Politics of the wilderness
Optimism: Reflections on a Life of Action By Bob Brown Hardie Grant, 272pp, $39.95 (HB) + TO be on the true left of Australian politics today must feel lonely. Political short-termism rules and any hopes of an alternative social architecture seem remote. Against this backdrop, the rise of minor parties across the political spectrum at the past few federal elections is unsurprising. That people felt estranged from the political apparatus was understandable, but can such a response ever be productive?
Few people have weathered this political solitude as well as environmentalist and former Greens leader Bob Brown. As he writes in the introduction to Optimism, pessimism is a “reasonable reaction to the way the human world malfunctions”.
“The trouble with the global political arrangement is that the power falls most readily into the hands of the selfish, cruel and cocksure.’’ But, he argues, this is all the more reason not to despair. A choice between “pessimism or optimism, stupor or action” needs to be made.
Though the introduction is somewhat polemical, a lot of the tone and subject matter of this book is not. If anything, it is relentlessly idealistic throughout the 56 short vignettes that shed some light on Brown’s public and private life. There are diary-like entries on his youth, his relationship with Tasmania, his experiences as a doctor (and an encounter with the corpse of Jimi Hendrix), some of which illustrate his sunny disposition with gentle humour and grace.
His writing about the Tasmanian town of Liffey, where he owns a property, is particularly vivid and passionate. He finds himself “enraptured” by Tasmania’s rainforest heartland and its “enfolding comfort”. He observes animals with an eagle eye while “drop-squatting and crab-crawling backwards over [a] rock plateau”.
There are poignant moments when he discusses the struggles with his sexuality, at a Presbyterian Christian high school in rural NSW and then boarding at the University of Sydney. He writes of two failed treatments to ‘‘cure’’ his homosexuality. Testosterone injections to the buttocks did little “aside from emptying [his] bank account” and “aversion therapy” through electric shocks was painful. Yet Brown harbours no resentment. He found peace in London in the 1970s. “For the first time I shared time with other gay men and found out that the world was home to many of us.’’
Interspersed with these moving stories are a jumble of political manifestos, memos, speech excerpts and short opinion articles, some of which work better than others. (Some chapters have less to do with optimism and more to do with buttressing his legacy, although that appears endemic to the political memoir genre.)
Brown’s capacity for self-reflection is acute when applied to his personal life, but his views on the future of politics and the earth veer towards solipsism. His mini-essay on “The New Religion” — materialism — makes some salient points about the need to limit consumption but descends into ham-fisted talk about the “su-