Recently released Cabinet Papers throw valuable light on what the government was thinking back in 2003 when it was attempting to tackle the problem of inland water shortages and an ailing River Murray. The papers reveal that they were prepared to accept the scientific advice as long as it didn’t rock the boat and didn’t cost too much. Exercising ‘precaution’ they were not.
The real 5G coming to you! (The Great Acceleration, Great Extinction, Great Injustice, Great Dissatisfaction, & hopefully, the Great Transformation)
Despite the overwhelming benefits to humanity from the post war period of rapid economic growth (the Great Acceleration), there has also been a massive downside: ocean acidification, unsustainable water use, deforestation, degradation of wetlands, catastrophic declines in biodiversity, and global warming. Arising from this downside we’ve also experienced the Great Extinction, the Great Injustice and the Great Dissatisfaction. If humanity is to survive, now we need another ‘G’, the Great Transformation.
What do we know, more or less, for sure about the future? First, the world is getting hotter at a faster rate. Second, maintaining or increasing greenhouse emissions will result in substantial temperature increases within coming decades that entails substantial costs and risks. Third, carbon sequestration, over the coming few decades will only make, at best, a very marginal contribution to lowering atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Fourth, despite the rhetoric, the world’s greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise to at least 2030. These are our future certainties under business-as-usual. Much of the uncertainty about what the future holds is about what we choose to do about it.
The concept of doughnut economics incorporates both biophysical elements and social justice elements in one framing, something few other approaches to sustainability do in a comprehensive manner. Unfortunately, 2023 is revealing solid evidence that the doughnut of sustainability is being remorselessly crushed. We’re breaching our ecological ceiling at the same time we are failing on most of our internationally agreed minimum social standards. Humanity’s space for sustainability is shrinking before our eyes, right at the same time climate disruption is beginning to tear apart society’s foundations.
“What we are hearing and reading and seeing is a continuation of the grand rhetoric from the Rio Earth Summit over thirty years ago in which ‘Business-As- with modifications’ will give us richer tomorrows with no sacrifices today. It’s based on the fantasy that carbon offsets and credits, the planting of one trillion or more trees, and advanced machines can suck enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to set the world right.This is a sort of a Business-As-Usual with ‘market and technology extras’ that will allow us, with a few tweaks, such as driving an electric vehicle (EV), to carry on as we have always done. If only this were true. Business-As-Usual, even with all the brightest bells and squeakiest whistles, will continue our trajectory towards catastrophic consequences.”
Will ‘Nature Positive’ deliver real change or just a new opportunity for box ticking and political window dressing? As a concept, Nature Positive has plenty of potential for good biodiversity outcomes and its endorsement in the Henry Review is a good thing for biodiversity nationally. However, like ESD before it, Nature Positive can be hollowed out or reduced to a slogan if that is where the politics takes it.
Unfortunately, as the last two years are demonstrating (AND SCIENTISTS HAVE BEEN PREDICTING FOR THE LAST HALF CENTURY!), climate change means the past is no longer a guide to the future. All other things are no longer equal because human modification of the Earth system means it is behaving with no historical analogues. And the disruption is set to accelerate. Sometimes, to join the dots, you have stop looking at the big picture and focus on smaller things – like the leaky garden shed in my backyard.
If you accept that humans are not in control, that you can’t hold nature in some mythical ‘optimal state’, that good resilience thinking is all about understanding the variability of the natural systems around us and living within those constraints – if you do all these things then you are acknowledging complexity and demonstrating ‘humility’. So, do you want to save the world? Justice, truth and humility is the path you need to tread.
Climate scientists of all types have been forecasting these consequences for decades but we’ve done nothing. Now we’re reeling as the water laps at our doors and the smoke chokes our air. In the world we have, a complex world, today’s decisions are driven by past investments, vested interests, political compromises, and an overwhelming inertia not to buck the status quo. BAU (business as usual) rules, it’s our society’s identity. Maybe we should stop kidding ourselves we live in a rational world.
The campaign for nuclear is fuelled by false information, hyperbolic claims and constant repetition. It has become a bit of a cause célèbre for conservative politicians who serve it up again and again as a reason to stop worrying about the future or to reflect on the consequences of our unbounded economic growth.
Before we commit all our ‘biodiversity eggs’ to the ‘market basket’ and leave saving Nature to the market traders, could we quickly reflect on what’s been done in the past to save biodiversity? How did we attempt to protect Nature before markets were put forward as our road to salvation? What are the lessons? Those lessons would include attention to governance, resourcing, inclusion and justice. Ignore these dimensions and there’s little prospect that a market-driven approach is going to achieve anything better.
Don’t look up! Don’t talk up! Don’t rock the status quo. Attenborough’s message upsets vested interests.
Over time, vested interests and elites distort the system to maximise their wealth while simultaneously playing the system to protect their perceived entitlement. They do this through denial, obfuscation, denigration and applying the levers of power to prevent change and stop any talk about the redistribution of power.
Australia’s environment minister faces some tough calls in developing national environmental standards. If strong and clear, they will protect nature and make it harder to get developments approved. But if the standards lack a clear statement of purpose and carry over rubbery phrases and weak offset requirements, then it will be business as usual, freshly wrapped.
Even if fusion power was a reality in 20 years, it is not a solution we should be prioritizing. Climate disruption is with us today and already tearing apart the fabric of our society. We don’t have 20 years; we need to transition away from carbon-intensive energy now. To prioritize the ultra-expensive, highly risky idea of fusion energy as our salvation is really just one more form of climate denialism – we don’t need to change our ways because tomorrow’s technology will save us, so keep on consuming and polluting.
The boldest and most fundamental change being proposed in the book The Ministry for the Future is a combination of economics, technology and innovations in governance that, when combined, gave reason for people to invest in their future. For surely, that is the real challenge of our times. It seems unprecedented climate disruption, with the certain prospect of greater disruption with every passing year, is not enough for us to make this important shift.
A resilient world would acknowledge our dependence on the ecosystems that support us, allow us to appreciate the limits of our mastery, accept we have much to learn, and ensure our people are well educated about resilience and our interconnection with the biosphere.
- business as usual
- climate change
- David Salt
- environmental accounts
- Peter Burnett
- Policy lessons