Sydney Uni Environment Collective debates the way forward

Current debates occurring within the Sydney University Environment Collective reflect the tensions in the wider climate movement.
A recent proposal to lobby the university into adopting on-site power generation reflects a desire to combat climate change with small-scale projects that seek to get communities off the grid.
It follows that we can all do our bit without having to confront the forces responsible for fuelling climate change. This approach favours symbolism and “empowerment”—but it is unlikely to be effective in really driving the scale of change needed.
If Rudd’s CPRS is implemented, all individual reductions in emissions will be negated because they simply free up more permits for big polluters.
Coal-fired power stations in NSW dump 57 million tones of CO2 into the atmosphere each year—and the NSW government has just approved two new power stations. It is clear that the blame lies with these big polluters, and not with ordinary people.
Good intentions aside, a campaign calling for on-site generation can only end up giving the wrong message—that individuals can buy their way out of climate change, and that we can get what is needed without building a mass campaign. 
It alienates the working class by reinforcing the concept that ordinary people have to pay their way out of this mess.
We need to be getting the message out there that we are for jobs and social justice, not for market mechanisms and price rises.
Jasmine, a member of the collective, says “This is one of the biggest ways that climate criminals get away with destroying the environment—they tell us, students and workers, to change our consumption patterns to ‘save’ the environment whilst they expand the very industries and technologies that have caused climate change!”
Now that climate change is an accepted phenomenon, environment campaigners need to be ready to respond to the constant bombardment of greenwash. Unless we expose the government’s inaction and the sham that is the CPRS—and actively campaign against it—we are letting them off the hook. Many think the CPRS is a solution and there is a desperate need for a radical opposition to it.  
Targeting the university administration in this context is highly misleading. These debates will shape the future of the movement and the effectiveness of the action we take.
By Erima Dall


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  1. Uh, aside from the patronising tone of this piece (no, your ‘analysis’ isn’t better than everyone else in the collective, that has now been dissolved)

    a range of facts are wrong:

    the NSW government has not just approved two new coal-fired power stations. they are planned, but not yet approved.

    ah, i can’t be bothered with the rest.

    How does onsite renewables “alienates the working class by reinforcing the concept that ordinary people have to pay their way out of this mess.”
    Sydney Uni is a public university: the power would be publicly owned, just like the publicly-owned coal-fired power stations polluting the climate.

    Your opposition to “small-scale projects” in renewable energy is ill-informed and illogical (as well as misrepresenting views of many in the collective): one of the major problems with our current electricity grid is its centralisation, and energy lost / wasted in transmission. Maybe you could read the recent UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures IGrid report.

    To dismiss this idea as ‘symbolic’ is a bit silly: most NSW universities are in the top 200 emitters in the state, and aren’t insignificant.

  2. Your comment ignores the main point the article is making about on-site generation proposals: whatever their actual impact on emissions campaigning for universities to buy greenpower or put on solar panels would, whether intended to or not, reinforce the idea that buying greenpower and putting solar panels on your roof by individuals can be the solution to climate change.

    It is of a piece with the campaigns a number of local climate action groups have run to get schools to install solar panels and encourage this as a way forward on climate.

    And I don’t see how opposing this means opposition to small scale projects per se: the point is how they are implemented and campaigned for. So yes encouraging individuals to pay for installing solar panels, or buying solar hot water heaters should be opposed. But I would be in favour of a government program to install them for free or at low cost on a mass scale across households. The first way puts the onus and cost on the individual to solve the problem, the second on the government.

    Finally I don’t think our article was particularly snide or patronising in tone. But I can’t say the same for the above comment.

  3. I haven’t a firm opinion on local generation of power and I am not in the Sydney Uni environment colelctive..

    What I would say though is that the environment colelctive making a collective demand on an employer and a polluter to clean up their game seems like a good thing.

    “Sydney” claims that they would favour a program to get the government to pay to install energy efficient measures. That is an interesting position given that to the best of my knowledge Solidarity favoured the employers bearing the cost for paid maternity leave rather than the ultimate government funded program.

    Whether or not we agree on local generation I certainly agree that it is good to put demands on Sydney Uni to be greener. I don’t see at all how that has anything to do with demanding workers change their consumption patterns. I certainly won’t be putting solar panels on my roof because I sign a petition demanding Sydney Uni does more to reduce its emissions.

