Alan Roberts has good claims to the title of Australia’s first ecological thinker. Certainly no other Australian could point to an earlier collection of essays on environmental subjects than Alan’s book The Self-Managing Environment, published in London in 1979.
As a revolutionary ecologist Alan traced his radicalism back to George Bernard Shaw and the appearance of nuclear weapons.
As a theoretical physicist Alan pioneered courses and research in environmental science and consequently brought the required scientific credentials to discussions of ecological problems. As a widely read and undogmatic Marxist he also came with a critical attitude to both capitalism and centrally planned Soviet-style economies.
He was an entertaining writer which also helped his cause. An example is what he wrote about those who blame over-population for the ecological crisis: “The breathtaking arrogance of this analysis deserves some admiration; it was no petty task its disciples undertook, trying to persuade their readers that the main thing wrong with the world was the existence of those readers themselves.
“But it was only too evident that when an ecologist, a population theorist or an economist voiced their alarm at the plague of ‘too many people’, he was not really complaining that there existed too many ecologists, too many population theorists or too many economists: the surplus obviously consisted of less essential categories of the population.”
Alan grew up in Brisbane in the Great Depression with an older sister and a single mother. His father died of war wounds suffered on the Western Front a few months before Alan was born.
He enlisted in the air force in the last year of World War II and attributed his conversion to socialism to reading George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Socialism, a copy of which he found on a troop ship bound for Borneo.
Alan joined the Communist Party after the war and was expelled as a dissident after the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. He then gravitated to Trotskyism, choosing the most democratic variant among its notoriously fissiparous groups – supporters of Michel Pablo (Michalis Raptis). He combined this with membership of the Labor Party and later briefly the Greens.
He never suspended his critical faculties when faced with cultish developments on the Left. He visited China in 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution and returned to write a critical article for the socialist magazine Outlook arguing that the Cultural Revolution was basically a bureaucratic and dangerous power play initiated by Mao and his allies.
His other great passion from his early life was science fiction. In his Twenties he had dozens of short, mainly sci-fi, stories published in afternoon newspapers and popular magazines.
That partly explains why after the war Alan took advantage of free university places offered to returned soldiers by the Commonwealth government to do a degree in mathematics and physics.
After attaining his PhD in 1953 he taught physics, first at the University of Sydney and then from 1966 to his retirement in 1992 atMonash. As was typical in the 1950s, ASIO attempted to stop his employment at Sydney University. However the agents were rebuffed by the American-born Professor Harry Messel, then head of the physics department. As Alan later told the story, Messel was not going to have anyone tell him who he could and could not employ. Jealous attachment to professorial prerogatives trumped any consideration of so-called national security.
Alan’s serious thinking about our planetary survival started with a concern about the dangers of nuclear weapons.
His opposition to the Bomb was common to scientists in the late 1950s and early 1960s even if most scientists did not speak regularly from ban-the-bomb platforms in Sydney’s Domain as Alan did.
At that time most scientists combined their opposition to the Bomb with an enthusiasm for nuclear power – the ‘peaceful atom’ – which promised electricity so cheap that it would be pointless to meter it.
From the mid-1960s Alan dissented from this techno-utopian boosterism. He wrote multiple articles, mostly for Arena magazine but on occasion for the Age, and made innumerable speeches critical of nuclear power and uranium mining.
It may be too large a claim to say that Alan single-handedly stopped the creation of a nuclear power industry in Australia but he was certainly its chief critic in this country.
By the 1970s his concerns about nuclear power and uranium mining had broadened out to include other dangers to our biosphere. From the early 1960s he was inspired by reading Americans like Murray Bookchin, Rachel Carson,Barry Commoner and Theodore Roszak who were writing about pollution and the poisoning of our environment.
Some of Alan’s analyses from this time were ground breaking in their own right. His refutation of Garrett Hardin’s landmark 1968 essay ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, the idea that without private or state ownership our environment would be devastated by individuals blindly pursuing their own interests, preceded by more than a decade Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s more empirical dismantling of that theory.
There is also much in his 1970s’ essays on the environment that is still undeniably relevant – such as his devastating critique of the idea that ‘technical fixes’ can solve our environmental problems or that nationalisations alone will be sufficient to solve our environmental problems.
Alan’s main theme was that the social system is at the base of our ecological crises. Humanity’s relation to the rest of nature, after all, is a matter of how we organise our productive system. As a Marxist, Alan was aware that central to capitalist production was the drive to multiply both the range and number of commodities to realise a profit regardless of environmental costs.
But he was not content with this one-sided emphasis on production as the source of our ecological ills. People had to be ready to buy the ever-increasing supply of goods on sale. At a deeper level they had to forsake free time and real freedom in order to consume more and more. Why after all did workers continue to work 40 hours a week when they needed to work only 20 hours to satisfy the needs they had a generation ago?
The consumerist mindset that kept workers chasing ‘stuff’ stemmed from a number of sources but one of the main ones, in Alan’s view, was the compensatory role consumption played in people’s lives for their lack of real power at work and in society generally. Passive, alienated employees and citizens became passive, obedient consumers.
This suggested to Alan that any alternative to what he called consumer capitalism had to embody new and more attractive satisfactions than the endless chasing after consumer goods. Such a system had as a minimum to embody a vast expansion of genuine democratic management at work, in the economy, in politics, in the neighbourhood and, in fact, in every social activity.
In the 1970s there were signs that this alternative was emerging. Workers were contesting their alienated, passive role at work. The ‘green bans’ of the Builders Labourers’ Federation were saving bushland and heritage districts and overseas factories were being occupied and managed by the workers themselves.
Alan was optimistic – too optimistic obviously – about this revolt laying the basis for an alternative to consumerism. A possible explanation for the delay or failure in the emergence of this alternative was contained in one of the themes of The Self-managing Environment. Alan wrote that by the1970s labour management theorists were conscious of the drag on productivity from growing worker alienation and were searching for new ways to ensure a compliant and productive workforce motivated by consumerism.
How this has been achieved is a big topic in itself. Suffice to say that Alan thought the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s had found many of the answers in their The New Spirit of Capitalism.
In the 1980s, while never giving up on his political interests, Alan switched most of his energy to his scientific work and concentrated on the challenges in creating mathematical models that could help solve ecological dilemmas.
He continued to follow the spread of awareness of ecological dangers and the popularity of writers such as Naomi Klein or George Monbiot meant he never succumbed to pessimism.
On the contrary, Alan was incorrigibly cheerful. His sense of humour was one of the main traits that his friends and students loved him for. He was a very good mimic and could entertain with word-for-word scenes from classic films from the 1930s. This was a result of countless misspent afternoons as a teenager in a cinema managed by a friend of his mother’s.
His reliable good humour was challenged in the last year of his life by the loss of his ability to read, his increasing deafness and the onset of severe COPD. That condition was traceable to the fact that he smoked from age 12 till he was 85. Even when his last days were wracked by severe coughing fits, he could joke about how it was due to cigarette smoking. ‘Who knew?’ he would ask straight-faced.
Alan is survived by his niece Tina McKenna, his dearest companion Sophie Bibrowska and – he would want me to add – his dog Billy.
Hall Greenland was a comrade of Alan’s from the early 1960s. This obituary was originally published in The Age and on the Fairfax website.