DURING RECENT ELECTIONS, whether in Australia, the US or the UK, very few political parties have offered a substantial policy platform, let alone a broader vision of what they want to achieve in power.

Admittedly there are some differences in how this plays out across the political spectrum.  Right of centre parties have largely devoted their election campaigns to generating fear and anger against those who are not like ‘us’, with the implicit promise to protect ‘us’ against ‘them’.

The rationale for the continued existence of such parties, focuses in equal measure on preventing centre-left parties from taking power and providing cronies opportunity for financial benefit from public expenditure. Centre-left parties’ campaigns are distinguished by the fact that where they have an agenda, they are cautious about saying anything that might suggest a future that is much different from the present.

The narrowing of public political discourse is also evident in the confinement of any discussion of democracy to the integrity of the electoral process. Few candidates for political office show any sign or interest in encouraging broader political participation, even when faced with the fundamental challenge of climate change. Tim Hollo is a notable exception to this rule. His Living Democracy: An Ecological Manifesto for the End of the World as We Know It (NewSouth, 2022), published last year, is a manifesto that provides a strong vision of political participation as the key to responding effectively to the challenge of climate change as well as building a flourishing community.

While Tim Hollo is currently Executive Director of The Green Institute in Canberra, he is not an ivory tower academic. He is a musician, a community activist, and someone who has twice run as the Greens’ candidate for the seat of Canberra in the Australian Parliament. He has practiced some of his suggestions on community participation in the book, achieving swings to the Greens in both election campaigns, and lifting the party into second place behind Labor on primary votes.

Hollo brings to his manifesto a breadth of reading that gives his argument a strong historical perspective, something which is accompanied by contemporary case studies of participation, and also refracted through the lived experience of a grassroots activist. Living democracy is … democracy understood as a living entity embodying our collective coexistence; democracy as a conscious practice of living well together and co-creating our common future. (p2). On this account, democracy is not just about partisan politics, election campaigns and going to the polls to choose one party over another. It is about our ongoing participation in creating community and sustaining wellbeing in a world of which we are an integral and interdependent part.

I have no reservation in saying that this is a book which deserves a wide international audience in its account of an ecological politics in the broadest possible sense. This is not just because Hollo is concerned with ecological issues as a key element in his political agenda, but perhaps more critically because the practice of our politics must work with the ecology of our interdependence with each other and with the natural world.

All the crises and challenges we face, Hollo argues, weave together in a web of interconnection underpinned by the same root causes, exacerbating each other in feedback loops. The ongoing crashing of confidence in our democratic systems and institutions is both a stark symptom of these interconnected crises, and also the result of the abject failure of governments across the world to address them. We therefore need a politics which recognises the intersections between human health, environmental health, social and economic equality, racial injustice, endemic violence and the operation of the media and technology.

The anti-democratic and anti-ecological systems we are currently confronted with are structured to maintain the power of the market and to protect the political status quo. To challenge these structures, an ecological and democratic politics that draws upon mutual aid and self-organising systems of government needs to be reinvented and practiced. We need to generate a new network of support, social cohesion, cooperation and generosity, ideas and energy as the basis for a politics that will facilitate a rapid transition to ecologically sound and socially just practices, technologies and ethics. With the need to think in ways which recognise connection and interdependence laid out for us in the introduction, Hollo’s subsequent discussion of democracy as ecological politics falls into three parts.

In Part One, Hollo provides an historical perspective looking at where humanity is now, and how we arrived here. He covers a lot of ground in these chapters, paying particular attention to the emergence of city states (hat tip to James Scott) and repeated efforts by those in power to close down the commons. Bacon, Hobbes and Locke receive attention in this discussion, as do the contra interventions of the Diggers and Levellers. The complex responses of Australian indigenous communities as an alternative tradition for an ecological politics also receive careful and respectful treatment. All this is presented in readable, accessible prose through which the author is continually present as an impassioned interlocutor.

Hollo distinguishes his ecological political philosophy and practice from that of liberal democracy, social democracy and libertarianism. He is, in a carefully qualified way, an anarchist.  His account of anarchism is worth paying attention to. Anarchy is not an invitation to disorganised chaos.  Rather, an archy means no rulers not no rules. … opposing all coercive power, anarchism must be highly organised. Like the commons, anarchism relies on democratically developed rules to cultivate interdependence, to support the relationships of mutual aid which form its basis. (p.54) An anarchist view of the world, he argues, is fundamentally ecological, based on interdependence and diversity.

Our current anti-ecological culture is based on hierarchical power which is only able to imagine leadership as domination, rather than the act of bringing people together to facilitate their contribution to the common good. Structural and cultural change is needed if our politics are going to be able to sustain us in tackling the entangled crises that humanity is facing.

In Part Two, Hollo sets out a vision that illustrates what this democratic politics looks like in practice, illustrated by a variety of case studies from across the globe. He begins with an account of democracy as a shift from exclusion to participation, and from adversarialism to deliberation as the mode of democracy. Approaching democracy with respect to economics involves a shift of mindset from extraction to cultivation. Practicing peace as an aspect of democracy is perhaps surprising — though it shouldn’t be, as even in the limited vision of democracy known as electoral politics, the handover of power is an expression of a kind of nonviolence that we take for granted. His discussion of practicing peace is undertaken within the framework of a shift from coercion to coexistence. The final chapter in this part of the book explores the way we know nature as requiring a shift from disconnection to interdependence.

In discussing In Part Three, how we get to where we need to go, and exploring how transformative change can happen quickly, Hollo avoids offering any quick fixes and easy techniques. As he puts it in the title of one of his chapters, ‘The Journey is the Destination’.          He concludes that while there is … no time left not to do everything … we all don’t have to do everything ourselves. It is through cultivating the ecosystem of each of us doing our own part as the old world collapses that the new world will emerge (p264).

While this is clearly a political account of democracy rooted in an unashamedly Green politics, there is much in the themes and the language of the book that will resonate with Quakers and Christians of other socially radical traditions. Hollo talks frequently about a generosity of life given in the ecological order and about the experience of joy in everyday shared activities. These both resonate with  those moments in the experience of church as a creative empowering engagement of individual gifts and capabilities, of church as a community. These are the moments in which we  experience the encouragement of processes of discernment, along with the freedom of the local congregation to take initiatives out of its own judgment, not relying on top-down hierarchical structures.

* Tim Hollo Living Democracy: An Ecological Manifesto for the End of the World as We Know It (NewSouth, 2022) ISBN 978174237251.


© Doug Hynd is Adjunct Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia. He is actively involved in refugee action, and is an Ekklesia associate with strong Anabaptist connections. He is author of Community Engagement After Christendom (Wipf & Stock, 2022).