Friday, March 09, 2012

Systemic sense and moral responsibility

I was pleased to see David Day's article published today in The Age.   His arguments, with which I concur, motivate me to respond to the current contestation of ideas and direction unfolding in Australia.  What is missing from the utterances of most of the politicians (Bob Brown aside) and vested interest spokespeople are claims that make systemic sense or carry with them any form of moral responsibility.  The issues to which I refer concerns the leaking of plans by Greenpeace to launch a major campaign of disruption to large coal developments, particularly in Queensland.  The 'howlers' are having a frenzy of course including condemning such action 'as treason'.

But first let's take a step back, to better appreciate the Australian context.  I attended an interesting seminar yesterday reporting integrated modeling research done on behalf of the GLA (Greater London Authority).  I was reminded just how different the underlying policy and political context is in the UK compared to Australia.  In the UK dealing with and talking about climate change has bipartisan political support.. ...and yes the phrase has legitimacy in Europe. Unlike the state of Victoria climate change can be spoken about in policy circles. As Donald Schoen would have said it is an idea in good currency in Europe but not Australia. It means that efforts to take effective action start in an entirely different places in the UK and Australia. In the mean time relatvely close neighbour Kiribati is negotiating with Fiji to buy 5000 acres to relocate the whole population because of the impacts of sea level rise!

From a systems perspective the expansion of coal mining makes no sense at all.  In fact it is systemically foolish and morally irresponsible.  Not even the economic arguments are defensible because of the lock-in that such investment brings, increasing dependency on a limited source of tax revenue and precluding full commitment to transforming the Australian economy into a post-carbon future. There is also the negative systemic effects that will come in increased port development and shipping movements that threaten the Great Barrier Reef world heritage site.   It is hard to imagine how Anna Bligh, running for re-election as Premier of Queensland, an 'old leftie' and strong feminist, could have sold her soul so fulsomely to this bleak coal-driven future.

Readers of my blogs may have noticed that there have been no postings to date about coal-seam gas and fracking.  The absense of such posts has been causing me considerable angst. But truth be known I have found the whole issue just too depressing to deal with since I saw Gasland almost a year ago.  In many ways I think fracking and associated coal seam gas extraction is one of the most significant moral issues of our generation. Certainly Gaslands showed vividly the systemic failure of EIA as currently institutionalised in the US -  it failed miserably to deal with the cummulative and systemic  impacts of development.  I only hope the same will not occur along the Barrier Reef and in regional and urban Australia.  Fracking and other forms of mining that expose our landscapes and farming systems to unanticipated blight is for me the apotheosis of runaway human greed.  Jonathon Bate in his great book, The Song of the Earth, frames the issue for us: it is that Australians need to appreciate the country as a place to dwell!

I commend those communities, polititicians and NGOs who are organising to try to prevent the excesses. Greenpeace and their ilk are the moral heroes in these situations. Where is Minister Crean in these discussions?  I fear the relatively new Ministry he is responsible for has been captured and  framed by interests from the big end of town.  It is in situations like these that the current minority government functions to the benefit of all.  Regional Independent MP, Tony Windsor, no friend of the Nationals and their coalition partners, has managed to force through a halt until the evidence is clearer.  Good on him!  We can all be confident that if Labour or the Coalition had abosolute control it would be business as usual for the extractive industries.

This brings me back to David Day.  He and I have another common interest, that of former Labour Prime Minister Ben Chifley who, like me, was a Bathurstian.  Chifley was a personal friend of members of my family who worked with him on the railway.  One, a great-uncle, was his campaign manager in Bathurst through the 1940s and 50s.   David is the author of the definitive biography of Chifley. Whilst it is disengenous, at one level, to invoke the ideals of former generations and apply them to the present I cannot help but wonder what Chif would have made of the current lot.  I imagine him smiling at the effective shift into public ownership of banks in the UK as a result of the GFC.  He  was widely read and could discourse for several hours on matters that concerned him and his electorate where crowds of 600 or more often came ot listen to him on the Bathurst King's Parade. He was also committed to nation building and investment in public infrastructure.  I am tempted to say that unlike so many of  the current generation he had the courage of his convictions.  This is what we need - but the convictions need to be congruent with our circumstances.

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