    If you want to build a left you need to focus on what unites you not what divides you. I would have thought a collective campaign to get a polluter to be cleaner would have been great. It is a world away from going around selling solar panels and energy efficient light bulbs to workers.

    Some campaigns do need to be on the federal government, but as Johnanthan Neale argues in his latest book there is ample space for local campaigns on councils, employers, public transport networks, apartment blocks etc to clean up their game. If you just have just one big campaign targetting the federal government you miss the chance to have those local victories to keep up everyone’s morale and to show that you can win battle by battle.

  4. I think we have to be careful with measures designed to green universities or corporations. Many universities are keen to masquerade as green by taking steps like recycling, using less paper or using some amount of green power. Of course these measures are good things in themselves. But they are often used as a public relations stunt or to avoid action that would cost serious money.

    There have been myriad campaigns by environmental activists on campus for more recycling etc which, while not a bad thing, do nothing to challenge the idea that individual lifestyle change can fix environmental problems. Such efforts encourage individuals to think that their own efforts to reduce waste or think about how they use power can help solve climate change. While demanding solar panels on the university is better politically, it can potentially be framed within the same approach of pushing for small-scale changes in how we consume power as individuals. This did seem to be the case at Sydney Uni–although as no plans for the campaign were ever presented it has been hard to tell (wheras there was anti-CPRS campaigning happening).

    Of course we are not in principle against local campaigns for regulations etc that would make some difference. But given the highly political period we are in with the government trying to pass its CPRS–which in a single blow would make individual efforts to reduce emissions pointless–Solidarity has argued campaigning against the CPRS should be a major priority for environmental activists. There is no need to dream up local campaigns at the moment when we have such a major struggle against the government to fight. So the arguments at Sydney Uni were also about prioritising the time activists have and what issues to focus on right now.

    Finally I’m not sure when Solidarity members argued what you state about maternity leave, but in that instance I think it would have been a tactical question: if the government is offering a scheme which is less than what some unions have already won fighting for maternity leave at a workplace level might be better. And if there was a real struggle around it in workplaces then a government scheme could be used as a way to undermine the struggle and bring it to an end. But Solidarity doesn’t in priniple oppose campaigning for welfare state-type demands from government–whether increased unemployment benefits, pensions or health spending. If governments tax the rich to pay for these things, ultimately employers can be made to pay anyway.

    James S

  5. I think the issue was that Solidarity needed to have their way in the collective, and not the ideological implications of green power on campus. Why couldn’t the collective have both strategies?

    I am sure asking the government to adopt a different version of the CPRS or “act” on climate change will really be the way forward. I am deeply appreciative of how pig headed some of your members have acted such that now collective members have regrouped elsewhere.

  6. Emma, we have no interest in throwing around petty insults. It’s unfortunate you see through the lens of such tired personal politicking.

    It was actually a debate about how best we can fight climate change: by targeting production or consumption. We have written extensively on why we think the strategies would be counter intuitive (and also why we don’t actually support a ‘better’ CPRS and think we need more than abstract calls to ‘act’ on climate change). I can only come to the conclusion either that you have not considered the substantive arguments or that you are deliberately obfuscating the truth to make up for lack of real argument.

    Groups or individuals in a collective should be able to argue for their ideas: that’s democracy. There is little point having a collective which doesn’t seek to act as collectively as possible. To do this with real unity you need honest and open debate about how to go forward.

    Those that couldn’t or didn’t want to get their way by doing so have now left the collective: as they say the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

  7. It is interesting you portray my comment about a minority in the collective dominating the speaking list and sabotaging other people’s campaign work as petty. Perhaps it is reflective of what you consider as “open”, “democratic” and “honest” debate. People in collectives often have different political opinions. I agree it is normal but what is not acceptable to me is a particular group intervening to push through their sole agenda and polarise the collective in such a way that collective members find it useless to have dialogue with you. I understand this has been in the making for over two years if that has anything to say how open (and patient) collective members have been in dialogue.

