When people work together we can achieve practically anything
10 December 2020 at 8:30 am
The climate emergency is an urgent existential challenge. But Jess Scully’s new book, Glimpses of Utopia, reminds us the situation is redeemable, with the application of ideas that are already taking root, writes David Ritter.
Our world faces immense and urgent challenges. But the tantalising reality is that we do not lack for effective things to do because the policy solutions and the technical fixes largely already exist.
As a species we have proven immensely capable of solving problems, demonstrating time and again that when people work together we can achieve practically anything. And so it is that our cumulative creative capability to cooperate to conquer the worst of the climate crisis should not be in doubt – if we can overcome the vested interests that stand in the way.
Just this last few weeks we have seen some outstanding progress as decision makers have begun to move, to meet the expectations of people – citizens, customers, staff, shareholders – who are demanding action. Woolworths’ recent announcement – to go 100 per cent renewable by 2025 – itself moved a whopping 1 per cent of the national electricity market to new solar, and followed similar recent commitments by Aldi, Bunnings, Telstra and others. NSW has just made a massive state-based commitment to renewable energy. Overseas, Denmark made the huge commitment to end all oil and gas exploration from the North Sea. None-other than The Economist has said it is time to make coal history.
Truly, things are moving – fast – but we must accelerate much more quickly to catch up on the lost years of inaction if we are to secure an earth capable of nurturing life in all of its magnificent diversity.
Reminding us all of what is possible, with real and existing stuff going on in the world right now, is the theme of Jess Scully’s new book Glimpses of Utopia. Scully herself is the deputy lord mayor of Sydney and, fittingly for an elected local representative, is refreshingly vocal about the creative and emancipatory potential of an unlocked democracy.
Scully begins with a sketch of the etymology and history of the word “utopia” as a framing device for thinking through the immense potential that exists in what we already have now, in pockets here and there, all over the world. It is a book that is both inherently cosmopolitan and deeply local in a way that is perhaps not surprising for one of the elected leaders of a great city.
“You don’t”, Scully writes, “wake up and find a utopia fully realised and perfectly formed. They happen a little bit at a time, unevenly, erratically, and if we know how to look, we can see glimpses of them everywhere”.
She then outlines great areas where reform of human systems is both urgent and necessary, offering the glimpses of the title that we know to be possible because it is already happening: shifting politics, changing the nature of how we value labor, dealing with the excesses of financialisation, reclaiming public goods as the commons and so on. It is a heady list, both of what needs doing – and of some of the practical solutions for what is already being done in some places, unevenly and erratically.
The climate emergency is an urgent existential challenge but as Scully acknowledges, global warming sits within an ecosystem of other immense challenges including broader ecological crisis, widening inequality, growing social alienation, digital disruption (for good and ill), the corrosion of institutions and increasing democratic deficit. So much so bad. But the theme of Scully’s book is that the situation is redeemable, with the application of ideas that are already taking root, here and there, in bits and pieces, all over the world. And as we know from Kate Raworth’s book Donut Economics, Damon Gameau’s film 2040 and the carbon abatement manual Drawdown and elsewhere – virtually all of the best solutions for tackling the climate emergency have other positive effects for ecology, society, culture, democracy and the economy.
As an elected leader Scully will be fully aware that no social progress comes without social and political contest – but she is animated by the notion that existing examples of things being done differently have their own political force if they become known; and that you have to know what future you are campaigning for, as well as what you want to stop.
Scully positions herself as an explorer rather than an inventor – almost as a curious pilgrim on the search for answers. The specific ideas for progress – and the embedded sites in which she encounters them – make Scully’s book worth reading; but it is the energy and the determination which really captures the imagination. The central insistence in Glimpses of Utopia is that the future is not yet written and that as a people, we have choices that can be pursued through collective political will.
None of this is to be pollyannaish about the immensity of the challenges ahead in the very near term – and the vertiginous consequences of failure. Scully’s writing was concluded as Australia experienced the unprecedented spring and summer of fire brought on by climate emergency conditions. But there is undoubted power in assembling practical examples of where the change is happening in the world as a way of inspiring and exciting more, in double quick time.
The policy and technical solutions exist. The imperative is urgent. And the human ability to organise ourselves to demand and drive change is an endlessly renewable resource.
It is within our collective power to make 2021 one of the greatest years in our history, in which whatever events befall us, we strive our hardest to make up time in doing the work necessary to avoid climate chaos. And in this urgent work we can be motivated and animated by glimpses of the vista of what is yet possible; of an Australia Remade to enable the future flourishing of our ancient and beautiful great southern continent.
Disclosure: Both Jess Scully and the author are associates of the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney.