Why I am a Green

Originally published in Resurgence magazine

I studied medicine at Sydney University and practised for 12 years after graduating in 1968, but I have always been an activist at heart. During my tenure at the Royal Canberra Hospital, I joined other doctors to certify young men who did not wish to fight in the Vietnam War as unfit to be conscripted. I moved to Tasmania in 1972 to take up a post as a GP and in the years after became active in the state’s environmental movement and joined the newly formed United Tasmania Group (the world’s first-ever Green Party). In 1976 I campaigned to overturn the law that made homosexuality a crime in Tasmania, and I spent a week fasting on top of Mount Wellington in protest against the arrival at Hobart of the nuclear-powered warship USS Enterprise.

I helped establish the Wilderness Society, acting as director for five years from 1978 and so had to give up medical practice. In 1982–3 the society organized the blockade of the dam works on Tasmania’s Franklin River, The blockade saw 1,500 people arrested for getting in the way of bulldozers building a huge rock–fill dam to block the Gordon and Franklin rivers and flood a vast area of rainforest for hydroelectricity. Six hundred people were jailed, including me. I spent nineteen days in Risdon Prison and on the day after my release in 1983 I was elected into Tasmania’s Parliament.

In the streets of Hobart more than 20,000 people were protesting against the dam. In the parliament, all but two other members were voting for the dam and there was an air of great hostility. I soon found out that jail was a friendlier place than parliament.

To cut a long story short, the popular unrest helped bring in a ‘no-dams’ government at the national election in March 1983. The state and national governments resolved the issue in Australia’s High Court, which ruled by four judges to three to uphold the World Heritage Convention and stop the dam.

Nowadays, this wild river wilderness attracts 200,000 visitors a year, creating thousands of jobs and, instead of receiving death threats from pro-dam locals, I am a welcomed visitor.

I often think back to the sunless days in my cell in Risdon Jail and say a quiet word of thanks to those feisty Tasmanian voters of 1983 who not only saved the Franklin River wilderness but, through me, gave an extra voice to the voteless myriad of our fellow creatures on this diversely magnificent planet of ours.

Since then, I have been assaulted and shot at, at protests against logging at Tasmania’s Farmhouse Creek in 1986 and jailed twice in 1995 for demonstrating to protect Tasmania’s Tarkine Wilderness from logging. As a State MP, I introduced initiatives such as Freedom of Information, Death with Dignity, lower parliamentary salaries, gay law reform, banning the battery-hen industry, nuclear-free Tasmania and protection of native forests. Labor and Liberal voted against my 1987 bill to ban semi-automatic guns, seven years before the Port Arthur massacre.

In 1989 I led the five-member Greens parliamentary team, which held the balance of power with the Field Labor Government. The Greens saved twenty-five schools from closure, created more than a thousand jobs through our local initiatives job scheme, doubled the size of Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area to 1.4 million hectares, created the Douglas Apsley National Park, and supported tough fiscal measures to rid the state of the previous Liberal debt.

In 1996 I was elected to the Australian Senate, where I have since fostered national debates on climate change, Australia’s involvement in war, the green economy, preventative healthcare, conservation, and human rights. I have introduced many private members bills, including for electoral and parliamentary reform, rights of the territories, a ban on junk food advertising, ending mandatory sentencing of Aboriginal children, and to save Tasmania’s magnificent, wildlife-filled forests from logging.

With Drew Hutton, I was instrumental in setting up the Australian Greens in 1992 and in 2005 was elected leader. The federal Greens parliamentary team expanded to five in 2007

and ten in 2010. In 2011 this Greens team led the passage of world-leading legislation to cut greenhouse gas pollution and foster renewable energy in this lucky, sunny country of ours.

I have an holistic view of life on planet Earth – we are all in this together. At the fortieth anniversary celebration of the world’s first Green Party meeting, which took place in Hobart Town Hall on 23 March 1972, I outlined a way forward. It drew howls of rage from the Australian media. Here it is……..

“Never before has the Universe unfolded such a flower as our collective human intelligence – so far as we know. Nor has such a one-and-only brilliance in the Universe stood at the brink of extinction, so far as we know.

We people of the Earth exist because our potential was there in the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, as the Universe exploded into being. So far, it seems like we are the lone thinkers in this vast, expanding Universe. However, recent astronomy tells us that there are trillions of other planets circling sun-like stars in the immensity of the Universe, millions of them friendly to life. So why has no one from elsewhere in the cosmos contacted us?

Surely some people-like animals have evolved elsewhere. Surely we are not, in this crowded reality of countless other similar planets, the only thinking beings to have turned up. Most unlikely! So why isn’t life out there contacting us? Why aren’t the intergalactic phones ringing?

Here is one sobering possibility for our isolation: maybe life has often evolved to intelligence on other planets with biospheres and every time that intelligence, when it became able to alter its environment, did so with catastrophic consequences. Maybe we have had many predecessors in the cosmos but all have brought about their own downfall.

