Professor Ian Lowe has been an environmentalist for a long time — indeed, I can’t quickly think of anyone who has been involved in that movement as long as him. He has written a lot, talked a lot and campaigned a lot, and is easy to read and to understand. He is currently the President of the Australian Conservation Foundation and patron of Sustainable Population Australia. I mention him because two people have separately suggested that I read his recent speech to the National Press Club. So I did, and found that my tolerance for environmental lobbyists seems to be declining. It was a long speech, and I’ll comment on it in two posts.
I’m not at all opposed to environmental concern, to conservation, to leaving a small footprint, to recycling, or to planting trees. Like most of the people I know, I’ve been doing some of these things for a long while. What bugs me is the environmentalists’ characteristically high sense of urgency and alarm, as though these matters ought to be the top priority for everyone, especially for governments. With every respect to those who think so, I think that for most Australians — indeed for most human beings — they are not as important as finding somewhere to live, having enough food every day, having a job, and sorting out who we are. That doesn’t make the environment trivial, but it does mean that it has to have a lower place in the order of things.
Of course, you can create scary stories to show how important the environment is. Extrapolate today’s population far enough and there will be just one square metre for each human being. If all the ice in Greenland and Antarctica melted, the seas would be 20 metres higher, or whatever the scary figure is. If we go on dumping garbage as we are doing (or used to do, at least in my city) there will be a mountain of it a mile high. And so on.
I don’t know why the Press Club invited him to speak, but in the text I have says he asks ‘what it will take for Australia’s leaders to see through the myth of endless economic growth and start to tackle the ecological credit crisis’. Now I’m no growth fetishist, but it is plain for anyone to see that Australians like their high standard of living, and it is based on their having jobs that return a decent income. There are more people in Australia every year, partly through immigration, partly through natural growth, so we need some kind of growth to deliver the jobs. If we don’t have growth there follows a kind of regression: people without jobs need welfare, but when there are fewer people to provide the taxation, taxes must go up, or benefits down, or both. If the regression is sustained, we will have economic depression. We know about depressions, or at least we’ve read about them (my parents, now dead, did live through the last one). I don’t know what Ian Lowe means by ‘the myth of endless economic growth’, but I can’t see any Australian government’s deciding that it will put growth on hold for a few years while it deals with our ‘econologal credit crisis’.
What is that, anyway? Apparently, ‘We face a GEC – a Global Ecological Crisis. Our natural assets are stressed as never before’. He wants a new business approach that doesn’t ‘destabilise the climate’. It’s odd, that phrase, because it is not clear to me that our climate has ever been ‘stable’ — or, at least, I have no idea what that means or how he or I could tell what a stable climate was. After all, there have been floods, fires, heat waves, cold snaps and droughts in our recorded history since its beginning in 1788.
How do we know that our natural assets are stressed? Lowe says that ‘Four consecutive State of the Environment reports show all the serious problems getting steadily worse’. I thought I should look up the most recent one, and see what it said. On my reading, that of 2011 offers a somewhat more cheerful finding. ‘There have been significant advances in many aspects of environmental management over the past decade’, the executive summary begins, and later it reports that ‘much of Australia’s environment and heritage is in good shape, or improving’. It worries about drought, but that was before the last three years of solid rain and floods.
There follows some familiar stuff about greenhouse gas emissions and the problems that are said to come through a changing climate, that in turn is said to come from our not doing enough about emissions (all of that I regard as quasi-political, if not quasi-religious). If you set that aside (since it is not about the present environment, and is highly disputable) then the report offers a balanced view, as it ought. After all, compared with fifty years ago there are many more national parks, including a marine park, there is a lot more conservation farming going, Australians generally are aware of the need to look after the environment in which they live, and seem to be much less careless about it than they used to be.
And a very recent CSIRO and ANU paper (which could not have been considered in the 2011 report) shows that the increase in carbon dioxide over the past generation has led to a greener earth, since carbon dioxide is of course the basic plant food. And my understanding is that forest cover in some of the planet is now growing rather than declining. On the whole, I would have thought that we aren’t doing a bad job in repairing some of the damage we have done, and we learn more every year about how to do that better. I expect to see that improvement continue.
In tomorrow’s post I’ll consider what Ian Lowe suggests that we all ought to do about this ‘crisis’.