The world that comes next: an interview with Scott Ludlam


We may not have heard much from Scott Ludlam since his sudden departure from the Senate in 2017, but he’s been busy – writing a book, no less. Ahead of the May release of the highly anticipated Full Circle, Scott speaks to us about what he’s been up to, what he’s learnt about the world that comes next, and what we have to do to get there.

Interview by Joana Partyka

For many politicians, the first few years out of Parliament involve taking up a lobbying position or publishing a memoir.

Scott Ludlam has done neither.

For a one-time representative of a party explicitly calling to close the revolving door between government and industry, the former was never going to happen. The latter, too, was highly unlikely for someone described by the media as “intensely private”.

Instead, Ludlam has spent the past couple of years bunkered down in the bush writing a different kind of book.

Released on May 4, Full Circle is a manifesto for a new ecological politics. Informed by a lifetime of activism, a decade in the Senate and many years of travel, the book examines the interconnectedness between the world’s natural, political and financial systems, painting a lucid pitch for the world that comes next.

There are few places Full Circle doesn’t venture. Ludlam takes the reader back in time, through space and around the world, knitting his observations and experiences together with well-established concepts to generate compelling new insights. If it sounds ambitious in scope, that’s because it is – but it works. And at the end of it all, Ludlam offers a sweet, multi-layered treat: hope, that we can actually turn this thing around.

Full Circle is sharp, tender and witty; the kind of book that stays tangled in the webs of your mind long after you’ve finished reading it. We spoke to Ludlam ahead of the book’s release about what he took away from writing it, and what you might take away from reading it.

Hey Scott, congratulations on the book and thanks for making the time to chat with me. Tell us a little bit about Full Circle – where did the idea come from, and what can readers expect to get out of it?

There's threads of the book that go back about 20 years, and there's pieces of two essays that are about 10 years old.

We have built – using ‘we’ in inverted commas – an industrial growth economy that's doubling in throughput about once every 25 or 30 years, and we don't seem to have any idea of how to stop it. So that's one of the threads and one of the reasons for writing the book: to try and tackle that question head-on. That sets out the problem. But really, the interesting question is what we're meant to do about it.

You draw some really beautiful and unexpected parallels between seemingly unrelated topics, like the origins of the universe and systems theory and Monopoly even. How did your interest in these concepts arise, and did you know from the outset that they would inform the book?

It remains to be seen whether people think it works or not, but there's five different stories that are braided together. The first is the geohistory. If we're to develop an effective politics that grapples with something as enormous as climate change, I wanted to ground that story in geohistory. We're fooling around with the geology itself; the things that a certain quarter of our society set in motion are rebounding into the geological record.

The second story really is just this idea of ‘coins of the Anthropocene’. It's a way of looking at capitalism through the lens of the coin doubling game, or the industrial growth economy. The fact that it's not just churning and burning through coal and iron ore and plastic, but people – it's burning through us; it extracts people. They call us consumers, but we're also being consumed, we’re being burnt up.

The third strand is where we start talking about what to do about it. I've been fascinated by systems theory for the last 15 or 20 years, which is a very loose accumulation of different disciplines that grew out of thermodynamics in the 19th century. I've often wondered, do these disciplines tell us anything about how social collisions work? How cycles of transgression and rebellion throughout history have operated? There’s clearly an art to social movements, but is there a science to it?

Which leads you to the fourth strand, which – for that kind of analysis to be useful – has to be grounded in real social movements. So I spent 12 months travelling in 2018, talking to people way outside my range of experience: folks from the Global Greens, organisers, people doing work on climate, people doing work on mining campaigns, on anti-nuclear, on peace. Anybody who’d sit down to talk to me to try and ground the systems ideas inside that analysis in real world social justice and climate justice campaigns in places as far from home as I could get.

And then that leads us to the fifth strand, which looks at what would happen if all of these people were to win; from the work that the Greens are doing here in Australia to the greater extended network of the Global Greens, and then all of these incredible social movements engaged in all these different dimensions of struggle. What would happen if they were successful, more or less all at the same time? What is the world that comes next? If you can imagine all five of those storylines somehow braided together, that's what I've tried to do.

