April 11, 2023

The word radical shouldn’t be a dirty word when it comes to the future 

Recent election trends, including the recent historic byelection, shows that we are increasingly moving away from current conservative politics. In the face of ongoing, multiple, interrelated crises, the next shift we need is to the radical.

A cost-of-living crisis, a housing crisis, a combined climate and biodiversity crisis, the latest banking crisis, even ‘polycrisis’… There seems to be no end of self-induced crises, many of which have stemmed from our fear of doing anything deemed vaguely radical.

If the latest IPCC report tells us anything, it is that we’ve lost the privilege of making iterative change. As climate researchers and activists have been shouting for years, it’s only by doing things very differently that we have a hope of saving what’s genuinely important. In the context of that report, the recent agreement for an absolute cap in the safeguard mechanism is a great example of an important small step, but we know we need to do much more if want to avoid worsening our crises.

But doing so involves that dirty ‘R’ word (radical, obviously, what did you think I meant?). How have we reached the point where radical is bad, and being small and slow is the only palatable way forward? Everything from the safeguard mechanism to the National Reconstruction Fund Corporation Bill has been labelled radical in Parliament recently, always as an insult.

In the face of multiple, interrelated crises and a political landscape increasingly divided towards extremes, we need ‘radical’ to stop being hurled around an insult and start it being part of our political norm.

Why? Because the way to stop the tide of multiple, overlapping, endless crises is transformational change, and while it involves difficult decisions, it’s increasingly our only way forward and we need to start now.

We know that complex adaptive systems, such as ecosystems, societies or economies, can move from one seemingly stable and unending state to another – even if the end point is unrecognisable before it happens. These shifts are caused by a whole range of small changes interacting, creating feedbacks and leading to a tipping point. These transformative tipping points are often only really visible in hindsight. but systems scientists are getting better at understanding what to look out for if tipping points are approaching – with breakdowns of established systems and institutions, leading to multiplying crises, being good indicators.

There is a growing sense that such a tipping point is looming as we approach the middle of the 21st Century. If we are approaching a tipping point, the choice stops being about whether we undertake big changes, but about which big changes we make. We can, for example, choose to transform our economy and society to protect the global climate and ecosystems, or we can face the climatic and ecological transformations of the planet and try to react to it, which will just multiply our crises. Similarly, we can adjust our economies to avoid the ongoing, growing problems of inequality, or we can keep struggling to cope with social crises they bring.

However, creating transformational change necessarily requires radical action – actions and decisions outside of business as usual. Given we don’t have a choice – and that we need to start now – the answer is to debate radical ideas on their merits, not use ‘radical’ to dismiss ideas we don’t like.

But how does such radicalism fit with our tendency towards the moderate, the middle ground, the small target? And what role does current conservative politics have to play? All too often we are attracted to small-c conservative view of keeping things as they are, or making slow and incremental adjusting round the edges. However, the conservative governments have a long history of being the final implementers of ‘radical’ changes, albeit after long and difficult campaigning from outside: Nixon and the Clean Air Act; John Howard and gun control; marriage equality around the world – all radical things that rapidly became moderate.

Radical ideas need not be extreme, despite the hot air of so many politicians. We need to separate radical from extreme. Extremism takes us to dark and dangerous places; radicalism need not and we should not conflate the two. Ideas can be radical, in that they make big changes, but also conservative in that they seek to maintain the things we agree are good. A home, a decent standard of wellbeing, a liveable income… These are hardly radical ideas but are looking increasingly difficult to ‘conserve’ for many current and future generations here and around the world. No wonder young people are turning away from conventional conservative politics.

Intergenerational equity can help us be more radical in a way that encourages us to hold on to the things we think are important (like a place to call home) and stop putting off action in the hope that technology or a ‘future hero’ will solve the problem. A longer-term view helps us make and justify difficult choices: it can show us that transforming (parts of) our economy is better than leaving a planet so ecologically and climatically different that a future society has no economy we would recognise, and the benefits it brings. Intergenerational equity is already a growing cause among progressives, but since it is about conserving what is good, there is no reason in can’t be on a conservative agenda.

There are examples of these ideas being implemented: Wales has introduced a Commissioner for Future Generations, backed up by legislation. This has allowed for long-term thinking to be discussed in policy and consequently enabled ideas to be discussed freer from political sort-termism and risk-aversion. EveryGen and the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) have invited the outgoing Welsh Commissioner to Australia in April, and this is an opportunity for policy-makers and advocates to discuss how intergenerational equity could help balance our love of the moderate with the need for transformational change. Who knows, they may even leave with the realisation that many of our supposedly radical ideas are just inherently sensible solutions to our crises?

Instead of radical being an insult, it should be central to the debate – what sort of radical ideas do we need and how might we implement them so that, ultimately, we get to keep the good things in the face of inevitable, transformational, radical change.

Allowing radical ideas within our political discussions could be our best hope for riding the wave of change that is coming so we actively transform ourselves to land somewhere better for us, and for the generations yet to come. Who knows, it might even be the political future of conservativism…