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Bleaching and leeching in our political discourse

Natassia Chrysanthos reviews David Ritter at the Festival of Democracy

Natassia Chrysanthos reviews David Ritter at the Festival of Democracy

“You can save the tree today, but if you want to save the forest in 100 years, you have to change the system.”

This sentiment is perhaps more radical than one would expect from your every day environmental discussion, but it was the theme of the Festival of Democracy talk given by David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, to a room of journalists, activists, scholars and students on Wednesday. The session’s title referred to “bleaching and leeching,” but relatively little time was spent focusing on the Great Barrier Reef. Rather, it was the bleaching of political discourse and the leeching of the fossil fuel industry that Ritter chose to discuss.

“Aren’t we wonderful to the fossil fuels industry?” Ritter asked, his voice rising with incredulity, describing a situation where our government builds roads for the fossil fuel industry, gives them subsidies and inflates their employment figures. The fossil fuel industry “routinely and grotesquely exploits this country,” Ritter said. What’s more, we are incapable of having a conversation about it.

Without substantial opposition, this industry continues to thrive. According to Ritter, we can no longer tolerate “the bullshit about students being customers and teachers being service providers; the crap that people needing healthcare are customers seeking choice.” ‘Saving the forest’ requires a shake up of the system and an uncomfortable discussion about the ways in which power is distributed in our society.

But how is this to come about? A key theme of the talk was the imperative for collective political action that bridges differences and unites us all under a shared priority in tackling the climate crisis: “the ultimate threat magnified.” Ritter makes a compelling case for joining concerns about homelessness, race, feminism and poverty under the cause of the environment: if you care about homelessness, what’s the plan for public housing in a world that’s degrees warmer? If you care about refugees, what’s the plan for Bangladesh? We don’t have a path home for any of these other issues until the climate crisis is comprehensively addressed. “If we bring the sensibilities of all these other issues together,” he said, “then we can deal with climate change in a way that is just as well as essential.”

The biggest barrier to successful collective action was posited as individualism: the pervasive myth of individual empowerment that permeates through a society preoccupied with “leaning in”. “Working together is how we achieve systemic change,” said Ritter, “but it goes against the culture of the day.” Individualism is hardly a new phenomenon, however: it’s been a matter of philosophical concern for centuries and shows no sign of dissipating. While we can see this as damning – and it’s tempting to– there’s also the potential that we’ve been navigating around this human tendency for generations, and we simply must continue to do so. “If you want to be really subversive,” encouraged Ritter, “join stuff.”