You were caught up in the Black Summer bushfires where you now live in southern NSW, the experiences of which you’ve woven into the book. How did that experience change the trajectory of Full Circle?

It changed it a lot, because you can't plan for that kind of thing. I'd been living on the south coast of New South Wales for a little bit over a year when the fires swept down. We're not that far from Cobargo, which is the town that was very heavily impacted on New Year's Eve 2019.

I'd been looking for a case study to try and work out how all of these concepts collide in the real world. And then suddenly the case study was 800 metres from here. It was right on top of us, and the sky was red, and we didn't see the sun for days. We were forced to evacuate a couple of times through January and February of 2020. And it meant in the most disastrous circumstance that I had my case study, ready or not.

How is this collision of very deep ecological processes, the destruction of 60,000 years of landscape-scale fire management, the political tier, social movements, infrastructure – how do all those things smash into each other at really high speed? That was the case study that I guess I was looking for, without realising it. The essays that are concerned with the fires were written as it was happening, which maybe gives those sections a different kind of flavour.

Full Circle cover

There’s a lot in the book about social movements; about the self-sustaining ’flywheel’ that kicks in when one amasses enough support, resulting in a movement that can’t be ignored. You write, too, about movements that appear to be on that track but end up failing, like the fight against the invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s. What can we do to ensure the big movements of our time – climate, race, gender – don’t meet the same fate?

Well, you can't ensure anything, because every struggle is unique in its own way. So what I've tried to do is learn from these past struggles – the ones that succeeded and the ones that didn't – and try and map them into language that would be familiar to systems theory.

So it’s the idea of positive feedback loops, where a process in a natural or an institutional or a social system is self-accelerating: the more it grows, the more it gives itself the power to grow. We see that in social movements; we've seen it recently with the school strikers, with the #MeToo movement, with Extinction Rebellion, with Black Lives Matter. A spark is lit, and somehow it catches on and it ignites and then it jumps.

Sociologists and systems researchers have noticed that the mathematics of that jumping are identical to the way earthquakes and forest fires propagate in natural systems. And there's these key differences between purely physical systems like an earthquake; they have these really interesting resonances with things like forest fires or epidemics, or social movements, strikes, strike waves. Elements of these systems that are in contention are adaptive – they're learning; they have memory – and they bring those memories into each new collision in a way that earthquakes don't.

I thought we should unpack this. If runaway social movements like #MeToo or Black Lives Matter or the global climate justice movement share these common dynamics with phenomena that have been observed and quite well studied, maybe there's stuff there that's actionable. It's clearly interesting, at least to a nerd like me. But the question that I've tried to bring to bear in the book is: is it actionable? Could you as an organiser in the Greens, or in XR, or as a school striker, change your decision about your strategy based on this stuff?

It isn't happening anywhere near fast enough to arrest the momentum that's pushing us over this climate cliff. Social movements always proceed in zigzags, like at the stop-start of an earthquake: it gets rolling, and then the fault line jams back up again and it stops. And then the tension starts building up again.

Being aware that that's the kind of dynamic process that we're engaged in gives me a tonne of hope. It's like, well, it hasn't failed. It's jammed up – something like a pandemic comes along and suddenly we're not even allowed to go outside and organise anymore. Doesn't mean the movements failed – all those seeds are still in the ground, a fault line is still there and pressure’s building back up again. Let's lean in; keep pressing. Because you never know what is going to be the one that sets that avalanche off again.

In the book as well as beyond it, you talk about Australia being a captured state; that ‘it may look like we have elections, but the deeper layers are untouched by the surface churn’. What does that mean for us, particularly for the Greens who are working explicitly within that system? How do we effect change if the deeper layers are unaffected, and is there any point in trying?

People working in the Greens at nearly any level will be totally unsurprised by that conclusion. And they aren't the audience for a finding like that: that the system is cooked, the table is heavily tilted against us.

