Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Environment Commissioner speaks out!

"governments have a strategy of creating channels of grants to tie up activists time in making submissions, and then channel their activity through the safe activities sanctioned by government grants."

I attended a public forum organised by the Western Region Environment Centre (WREC) last night in Werribee. The speaker was Ian McPhail, who is just retiring (age 70) from his position as Commissioner for Sustainability in Victoria. His team has just released (in December) a State of the Environment report, which is brought out every five years (and available on their website). I haven't read the report yet but I was impressed by how forthright he was about political issues.

The presentation he gave emphasised that on many indicators, the Victorian economy has improved it's efficiency yet the overall impact has still gone up. This is not a matter of Jevons' paradox; it's the fact that the economy keeps growing (well, their figures don't take into account recent months!). Victorian Gross State Product (GSP) is going up faster than population, as is waste output. Greenhouse gas emissions and energy use are both increasing overall, despite a decrease per unit of economic output. Water efficiency is up, and although use is flat this is probably due more to the drought and dire shortage than anybody's good intentions.

McPhail denounced the climate-change-denial lobby. He pointed out that when 2500 scientists can come together to agree on a joint statement, it is a rare day indeed, and this is just what has happened on climate change. He ridiculed the quest for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as " techno-optimism". He said it would only be of any use if it were available, in full scale, now. Of course, it is still at least a decade away according to the more optimistic researchers.

McPhail talked about the seriously degraded state of much of the natural environment in Victoria. 200 years of European colonisation have totally changed the landscape, to the extent that many ecosystems - rivers the worst - are seriously degraded and in urgent need of help. Even many parks are degraded due to weed invasions, past clearing and so on. He compared the landscape to the farmed hedgerows of England: although they may be pretty, they are artificial and as an ecosystem only some 800 years or so old. Nevertheless, our natural environment must be protected for the "ecosystem services" it provides.

The problem with current ecological management systems, McPhail explained, is that although maintaining ecosystems is cheaper than repairing them, it is cheaper still to "liquidate" them as he put it. He suggested it would be good if landowners could derive the same income from maintaining ecosystems as they do from farming.

The Commissioner's office has a degree of independence from state government, and the forthright comments he made are a breath of fresh air from a government official. Perhaps his imminent retirement has also loosened his tongue, but in any case the presentation was well received by the meeting.

Discussion focused, among other things, on the issue of population. Victoria's population is growing, and several questions asked whether this was sustainable or wise. McPhail said that it's better not to get into population debate, because among other things it gives comfort to anti-immigration ratbags. He also said it was entirely conceivable that Melbourne could fit another million residents sustainably. He suggested that it is a different question whether the world could sustain the projected extra billions this century. (I commented in discussion that the only way to reduce population quickly is genocide - but we can reduce our carbon footprint very quickly).

The second speaker was Michael Hill from the Victorian Local Government Sustainability Advisory Body. Like the WREC organisers, Hill was keen that the State of the Environment report be kept in the public eye to have maximum effect on the government, who are otherwise likely to ignore it as much as they can.

A lot of local government activity is around fitting houses with sustainable energy appliances (solar panels and so on). Greens state MP Colleen Hartland pointed out that while she has retrofitted many such items on her house, there are many people who cannot afford the expense, and there is a real need to address this inequity. The Western Alliance for Greenhouse Action (who co-sponsored the meeting) are working with local councils in Melbourne's west to set up bulk-buying schemes of such appliances to bring down the cost for households.

All this is quite positive on one level, but a comment from a man in the audience really nailed exactly what I think about these localised and household-focused schemes. He pointed out that governments have a strategy of creating channels of grants to tie up activists time in making submissions, and then channel their activity through the safe activities sanctioned by government grants.

He also pointed out that in the early 1980s, childcare centres were allocated based on applications by communities. Of course, middle class communities got most of them as they tended to be more literate and better resourced in making the applications. A better system would be a rational plan for where services are needed. Of course, this would not have activists spending valuable time competing with each other for those grants!

My last post outlined some of the radical anti-market politics that are developing at the radical end of the climate movement. These conclusions are drawn from the quite clear recognition that in an emergency, we can't afford corruption and half measures. I think much of the movement is coming from a background of submission-writing, grant-seeking, relatively apolitical local activism in Australia. I hope this part of the movement can find its way out of that to take strong political protest action. More than another eco-living centre or a cheap solar panel scheme, that is what we desperately need right now. Every activist has to pitch in!

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