If you have a Facebook or Twitter account and use them to engage with any vaguely left-leaning Australians, you’ll know all about the Climate Council, the crowdfunded body set up to replace the Australian Government’s Climate Commission, itself recently axed as one of the incoming Abbott government’s first items of business. My own feeds have been lighting up with new stories about the Climate Council—first when Professor Tim Flannery announced its existence last Monday night, and shortly after that with requests for donations. And boy, have those donations been pouring in—this afternoon, the Climate Council will announce that $969,000 has been raised, from over 20,000 donors. This is a crowdfunding success that looks set to easily eclipse Amanda Palmer’s blockbuster $1.2 million album, and it’s for an incredibly important (literally life and death) cause.
How embarrassing for the Liberals and Nationals to see a government body they’ve tried to kill return like a glorious phoenix, mere days after they dropped the axe! Time to pop some bubbly and wave an extended middle finger in Tony Abbott’s general direction, right?
Well, not quite. Rather than being humbled by this turn of events, the Coalition is quite pleased with them. The new Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, even went so far as to wish the Climate Council good luck on last Tuesday’s Lateline: “That’s the great thing about democracy: it’s a free country, and it proves our point that the Commission didn’t have to be a taxpayer-funded body. There is perfect freedom for people to continue to do this.”
While it’s possible that Hunt was merely trying to spin the Climate Council into a positive, it doesn’t take a genius to see that this isn’t actually bad news for the Coalition at all. Barely any of the 20,000 who have so far donated to the Climate Council would have voted for the Coalition on September 7; those 20,000 people care enough about anthropogenic climate change to give it cash that could otherwise be spent on the lattes and chardonnay I’m told they’re so fond of, and Tony Abbott’s views on the subject are, well, pretty confused and confusing. (Let’s not pretend that the Coalition’s direct action policy is anything but a sham designed to ‘greenwash’ two parties that have always been reluctant to tackle environmental issues; even Malcolm Turnbull has claimed that any environmental policy proposed by Abbott would be “an environmental figleaf to cover a determination to do nothing.”)
What Abbott and Hunt have managed to do is simultaneously make a clear political statement, and piss off their ideological enemies. And how have those enemies responded? By giving away nearly a million dollars that could have otherwise been spent fighting the Coalition’s short-sighted policies. No wonder Tony’s still smiling.
Crowdfunding Is Still Capitalism, Yo
I don’t mean this as a sledge on the Climate Council and what they do; their work is absolutely vital, and it’s great to see that they can continue to do it despite no longer existing as a government body. But there is something profoundly troubling about the fact that both the Coalition and nearly every leftie I know sees the founding of a crowdfunded Climate Council as a victory for their side. One side ultimately has to be wrong—are you absolutely certain that the side with #peoplepower is right?
In order to see why the Coalition may ultimately be justified in calling the Climate Council a victory for them, it’s worth thinking about how crowdfunding works. Like much of the tech world, the crowdfunding ecosystem talks some good game about how revolutionary and unprecedented it is, but crowdfunding is still fundamentally a form of the same old capitalism that neoconservatives like Tony Abbott and his Coalition love so much.
Yes, crowdfunding has given us some cool stuff, stuff that probably wouldn’t have existed if the old gatekeepers of venture capital and the creative industries had been doling out the funds: things like a Veronica Mars movie, an e-paper watch, and, yes, if you must, Amanda Fucking Palmer’s latest album. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a mechanism that allows users to exchange their money for a good like this pi-shaped pie tin, or a Facebook alternative like Diaspora. The key difference between Kickstarter and Kicks Store is that, once the target funds are raised, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever receive the shoes you’ve purchased through Kickstarter. The average crowdfunding supporter therefore gets a raw deal: they take on the risks an investor faces, but are only entitled to the rewards a consumer receives, with maybe a few limited-edition bonuses. Is this transfer of financial risk in exchange for the promise of pretty shiny things really revolutionary? In many ways, it sounds like a crummier twist on consumer capitalism.
More to the point, crowdfunding also shores up the tired old neoconservative narrative about invisible hands and the wisdom of the market. According to this story—itself a misreading of Adam Smith—individual actors in the market will, through a process fuelled by nothing but naked self-interest, act in a way that benefits everybody. This narrative, coupled with an irrational hatred of ‘big government’, underpins the neoliberal policy of privatisation, since anything the government can do the market can, apparently, do better and cheaper. (This explains why the Coalition hates the NBN so much: not only because it’s expensive, but because it’s a government-created infrastructure monopoly, and they fervently believe that the private sector could provide a better solution.)
Crowdfunding promises that no potential market, no matter how small or niche, will remain unserved; that if only 500 people around the globe want vegan leather boat shoes, those 500 people can fund someone to make them. The market that crowdfunding promises to deliver is one where nearly any desire can be fulfilled if you find enough people who have enough money to make it a reality—and, thanks to the invisible hand, that the world will be a better place once those desires are fulfilled.
