely aware of this, environmental activists envision and work toward the creation of an ecological citizenship, insisting that sustainable forms of living are possible — socially, politically, economically and environmentally.  And they insist upon the value of the old, strong notion of democracy — the right to have a real, not a merely conventional say in determining the terms under which life is lived.  They insist upon the right to be active — not passively acquiescent political cyphers.  They contest — they deny the legitimacy of — deals behind closed doors; and they contest the intrusion of technologies that are merely imposed upon us rather than determined by us.  Clearfell technologies, say.  Those passive, timid, easily-spooked, but well-meaning folk — 70+% of them — who want old-growth forest clearance stopped but can’t bring themselves to vote accordingly, should applaud the democratic courage of environmental activists, and their defence of the crucial participant requirement for citizenship.

And so I come, you’ll be pleased to hear, to my final point. The activism — the democratic citizenship — of those involved in environmental groups, is ‘grounded’.  It is situated within particular places and communities, and it arises from a heightened sense of, and a profound commitment to, place.  Place — one’s home range — is the bedrock locus of democratic activity.  It is the realm of direct personal experience.  The geographical compass from which we take our primary sense of who we are.

The first duty of the democratic citizen is to defend her place.  To defend it, for example, against the life- and place-destructive technologies ordered without your leave into your home valleys and foothills by men with maps and computer simulations, and claiming the fake authority of democratic ritual, as opposed to the real authority of democratically-lived citizenship, and membership of place and its living communities.

I’m going to close with Williams again.  Everyone should read her book — it is engaged and it is wise — and it is small, and it is a page-turner.  On pages 86-87 she writes:

“We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt. It is time to resist the simplistic, utilitarian view that what is good for business is good for humanity in all its complex web of relationships … A spiritual democracy is inspired by our own sense of what we can accomplish together, honouring an integrated society where the social, intellectual, physical and economic well-being of all is considered, not just the wealth and health of the corporate few.”

And so say I.  And so, though you may not have thought it through in these terms, say all you activists who endure calumny and hatred to agitate for the integrity of life on earth.  And it is not only the living skein of the island that is crucially dependent upon your endeavours — it is also the freedom of living a real, not a merely conventional, democratic life; a life of self-actualised citizens, not the stimulus-response zombies of market consumerism.  The groups that have come together to form Environment Tasmania are, quite simply, the most significant components in Tasmania’s political landscape. 

They — you — are to be celebrated.  Keep going.  All power to your strong, activist, democratic arm.

Pete Hay  A speech given at the launch of Environment Tasmania, Launceston,  2 December, 2006

And then there’s the electorate, the great and wise voting public.  Would that it were so — but we voters have, instead, been reduced to pitiful bundles of electoral neuroses, our larger sensibilities so benumbed by a vague fear that the good times might suddenly end that we abandon conscience and principle at the polling booth door.  We do this, too, because most of the business of government is too technically complex to be adequately understood and analysed within the begrudged snippets of time that are all that most of us are willing to accord any issue — and this applies to politicians almost as much as it does to voters.  Thus it is that, by default, the seat of decision-making slips from view, because it slips out of the formal political system and into remote, invisible sites of power — economic power, technological power, the power that comes through possession of crucial but arcane knowledge.