Where that line of argument comes from is two places. One is this research unit of academics in the United States who came up with this concept called the investment theory of party competition. They mapped the correlation between the amount of money spent by the two major parties in the United States and their share of the vote. And who spent the most money and who got the most votes: it's a straight-line correlation. If you know in advance who spent the most money, you don't even need people to go out and vote because you already know who's gonna win; whoever spends the most money wins.

We don't have data as good as that in the Australian context. But the party that spent the most money in five out of five of the last federal elections won the most seats. I think that's probably quite well appreciated in the Greens, though I don't know that it's more broadly appreciated. It's a complete inversion of the way most people think democracy works.

The second source for that analysis was conversations I had in South Africa, where they named the capture of key democratic institutions as something more than corruption, but something less than oligarchy. They call it state capture, where the rulemaking processes themselves are the object of capture.

In Australia, all the evidence is that we're suffering a form of state capture. Wherever your preferences fall through to one of the major parties or another, the gas and coal industries are still going to be able to form a majority in the House of Reps. Even if you vote Green, if your candidate doesn't win your vote is going to trickle through to somebody owned by the resources sector, or traumatised and compliant. So it's absolutely useful for Greens organisers to understand, but I also think we already get it.

And no, it doesn't mean we give up – particularly in a country where we're not going to get shot at for going to a polling booth. I think it means we work twice as hard to win, as a party that's explicitly not controlled by those industries. That form of analysis says, ‘oh for god sake, get out and win’. Whether it's Greens, or in some narrower cases independents that aren’t bankrolled by these industry sectors, it's more important than ever that we're adapting our campaigns and that we're naming it state capture, and then getting back to work.

You quote Matt Canavan as saying that what people fighting for climate action are actually seeking is the downfall of capitalism. It's true – capitalism is clearly the problem, but I think people are afraid of what a post-capitalist world might mean for them; that it might negatively affect their quality of life. How do we convince people to truly reject that 'infinite growth' thinking we take to be an unassailable truth, especially in a post-covid world when many of us are more desperate for resources than ever?

I feel like we've got examples we can use all the way around us. When you go to the doctor and they bulk bill and your appointment costs you 25 bucks and you get absolutely world class socialised healthcare: that's post-capitalism.

We've got multiple touchstones – they're being eroded and destroyed all around us – but having a public broadcaster that's happy to really take the fight up to executive government and do it without fear of having its funding cut is a form of post-capitalism. Having a volunteer rural fire service that's backed up by satellite hotspot mapping and helicopters – that's not a capitalist model. That's institutionalised mutual aid.

So part of our job is to say, ‘no, this isn't some weird alien Star Trek future we're talking about’ – fucking Medicare is an element. Now what if we apply that model to housing? What if we applied it to education? What if we applied it to transport? At the same time as we're rolling these universal, free or cheap public services in we're also reducing the working week; we're also rolling in universal basic income. We're uncoupling your life and your value as a human being from debt and from waged labour.

How I would pitch that knocking on doors is a no pay cut, four-day week; and universal basic income in your bank, no questions asked. Here's how it's paid for, here’s where the money comes from.

Through your travels, you tell some very familiar stories from countries that could not be further from Australia: corrupt legislative systems captured by fossil fuel interests; corporations shirking their responsibilities; dispossession and land rights; powerful grassroots organising. They seem to cut across humanity, regardless of race/gender/socioeconomic conditions etc. What has that taught you about how we build the future that comes next?

I think that was the biggest surprise. There’s plenty of places and things and experiences that were incomprehensible, but I had this vivid recall of being in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – probably as far from home as I've ever been in my life – spending a couple of weeks there working with Greens organisers and having the opportunity to interview the former president of the country.

I'm in this very foreign city, I can't read the script, I can't speak the language. I've got only the sketchiest appreciation of the modern history of the place. And yet, I'm talking to a prime minister – he’d served at different times as the prime minister and the president of the country – who's been deposed by the mining industry and has lost an election because he tried to introduce a super profits tax on the mining industry. And the place is being baked dry by climate change. And there's polling showing increasing disengagement from politics. And there's a green movement kind of simmering at the margins trying to get a foothold and trying to craft this vision of a different sort of future. And it's like, this is entirely legible. This is as far from home as I can ever remember being and yet I feel like I have a grip.

