Clive Hamilton – an out of touch eco-warrior

It must be sad to be an old environmental warrior: to reminisce about the days of barricades, placards, chants, feathers, drums and, well, copious amounts of hair. Clearly Clive Hamilton has been in a reminiscent mood. Perhaps he’s been fretfully stroking his shiny cranium while remembering the good ole Franklin Dam protests and what they achieved. Perhaps he nibbled on one of those special cookies that were so popular in those days.

How else could he come to the conclusion that mainstream environmentalism has failed because of “the professionalisation of environmental activism over the past two decades.”

Perhaps you, like me, read this and muttered the classic teenager response, “huh?”

Perhaps you, like me, wondered if you had totally misunderstood the clean-shaven and articulate environmental activists that have emerged over the past two decades? Why is it that we found them persuasive and convincing when Dr Hamilton says they were sell-outs to incrementalism and professionalism?

What did we miss?

Perhaps it’s not what we missed, but that which is being missed by the well-meaning Dr Hamilton.

Just like the far-left elements of the Labor Party and some of the Australian Greens, Clive is simply feeling cast adrift because environmentalism is now mainstream. In fact, the broader concept of sustainability – the combination of economic, social AND environmental responsibility – is being embraced across business, government and the broader community.

Admittedly, we have a long way to go. Australians are big talkers when it comes to environmental action and don’t always follow through with consistent actions, but our minds and hearts are open to opportunities to do something for the common good. The outpouring of support for Queenslanders affected by the floods is a perfect example.

Surely Clive Hamilton is being disingenuous when he says that:

We need a new environmental radicalism made up of those willing to put their bodies on the line; because no one ever achieved radical social change by being respectable.

Does Australia really need more radicalism, at a time when religious radicalism is being blamed for racism and other forms of bigotry?

Surely the incremental, professional and constructive way to approach environmental responsibility makes the most sense?

Yes it does.

Many words have been written elsewhere about environmentalists realising that they had to dress, think and talk like corporates and government policy-makers if they were going to influence environmental decision-making within either type of institution.

As a result, green activists were sourced from a broader range of disciplines including economics, law, the physical sciences like geography and chemistry, and the behavioural sciences like psychology.

Only once they were equipped to step into corporate boardrooms and departmental meeting rooms, and speak the same language as their antagonists, were environmentalists able to make ground on a raft of issues.

Without the professionalism of green activists, and their acceptance of incrementalism as a means to an end – two of the three weaknesses identified by Clive Hamilton – many of the environmental reforms we take for granted today would not be in place. These include the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the National Pollutant Inventory, and the programs to protect Australia’s native forests and the Great Barrier Reef. None of these reforms are perfect, but they are a vast improvement on what existed before, which was nothing at all.

I can’t conclude this note without mentioning a few green activitists whose achievements are the best counterpoint to Dr Hamilton’s fretful illusions.

Each of these people put on a suit, learned to talk in corporate-speak and made a material difference to the way the environment is valued and managed by corporate Australia and the Australian Government (and none of them will thank me for mentioning them):

Paul Gilding was CEO of Greenpeace International and after he left was a trail-blazer in advising corporations how to adopt sustainable practices. He now works with individuals, businesses, NGOs, entrepreneurs, academia and governments.

Tricia Caswell was on the Executive of the ACTU and then went on to be Executive Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation. After that she was the Executive Director of PLAN Australia and then went on to found the Global Sustainability Institute at the RMIT University that initiated most of the discussions around triple-bottom line reporting for business in the early 2000s.

Michael Rae was with WWF Australia when he worked with the Australian minerals industry to improve their performance on environmental and social matters. Michael also led the charge at the international level, during the Global Mining Initiative, to reduce the use of cyanide in the mining and production of gold. He now runs the Responsible Jewellery Council.

Erwin Jackson progressed from Greenpeace to the ACF and is now the deputy at the Climate Institute, which is so derided by Clive Hamilton. Strangely, Dr Hamilton does not mention that he used to be Chairman of the Climate Institute, and perhaps this is the real source of his bitterness. That aside, Erwin has been instrumental in keeping the Australian Government’s hand to fire when it comes to climate action, and his patient approach suggests he knows that this is a long game to be won by engaged experts and not by the whingers braying on the sidelines.

Clive Hamilton would probably call these people environmental sell-outs. I call them true environmental activists and ultimately, success stories. They have kept to their principles but adapted to the corporate/government world, and they have made a material difference.

This is something that the reminiscent Clive Hamilton can only aspire to.

This post also appeared at and The Drum: Unleashed

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

20 thoughts on “Clive Hamilton – an out of touch eco-warrior”

  1. I think Clive raises a few good points, but he’s ignoring the fact that these professionalised environmental groups are simply responding to the fact that the fossil fuel and emissions-intensive industries have heavily professionalised lobbyists and insiders.

    I think we need both – people cutting their teeth as grass roots campaigners chaining themselves to stuff (and they are out there, e.g. 6degrees), and professionals trying to influence from the inside.

