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Sustainability in Australia – a few ideas

First published: 2007

HE WAS QUITE DEFINITE ABOUT IT: “Saving the world is about saving ourselves. The world does not need us. We need to go native, to stop being a European society in Australia. We need to become an Australian society”.

Bob Beal’s reputation for being outspoken on environmental issues is matched by his qualifications for doing so. A journalist and former science and environment editor at the Sydney Morning Herald and one-time writer for The Bulletin, Beale recently released a book he co-wrote with prominent environment and science commentator, Mike Archer, one-time head of the Australian Museum. With its refreshing take on the environmental issues facing this country and its innovative solutions, Going Native has sold well. According to Beale, going native includes the controversial proposal that we eat our native animal, the kangaroo, something that has been vigourously opposed by the animal lobby.

Pollies a justifiable target for environmental angst

It is popular in Australia to blame politicians for most things that go wrong. Fair blame, usually. And in true Australian tradition, Beale does not spare them.

“We are being distracted by fighting battles while problems continue, such as global warming. There is evidence that climate can change quickly, in 20 to 30 years… what if temperature changes lead to the Gulf Stream stopping its flow?”, asks Beale.

“No politician will do anything to stop it happening and we keep ignoring it”, chips in Griffiths University sociology academic, Bill Metcalf. “Queensland continues to export coal”.

Beale takes up the Queensland theme and continues to lay into the politicians. “How about solar water heaters? And water tanks on houses? The Queensland government has adopted solar water heating for new buildings but did not adopt water tanks because of the fear that it would push up housing prices. Tanks should be compulsory. We have unanimous demand but where are the politicians promoting it?”.

Lack of public will to act, too

Though they are ready to blame the pollies when they deserve it, Beale and Metcalf know that is not all their fault. They say the lack of political will is matched by a corresponding lack of will at the grass roots level. This sets back the tackling of environmental problems.

“There is no shortage of human know-how to deal with these issues”, Beale says, “but all the know-how in the world is no good without the collective will”.

Environmentalists part of the problem

According to environmental commentator, Mike O’Riordan, part of the problem in dealing effectively with environmental issues are environmentalists themselves. Citing attitudes to native plants and farm animals, O’Riordan accuses the “eco-zealots, that tell you to tear up the roses and get rid of cattle and sheep.

We won’t save the planet by telling people to turn off their lights

“We cannot recreate Australia as it was. Humans have changed it immeasurably… there is no genuine wilderness in Australia, no place that is untouched by humans even if that is through lead and other contaminants in the atmosphere”.

Environmentalists the antithesis of a sophisticated cultural life

Environmental zealots get up Beale’s nose too. He criticises “…environmental Luddites”, including those that oppose the genetic engineering of crops which, he asserts, could do much to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. Beale cites the example of a genetically modified poplar planted as a paper resource in Sweden. The crop has less lignin and produces less pollution in processing.

As for the simple things we can do, they come to be seen as the total solution. “We won’t save the planet by telling people to turn off their lights”, Beale says, adding that such exhortations can do a “serious disservice” by making environmentalists appear as though they are the “antithesis of any sophisticated cultural life”.

Beale acknowledges his ideas on genetic engineering and eating native animals are controversial. However, his assertion that he is an‘authentic’ environmentalist is backed by his writing and the depth of knowledge he has acquired. He explained his political position within the environment movement by saying – it was hard to tell whether jokingly or seriously – that he is “on the right side of the environment movement”.

It is not just politicians and environmental Luddites that are to blame. “Scientists have failed to communicate. The community should demand more… scientists are paid for by the public and we should agitate for the media to carry more information”, says Beale.

Learning from intentional community

Bill Metcalf is a Canadian and long-time Australian resident. For decades, he has studied the evolution of Australia’s intentional communities and has written numerous articles and books on the subject.

