Bob Brown, the optimist

Green Lifestyle

How on earth can Bob Brown remain an optimist in today’s society? He shares with us some of his brilliant philosophies to remain positive, many of which he reflects upon in his new book, Optimism. Brown also shares some sage advice for youngsters.

Bob Brown

Credit: Russell Shakespeare

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Why did you want to write Optimism?

After I retired in 2012 from the Senate, Paul and I were asked to go to the Byron Bay Writers Festival. I had about eight requests from publishing houses to write an autobiography, and I didn’t want to. Autobiographies are largely about “I did this and then I did that and somebody else was wrong”, and I know about 10% of that book is about reporting on events in Parliament House or in Canberra. Hardie Grant came up to me and said, “how about writing a book of anecdotes?” and showed me Tim Costello’s book called Hope, and I liked it, the format and the book, and I thought, “Ok I’ll do that, and I’ll call mine Optimism”. This was two years ago and here it is!

I just wrote every now and then, and it’s not an autobiography, and it’s not a political history. It’s eclectic. It takes on little incidents right through to the last year, and writing the Foreword as we were off on our trip for three months around Bush Heritage properties in April this year. It was a very easy write. I am very aware that it ebbs and flows in its character.

Your Tasmanian property, Oura Oura, seems to be a bit of a sanctuary where you come back to regularly in your life, and in your book. Would you suggest that everyone needs their sanctuary, and where was your sanctuary before Oura Oura?

Yes, I do think everybody needs to have a place where their heart sits. If it’s not home then it’s somewhere else that gives them sanctuary, where they can either go on their own to enjoy reflecting on life, and on what a thing it is to be alive on this planet – or to go with friends to share picnic conversation and good times.

Before Oura Oura, I think this place for me would have been Shannon Vale, six miles out of Glen Innes where my aunt and uncle live; certainly that was a sanctuary for me as a child. I couldn’t wait to get there on school holidays, and I can remember as a very young child, shedding a tear or two when I had to leave to go back to school (and yes, they wielded the cane in those days).

But I think it is very important, and I think that people who don’t take their children to green places, natural places, stream sides, lake sides, to feed the ducks, or to watch the waves roll in on to the shore are depriving their children of something that all human beings have always had as part of their psychological wellbeing. We should think of ‘Sunday picnics’ for families as part of the national culture. It is so important.

Why is a connection with nature lacking for many of us – is it because we live in cities? How are people growing-up because of this disjunct with nature?

We live in cities, and we live attached to tablets and staring at screens… But there was a survey in Hobart's paper, The Mercury, a few weeks back about how people thought their children should connect with nature, and it mentioned, admirably, about the days in which schools took kids on nature walks, joining clubs, all sorts of things. Never, in this survey of five or six options, did it mention parents taking kids to the bush themselves – it was always someone else’s responsibility. Well it isn’t! Without this, you leave children to be fearful of nature later on, and that’s not how children on this planet have ever been. And it’s good for parents to see their kids in nature.

If people lose their connection to nature, they are threatening their wellbeing. I got involved in the Franklin River campaign because I realised it was a much better thing to be saving this huge resource for human relaxation and enjoyment than to be making more electricity to build more tranquilliser factories. And [in my previous career] as a doctor, over half the people coming to see me were stressed. That’s why they had stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, skin rashes, headaches, and general anxiety, so nature’s the biggest store house for allaying that anxiety that we humans have, because we have evolved with and been created in nature, and we’re bonded to it. There is no substitute for that. But we tend with modern cities and contrivances, to shut ourselves off from nature and it’s a huge mistake. It can do without us, but we can’t do without it.

I think there is a worry about our disconnection with nature, although there is such a strong bond built into the human psyche for nature that we underestimate that as well. For example, a recent opinion poll on whether Tony Abbott was right to be trying to get World Heritage protection off the Tasmanian Forests, home to the tallest flowering forest on Earth, showed that 80% of the people thought he wasn’t right, but when you got to the youngest age group that was surveyed – the 18-24 year old group – 97% said he was wrong.

We have such a strong bond with nature; it’s why we give flowers to each other, rather than chainsaws, when we want to express love or devotion for someone. Our houses, doctors surgery’s, waiting rooms, and businesses, have pictures, paintings, and photographs derived from nature because it relaxes us.

What kind of people do you think will read your book and who do you think should read it?

I quoted Bertrand Russell in the Foreword, saying, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”. I suspect the book’s going to be read by the self-doubters, and not the cocksure. I don’t think it is going to be read by too many people in our current Cabinet.

I think the book will be read by people who are very reflective, self contained, and thoughtful. You know I think however, here’s the trick; if you’re intelligent and full of self doubt – get over it! The Dalai Lama said as he grabbed the hand of a 14 year-old girl in Adelaide who asked him two years ago, “What is the most important thing a young person can have?”, and I thought he was going to say education or hope or love or whatever, but he looked her straight in the eye and said “self-confidence”.

That is so important, we mustn’t leave the stupid to be cocksure and controlling everything. That is no comment on modern politics; that is just how it is, it’s how the world has been mismanaged. There has to be an assertiveness by thoughtful people… and that means taking a risk that you will make mistakes, and will be torn to shreds by the Madame Defarge’s sitting at the base of the guillotine at the Murdoch media. She was the woman in A Tale of Two Cities who sat at the base of the guillotine waiting to cut the hair off the heads of the people to knit, that’s how much she cared. We have a media that tends to destroy thoughtful people and you just have to look at the current Jihad on the Press Council by The Australian. It is relentless. By a cocksure billionaire who sold out his Australian citizenship to make more money overseas, i.e. Rupert Murdoch, and we have to take on the media that is so destructive and negative, and interested in promoting exploitation of the planet at the expense of the natural commons, which we belong to. That is why you won’t see my book being serialised in any of the modern newspapers.