That’s why they are not communicating with Earth. They have ‘extincted’ themselves. They have come and gone. And now it’s our turn.

Whatever has happened in other worlds, here we are on Earth altering this bountiful biosphere, which has nurtured us from newt to Newton.

Unlike the hapless dinosaurs, which went to utter destruction when a rocky asteroid plunged into Earth sixty-five million years ago, this accelerating catastrophe is of our own making.

So, just as we are causing that destruction, we could be fostering its reversal. Indeed, nothing will save us from ourselves but ourselves.

We need a strategy. We need action based on the reality that this is our own responsibility – everyone’s responsibility.

So democracy – ensuring that everyone is involved in deciding Earth’s future – is the key to success.

For comprehensive Earth action, an all-of-the-Earth representative democracy is required. That is, a global parliament.

In the Gettysburg Address of 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed: ‘We here highly resolve … that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.’

For those who oppose global democracy, the challenge is clear: how else would you manage human affairs in this new century of global community, global communications and shared global destiny?

Recently, when I got back to bed at Liffey after ruminating under the stars for hours on this question, [my partner] Paul enquired, ‘Did you see a comet?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘and it is is called “Global Democracy”.’

A molten rock from space destroyed most life on the planet those sixty-five million years ago. Let us have the comet of global democracy save life on Earth this time.

Nine years ago, after the invasion of Iraq, which US President George W. Bush ordered to promote democracy over tyranny, I proposed to the Australian Senate a means of expanding

democracy without invasion. Let Australia take the lead in peacefully establishing a global parliament. I explained that this ultimate democracy would decide international issues. I had in mind nuclear proliferation, international financial transactions and the plight of our one billion fellow human beings living in abject poverty.

In 2003 our other Greens Senator, Kerry Nettle, seconded the motion, but we failed to attract a single other vote in the seventy-six-seat chamber. The four other parties – the Liberals, the Nationals, Labor and the Democrats – voted ‘No!’. As he crossed the floor to join the ‘no’s, another senator called to me, ‘Bob, don’t you know how many Chinese there are?’

Well, yes, I did. Surely that is the point. There are just 23 million Australians among seven billion equal Earthians. Unless and until we each accord equal regard to every other citizen of the planet – friend or foe, regardless of race, gender, ideology or other characteristic – we, like them, can have no assured future.

The Athenians 2,500 years ago and the British 180 years ago gave the vote to all men of means. After Gettysburg, the United States made the vote available to all men, regardless of means. One man, one vote.

But what about women, Louisa Lawson asked in 1889: ‘Pray, why should one half of the world govern the other half?’

So in New Zealand in 1893, followed by South Australia in 1895 and the new Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, universal suffrage – the equal vote for women a well as men – was achieved.

In this second decade of the twenty-first century, most people on Earth get to vote in their own countries. Corruption and rigging remain commonplace, but the world believes in democracy. As Winston Churchill observed in 1947: ‘Many forms of government have been tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.'

Yet in Australia and other peaceful places that have long enjoyed domestic democracy, establishing a global democracy – the ultimate goal of any real democrat – is not on the public agenda.

Exxon, Coca-Cola, BHP Billiton and News Corporation have much more say in organizing the global agenda than the five billion mature-age voters without a ballot box.

Plutocracy, rule by the wealthy, is democracy’s most insidious rival. It is served by plutolatry, the worship of wealth, which has become the world’s prevailing religion. But on a finite planet, the rule of the rich must inevitably rely on guns rather than the ballot box – though, I hasten to add, wealth does not deny a good heart.

We instinctively know that democracy is the only vehicle for creating a fair, global society in which freedom will abound, but the extremes of gluttony and poverty will not. Mahatma Ghandi commented that the world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.

So what’s it to be: democracy or guns? I plunk for democracy.

The concept of world democracy goes back centuries but, since 2007, there has been a new movement towards an elected, representative assembly at the United Nations, in parallel with the unelected, appointed General Assembly. This elected assembly would have none of the General Assembly’s powers but would be an important step along the way to a future, popularly elected and agreeably empowered global assembly.

Two Greens motions in the Australian Senate to support this campaign for a global people’s assembly have been voted down. However, similar motions won support in the European Parliament, and in India forty MPs, including a number of ministers, have backed the proposal. I will move for the world’s one hundred Greens parties to back it too, at the third Global Greens conference in Senegal next week. It fits perfectly with the Global Greens Charter, adopted in Canberra in 2001.

We Earthians can develop rosier prospects. We have been to the Moon. We have landed eyes and ears on Mars. We are discovering planets only hundreds of light years away which are ripe for life. We are on a journey to endless wonder in the cosmos and to realizing our own remarkable potential.

To give this vision security, we must get our own planet in order.

The political debate of the twentieth century was polarized between capitalism and communism. It was about control of the economy in the narrow sense of material goods and money. A free market versus state control.

Bitter experience tells us that the best outcome is neither, but some of both. The role of democracy in the nation state has been to calibrate that balance.