A 60-ish, conservatively-dressed, softly spoken man of average height with dark, swept-back hair and trim grey beard, he acknowledges that we face “…a global suite of problems that will hit us in the nose”. The danger is that these problems have the potential to destroy ecologies and cultures and that “ …there is not much you can do after that”.

A solution, he suggests, is to learn about living from those outside the social norm. “We have examples from around the world to learn from”, he says. “Not all of us want to live on an intentional community but we can learn from them.

“Lived practice leads to a changed future. My research into intentional communities has found that residents live on, typically, one third the income that they would receive in the city. Yet, around 81 percent say they have sufficient income. They have equal access to material goods to people living in other circumstances, although they might share some goods”.

The message is that we could look to the decades of experience accumulated by the residents of intentional communities to learn how much is enough and about what it takes to live a contented life.

Ecovillages – the future?

The conversation turns to the ecovillages that have appeared in Australia since the 1980s. But Metcalf is not sure if, in their rural form, they represent the future of intentional communities. Nor is he sure that they genuinely are intentional communities. “They do not start with a group of people seeking to create a community. Rather, they are developments that set up infrastructure then recruit residents, in a similar way to conventional subdivisions”, he says.

Cohousing will replace the ecovillage

According to Metcalf, the future of intentional community in Australia lies in the cohousing model, originally from Scandanavia but now popular in the US and, increasingly, in Australia. There are few examples in our cities as yet. Cascade Co-Housing, in Hobart, was the first. Co-Housing offers both private living and community and reduces the cost of land and housing. Shared facilities, such as a laundry, reduce householder costs further.

“Cohousing is typically a middle class development or retrofit with small units for families and a collectively-owned community house and, perhaps, a community workshop. They are coming into Australia and will outpace the ecovillage model within 10 years. Cohousing will replace the ecovillage as more and more of us want to live in cities where there are amenities”, Metcalf concludes.

Of interest to Metcalf is the ‘ecohamlet’ model adopted by Byron Shire Council. If any are built in future – the model has been with council for some years now but there has been no public interest – they would be a hybrid of ecovillage and cohousing.

Nuclear energy the go… or hydrogen?

By now, the conversation is ranging far and wide.

The proposal of NSW Ex-Premier, Bob Carr, that we consider nuclear energy as an alternative to coal-fired electricity to reduce global warming, came up. It is suggested that this may have been a political ploy, with Carr raising the idea to play upon public fears about nuclear energy so as to clear the way for future coal-fired electricity generation by making it appear, in comparison, as a benign source of energy, it is suggested.

Metcalf believes the solution is to avoid the need for greater power generation capacity by living with lower energy consumption. “But depending on the model of society”, he adds, “nuclear power could be the ‘least bad’ source of energy”.

Beale says that US plans to build more coal-fired power stations in the next 20 years “will produce massive emissions of greenhouse gases. “Yet, at UNSW, there are people with a little solar panel outside their window connected to a piece of titanium dioxide sitting in water. It gives off hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen economy seems to be the way to go”.

Best of worlds

The suburbs, that key element of the Australian post-World War Two experience that is sometimes maligned, sometimes praised, comes up.

“The suburbs”, says O’Riordan, “define an almost national political identity”. Turning to Bill Metcalf, he asks why suburban living is so popular. Metcalf responds by putting urban life into its historic perspective.

“Australia is the most urbanised country in the world. It always has been. The myth of spreading into the ‘big brown land’ – that’s all nonsense. The suburbs give us our own land where we can have chooks and a garden yet be a part of the city. The suburbs represents the best of everything… it is a very good answer individually but not necessarily collectively”.

Referring to the emerging Sunshine Coast–Brisbane-Gold Coast-Byron Bay conurbation, Beale suggests that, with the movement of more and more people to the coast, he fears that “…in 20 years it will be like California”.

Concluding, Bob Beale ends with a challenge to value Australia’s native resources as part of the solution to living sustainably on this continent.

“I challenge us all to go home and make a meal consisting of only indigenous ingredients, excluding fish.”

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