    I recall it being no one opposed to the proposals of Soli people and Soli people having ideological opposition to green power on campus. If the change has to come structurally, where will it start? So “agitating” for the government to change policy is the beginning? What campaign direction do you propose that will really stop climate change? What is fundamentally wrong about the campus adopting green power? Why is it fundamentally opposed to your proposals? What is wrong about taking a multi-sided political angle? I think what you have not absorbed (and instead you accuse me of obscuring the “truth” for lack of “real” argument) is how collectives can adopt multiple approaches. A collective response doesn’t necessarily mean a homogenised ideological position on climate change.

    In regards to your comment about my political tiredness, yes, I am tired, especially of organised socialist groups that advocate for reforms (yes, reforms) of varying degrees of radicalness (or conservativeness) in the meantime whilst putting off socialism to an unspecified and distant future. I hope you all the best in your future interventions in other collectives if your behaviour in the enviro collective has anything to say about what Soli means by uniting the Left in action.


    P.S. My last comment should be read with sarcasm.

  8. In response to Emma–multi-track approaches to campaigning and diversity of approaches are possible, but only when the approaches being taken by different groups within a collective don’t undermine each other.

    It is the case that advocating the take-up of green power by the university would suggest to students that the green power scheme, and individual purchasing decisions by consumers, can deal with climate change. This idea–that the climate movement should put its energies into promoting individual solutions–is harmful to attempts to convince people that we need to go beyond individual solutions to get real change. The fact is that governments state and federal are promoting the idea of individual action as a solution in order to distract attention from their own failings and the bigger picture.

    The problem with campaigning for green power therefore is not that the university adopting it is a problem, but the political message it sends. It would undermine the political message the wider political campaign around climate is trying to send–that individual solutions are not enough.

    However, this was not the source of the “split” in the enviro collective. No one has advocated a green power campaign this semester to my knowledge–in fact there were NO concrete demands at all suggested by the on-campus campaign people within the enviro collective. They did not even have a campaign Solidarity has supposedly been stifling. Some people in the collective may claim that Solidarity has been “dominating” and “sabotaging” but this has no basis in fact. If anyone was playing an obstructionist role it was those pushing for an “on-campus campaign” by trying to dream up a new campaign at a time when there was already a successful campaign against the CPRS and Rudd’s response to climate change.

    Finally, I can’t understand your last point at all. Of course Solidarity members campaign to win real reforms in the here and now, but we see these as building students and workers confidence to fight and sense of their power to change society generally, which is the only way socialism can be introduced. This year Solidarity’s work in the enviro collective has brought a whole group of new students into activity and seen a number of successful forums and events–it’s just a shame that some of the old guard in the environment collective are so stuck in their hostility to socialists and open political campaigning that they refuse to see this.

  9. In response to a few of Emma’s questions: yes the change has to come structurally, and that will start by mobilizing students and workers, taking every opportunity to expose the government’s hypocrisy and false solutions, building bridges with unions and being at the forefront of campaigns that bring issues of jobs and the environment together (for example the collapse of Solar Systems or the privatization of the energy sector), and taking direct action to stop the expansion of coal infrastructure when necessary. There is nothing ‘fundamentally wrong’ with the proposed campaign for solar panels, but it is an important debate about tactics, effectiveness and political orientation.

    When it comes to climate change, awareness raising just doesn’t cut it anymore. This issue is mainstream. Instead of being bombarded with climate skepticism, we are bombarded with ‘solutions’ from every direction. Sorting the real from the false solutions is the battle we are faced with. Politicians and companies want a scapegoat – it is why Labour MP Kelvin Thompson recently called to cut immigration into Australia to keep our emissions down, it is why we hear rhetoric about China and India being the ones who need to change, it is why governments support ‘clean’ coal (because ‘dirty’ coal becomes the scapegoat).

    It is absolutely crucial that we, workers and students, do not take on that role of scapegoat. We can not accept any argument or implication that Climate Change is happening because we don’t buy green products, or turn our lights off at night, or ride bicycles to work. Unfortunately this message is not coming from our government so much as it is coming from inside our own environmental movement. The absolutely overwhelming majority of emissions come from big polluting industries, those who control production. ‘It is a demand on an employer though’ made a good point that demanding solar panels for the uni is different to demanding that individuals buy them. However, this kind of campaign inevitably frames the university as a consumer, and asks that it changes its consumption in order to help combat climate change.

