The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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The Democrats vs The Greens

With a federal election lurching drunkenly towards us, I figured it would be a nice idea to channel my usual undirected ranting into this website I seem to have. By now, most people who know me are painfully aware that I am an avid supporter of the Australian Democrats. “But,” my friends might say, in their braver moments, “why the hell would you support the Democrats when the Greens are… you know… actually holding seats.”

Well, you inflammatory hippie, I’m glad you asked!

I will grudgingly admit that it is a good question. The Democrats and the Greens appear similarly aligned on social issues, political standards, and issues affecting democracy itself such as censorship and voting processes. If the most important things in the world to you are social equality, environmentalism and how to interpret repeated numbers on a fully populated senate ballot, then you’d be hard pressed to see a reason to go Democrats over Greens.

To start with, just look at the Greens' policy page. It’s… wonderful. Breathtaking, even. It puts the major parties to shame. It kicks hell out of the Democrats, that’s for sure. Painstakingly detailed, well organised, clear and concise and motivated by ideology.

And yet, completely irrelevant.

The Greens are, at their core, an environmental party. But should a rational environmentalist really support the Greens? For reasons of culture and history, environmental activism carries with it the rather unshakeable baggage of technophobia and animosity towards business. Unfortunately, as far as I’m aware, the only realistic way to tackle the environmental issues we face is through science and business: world-class research and development, brilliantly clever engineering, and absolutely hands-down mercenary marketing of the results.

See the paradox? While the Greens claim to be supportive of Australian science, there are some slight problems with the details. An illustrative example might help. Starting with policy:

  • The Greens want us to all use renewable energy
  • That’s great!
  • The most promising areas of research that might one day yield, say, a fan-baseload-tastic solar panel are:
    • materials science and engineering, and
    • nanotechnology
  • The Greens hate nanotechnology
  • One of the things that makes Australia such a damn fine country for materials research is the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation
  • The Greens hate ANSTO (see #17)
  • Well, how abou—
Greens support for renewable energy
The third most boring Venn diagram in the world.

(ANSTO, by the way, is one of the few things that makes me truly patriotic. Here we have a scientific organisation that is possibly unique throughout the world for not dragging out the “disproving Einstein” chestnut every time it asks for funding. Amazing.)

So the Greens theoretically support using renewable energy, just as long as all that icky science used to develop it is done somewhere else. Right. Which is not technically inconsistent with their view that we should use it, but the only other implication I can see is that we wait for some other country to develop it and pay them for it.

Now consider the above example, but substitute genetically modified food and agriculture. (I strongly recommend Mark Winston’s book Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone for learning about this topic without being overwhelmed by violent impulses.)

The great twist about the GM story: one of the big arguments against GM is that it gives a couple of major corporations complete control over food production. What a surprise that it turned out that way! When environmental organisations and political parties create and foster an incredibly hostile climate towards a particular technology, it cannot possibly come as a shock when only well established corporations survive for long enough to completely dominate the industry. I’d rather not see the same thing happen to renewable energy — except that, really, it is already. Instead of being indentured to fossil fuel and mining companies for oil and gas, we can be indentured to exactly the same companies for solar panels and wind turbines!

No room for the little guy
There's just no room for the little guy.

This is all somewhat speculative though. Maybe the Greens will never have enough sway to really scuttle renewable energy technology. But what about the opportunity they had to implement Australia’s first real, live, actual environmental economic policy?


To be fair, Labor’s emissions trading scheme was just about the worst solution to the problem that anyone could have come up with. If they’d held a few more meetings, I would not have been surprised to see polar-bear-powered oil tankers invented. But…

Consider Australia’s paid parental leave scheme: it is, in fact, considered the worst in the world. We tied with the USA for that honour. However: At least we freaking have one.

The fact that we actually have a parental leave scheme in place means that future political debate will not be based on “yes we should”/“no we shouldn’t”, but on how to change it. Believe it or not, there’s a remote chance that the Australian political process might improve it. Would supporters of paid parental leave have been happy if it had been rejected out of hand because it’s not a Sweden-beater?

(Just a digression: I tried to find some references for Labor’s ETS, but I became unspeakably depressed while hunting through their website for solid information. Find it yourself.)

So what did the Greens rejection of the ETS achieve for the environment? What was the point of voting them into the Senate to do exactly what the Liberal party did for the biggest environmental policy ever presented to the Australian parliament? (Note: not rhetorical.)

No, let's just stay right here
The Australian Senate, 2009: "No, no, let's just stay right here."

As specific as these examples are, they speak to a greater intrinsic problem I have with the Greens: irrational environmental activism and ideological posturing is no more helpful to the environment than the concept of a civil union is to gay equality.

The Greens are every bit as reliant on rhetoric and non-sequiturs as the major parties are, except that their hollowness relates to their core values and not to issues they see as extraneous. Their policy could be written in radium for all that it matters.

Without negotiation and compromise, nothing gets done. Without a rational basis for decisions, the wrong things get done. As far as I’m concerned, the Greens embody both of these critical flaws. While they should, in theory, cancel out (“Getting the wrong things not done!”), I’d rather get behind a party that is based upon the idea that a representative democracy runs on negotiation and compromise, not stubbornness, and is not so deeply mired in an ideology that it logically disproves its own goals.

In short, I politely suggest that you consider: the Democrats. Thank you.

Incidentally, my feelings on the Greens, and the brand of environmentalism touted by Greenpeace (deliberate omission of link) is probably best reflected in my manifesto to destroy the Sun. Although that doesn’t make it any less a noble goal.


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