During the dark dying days of the Howard government, when environmental sabotage and climate change denial were official government policy, I started writing a book nominally titled What to do when the government doesn't. It was intended to be a manual for community-based action for a sustainable future that put people in control. A sort of grassroots 'think global, act local' activism manual for the 21st Century.
Then Rudd was elected. Sustainability and climate change were put on the political agenda and I optimistically put the work away. Emissions reduction, renewable energy and targeted programs for household sustainability were flagged and scientific advice was being heeded. No need for communities to take on all the responsibility, right?
Gillard built on Rudd's legacy forging a formal alliance with the Greens and flagging a carbon trading scheme, but the Greens should come with a warning label that reads Does not play well with others. The alliance foundered on the rocks, the carbon trading scheme sunk beneath the waves and the subsequent Abbott government plundered and pillaged every shred of environmental legislation. Turnbull tried to restore some measure of balance but the wind in his sails was just that: wind. In his wake, Morrison, the failed marketing exec, pentecostal devotee and slave to the mining industry took us backwards by about 20 years.
The result: it's time to drag out the work I was doing back in 2006, dust it off and update it for the third decade of the 21st Century. No longer a book, my intention is to publish it here as a series of blog posts. So I now present Part 1:
It's all about the trees
While Australia was distracted over the summer of 2019-20 with the worst bushfire season in history, our government was very busy. Not looking after us, you understand. Not listening to and acting on scientific advice. Not putting in place any policy to address climate change and avert similar disasters in the future. No, out government was busy ripping out trees - or at least, propping up and supporting the logging industry to rip them out.
For several weeks in January, the road between my place and my nearest town was closed due to a bushfire. Closed to all traffic except logging trucks, which, despite bushfire and road closures, trundled to and from the state forests south of me hauling loads of logs. When the Kings Highway, the main route between Canberra and the coast, reopened after four weeks of being closed to everything except fire trucks, the first vehicle up the mountain was a fully laden logging truck. The forests that were not on fire were being logged all summer.
We need trees. Trees bring rain. They absorb carbon and make oxygen. Trees hold the soil together and prevent erosion. In urban areas they mitigate against 'heat islands' by providing shade and expiration. They are habitat for animals and birds and create biodiversity. Trees are one of the most essential resources we have, yet our governments - at all levels - see them only in economic terms. At state and federal levels, they can be cut down and sold. At the local level, governments allow developers to remove them to make way for the vast, ubiquitous housing developments that sprawl ever outwards from our cities. Timber, of course, is a key resource, but there is considerable research by environmental economists to prove that all our timber needs can be met with plantation timber rather than old growth forests. New research also positions hemp as an alternative to timber.
In the wake of the fires, governments are now targeting the forests the loggers couldn't access because of the fires. Anything left standing will be cut down and sold. No thought of regeneration. No thought that without trees, the soil in those damaged areas will wash away with every rain. No thought that the forests themselves create rain that prevents the fires.
What to do?
Plant trees. In some parts of the world the value of trees is recognised. In 1977 the late Professor Wangari Mathaai established the Green Belt Movement to plant trees across deforested areas of Africa. To date 51 million trees have been planted. The Indian government last year managed to get an incredible 220 million trees planted in a single day to fight climate change. Yet in Australia, which contains some of the most unique wildlife in the world and could be a biodiversity haven, deforestation is accelerating.
If every Australian planted just 10 trees every year, that would be 250 million trees. Sure, not every Australian is in a position to plant 10 trees a year, but many of us are in positions to plant far more than that. Make a commitment: if you are able to plant a tree, do so. And then plant a couple for people who can't. Plant them on your own land if you have it, or on public land. In autumn, take seeds from existing trees, propagate them over winter, keep them in pots over the next year and then plant the established seedlings the following spring. If you take the seeds from you local area, you'll already know that those kinds of trees are suitable to your local climate and soil conditions. Don't be discouraged, just keep planting. Create green corridors and groves. Plant different species together. Find out what trees are best for the birds, insects and animals in your area and plant those. Get together with friends and neighbours and work out where and when to plant in your district. The more people you can recruit to plant, the more trees we will have. In short: we need trees.