    In the long run, decentralised electricity production, which includes all kinds of different renewable power, is probably the best way to structure our energy system. But the state is the only body that has the power to implement this kind of system on the scale, and in the time, that will actually help us avoid the worst of climate change. We have very, very little time to act. The government will not dare stand up to big polluters without massive pressure from below. All eyes must be on the government. I cannot agree that ‘it is good to put demands on Sydney Uni to be greener’ if this is not backed up by an analysis of how this will actually help prevent climate change, and how it will build the kind of movement necessary to confront the forces responsible. Underlying the argument to campaign for solar panels is an ideology that we can tackle climate change ‘around the edges’ of the government. I wish this were so, and if I thought for a second we could, I would be all for this campaign. But in this eleventh hour, it is so dangerous to campaign around anything which takes the focus off big polluting industry and the scams of the government. Why campaign for solar panels while behind you the state government approves two new power stations and announces its plan to double coal exports in the next 10 years?

    I sympathise with calls for a ‘multi-dimensional approach’ and ‘local victories to keep up everyone’s moral’ but I have yet to read an analysis of how this campaign would take the movement forward and help reverse climate change. In this context a local victory would be a very hollow victory for the movement.

  10. It is not just Emma arguing for a ‘multi dimensional’ approach. It is your own tendancy. Read Johnthan Neale’s book about climate change. Neale argues for the multi dimensional approach. Neale wants a campaign in every school and in every city for clean energy, public transport, better building design, you name it every issue. You can disagree with that strategy, but lets not pretend that the IS postion is either homogenous or consistent on this or any other issue. You are right at the moment a very split group, particularly in Sydney, around a range of issues. I think that you need to talk to your members because the Solidarity members I speak to don’t agree with the party line put up on this website.

    Left groups have a habit of saying that only X campaign or Y strategy is right. I think you are right 50% of the time and wrong 50% of the time. Not a bad success rate, but you don’t have a monopoly on the truth even when “We have very, very little time to act”.

    I will give you one example from recent history. There was a successful campaign (by an IS member) at a University to get them to pay for refugee support programs. She got dozens of people involved in the campaign who wouldn’t have been involved otherwise.

    Now rightly (especially looking at the resurgence of anti refugee politics today) many argued that the real focus was Howard and mandatory detention. Doesn’t really take away from her victory and the work she did though does it?

    If anything the IS had a very multi dimensional approach around refugees. Maybe you should think about that in relation to climate change campaigning.

  11. Is the Solidarity position is that workers shouldn’t demand that their bosses have cleaner workplaces because the demand needs to be on the federal gov?

  12. When talking about demands in particular workplaces/campuses the question should always be whether these will take forward the confidence and political clarity of the working class and climate movement.

    I am against a lot of what passes for the “green workplace” demands that have cropped up in some union circles as a response to climate change. A lot of it (regulations about turning off computers, recycling etc) end up leading to increased levels of discipline on workers, while having no tangible impact on the climate question.

    There also real dangers that the content of the demands would mask questions of responsibility, what solutions are required etc see earlier criticisms of the demands for “greenpower” which have also been raised by some unions.

    This is not to say that some ‘small scale’ demands couldn’t be successful in posing climate change as a class question. For example, we could demand that employers subsidise public transport to work.

    Some workplace demands would be electrifying. Imaging Aluminium workers demanding that the smelters are powered by solar for example. Or workers in the hunter demanding a transition. This is what we ultimately need, but it won’t come until there is a serious political movement and people feel supported.

    It is always a question of context and what will take the class dimension forward.

    The question of context is crucial for understanding the arguments at Sydney Uni. ‘on site generation’ has been posed (in the small number of commentaries I have read) as something that SPECIFICALLY AVOIDS putting demands on government, informed by autonomist conceptions that placing demands on the state somehow strengthens its power, at that we need to “take action in our communities” rather than fight the state directly. Other comments have said that students will more likely to engage with something that is “accessible” rather than a hard political campaign against the government. But the biggest student mobilisations over the past 20 years have always been ones with clear demands on govt!

    It would be a different question entirely if the NTEU, independant of the student movement, was raising demands and asking for support. But in talking with NTEU comrades I personally would be encouraging them to do more, in the current context, to act upon the great resolution they passed at national conference about the CPRS, rather than mucking around with a few inconsequential solar panels.


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