In this twenty-first century, the political debate is moving to a new arena. It is about whether we expend Earth’s natural capital as our population grown to ten billion people in the decades ahead with average consumption also growing.

We have to manage the terrifying facts that Earth’s citizenry is already using 120 per cent of the planet’s productivity capacity – its renewable living resources; that the last decade was the hottest in the last 1,300 years, if not the last 9,000 years; that we are extincting our fellow species faster than ever before in human history; and that to accommodate ten billion people at American, European or Australasian rates of consumption, we will need two more planets to exploit within a few decades.

It may be that the Earth’s biosphere cannot tolerate ten billion people of us big consuming mammals later this century. Or it may be that, given adroit and agreeable global management, it can. It’s up to us.

Once more the answer lies between the poles: between the narrow interests of the mega-rich and a surrender to the nihilist idea that the planet would be better off without us.

It will be global democracy’s challenge to find the equator between those poles, and it is that equator that the Greens are best placed to reach.

One great difference between the old politics and Green politics is the overarching question that predicates all Green political decisions: ‘Will people one hundred years from now thank us?’

In thinking one hundred years ahead, we set our community’s course for one hundred thousand years: that humanity will not perish at its own hand but will look back upon its twenty-first century ancestry with gratitude.

When the future smiles, we can smile too.

That query, ‘Will people a hundred years from now thank us?’, should be inscribed across the door of Earth’s parliament.

So let us resolve

that there should be established

for the prevalence and happiness of humankind

a representative assembly

a global parliament

for the people of the Earth

based on the principle of

one person one vote one value;

and to enable this outcome

that it should be a bicameral parliament

with its house of review

having equal representation

elected from every nation.

An Earth parliament for all. But what would be its commission? Here are four goals: Economy, Equality, Ecology and Eternity.

To begin with, economy – because that word means managing our household. The parliament would employ prudent resource management to put an end to waste and to better share Earth’s plenitude. For example, it might cut the trillions dollars annual spending on armaments. A cut of just 10 per cent would free up the money to guarantee every child on the planet clean water and enough food, as well as a school to attend to develop his or her best potential. World opinion would back such a move, though I suppose Boeing, NATO, the People’s Liberation Army and the Saudi Arabian royal family might not.

The second goal is equality. This begins with equality of opportunity – as in every child being assured of that school, where lessons are in her or his own first language, and a health clinic to attend. Equality would ensure, through the fair regulation of free enterprise, each citizen’s well-being, including the right to work, to innovate, to enjoy creativity and to understand and experience and contribute to defending the beauty of Earth’s biosphere.

Which brings me to the third goal: ecology. Ecological well-being must understrap all outcomes, so as to actively protect the planet’s biodiversity and living ecosystems. ‘In wildness,’ wrote Thoreau, ‘is the preservation of the world.’ Wild nature is our cradle and the most vital source for our spiritual and physical well-being. Yet it is the world’s most rapidly disappearing resource.

So I pay tribute to Miranda Gibson, who has sat for months 60 metres high on her tall tree platform, even as the rain and snow fell across central Tasmania. She has defied the loggers coming to destroy her ancient tree (www.observertree.org). In Miranda’s spirit is the saving of the world.

And lastly, eternity. Eternity is for as long as we could be. It means beyond our own experience. It also means ‘for ever’, if there is no inevitable end to life. Let’s take the idea of eternity and make it our own business.

I have never met a person in whom I did not see myself reflected. Some grew old and died, and I am now part of their ongoing presence on Earth.

Others have a youthful vitality, which I have lost and will soon give up altogether. These youngsters will in turn keep my candle – and yours, if you are aged like me – alight in the

cosmos. In this stream of life, where birth and death are our common lot, the replenishment of mankind lights up our own existences. May it go on and on and on…

The pursuit of eternity is no longer the prerogative of the gods: it is the business of us all, here and now.

Drawing on the best of our character, Earth’s community of people is on the threshold of a brilliant new career in togetherness. But we, all together, have to open the door to that future using the powerful key of global democracy.

I think we are intelligent enough to get there. My faith is in the collective nous and caring of humanity, and in our innate optimism. Even in its grimmest history, the optimism of humanity has been its greatest power. We must defy pessimism, as well as the idea that there is any one of us who cannot turn a successful hand to improving Earth’s future prospects.

I am an optimist. I’m also an opsimath. I learn as I get older. And I have never been happier in my life. Hurtling to death, I am alive and loving being Green.

I look forward in my remaining years to helping spread a contagion of confidence that, together, we people of Earth will secure a great future. We can and will retrieve Earth’s biosphere. We will steady ourselves – this unfolding flower of intelligence in the Universe – for the long, shared and wondrous journey into the enticing centuries ahead.

Let us determine to bring ourselves together, settle our differences, and shape and realize our common dream for this joyride into the future. In that pursuit, let us create a global democracy and parliament under the grand idea of one person, one vote, one value, one planet.

We must, we can, we will.

Bob Brown
July 2012

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