Sustainability Bites

There is no such thing as a free lunch

Joining the dots (part I): The garden shed as metaphor

by | Sep 14, 2023 | 2 comments

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By David Salt

In an era of ‘climate boiling’, I’m not so sure my shady garden shed will give me refuge.

8 millimetres of safety

When we get more than 8mm of rain my garden shed leaks. That’s 8mm of rain (about 1/3 of an inch) over a 24 hour period.

A few nights ago, parts of Hong Kong received around 200mm (8inches in the old measure) of rain in a single hour! The streets of Wan Chai, a major hub of foreign and Chinese cultural institutions in Hong Kong, became raging, deadly torrents.

Fortunately, my garden shed is based in Canberra, Australia, not Wan Chai.

My garden shed is fifty years old and is shrouded in a decades-old English ivy hedge. The hedge’s limbs look ancient and gnarly, thick as human legs in some places. The shed used to support the hedge; now it looks like the hedge is holding the shed up. To fix the shed’s leaky structure I would have to demolish the hedge, something I’m loath to do. The hedge looks nice and keeps the shed cool.

Instead, I have ‘ingeniously’ created a set of internal gutters that catch the leaking water and divert it to the centre of the shed where it falls into a strategically placed wheelbarrow. It takes around 20mm of rain to fill the wheelbarrow. As long as I’m around and it doesn’t rain too hard, all I have to do is periodically dump the water in the wheelbarrow outside, and the shed stays relatively dry and unscathed. It’s a strategy that has worked for me for 30 years.

As I am reluctant to demolish the hedge (and the shed), it is a strategy that I am banking on for the next 30 years. All other things being equal, it’s a rational and economically optimised solution.

All other things being equal

In so many ways, the system that is my shed (and I myself am a component in this system) is a good metaphor for the world. All other things being equal, I expect my band aid solution will work as long as the past is a good guide to the future (another way of saying ‘all things being equal’).

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. Indeed, today a new study describes how Earth has now moved beyond six of nine planetary boundaries. We are way outside of a ‘safe operating space for Earth’.

And yet, most nations and most corporations (and, indeed, most individuals) are behaving as if this isn’t the case – just like I am with my garden shed.

For example, governments (like the Australian Government) are still prioritising fossil fuel development over a quick transition to renewables; corporations are investing in the belief that rapid economic growth will continue way into the future; and (First World) individuals are all planning their next overseas holiday. And politicians everywhere are promising voters that moving towards sustainability is not something that will impact anyone’s quality of life. How did President Bush Snr frame it thirty years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992? “The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.”

You’d think we’d learn

Australia is a developed nation that has already felt the painful sting of climate disruption. We’ve experienced multiple mass coral bleachings. The 2016 and 2017 bleaching events got international attention. Our forests along the eastern seaboard (along with communities and lives) were incinerated in the Black Summer of 2019. Several towns are no longer viable due to repeated unprecedented floods (yes, I know, ‘repeated unprecedented’ is an oxymoron) during the last three La Nina years.

Yes, we’ve had a Conservative climate-denial national government for most of the last decade. But they were thrown out last year for their craven incompetence and corruption. But the replacement government still make policy seemingly at the beck and call of big business like there was no tomorrow. New fossil fuel developments are being approved that will be polluting the atmosphere for at least the next half century being enabled by dodgy carbon offsets and unproven technology.

Yes, we’re deeply worried by the climate disruption we’re seeing happen in the northern hemisphere this summer – after all, it’s coming our way this summer – but the debate over whether Net Zero by 2050 is an acceptable policy is still being fought in Conservative circles. The same arguments we’ve fought over for years – the cost of doing something is too much; technology developed decades down the track will fix the problem; we need to go nuclear – are still being trotted out. You’d think we’d learn.

Places not to build a leaky garden shed

Clearly, we’re not joining the dots.

It’s not enough to see the suburb on the other side of your town incinerated in a climate escalated wildfire (as happened here in Canberra 20 years ago during the Millennium Drought). The suburb was rebuilt, our insurance premiums went up a bit, life moved on, normality returned.

It’s not enough to see the Great Barrier Reef repeatedly bleached. Good snorkelling sites become fewer, fish production goes down, maybe a there are a few less tourism operators; life goes on.

It’s not enough to see our whole eastern seaboard go up in flames in a Black Summer. Most, but not all, of the forests are regenerating. Insurance premiums for locals have gone through the roof, many communities are now hanging on by their finger nails … but life goes on. Same for the flood hit towns.

It’s not enough to see towns, villages and cities on the other side of the planet obliterated by a cascade of climate catastrophes. Our lives go on, but maybe not so much for many poor souls in Greece; Hong Kong; Las Vegas; Vermont; South Korea; Spain; Himachal Pradesh; Hebei China; South Africa; York; Haiti; Nova Scotia; Samoa; New Zealand; São Paulo; Tennessee; Philippines and Turkey. Probably should also mention Libya. Today it was announced tens of thousands of Libyans are missing from their bout of ‘unprecedented’ floods (I’ve just read there are 7,000 confirmed dead in Libya making it the deadliest flood of the 21st Century. It’s a record that will fall to some other beleaguered region before too long.)

My shed and my flooding strategy would have been shredded in the floods that hit all these places.

But, away from these disasters, our lives go on; safe in our belief that the conditions we’ve experienced in years gone by are the only things we need to worry about in making decisions about the future.

But a wait a sec; what the devil is in my latest insurance bill that’s just come in! This is outrageous! I wasn’t directly hit by the fires, the drought or the floods; I shouldn’t have to pay for this!! And what about the price of mangos!!!

[To be continued in Joining the dots part II]

Banner image: Join the dots. Decisions made today are based on yesterday’s experience. Yesterday’s conditions are no longer a guide to what we can expect tomorrow.
(Image by Enrique from Pixabay)


    • David Salt

      I’m sure that’s what the economists would tell me. D



  1. Dbytes #590 (20 September 2023) | Dbytes - […] at the big picture and focus on smaller things – like the leaky garden shed in my backyard.…-~<>~-4. From…

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