A couple of words of warning: don't remove seeds or seedlings from national parks. It's illegal to do so. Similarly, don't plant in national parks. Don't bother planting trees in areas where councils routinely spray herbicide or slash. Be selective about where you plant trees - the whole idea is for them to grow.
Short-sighted government will only ever see forests in economic terms. Forests don't work like that: they take time to grow and the logging industry and land-clearing are removing them at a much faster rate than that can happen. As land-clearing and logging continue to occur at a greater rate every year, so will our greenhouse emissions increase, leading to more droughts and fires. The economic impact of that will be far, far greater than the impact of losing the forestry industry. But in the meantime, we can take this into our own hands and act where government will not.
Remember that wonderful opening to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? The bit where Arthur Dent is arguing with a council official about a road bypass that’s going to be built right through his house. The council official dismisses him by saying that he could have put in a submission to the plans:
“But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
“Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them had you? I mean like actually telling anybody or anything.”
“But the plans were on display …”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a torch.”
“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”
If there’s one lesson that stands out from all the others we’ve learned over our Summer from Hell, it’s that we can’t rely on government – at any level – to come to our assistance in a crisis. There will be obstacles, obfuscation and officiousness. There will be hand-wringing and head-shaking. There will be promises and premises and proposals – most of which will likely end up in a (metaphorical*) locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory with a sign saying Beware of the Leopard.
We’re on our own.
We need sustainable local systems and a circular economy. We need these things to both protect us in the event of future crises, and also to insulate us against the inadequacies of a linear economy and a government unprepared or unwilling to deal with the reality of climate change.
What, then, is a circular economy?
There’s a great explanation here, but in a nutshell, a circular economy is one which replaces the linear economy of make-use-dispose with one that utilises as much as possible the principles of re-use and recycle. The basis premise being that the more use we can extract from a single resource, the more value that resource has. At the local level, the circular economy ensures that resources are not wasted.
There are seven key elements:
- Design for the future
Incorporate digital technology
Preserve and extend what’s already made
Prioritise regenerative resources
Use waste as a resource
Rethink the business model
Collaborate to create joint value
During the bushfire crisis, many towns found themselves cut off for days. This became more than a natural disaster, this was a humanitarian crisis. Our society has become reliant on external supplies to the point where we cease to operate when there is interruption to those supplies. Sustainable local systems can be built to provide food, shelter and basic supplies to all residents if the external system breaks down.
Geraldine Brooks’s wonderful Year of Wonders, is a fictionalised account of the true history of the English village of Eyam that isolated itself during the plague. The townsfolk decided that in order to contain the disease and stop its spread after it had already arrived in that town, they would cut themselves off from direct contact with the rest of the world. No one came in, no one left. This happened six hundred years ago.
If they could do it then, we certainly have the resources to prepare for it now. Local renewable power, local food security, local water supplies. This is what resilience looks like.
Or to put it another way, in the words of Douglas Adams: Don't panic.
* Probably metaphorical but I wouldn't bet on it
The rain has come. Paddocks are green, dams are full and the smoke has cleared. Most of the fires that monstered us over summer are either out or at least no longer posing direct threats to properties. The community healing process has begun as we count the cost of a national disaster for which, we now know, our government and the resources that depend on government funding, were unprepared.
Lessons have been learned: at personal, community and national levels.
We learned about the nature and importance of leadership as NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons stepped up to fill the leadership void left when the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, NSW Deputy Premier and NSW Emergency Services Minister all decided to take overseas holidays while the country was on fire. Not that these people don’t deserve holidays but being elected or appointed to high office (and the salaries that go with them) also means that personal sacrifices may need to be made. These people are happy to take the pay, happy to bask in the limelight when things are going well; not so keen to make the sacrifices and take the responsibilities.
Premiers Berejiklian (NSW) and Andrews (Vic) remained at their posts, both working long hours to keep their respective states informed and assured that their governments were abreast of the situation.
We learned that our local communities are where we can turn in a crisis. People opened their homes to evacuees and accommodated other people’s pets and precious possessions. The volunteer firefighters in our regions worked round the clock alongside firefighting teams from interstate and overseas. Friendships were forged in the flames that will never be extinguished. The indomitable ‘Mozzie Squads’ became a familiar sight with their utes and tanks, fighting spotfires and supporting the RFS with their local knowledge and can-do approach.
