16 September 2011

We must change our ways if we are to have a sustainable future

National Director of Sustainable Population Australia

13 November 2003 © Canberra Times

WHAT must we do to achieve a sustainable society? About 200 people will gather in Canberra tomorrow to address this question.

A conference at the Shine Dome will draw together the threads of the Internet “In Search Of Sustainability” conference that has run for nine months.

Nearly 90 papers from experts and ordinary citizens have been posted on a variety of themes, ranging from water, to economic systems, to equity and peace. There is no one answer. The first steps towards sustainability cover a whole spectrum of economic, social and environmental issues.

The Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton argues that we must make the transition to a post- growth society, like the “stationary state” advocated by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century. A no-growth society should not be equated with a stagnant society: rather it would allow for “all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress”. If we were not engrossed in “the art of getting on”, there could be improvement in the “art of living”.

We also need to live within our resource limits. Peter Cullen, for instance, says the parlous state of Australia’s water resources constitutes a serious threat to Australia’s future. While he applauds the recent commitment by the Council of Australian Governments to a national water initiative, he stresses that this is only the first of many essential steps in moving the nation along a sustainable water trajectory.

Economically efficient use of water is necessary if the environment is to receive water flows essential for its health. Our land, too, is in a parlous state.

John Williams and Denis Saunders note that Australian agricultural practices have had a profoundly detrimental impact on biodiversity, ecosystem processes and on agricultural land. Australia is an ancient, flat continent with a highly variable climate. The landscape has accumulated enormous amounts of salts in the soil, streams and groundwater.

Native vegetation is adapted well to these unusual conditions but most of our European-style agriculture, pastures and annual crops are ill suited to them. Thus we need a nation-wide revolution in land use. We have to produce new products for new markets in environmentally benign ways.

At a time of mounting concern about the enhanced greenhouse effect, caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels, energy use is critical. Andrew Blakers believes that the widespread application of solar energy could go a long way to reduce the need for fossil fuels over the next 50 years.

Unfortunately, Australian energy policy is currently driven by short-term considerations in favour of the fossil-fuel industry, to the detriment of the renewable- energy industry. For the first time in 30 years, there is no strategic energy R&D funding at all for solar energy, yet such research is essential if we are to achieve a reduction to 30 per cent of current fossil-fuel use by 2050.

Such a drastic cut is essential since, as Graeme Pearman says, such a cut in global greenhouse- gas emissions are necessary in order to stabilise their concen- trations in the atmosphere. Yet with a further two billion people being added to countries that are now beginning to move up the energy consumption curve, global demand for energy will increase.

The world must somehow satisfy the simultaneous goals of wealth generation, social security and environmental protection while achieving a major cut in global emissions.

Fortunately, as Peter Newman notes, it is now economically feasible to build houses and commercial buildings that require no artificial cooling in summer and little artificial heating in winter, ones that generate their own electricity and sell surplus to the grid, store most of their own rainwater, re-use grey water, and maximise natural heating on sunny winter days.

Perhaps paradoxically, not only do we need to reduce our emissions to minimise climate change, we also have to recognise the declining availability of oil. Unless cities reduce their oil input they will not be sustainable for long. Thus we must redevelop new, focused, dense suburban centres that are walkable and public-transport-oriented (now called Transit Cities).

Not just in the cities, the times they are a-changing. The Australian labour market has been transformed over the past 20 years. Almost half the workforce is now employed in jobs that are casual, part-time and/or on fixed contracts. Over a million people are unemployed, underemployed or in “hidden” unemployment, while others find that work itself has intensified in relation to working hours and unpaid overtime.

Yet, polarisation and disparity will intensify as employment regulations become more difficult to enforce and the diversity in the rewards for the highly skilled and the low-skilled increase. The gap between rich and poor is increasing, not only within, but also between, nations.

Colin Butler believes that if there is to be a sustainable future, a revolution in world-view that sees humanity as an “interdependent whole” is needed. An essential component of this will be the reduction of global inequality.

Despite efforts by international agencies to assist poor nations to move out of poverty, the current operation of globalised markets is weighted to favour the richer nations while poverty and indebtedness is increasing in many.

If civilisation is to survive and meet the reasonable aspirations of its entire population, and not just the wealthy minority, we must start thinking and acting globally, not nationally or only for the privileged and powerful.

Just as important as eliminating inequality is the need to determine the long-term human carrying capacity of Australia and globally. As Tony McMichael says, clever technologies may extend the carrying capacity of the natural world, but if the bio-capacity of the planet is exceeded there is long-term detriment to human health and survival.

Genuine sustainability, for both present and future generations, requires that we maintain both the natural-resource base and internal social cohesion. Achieving this will require major changes in our approaches.

All the people mentioned above (apart from Clive Hamilton who will be represented by Richard Denniss) are speakers at the “In Search Of Sustainability: First Steps” conference from 9am to 5pm tomorrow at the Shine Dome, Gordon Street, on Friday.
Phone 6288 0823 or register on-line at www.isosconference.org.au.

Jenny Goldie is the national director of Sustainable Population Australia. Its website is population.org.au