Melbourne’s Monthly Argument – a little less talk, a little more conversation please


Well, I went to a meeting last night all about solar energy. “How did it go?” you ask. Let’s just say that the sun didn’t shine out of anyone’s arse…

It was part of a let’s-try-and-reinvigorate-civil-society series (an admirable goal) called “the Monthly Argument.” Held in a pub (food, beer – preconditions for any rational discussion, IMHO), it SHOULD have been an engaging babble of thoughts and opinions and beginnings-of-friendships/adversarial relationships.

From the get-go though, it was obvious this was to be Bizzzzness as Usual, if not outright Ego-foddering.
There was a perfunctory welcome, no invitation to mingle/exchange names with the person sat next to you or behind you.
The first speaker – Matthew Wright – then launched into a 30 minute (yes, thirty goddam minutes) slide show about the wonders of solar energy, diverting briefly to slag off the Nuclear Option). All this is via the “Beyond Zero Emissions” (BZE) group.
I stayed awake, manfully, and learnt that a carbon price of between 20 and 70 dollars (per tonne) is merely going to push energy providers to gas, which is NOT the desired outcome.

The second guy – who used to be called Albert Langer but has changed his name to Arthur Dent (geddit?) – started out better, at least insofar as he actually tried to get a sense of what the audience knew, and who had read the report, or at least skimmed it.
His main point seemed to be that the BZE group were acting in bad faith, that they hadn’t refuted the rebuttals from various sources, and were being creative in their accounting.
He name-checked three critics – the bravenewclimate group (nuclear funded), Ted Trainer who is an “agrarian wind-downer” and the Ministry for Resources, Energy and Tourism (so joined, according to Matthew Wright, so the Tourism-heads wouldn’t be able to scupper anything the Energy-heads wanted done, as apparently has happened in the past).
He and Wright seemed happy to be wrangling about this or that statistic, this or that scaled up demonstration project. There was no end in sight. It was like listening to Vogon Poetry, only without the happy prospect of being thrown out of an airlock…
For me the nadir (at which point I invoked the law of two feet) was when Arthur Dent queried some BZE statistic, saying it wasn’t clear what what it referred to. Matthew Wright pounced like a starving leopard. He rattled off various permutations, all of which the BZE group had clearly considered. That’s fine, and having details at fingertips is as it should be. It was the smugness and self-satisfaction, and his (perhaps unconscious) look to the audienc for validation of his extreme cleverness which really left me feeling cold and old. Have I been guilty of this exact same dickishness? Hell yeah. Will I do it ever again? Sadly, probably yes. Would I deserve to be walked out on? Abso-fucking-lutely.

Look, there is a missing moral dimension in the debate. Australians, with their enormous per capita carbon footprints and their wealth built on the export of coal, should not be choosing the “cheapest” energy system, but the one that minimises their dumping of carbon into the atmosphere. They also should not be choosing any system that leaves the long-term legacy of nuclear waste on their descendants. But within the incredibly narrow boundaries of “cost-benefit analysis” that these two speakers seemed happy to debate, broader discussions like this considered illegitimate. But these are the sorts of issues that NEED to be raised, and that inspire people to be involved in movements. And we aren’t going to figure out to cope with the shitstorms that climate change will bring down upon us without vigorous social movements that grow, learn, organise and win.

I just don’t get this sort of event. First off, I don’t get the hosts of “the Monthly Argument.” They go to the time and effort and cost of hosting topical discussions – the next is the oddly worded “is it time for dictatorship to be made illegal”. Presumably they believe in the intrinsic and/or practical benefits of a robust and dynamic civil society/informed citizenry. Why go to the effort of staging events if they don’t include efforts to get strangers to talk to each other, and create weak links?
Second, I don’t get Matthew Wright. He seems to think that the shiny technology will speak for itself. He seems to think that by blamming graphs and charts and pictures at people they will become advocates for his technocratic plans. I wonder if he’s tried a control experiment – of listening and engaging with audiences like last nights, and then seeing if he gets more expressions of interest about becoming volunteers, speakers etc. That would be the scientifical way of going about it, wouldn’t it?
Only the third actor – Albert Langer/Arthur Dent do I understand, if not agree with. He obviously takes pleasure in being contrarian. That’s not automatically a bad thing. Intelligent contrarians force you to think, force you to make sure you’re not just seeing the world the way you want/need to see it. Of the three, at least his behaviour was consistent with his motives.

A word on the gender politics. We had three (white middle-class) men on the platform and women doing the sound, and reminding the men frequently to speak into microphone. What is this, 1966?

How it could have been done
A genuine warm welcome to all, and an invitation/encouragement to people to talk with someone they didn’t already know for a couple of minutes (as an “activation phenomenon”)
“Shows of hands” poll around who thinks what in the room at the outset about the issues at hand
A “hard ceiling” maximum of 20 minutes per punter, with “clarification” questions from the floor after each section Thirty minutes is Too Long.
Structured q and a, with short answers from the speakers and further “show of hands” about the questions from the floor.
“Shows of hands” poll at the end over who has changed their mind on hearing the evidence.
Finish on time with an emphatic invitation to people to stick around and discuss further (this may well have happened).

See also
Meetings from Above


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