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Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Fad or Fundament?

Have you noticed that the world is changing fast? For once I'm not talking about the biosphere - it's human society and politics I mean. Words based on "environment" and "sustainable" are starting to pervade the mass media, turning up in just about every political message at all levels of government and peppered through corporate communications. Advertising budgets are increasingly being spent on pointing out the "green" attributes of some product or service.

It seems that environmental groups have succeeded in using the greenhouse effect as a kind of lever to shift the massive inertia of social consciousness and direct it towards the long-term liveability of this planet. And the result has not just been all talk.

There are some great local examples, starting with the response to the water shortage of recent years. Not only have the residents of south-east Queensland succeeded in reducing their average per-capita consumption to one of the lowest rates in the developed world, we've maintained that discipline even with the rain of the past two months more than doubling the amount of water in our dams. Moreover, the sentiment of the majority of people I've spoken to is in line with official policy which says that conservative water use has become a permanent feature of life in this region!

Continuing with the theme of sustainable water use, one of the two main candidates standing for election to the office of Lord Mayor of Brisbane in a few weeks time is making a very big deal of his policies for minimising water wastage from leaking pipes and increasing the rebates for people who connect rainwater tanks for internal use in the home.

On the other side of politics, the incumbent mayor is earning a rare cheer from me for the spirit behind his latest announcement of funding to assist residents equip their homes with instantaneous energy meters of the type I've written about here in the past. I'm not totally thrilled with that particular approach (I'd rather see a loan/rent scheme) but I am thrilled with the stated objective of reducing the city's electricity consumption.

Both candidates are straining to one-up each other when it comes to public transport. Brisbane isn't large enough to have any direct control over railways but the next few years appear certain to see a very large number of new natural-gas powered buses on the city's roads and an expansion of the CityCat ferry fleet. Mr Incumbent is also touting a spending spree on bicycle paths and facilities.

I offer these examples as evidence of a major and accelerating shift in the public awareness of and concern for sustainability. I've written in the past about my belief that changing values is what brings about changes in behaviour, and I'm starting to become hopeful that values are indeed shifting in the right direction. Heck, I've even listened to speeches from federal parliament this week exhorting the nation to embrace the aboriginal peoples' attitude towards "the land", seeing oneself as literally a part of the environment and being always mindful of the need to care for it.

The question is whether this "trend" will continue. Are we really witnessing the early stages of the transformation of our wasteful, destructive, economically and ecologically irrational society into a responsible, efficient, ecologically-integrated civilisation with advanced culture and traditional wisdom as well as high technology? Well I hope so... because that's what it's probably going to take to avoid catastrophe.

So here's a litmus test for us to monitor our progress as a nation. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) published a report in December 2007 which predicts that, on the basis of the policies and trends in effect at that time, Australia's energy use will grow by 1.6% per year through to 2030 (that's up about 44% compared to today) with around 92% of that energy being sourced from fossil fuels. Let me suggest that if these projections match our future reality, then we're in very big trouble. But...

If society is in fact changing, embracing values of sustainability, we will necessarily see our energy use grow by a smaller amount than predicted and possibly even declining by 2030. We must also see an major decrease in the proportion of our energy derived from fossil fuels. I'll be keep an eye out for future releases like this one from ABARE to see where we're headed.

In the meantime, we all need to support those politicians who are promoting reduced energy consumption, increased efficiency and a transition to renewable energy sources.

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