Barry Jones’ What is to Be done – a brief review

I have been a fan of Barry Jones since the ‘Pick-a-Box’ radio quiz days of the 1960s when he won the big prize by naming the individuals in the historic acronym CABAL (look it up). His career as a historian, intellectual, and politician has been outstanding and his appeal to reason meant that he could only progress so far in the field of politics. As Jones points out in his new book What is to Be done: political engagement and saving the planet (Scribe 2020) he has been active in the politics of global warming for many years. One early appearance, as Minister for Science in the Hawke government, was opening the CSIRO Monash conference on Greenhouse Emissions in 1988.

The book is a wide-ranging approach to the climate question including many personal accounts, often using a historical narrative, and dissecting in detail the malaise of national and international politics. The irrational outbursts of ex-President Trump get plenty of attention and politics is analysed with both insight and humour. Of the 16 chapters only three have climate change in their titles – Chapter 6 the science, Chapter 7 the politics and final chapter “What is to be done: political engagement and climate change.” I particularly like his treatment of the science history of the greenhouse effect naming prominent individuals in the discovery and development of the science –including Fourier, Tyndall, Foote and Arrhenius.

Essentially though, Jones is writing about the failure of Australian politics to confront the climate crisis. Despite his long career as a representative of the Labor Party in both State and Federal Parliament his analysis is relatively free of bias and his own party comes in for a good deal of criticism in Chapters like “Retail Politics: targeted, toxic, trivial and disengaged”. Jones solutions are many but his emphasis is on a massive political re-engagement by the public in the political process and the main parties. I differ slightly from the author in that I would argue that the most likely path to rapid change comes from outside the main parties.

To leave the last words to the author: “It is essential that we [do] not fall into despair and retreat to the caves. But citizens have to be informed, and then challenge and speak truth to power. It will not be easy. It will be exhausting. It will not be comfortable. We will probably lose some friends. But it must be done.” As the cover blurb quoting Julia Gillard says this is “essential reading”.

*copy in the East Gippsland Shire Library