We also learned just how vulnerable we are.
Now is the time for the Big Conversations: while the memories are still very real and very raw. As communities we need to talk about sustainable systems. Supermarkets carry only enough food for about five days. In the towns that were cut off and isolated by fire, supermarket shelves were bare within two days and power, fuel and water supplies were cut, leaving residents and visitors stranded.
We know that this summer’s disaster will happen again. Maybe not next summer, maybe not the one after, but it will happen. This is the result of climate change that was predicted twenty years ago and could have been averted. There’s still time to slow down the effects, but that will take concerted governmental action. However, while governments refuse to acknowledge the problem, much less do anything about it, it’s up to communities to act.
How much food can be produced in a small town? How many beds are available in the event of a crisis? How much storage space is available for preserved food, bottled water, gas and other supplies? What professional services are available?
We have discovered the great good that comes out of great tragedy, but we must not let the lessons go unheeded.
I’ve been pondering for some time how to approach this subject but maybe the best way is to come right out and say it:
People, it's time to make the hard choices.
This article appeared in my inbox some weeks ago, outlining the four most effective ways we can cut down our carbon footprint, and it’s got nothing to do with plastic bags.
Before dealing with these, let's look at the easy options first. There are a lot of wonderful, committed people around who are doing fantastic work in minimising plastic use in order to stop the flood of plastic waste getting into our waterways and the ocean. Initiatives such as reusable ‘Boomerang’ shopping bags in supermarkets and stores, lobbying supermarkets to stop prepackaging fresh produce in plastic and taking reusable containers to the deli counter instead of taking the disposable plastic ones are all good moves, but really, using glitter in kids' facepaint is not the most pressing environmental issue we're facing.
Governments are getting on board: the Queensland government has recently banned the release of helium-filled balloons in an effort to reduce litter and waste, the ACT government has had a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags for years and the NSW government has recently introduced a container deposit scheme – Return and Earn – to encourage more recycling.
Solar panels are proliferating on roofs all over the place, and in a country with more sunshine than we know what to do with, this is a no-brainer. Renewable energy is economically smart, efficient and reduces our reliance on fossil fuels.
While there is much more that can be done in these areas, programs to encourage renewable energy and recycling, and community-driven initiatives in reducing waste are still the easy options when it comes to reducing our impact on the environment.
The Big Decisions however, the ones that, as individuals, will give us our best shot at reducing our ecological footprints, are the ones that government can’t legislate. There’s no passing the buck on these: we can’t lobby our local councils or blame government for inaction.
It’s not about plastic bags
Let’s look at the hard choices we need to make one by one:
1. Having fewer (or no) children. Obviously this is not an option for people who have already had their families – it’s not like you can sell one kid off for the good of the planet. I think there might be laws against that sort of thing. However, for people who are considering having children, this is a major decision. It is a fundamental human right to have a family and this is not something that can be regulated in a democracy. Having one child instead of two will save, according to the article linked above, 58.6 tons of carbon emissions.
2. Not having a car. Again, this is not something the government can regulate: this is an individual decision and for some, having a car is a necessity. However, people who live in urban areas where public transport is available need to assess their travel requirements. During the Second World War, the British government published posters asking people to reconsider their need to travel by rail (presumably in order to keep the trains free for military travel). "Is your journey really necessary?" is a question we could ask ourselves before turning the ignition in the car. Certainly, government can assist by ensuring that mass transit is efficient and affordable and let’s face it, some governments do this better than others. The ultimate decision, however, is ours.
3. Not traveling by air. It’s fast, efficient and relatively cheap, but it’s also a major source of carbon emissions. As an academic I was often required to fly to the other side of the world for a conference only to turn around and fly back two days later. This is madness (and deeply ironic, considering that frequently the topic of said conferences was environmental policy!), but it is also the reality for people in a lot of professions where travel is simply part of the job. We have the technology to do meetings and conferences via a number of electronic platforms, yet the mindset persists that it is necessary to undertake long journeys that are inefficient in terms of time and resources. Can we, as individuals, take the decision to cut back on air travel?