    Personally I find it hard to listen to Clive because he just comes across as such a negative, guilt-ridden puritan. Maybe he needs a lifestyle change, he could start by moving to the beautiful city of Newcastle and picketing the coal terminal.

  2. D, honey, this is exactly what I have been arguing since 2007. You’ve nailed it. The Green movement has to move into the corporate world if it is to be anything other than a crab sharing experience.

    I work in this environment. I effect more subtle change from inside than an army of John Butler type soap-shy radicals. Hamilton has, as with most things, completely misread reality – not in terms of what needs to be done so much as how action is going to come about.

    Hamilton is the best friend of the Bolt squad. He strips the rest of us of legitimacy by attaching himself – limpet style – to an effective, lucid and incredibly sharp groundswell of people who are too buy acting to whine about not getting all the attention at the birthday party. His nostalgic ‘chain-myself-to-the-nearest-tree’ shit simply does not cut the mustard today. The sooner he realises that the better for everyone.

    Nice work, D. I’m crushing..

    1. Gibbot said ‘Hamilton is the best friend of the Bolt squad’

      Spot on. Doesn’t he realize that he gives the likes of Bolt someone to point at and say ‘Look at those crazy enviro nazis’

  3. I’ve already had an exchange with D on Twitter about this. My response to Clive at Crikey can be found here:

    The longstanding problem I have with Clive is that he poses as a radical but his radicalism is of an enlightened elite who “know the truth about climate change”, unlike the poor saps (ordinary people) out there who are really “part of the problem”.

    Really he wants the current power elite replaced (or more likely convinced, because he’s THAT pessimistic) by his “radical activist” elite. It’s actually the politics of moralism, an analysis that avoids serious social analysis by relying on catastrophic pronouncements and misleading (unevidenced) claims about the nature of neoliberalism.

    A banal radical poseur, a reactionary elitist, a defender of the bourgeois order and for the Left the kind of friend who makes you realise you don’t need enemies.

    1. I agree. If Clive Hamilton is “radical” then radical has shrunk to the merely rhetorical. The day he gets put in the lock-up having been arrested and risked his house, his job, his name and his comfort for the cause, is the day he earns the right to criticise those who dedicate their lives to this fight and act and think radically, rather than merely speaking so. Those who work on the front lines are the ones who need to talk about tactics, and i’m sure they will do so.

  4. I suppose Dr Hamilton would also argue that Bob Brown sold out when he stopped getting arrested at the Franklin blockades, put on a suit and tackled the issues head-on through the political process – and has achieved far more in doing so. He also overlooks that there are many, many young idealists out there taking up the banners – they may not look as radical and their favoured weapons may be Twitter and email rather than protest marches, but their commitment is just as strong as it was with the original green movement in the 60s and 70s. Where there’s a just cause, there will always be people willing to fight for it.

    One point about Tricia Caswell, though: after a career in environmentalism and sustainability, as you have concisely described, she left the Global Sustainability Institute to take up a position as Exec Director of the Victorian Association of Forest Industries (VAFI) – a mouthpiece for the Victorian logging industry. Having met Ms Caswell a couple of times while she was still with the GSI at RMIT and knowing her commitment to sustainability, I can only assume that her intention was to encourage and promote sustainable forestry practices through the industry. It was around this time that the National Assoc of Forest Industries (NAFI) hired former ACT (Lib) Chief Minister Kate Carnell as their Exec Director. Having high-profile women in these top positions was intended to lend some respectability to an industry with a zero record for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. I am sure that she felt she would be able to improve both the practices and the image of the forest industry, but it made not the slightest bit of difference.

    I am unwilling to take the Hamilton route and label her a ‘sell-out’ for all the reasons you have argued yourself, but I believe being associated with VAFI in a professional capacity dented her image and credentials as a leading environmentalist. My point is that while our corporate and mainstream environmentalists are leading the way in mainstreaming environmental issues and keeping them on the political agenda, they should not lose touch with the ‘radical’ elements, and the principles and commitment that have driven their careers. This, I think, is where Tricia Caswell took an ill-advised turn.

    Every great movement needs both sides and the green movement is stronger for having both mainstream (including corporate) and ‘radical’ elements. They just need to talk to each other occasionally.

  5. Well, if Clive is so wrong, tell me how we have made progress ( Re Climate action ) over the last 2 decades ?
    Yes we have seen the rise of a multitude of small NGO’s and some elected representatives. We have seen a lot of talking.

    But if you are truthful you will have to admit that we are going nowhere. Worse, we are headed for a climate and ecological catastrophe, an alien Earth that will support a small fraction of the current population.

    You argue that various people have got into positions of influence. But what has actually been achieved? We have engaged with the power brokers and the result; we are just being “tolerated”.

    Emissions, species extinction rates, pollution, all continue to rise or worsen. We are running out of time – are you really proposing we do more of the same?

  6. Trish Caswell head of the ACTU? Don’t think so. She was an Industrial Officer at the Victorian Trades Hall Council

    1. Yes Russell, you are absolutely correct and during that time she was on the Executive of the ACTU. My mistake! I have amended the post.