And I think what it tells us is a couple of things. One is that change is only ever won through struggle. And that's hardly an original interpretation, but like for real. If we don't organise, they're just going to keep rolling over the top of us.

The second is that capital’s got a very narrow and predictable range. It operates in broadly legible and symmetrical ways all over the place. And it takes as much as you let them have; it just rolls over and crushes communities unless you're organising pushback. That was legible everywhere I went.

In Full Circle, you introduce the concept of panarchy and adaptive cycles – in particular, that system change happens by way of ‘catastrophic disruptions’ that then give rise to periods of regeneration and development before then descending back into an exploitation phase. The inference is that we’re in the midst of catastrophic disruption now. You write about it in the book, but can you tell me a bit about what you hope the period of reinvention will look like?

I think we can see the real catastrophic disruption hasn't happened yet, but there's places all over the world where this is not a future-tense hypothetical collapse with the fingerprints of climate change on it – it’s already a phenomenon that's occurring.

But it's always a good time to throw seeds into the ground; to do the community garden, to do the organising to get the emergency declaration up, to do the thousandfold gorgeous things that we do as greens, big or small ‘g’.

But the absolute best time to do it is when the existing system is starting to buckle and give way; when people are looking for alternatives. And that has a dark side and a light side. The dark side is what Naomi Klein calls the ‘shock doctrine’: societies in a state of collapse or disarray are going to exploit that, with many examples even in recent history – post-Hurricane Katrina or take your pick.

But it's also the most fertile moment for new models to arise. After the catastrophe of the Second World War, you get the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you get an international rules-based order, which has been violated many times but which arguably has kept the world free of conflict on that scale for more than 70 years. In the aftermath of disaster, there's this moment of shock where good ideas can take hold. So the most important lesson is for god's sake plant the seeds of the good ideas now. Don't wait til the shock. And then you have a much better chance of harvesting it when people are looking around for the good ideas.

In one of your social media posts promoting the book, you write that Full Circle is about the world that comes next if we win. I’m interested that you frame it as an ‘if’. After everything you experienced that informed the book – the conversations you had, the people you met, the movements you’re a part of and have witnessed – does it really feel like an ‘if’ to you?

Much more so than it did before. It's absolutely, categorically an ‘if’; anybody walking into this with a sense of historical inevitability is just going to be savagely disappointed. There is no guarantee that just because lots of people are getting solar panels on their roof that this is going to end well. There are no guarantees at all.

Even a loose, casual reading of the study of complex adaptive systems, or any of these branches of systems theory, will show you that these things are fundamentally unpredictable. We can't possibly predict how anything as complicated as this upstart industrial branch of society messing with something as ancient and heavy as the climate system is going to resolve.

I'm completely confident it's possible that we can swing this beautifully as a global collective if we – and I know ‘we’ is a tremendously problematic collective term – can win, but in no sense is it guaranteed. And for me, that gives it a greater sense of urgency.

You've devoted an entire book about what comes next for us all – now what’s next for you?

Well, writing the book is only the first half. So what's next for me in the very short term is the other half, which is talking about it and promoting it, and getting feedback on it. And hoping that it provokes a productive conversation. I want it to be a useful book. I think it'll be my job for the next little while to help bring it into wider debate, if that's a debate that people want to have.

And then more broadly, one of the reasons for writing it – in the sense of a very slow-motion midlife crisis – was to try and work out what to do next. There's some ideas that readers will probably be able to see a mile off of projects and initiatives and ideas that I'm really keen to work on; that I'll have a bit more to say about when they're closer to fruition.

But what's next is to follow the threads I've grabbed a hold of in the writing of the book and see where they lead. And to see what others make of it; what other directions and conversations open up.

Full Circle by Scott Ludlam (Black Inc) is out on 4 May and available for pre-order now.

Joana Partyka is the Australian Greens' National Communications Officer.

Hero image: supplied by Scott Ludlam.

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