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A backward vision

By John Coulter - posted Monday, 12 November 2007

While every politician and would-be politician mentions "sustainability" at least six times in every speech, "environmental sustainability" is only ever an "add-on"; a postscript after the drive for ever more growth has been met. But Nature is warning us, loudly and clearly, that it is now past the time when we must make a choice between attempting more growth or seeking a sustainable future - that continual economic and population growth is incompatible with environmental sustainability.

No one would gather this truth from Hansard. Yet it is self-evidently true that the "economy" is a subset of the environment. We are fearful that we find no evidence our would-be leaders comprehend this truth or have any understanding of the steps required to guide the transition to a sustainable future. We are fearful for we see little evidence of vision in our would-be leaders. Instead, we see the two main contenders for leadership caught in a time-warp envisioning the years ahead as an enlargement of the growth period of the 1960s.

It is now too late to adequately address climate change; some change has already occurred and more is inevitably locked within the inertia of the climate system. How serious this will be is not clear but we’re bound to find out - and more, because our political parties continue to procrastinate. And meanwhile, through their ideological commitment to growth, they make the situation worse. Growth means more coal mined, more gas extracted, more cars, airconditioners, electricity and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - for all these "goods" add to GDP and the more that are used, the more the economy grows.


The most recent study by the Hadley Centre in the UK (a most respected centre for the study of climate change) has predicted that half the five years post 2009 will be warmer than the warmest year on record, 1998. Global temperatures are expected to rise 0.3 degrees Celcius - almost half the rise throughout the whole of the 20th century. It is very likely that Australia’s water supply and food production will be severely impacted. This within the timeframe of the next federal government. While Australia has been feeding about 60 million this has only been achieved at the expense of very serious damage to its soils, its water resources and its biodiversity. No one has yet demonstrated that Australia can support its present population in an environmentally sustainable way - especially under these expected serious and permanent climate changes.

Climate change is only one symptom of our unsustainability and carbon is not the only element whose human-disturbed cycle now threatens our future. We have interfered massively with sulphur, nitrogen and phosphorus as well. Forty percent of all the nitrogen in the bodies of 6.5 billion humans has been made available from synthetic fertilizers - the vast bulk of which have been made from natural gas, a non-renewable resource which will peak and then decline shortly after the oil peak in about 2010.

Our mindless commitment to continual growth has led us to frame our future around growth of global "free" trade involving the export of our precious non-renewable resources and particularly to China. Encouragement of global trade as an end in itself ignores the imminence of climate change and energy shortages. It assumes that the recent economic growth of China will continue, but China is fast losing its food production capacity, its water tables are rapidly falling and its self sufficiency in oil even more rapidly. Expanding industrial economies can only be maintained through the consumption of ever larger quantities of cheap energy.

In a climate and oil constrained world it seems most likely that a more sustainable future lies, not in globalisation and the redundant transport of goods from every corner of the planet to every other corner, but rather in more self contained communities supplying most of their needs from local sources. Yet political parties ignore these emerging constraints and seek a future like the 1960s writ large when climate change had not been heard of and energy was abundant and cheap.

In 1990 the then Labor Government said it would reduce greenhouse emissions to 20 per cent below their 1988 levels by 2005. Instead emissions have continued to grow strongly because continual economic growth has been the first priority of both Labor and Coalition parties. This unfulfilled undertaking provides firm grounds for not believing promises which lie beyond the term of an incoming government. The unfulfilled promise underscores the choice the then Labor government made and the consequences of the choice we now face.

The average Australian emits 80 times as much greenhouse gas as the average Bangladeshi and 330 times as much as an Ethiopian. It is selfish indeed for Australia to seek more population and more growth in the consumption of "stuff" (economic growth) while those who might legitimately get a small increase in their very modest fossil fuel use are denied that increase.


We do live on a finite planet, some resources critical to humanity’s progress really are non-renewable. We should not drive to exploit these resources ever faster through the press for more population and economic growth, especially in Australia where our per capita consumption is already one of the highest in the world.

I believe there is convincing evidence that climate change, just one symptom of our present unsustainability, will come to dominate much of the next federal government term. A vision for a sustainable Australia and a strategy for transition are urgently required. So far we have not seen such a vision from either Howard or Rudd. We have not seen a sense of urgency from either leader. Both promise targets well beyond the next term. And both appoint economists to advise on strategy indicating where their real priority still lies.

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About the Author

John Coulter is a retired medical research scientist who spent the last eight years of his working life, 1987- 1995, as a Democrat Senator for South Australia. He is no longer a member of any political party. He has been heavily involved with the conservation movement since the mid 1950s at all levels from local to international.

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