Memoir of an enigmatic and contradictory Australian public intellectual

clive hamilton book cover

Provocateur: A Life of Ideas in Action
By Clive Hamilton
Hardie Grant, 2022
316 pp., $34.99

Clive Hamilton is regarded as one of Australia’s leading, generally progressive intellectuals, although in recent years, on matters relating to China, his ideas border on reactionary.

His new 28-chapter memoir traverses his career, starting with his studies at the Australian National University where he earned a Master’s degree in economics, a brief teaching stint at the ANU and studies at the University of Sussex where he earned his PhD.

Hamilton worked briefly as a public servant in the Bureau of Industry Economics, before returning to teach at the ANU and founding the Australia Institute, where, from 1993–2008 he served as executive director. He writes about his visiting fellowships at Oxford, Cambridge, and Yale, and his role since 2008 as a Vice-Chancellor’s Professor in Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, where he is based primarily at ANU and at a Canberra-based theological college.

While Hamilton’s early publications were in economics, at the beginning of the 21st century, he turned his attention to climate politics, publishing Running from the Storm (2001), Scorcher (2007), and Requiem for a Planet (2010). He published a critique of the growth paradigm in Growth Fetish (2003), consumerism in Affluenza (2005) with Richard Denniss; and geoengineering in Earthmasters (2013). He analysed the Anthropocene — in my view better termed the Capitolocene — in Defiant Earth (2017).

Most recently, Hamilton has turned his attention to the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to shape and influence politics, business, universities, think tanks, and international institutions, including the United Nations, in two books: Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (2018); and Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World (2020) with Mareike Ohlberg.

While Hamilton dubs himself a “left-wing economist”, he maintains that he has “never been convinced by Marxism as a political program”. While admitting having been sceptical early on about the Australian Greens, Hamilton found common cause with the likes of Bob Brown and Christine Milne. He served in late 2009 as the Greens candidate for Higgins, an inner eastern Melbourne electorate, previously held by former Coalition Treasurer Peter Costello.

In the campaign, described in diary form in Chapters 17 and 18 — in which the Labor Party opted not to field a candidate — despite losing to Liberal Kelly O’Dwyer, Hamilton managed to garner 32% of the primary vote and 40% on a two-party-preferred basis — an impressive showing for an outsider running in a generally safe blue-ribbon seat.

For someone who takes climate science seriously and is intimately aware of the machinations of the fossil fuels industry in Australia, and the impact of climate change — it is mystifying that Hamilton took a dizzying number of overseas flights to universities and climate conferences around the world, particularly in Europe and North America.

In certain social circles, air travel has become ubiquitous, and many academics in full-time positions — particularly those at elite institutions — fall into the ranks of frequent flyers.

Do academics such as Hamilton somehow compartmentalise their awareness that their flying may be contributing to a world that will be warmer by 4ºC or more by 2100, if emissions from many sources are not quickly abated in the next few decades?

Some individuals opt not to fly or to reduce their flying — such as student climate activist Greta Thunberg and eminent climate scientist Kevin Anderson. However, work and career demands have made aeromobility central to the logic of the capitalist world system and an increasingly corporatised university sector.

In addition to revealing the machinations of the fossil fuel industry in shaping climate politics in Australia and elsewhere, what is desperately needed are more critical studies of how the aircraft manufacturing and airlines industries are contributing to the climate crisis, not to speak of militarisation. Both have been part and parcel of what Hamilton terms the “growth fetish” and what he and Denniss term “affluenza”.

As a fellow academic who had the plug pulled by one publisher on a contract for a book on the environmental consequences of motor vehicles, I empathise with Hamilton’s experiences with two well-known publishers reneging on contracts for Silent Invasion, which are graphically described in chapter 24.

While Hamilton describes China’s efforts to influence economic, political, and social life in Silent Invasion and Hidden Hand, he tends to romanticise so-called liberal democracies such as the United States and Australia.

How democratic can the US and Australia be, when corporate elites make or break governments and politicians in both countries?

Most sectors of the Australian economy, including the mining industry, are overwhelmingly dominated by foreign investment — a grim fact that a recent Australia Institute report reveals.

I suspect that the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney has a much more profound influence in disseminating pro-US political sentiment than the various Confucius centres situated in Australian universities.

While Hamilton has been a provocative figure in Australian political life, he could be even more of a provocateur if he were more critical of capitalism. Unfortunately, adopting such a stance in the increasingly sanitised world of the corporate university makes it difficult to function as a nationally-renowned public intellectual.