4. Not eating meat. This is the one that seems to cause the most angst – particularly among meat-eaters who don’t want to change their habits. Yet there are mountains of research articles on why a plant-based diet is environmentally more responsible than eating meat – for example, here, here and here. And this is aside from the ethical arguments.
These are choices we can – should – all make, yet we continue to play around the edges of the problem of climate change by taking up the easy choices and ignoring the really hard ones. It’s not about plastic bags. It’s about big, hard and unpopular decisions that we can’t flick to the government.
Personal report card
For the record – I score two out of four. I have no children and I’ve been vegetarian since the early 90s. Living a considerable distance out of town, not having a car is not an option for me (I've considered making biodiesel on-site but really, with my technical skills the potential for blowing myself up is pretty high), and since retiring from full time academic work my air travel has reduced considerably.
Assessment: good but room for improvement. How's your personal report card?
The following exchange appeared recently on a local rural community Facebook page regarding local weather patterns and the current drought in the region:
“…one flood in 50's washed bridges away. We were isolated for months. We have had very wet times droughts before and will have them again. The climate is a dynamic thing always changing. Greenies have just realised it is dry. 25 years before european [sic] settlement worst drought Australia has ever had. No co2 then.”
“I look forward to things getting back to wet times again (if it happens) will sort a lot of ppl [sic] out.”
It’s hard to know where to begin explaining the concept of climate change in the face of such wilful ignorance, and even harder to believe that such attitudes still exist against the mountain of scientific evidence supporting what is no longer just a ‘theory’, but a proven and accelerating climatic phenomenon.
In her 2014 book, Global Warming and Climate Change: What Australia knew and buried...then framed a new reality for the public, Dr Maria Taylor explains that our understanding of climate change in the 1980s and 90s was better than it is now. There was widespread acceptance of the scientific facts on climate trends, a better understanding of the difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ and social and political willingness to address the issue.
Over the past two decades, vested interests have hijacked the policy and political agendas and manipulated public attitudes via compliant media, allowing discussions such as the ridiculous one quoted above to be taken seriously in the public domain. The issue has been framed as a 'debate' as though there is doubt that needs to be questioned. It's worth remembering that the tobacco lobby did precisely the same thing when medical evidence pointed to the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
The premise of climate change deniers appears to be that somehow ‘greenies’ manufactured this whole climate change thing for some hidden reason and the fact that there have been extreme weather events in the past disproves the whole shebang. That these attitudes are promulgated within rural communities that rely on the environment and climate for their life and livelihoods is even more astounding. These are precisely the communities that should be (and many are) aware of the trends in climate and should be pushing the policy agenda towards specifics such as emissions reduction, renewable energy and revegetation. Pointing to isolated weather events (a flood in the ‘50s) or suggesting that the end of the current drought will put an end to all this climate change folly (will sort of a lot of people out) is, at best, simplistic shortsightedness, and at worst, dangerous ignorance.
The current drought will end. Drought is a cyclical event in this country and very dry times are typically broken by very wet periods. This is not climate change: this is climatic variability and is a feature of this country.
Climate change is global and complex. It is evidenced by warmer sea temperatures which, in turn, affect the movement of air masses across the landmasses; melting glaciers and polar ice caps; rising temperatures; more frequent extreme weather events such as tropical storms.[Graph from NASA GISS]
The willingness of people to dismiss climate change as a greenie plot is a symptom of the human reluctance to deal with change of any kind. Change is big and scary and there is no bigger or scarier change than one that affects the entire planet. Addressing such change means making big decisions at individual, community and political levels. Yet rather than accepting the need for such decisions for the sake of future generations and the Earth itself, we are seeing a rear-guard action fighting against such decisions on the flimsiest of arguments.
There is no climate change debate any more. The time for debate is over and has been for some time. There are now only facts and evidence; and that evidence is no longer just theoretical, it is empirical. Anthropogenic climate change did not appear overnight. It was first acknowledged and studied at scientific level in the 1950s. Over six decades the statistics have been mounting. It’s time for the phony ‘debate’ to be silenced and the perpetuators of the phony debate to be shown for what they are: either greedy industrialists who profit from polluting the environment, or simple-minded lemmings.