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When will environmental sustainability finally become politically tenable?

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 8 July 2003

Technology and the Contested Meanings of Sustainability by Aidan Davison.

This book is mostly an attempt to relate the personal to the philosophical regarding the all-important question of how we construct a society that is environmentally sustainable.

While Davison makes an admirable and ultimately successful effort to link some of the big ideas of the 20th century with the need to live our lives differently, it leaves us with the problem of how we develop a politics that enables the necessary quantum shift in social change.


The book starts out by questioning whether the idea of 'sustainability' still has value, since pretty much everyone - even John Howard - seems to use the term now. As Davison shows, the very interests that are most directly to blame for the problem are now using the language of sustainability. So just when sustainability was becoming a genuine concept and even taken seriously by government (the WA government has just launched its own sustainability project), the term itself is increasingly losing its meaning.

Much of the discussion in the book on the philosophical roots of the current discourse on sustainability is hard to follow and reminds one just how little some philosophers cared about being understood. Davison struggles manfully with Heidigger in particular and to a degree rehabilitates this controversial sage (who liked the Nazis a little too much). What this discussion does do is identify the roots of some of the ideas that - unknown to most- provide the conceptual basis of the popular debate.

Davison is not against technology as such, since he sees as an important part of how we create our lives. His attempt to personalise the dilemma, and work towards a solution that can be lived, is an interesting one. He rightly points out that we in the developed world can make a choice in how we live exactly because our forbears hyper-exploited the environment and other human beings. We have to live in this situation and try to live daily lives that both lessen the environmental cost and provide meaningful experiences.

Davison does not want to wear a hair shirt, and his expressed desire to live thoughtfully and responsibly but also with as much fun as possible rings true.

Of course it is not just Third Worlders who simply have no choice in how they live. There are many in Australia who live in rental accommodation and whose options for environmental responsibility are foreclosed by what the landlord, or more likely real estate agent, thinks is acceptable. There are other hurdles as well, as people in shared ownership situations know. All too often being green also means adopting an aesthetic that contradicts the prevailing one that sees nature as unnecessarily unruly - a fault only kept in check by regular use of mowers, hedgers, chain saws and leaf blowers. Recently the safety obsession that spawned Neighbourhood Watch and the ballooning security industry has decreed that all unnecessary foliage has to go because it secretes thieves and rapists.

Even if we control our own backyards, how does this new consciousness get translated into everyday politics? Notwithstanding early endeavours, such as the WA government's sustainability project, most government still does not prioritise the environment in their plans and operations. Councils still put real estate values over green values, and state governments are probably worse in their 'development at any cost' approach. Even in WA the state government fails to act on obvious problems of water shortages and water pollution; as a result, perhaps the most scenic urban river in Australia - the Swan - is in the process of dying off.


Nationally, of course, we have about the most environmentally irresponsible prime minister possible. He will not act on any of the increasingly disastrous environmental problems facing Australia, and meekly goes along with the positively anti-green, ex-oil businessman, George Bush, in regard to climate change.

Davison is right to argue that we need to understand the ideational roots of the problem and attempt to actually live as responsibly as possible. The next challenge is to develop a politics that can effectively translate this awareness into hard policy. I await Davison's next commentary on this crucial matter. I also await the penny dropping for the local, state and national electorates so that the political interests that are facing up to the sustainability problem are supported at the ballot box and when they make it clear that we must pay for our - or our forebears - past excesses.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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