  7. “As a result, green activists were sourced from a broader range of disciplines including economics, law, the physical sciences like geography and chemistry, and the behavioural sciences such as psychology.”

    I’m not sure when the perspective was formed that “environmentalism” is an organised institute that recruits people from specific fields following a planned agenda. Perhaps this is true of certain environmental organisations. However, having been raised in an activist community and watched the development of same I think it’s more accurately viewed as a collection of individuals, from a range of backgrounds who apply their professional discipline to caring about the wellbeing of, frankly, the only planet we can viably inhabit using the resources at their disposal.

  8. Tricia Caswell then went into logging as well and left for an mba yuppy upstart that dislikes the friends of the earth cam walker via their tweets.. it is nasty and amusing to say the least!

    great piece and very true must move with the times but not at the extreme expense of being too silly and commercial either mate!

    balance and baby steps will get us there!

  9. This is not the time for baby steps. We do not have the luxury of being tentative. The longer we fail to take action, the more giant the strides will need to be.

  10. Clive Hamilton’s writing in Requiem for a Species is meticulously researched and although the book loses its merciless clarity somewhat about 2/3 of the way through I couldn’t fault his somewhat depressing logic in setting out the argument that whatever the environmental movement has managed so far has been (so far) pretty ineffectual. Dragonista’s spray is neither well researched nor logical. Although it seems to press Dragonista’s buttons there is no evidence that the well-dressed incrementalism that Hamilton decries (along with the community climate movement) has achieved anything. NGOs that go down that path are inevitably dudded. Most recent example the Southern Cross coalition which was seduced by the Rudd Government’s siren song and made to look foolish over the disastrous CPRS proposal. ACF, Climate Institute and the rest were sidelined in the debate and achieved absolutely nothing, zip. Not that the rest of us did any better.

    The fundamental characteristic of this struggle is that politicians from both major parties are impervious to reasoned argument and uninterested in what is right and wrong unless it supports what they have decided to do. The only thing that catches their attention is the possibility of losing power. The only strategies that will yield any results however paltry, are those that appear to pose a threat to holding or obtaining political power and these are pretty hard to find outside of election years. The only reason for the small recent gains has been the ALPs desire to stop leaking support to the Greens and now in the context of the hung Parliament the crucial importance of Bandt, Oakeshott, Windsor and Wilkie to the longevity of the Gillard government. There is no evidence that Don Henry, Erwin Jackson Paul Gilding et al have had any impact at all in the climate battle we are now engaged in. With or without political leverage the appearance and style of the players is supremely irrelevant. Sorry Dragonista, I’m sure you feel better now that you have got that off your chest but you miss the point entirely.

  11. I too disagree with D’s support for incrementalism and conservative environmental leaders. But in terms of an alternative strategy, Hamilton is an abject failure. He is like the proverbial broken clock, right about the scale of the problem and the ineffectual strategy of the conservatives, but then counterposing a nasty, elitist moralism that will only turn ordinary people against his cause.

    In essence, despite climate change being a problem caused by a society he has only a moral critique of how that society operates, and tends to blame those with the least power as being the fundamental cause of the problem through their alienated consumer greed. The end result is he demoralises even those who agree with him about how bad the problem is because in his schema there is no serious agency to carry out the changes that need to happen but the self-same elite that runs the system today.

    His politics are like a more hysterical version of what I experienced among many Australian Greens activists and climate campaigners.

    If Clive wanted to push something really radical and transformative he’d be trying to win the mass of the population to a project of social transformation that breaks the nexus between development and carbon emissions. A good example is this effort by UK activists:

  12. I think it takes all types. It is the extremes which define the middle. For too long the pro-market, pro-corporate, libertarian extreme has been dragging the so-called “center” to the right. For some reason, these people have decided that their interests are best served by denying the science of climate change. Many other people like to see themselves as taking a “middle ground” between perceived extremes. Even me. But I agree with Clive that we desperately need some genuine radicals to pull the debate back in the direction of reality, and in the process make The Greens look middle-of-the-road.

  13. No matter how radical he may be, attacking someone who has their entire life set on raising awareness of the drastic effects climate change will have, and working for a change to properally mitigate this is not productive towards solving the major issues. The major issues here being climate change; and nobody can deny Hamilton is an expert in that respect, at least, not without showing their ignorance.

    Instead of attacking people who are activly involved in saving the world, why do we not just agree to disagree on the finer points of politics in the face of something as devastating to the environment and society.

    With all due respect, i read this thinking it would be relevant to important things. Unfortunatly, you seem to have failed to piece together an accurate picture of Hamilton – who is indeed both a professional and published activist. I have read the speech extract you are writing about, you do seem to have missed the point…

  14. “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.”

    That wasn’t Dr Hamilton, it’s Agent Smith from the Matrix. Dr Hamilton can be right about many things, but his disgust of the common person shines through.

    “I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.”

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