The Limits of the Market
This is all well and good for certain kinds of goods and services: cultural products, for example, suit the crowdfunding model well, because the world is a better place when a new literary journal is able to be founded, or an artist gets enough money to cover the cost of materials for their next work. The problem is that not everything fits neatly into a consumption model, and information about climate change is a prime example.
Who are the ‘consumers’ of the Climate Council’s services? If they’re the same people as those who fund the service, as the logic of crowdfunding dictates, then the Climate Council’s consumers are generally people concerned about the impact of anthropogenic climate change. These people, however, are exactly the people who least need the services of the Climate Council, since they already understand that anthropogenic climate change is an existential threat. Conversely, those people who most need to understand the science of climate change are those who are least likely to fund the Climate Council—readers of Andrew Bolt’s blog, extravagant energy consumers, and people who make their incomes by extracting and trading oil and coal.
Most importantly, the Federal Government needs to understand the risks posed by climate change in order to make policies to mitigate against its worst effects—and the Federal Government is exactly the body that now no longer pays for the Climate Commission’s work. Will the Federal Government feel obliged to listen to the Climate Council now they no longer pay for it? Will anyone else who hasn’t signed up to ‘consume’ the Climate Council’s work listen to it? It seems pretty unlikely. (Of course, not everyone listened to the Climate Commission’s work beforehand either, but their status as a government body meant that their advice was taken into consideration during policy making, whereas the Abbott government is now under no obligation to even pretend to listen to the Climate Council.)
The Ironing Is Delicious
There’s also a piquant irony in the fact that the Climate Council is now upholding the very logic of the market that has done more than anything else to create the problem of anthropogenic climate change. Recall the notion of the invisible hand: the idea that unfettered capitalism will naturally and without forethought lead to the best possible outcome for everyone. The fact that oil products and carbon-burning energy sources are so deeply imbricated within the current global economy—powering our phones and laptops; in the electronic and plastic used to make them; transporting us and the goods we desire from one side of the globe to another; in the fertiliser that helps the food we eat grow—means that nearly every single transaction within that economy leaves a stinky carbon footprint.
The scientific consensus on the deleterious effect of releasing so many billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere was arrived at in the late 1970s, but the market has been very slow to bring this ‘externality’ onto its balance sheets, since there is no incentive for it to do so. Climate change is therefore a classic example of what Garett Hardin called ‘the Tragedy of the Commons’: if there are a number of people sharing a common resource, it makes sense for each person to maximise their use of it, since the benefits accrue only to themselves while the negative effects of resources depletion will be shared by all. The shared resource in this case is the planet itself: an unfettered market creates profit for a small number of people whose activities pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but everyone suffers when global temperatures rise and wreak merry havoc with the earth’s delicate ecosystems.
Climate change is therefore in itself a potent rebuttal to the idea that an invisible hand steers the market towards good outcomes for everyone. Surely there’s something a little odd about the fact that the body that is supposed to inform Australians about climate change is being funded through the same capitalist logic that created the problem in the first place?
So What Should We Do Instead?
As I’ve stressed several times, the point of this article is not to bash the work that the Climate Council does. Climate change is real, and if we don’t immediately start building systems that mitigate against it and take drastic action to reduce the world economy’s staggering carbon footprint, we’ll be in a world of pain before this century is out. So I am glad that the Climate Council is continuing their mission — they will, no doubt, play an important part in any Australian response to the problem.
What I am not so keen on is the way “crowdfund it!” seems to have become the default solution to the problems posed when a neoliberal government cuts a necessary service. After all, the logic can only be extended so far: we might be able to save the Climate Council, but will we be able to save the next government service that Abbott and Hockey place on the chopping block? Would you care to chip in to save the National Broadband Network, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Australia Council for the Arts, the Australian Research Council, Medicare, or Centrelink?1 At what point will you stop opening your wallet for organisations that should have been funded through taxation revenues? Obviously the Climate Council will continue to be crowdfunded; they have made the decision to operate on that basis, and who am I to say that they were wrong to do so? But before we all leap in to give our money to the next defunded government agency—and there will be more—perhaps we should consider some alternatives to crowdfunding that won’t prop up the logic of the market.
What form could these alternatives take? Obviously each one would need to be tailored to the political situation at hand—mailing each Coalition MP a small nugget of coal might work as a protest against cuts to climate change bodies, but it won’t work if the ABC has been targeted. It would do us well to remember that there is an entire toolbox of effective political interventions that we can draw upon to make our voices heard, from old-school general strikes and protests right through to sexier forms of online activism through social media. It might require a dose of imagination and some modification to make them suit the current political climate, but they do have the advantage of casting us in the role of active political subjects as opposed to passive consumers of services. We won’t need to open our wallets, but we will need to think beyond the limits of crowdfunding if the things we love are to survive the Abbott years.