How things have (not) changed

13 04 2015

The other night I had the pleasure of dining with the former Australian Democrats leader and senator, Dr John Coulter, at the home of Dr Paul Willis (Director of the Royal Institution of Australia). It was an enlightening evening.

While we discussed many things, the 84 year-old Dr Coulter showed me a rather amazing advert that he and several hundred other scientists, technologists and economists constructed to alert the leaders of Australia that it was heading down the wrong path. It was amazing for three reasons: (i) it was written in 1971, (ii) it was published in The Australian, and (iii) it could have, with a few modifications, been written for today’s Australia.

If you’re an Australian and have even a modicum of environmental understanding, you’ll know that The Australian is a Murdochian rag infamous for its war on science and reason. Even I have had a run-in with its outdated, consumerist and blinkered editorial board. You certainly wouldn’t find an article like Dr Coulter’s in today’s Australian.

More importantly, this 44 year-old article has a lot today that is still relevant. While the language is a little outdated (and sexist), the grammar could use a few updates, and there are some predictions that clearly never came true, it’s telling that scientists and others have been worrying about the same things for quite some time.

In reading the article (reproduced below), one could challenge the authors for being naïve about how society can survive and even prosper despite a declining ecological life-support system. As I once queried Paul Ehrlich about some of his particularly doomerist predictions from over 50 years ago, he politely pointed out that much of what he predicted did, in fact, come true. There are over 1 billion people today that are starving, and another billion or so that are malnourished; combined, this is greater than the entire world population when Paul was born.

So while we might have delayed the crises, we certainly haven’t averted them. Technology does potentially play a positive role, but it can also increase our short-term carrying capacity and buffer the system against shocks. We then tend to ignore the indirect causes of failures like wars, famines and political instability because we do not recognise the real drivers: resource scarcity and ecosystem malfunction.

Australia has yet to learn its lesson.

To Those Who Shape Australia’s Destiny

We believe that western technological society has ignored two vital facts:

1. The resources of the earth are finite
2. The capacity of the environment to renew resources that are used up and to repair the damage caused by the exploitation of those resources is limited and decreasing.

Damage is resulting because this capacity of the environment has been exceeded. The burden the environment is expected to bear is the sum of all the loads which individuals heap upon it. Each individual’s contribution to this burden is measured by his material standard of living. The desire to maximise both population and standard of living, which drives our society, is therefore not only impossible to fulfil, but is degrading the environment and lessening the capacity of the planet to support life. We predict that within the life time of our children, civilisation will face a crisis in survival.

Those who are unconcerned by the present trends are either blind or believe that technology will provide endless substitutes as the living and non-living components of the natural environment are consumed. This faith is unfounded. Adaptation and evolution of many living things cannot keep pace with the accelerating rate of technological change. The web of life which nurtured man for a million years and on which man depends for his survival is falling to pieces.

It is very difficult to find in Australia one industrial process which, when traced through all its ramifications, is in balance with the supply of raw materials and with the ability of the environment to repair the damage which essential parts of most processes cause. Grazing and farming in much of our vast arid regions are reducing the capacity of the land to produce.

And yet, compared with the rest of the world, this country, with its large land area and resource reserves, with its literate, small and relatively affluent population, is in a fortunate, perhaps unique, position. We have a reprieve and the chance to create a new and lasting social order based on sound ecological principles and aimed at maintaining a satisfying life for generations yet unborn. By deliberately using our breathing space to come to terms with biological realities and to restructure our society we may design the model on which mankind can build a future. In this light the goals which Australia is currently pursuing represent one of the greatest abuses of responsibility ever witnessed.

We therefore urge those who guide Australia’s future to investigate:

  1. the population that Australia can support over the long term and its relationship with standard of living.
  2. the details of a balanced economic system, i.e.: a system in which productivity (and consequent environmental damage) is balanced against the capacity of the total environment to maintain itself. With gross national product set by environmental limits, increases in material standards of living must follow decreased population or adoption of less damaging productive processes.
  3. the social changes of all kinds necessary to achieve and maintain the patterns outlined by 1. and 2.

For biological and ecological reasons civilisation based on the present western technology cannot survive much longer. Careful forethought and willingness to embrace fundamental change are necessary if civilisation is to survive at all. Australia’s opportunity to examine and implement these fundamental changes before it is too late may be unique. The responsibility is great and the task urgent.

Signed by the following scientists, technologists and economists of Australia …


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3 responses

13 04 2015
Marion Wilson

In 1974 Dr. D.F.McMichael, Secretary of the Australian Department of the Environment and Conservation said: ” There are however some pollution problems which are of very real long-term concern, and one of these is the output of carbon dioxide and heat. …increasing growth in population and industrial technology is likely to create significant problems for the world’s heat budget which may not be amenable to simple technical solutions”

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13 04 2015
Graeme McLeay

Oops corporatocracy

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13 04 2015
Graeme McLeay

As Jeffrey Sachs writes in The Price of Civilisation as long as The Corporatocrasy and “free markets” are running things we are going down the burglar….or words to that effect.

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