So what is the way to get through with such a huge empire of media control?

It is for the thoughtful people to take them on. That is what I did in politics, and people were astonished that I took on the Murdoch media, but I think that it is our job to risk the punishment that was metered out as a result.

We aren’t looking after the planet, and yet your book is called Optimism. How on earth do you remain optimistic?

Because I was pessimistic and depressed for 10 years when I was younger. The world was no better. Terrible cruelties were occurring back then as they were before throughout history. I was personally feeling inadequate, unsure and repressed, and I had a criminal flaw in my sexuality as it was seen at the time, you know, I could go to jail! I realised that it’s no more satisfactory than this. You can be optimistic which gets you active and helps things happen, or you can be pessimistic and be knocked out. We have got to get the good thinking, humane character of humanity being optimistic. It works in business. You are much more likely to succeed if you’re optimistic than if you’re pessimistic.

It will also work for making sure that this planet, and the humanity on it has a good future. It’s a tough circumstance particularly for young folk to cotton on to. But being self-confident and being optimistic and seeing how it goes is an important psychological option to explore. We don’t know what the future of the planet is, but it’s not going to be a good one unless those of us that are thoughtful about it are optimistic. If we are pessimistic and knocked out and leave it to the cocksure, the prescription’s not good.

The same goes for the humanity aspect as well…?

It is all interwoven. The global democracy, hated by the most ardent Democrats at a national level is a logical future that we have to go to. If we are going to settle human affairs in an age of very dangerous technology, we have to be able to treat each other as equals, and until we do that we are getting it wrong. My efforts in the parliament showed that there is no one who wants to do that, in the wealthiest country in dollar terms that has ever existed on the face of the planet. We are not about to share, and we are not about to see other people as equal. Certainly parliamentary representatives outside The Greens party aren’t.

In retrospect, is there anything you would do differently? In the book or in life?

Of course! I only wish I had the self-confidence when I was young that I have now. We all make mistakes, but treating one’s self as equal is incredibly important, not allowing ones self as seeing ones self as being subsidiary to the Rupert Murdoch’s or Clive Palmer’s or Gina Rinehart’s of the world is incredibly important. We have a culture which does put people on the pedestal. I have people come up to me and say, “Bob, it’s so inspiring to meet you,” and my feeling straight away is, “Well it’s inspiring to meet you because you must think the same way I do”. And it is as simple as that. And it’s just the getting the bit of confidence along the way.

I began this book tour speaking to 400 16 year-olds in Byron Bay who were from schools all over Northern NSW. What an experience! Young folk, very well educated compared to the past, much more alert to what’s going on in the world, which means more exposed to very depressing news than ever before, however, eager to make the world a better place. My message to them is, “Don’t ascribe to the people, and liberate the self confidence you don’t give yourself”. Don’t discriminate against your self. It is very important. As the Dalai Lama said, “Have self-confidence”… We need more people to take on the cocksure.

What’s next?
We are going to every capital city and quite a few provincial cities to tour the book. It’s very surprising but its out selling Joe Hockey’s book by 4:1. They’re staring to reprint that’s it’s very pleasant. And we’ve had sell-out audiences; 2,000 in Melbourne Town Hall. I rang them and said this is crazy, get yourself a more modest place, you’re going to have 100 people in the front row at best. The same with the Theatre Royal in Hobart. Thoughtful people are looking for a little bit of a 'gee-up'. You know, and I’ve got my feet on the ground. I’m certainly not into happy-clappy. It’s about a reasonable response to what’s going wrong on the planet for thoughtful people who are very slow very often to want to put a foot into what looks like a pretty nasty public arena.

I am playing the Earth Song, which is a song celebrating the planet, at all public meetings, and we’ve now had dozens of them. It’s a tune I wrote when I was 16 and since I have left the Senate I have been able to put words to it. We have anthems for every country, and we go to war singing them, or we have them played when we win gold medals at Glasgow or where ever it may be, but we have none for the planet, and until we celebrate the planet as a common herd of 7.5 billion mammals, and understand that we depend upon it and how we look after is how our future is mapped out because we had the arrogance to take on the management of it, well, it’s now our responsibility. It begins with celebrating what it is to be alive on this planet. Local diva, Claire Dawson, sings the song, and it was put together very rapidly for this trip at [my partner] Paul’s suggestion. So we played that, and it is on YouTube now. It’s just called Earth Song. [Listen to Earth Song here]

The other thing to watch is what the Upper House is doing with all these protest laws. If they go through Tasmania they will spread to the mainland as that’s the nature of the beast. They’ve put it off again and again, but they’ve gone through the Lower House, so that’s worth watching, to see if they go through the Upper House. These laws in Tasmania have more than just going to jail entailed – you get a criminal record. If you were in Parliament, you would immediately lose your seat. They are Draconian laws made by the exploiters to stop the planet protectors and as with the Suffragettes they went through hell to get a civilizing change. And most of the Suffragettes didn’t live to see the results in the 1920s, the WWI intervened and so on. But thank goodness they did what they did.

Bob Brown's book, Optimism is published by Hardie Grant as a print ($39.95) or e-book ($14.99). You can also download the full Introduction chapter here.