Pol­i­tics of the wilder­ness

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gil­lian Terzis

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-

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