An edited version of remarks at Alan’s 90th birthday celebration
Alan Roberts (pictured below with his dog Billy) has just turned 90. It is hard to accept that he is now an old man. He seems to embody the incorrigible spirit of youth. He is in fact something of a medical miracle considering his decades of smoking and his daily habit of drinking half a pint of cream to slake his thirst.
A little hard of hearing these days he has nevertheless not lost his alertness nor his ability to discourse at some length on the evolution of the modern world. He keeps up. That is probably one of the reasons for his longevity. More certain is that it makes for long phone calls – never count on less than an hour when you ring Alan.
Not that the calls are ever boring or a waste of time. My recent calls have seen him following the unfolding negotiations between the Obama administration and Tehran and musing that an agreement and a lifting of the sanctions might be the most significant achievement of the Obama presidency if it comes off. It will open up a huge new market for capitalism and recalibrate the balance of power in the Middle East. He expects too that it will open up a period of social and political advance in Iran itself.
Another preoccupation has been the revelations about the growth of global surveillance by the American NSA and its helpers. Not only can Alan – formerly a reader in theoretical physics at Monash University – follow and explain the arcane technical issues but argues that this surveillance will have economic impacts on the United States as companies, concerned about the security of their information, seek cloud providers outside the United States.
These reflections will be characteristically interspersed with replaying – he’s a good mimic – scenes from 1930s movies. A good friend of his mother ran a cinema and Alan misspent a fair proportion of his teenage years in the ’30s watching films non-stop.
Alan has been, for those of you unfamiliar with him and his work, a pioneering social ecologist, not just in Australia but in the English-speaking world. His book The Self-Managing Environment was published in 1979 in both the UK and the US. One person it inspired was Derek Wall, international secretary of the English & Wales Green Party. It was foundation for those of us who initiated the Greens in Australia too and Alan came to Sydney to address our first conferences back in the ’80s.
He is our Murray Bookchin, except with a sense of humour and a lack of sectarianism. Take this demolition of the over-population theorists from the first page of The Self-Managing Environment (and note how he throws the switch from humour to dialectics):
The breathtaking arrogance of this analysis deserves some admiration; it is no petty task its disciples undertook, trying to persuade their readers that the main thing wrong with the world was the existence of the 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. Thus, as a concept seeking to win the minds of the masses, population panic can now bee seen as containing, from the very beginning, the seeds of its own decay.
He does not reserve his challenging approach to easy targets – he takes on the harder ones: his demolition in the early 1970s of Garrett Hardin’s celebrated ‘The Tragedy of the Commons” is conclusive and anticipates the work of Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel for her research into the viability of democratic, cooperative management of the commons.
He also turns it on his own beliefs. Alan has long been a champion of what we might call self-managing eco-socialism, but he continually questions how such a system might be created and just how practical it is. (Who wants to go to an endless series of meetings? Not Alan, and he suspects most people share his aversion.) In this vein he welcomed the challenge of those reviewers of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, who raised the unanswered question of how today’s citizens are going to embrace the less consumerist, materialist culture that an ecologically sustainable future demands.
Alan has recognised this problem for decades. I can recall publishing in 1974 his long essay on consumerism and its social and ecological impacts as a special issue of the Marxist magazine International. Normally the magazine had a minuscule circulation but this issue sold out and had to be reprinted.
Alan’s other long-term chief preoccupation has been nuclear energy. It may be too large a claim to say that Alan has single-handedly stopped the creation of a nuclear power industry in Australia but he’s certainly been its chief critic. Even better, the crux of his critique has explained why it has not taken off in Australia: the enormous cost of nuclear energy plants, the challenge of waste disposal and the scarcity of mineable uranium deposits.
(On this question he’s undoubtedly been proved right. Which reminds me that he once joked to Humphrey McQueen during a political argument: ‘It’s not me you hate but the truth that’s in me’. To which Humphrey replied: ‘No not all, it’s you , Alan’.) Alan can be infuriating. Many of you know of that famous quiz Marx’s daughters gave him and Marx’s answer to the question of what his favourite motto was: Doubt everything (except Marx gave the answer in Latin). That’s Alan too. He can be bloody discomforting or discombobulating but that’s essential for those of us seeking to challenge and transform the status quo.
I hope I’m not verballing and misrepresenting him too much but even at 90 – with all that pollution in his body – he’s still raising questions, asking us to keep thinking and acting on and in the world. He was like that when I first met him at Sydney University in the early 1960s. I still recall what he was wearing: collar and tie, fair-isle sleeveless pullover and a corduroy coat with leather elbow patches on the sleeves. Dapper then. Equally, and more importantly, I can recall the first essays of his I read back then: a persuasive justification of the role of the individual in history provoked by attacks on Isaac Deutscher’s endorsement of that proposition and a damning criticism of the Maoist Cultural Revolution. The latter article was published in 1966 after a visit to the People’s Republic.
Enough already. I have left out so much. His wartime in the air force, for instance. His long years on the Left. His scientific interests. His love of dogs. More of that another time. For now, let’s note: Alan is an inspiration. Long may he continue. Let’s raise our glasses. Here’s to the next decade.