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.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Plea to help energise Australian communities

I have received the following request from  the National Campaign Coordinator of the 100% Renewable campaign. I urge your suport.

Lindsay asks:   'Can you spend 2 minutes to help us liberate hundreds of millions of dollars for clean energy projects that could be owned by your community?

Dear community renewables supporter, 

Over the past few years, groups across Australia have started developing visionary plans to invest in their own clean energy future.

Hepburn Wind is Australia's very first community owned renewable energy company, near Daylesford, Victoria. It is owned by ordinary people, generates 100% renewable energy equivalent to the total electricity demand of Daylesford and Hepburn and puts more funding back into the community (per turbine) than any other wind farm. 

But while Hepburn Wind has been an inspiration to others, there are many unfair barriers that make it hard for other communities to follow.

In 2011 the Government, Greens and Independents listened to you and agreed to create a new $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC). For everyone who dreams of owning and producing their own power, this new body poses a huge opportunity.

This month, the expert panel of the CEFC will tell the Government what the Corporation should invest in. Together, lets convince the CEFC to use some of its funds for community energy!

Email them now at this link:

Please sign this email action today if you would like to see CEFC support community renewable projects  - and tell the CEFC why YOU would like to see them support your community's vision for the future. 

Thanks for your support,

PS. A strong show of community support to the CEFC expert panel, right now - two weeks before they report to the government - will demonstrate that it is the right time to invest in safe, local, renewable energy.  Email the CEFC at:

The Macy Conferences

The Macy conferences played a special role in the history of Systems and Cybernetic thought and scholarship.  A new Blog developed for the forthcoming  EMCSR (European Meetings on Cybernetics and Systems Research) conference gives a nice overview.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Systemic insights in unlikely places

Apropo of the new Australian 'national conversation' about vested interests - most of them mining - I was struck last year by an episode of The Gruen Nation which went behind the green-washing of the mining and resources industries.  An insider reveals how communities who oppose are bought off by the developers.  If only Wayne Swan had shown this clip to the nation at his Press Club address we would have seen it for how it really is - a nation that can be easily spun, or bought-off.  For example, Australians have come to believe through massive expenditure in advertising and spin that mining constitutes 30% of the economy and 10% of the work force when it is actually more like 10% and 3%. 

Clips like this also presage the current preoccupation with billionaires.

Having a national conversation

I have just finished reading Lois Banner's insightful account of the lives of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict in 'Intertwined Lives'.  Both were scholars of outstanding merit so it's a pity that they have both slipped, somewhat, from contemporary view.  Today was a good day to finish  this book as it coincides with heightened media interest in Australian Treasurer, Wayne Swan's essay exposing the threats to democracy that can arise through the actions of vested interests and by the abuse of wealth.  Although the general theme is not new it has needed saying (or resaying) in Australia for some time.  So good on Swan.  It is a pity he and others in government did not make this case to the Australian people before they began the process of introducing a mining tax, a key factor in the undoing of  Kevin Rudd as PM.

Ruth Benedict, amongst other contributions, developed typologies based on her anthropological studies  that attempted to account for the 'good society'.   According to Banner her work was described by Abraham Maslow 'as the most viable, post-Marxian theory of the good society'.  She talked about 'funnel' societies which 'chaneled wealth into the hands of a few men who had little concern for anyone else, while 'siphon societies' constantly spread wealth throughout the community' (p. 425-6).   For Benedict the Blackfoot of North America epitomised a 'siphon society'.  They were optimistic, free from violence, 'operating to an ethic of care: leaders identify with followers, the wealthy make certain that everyone is provided for, and leadership positions are opened to talented individuals. True freedom, Benedict asserted, means not only individual independence but also taking responsibility for others'. (p. 426).

Both Benedict and Mead were struck by the level of cooperation that occurred during war time (WW 2) in the US. They both worked hard to try to make that spirit persist in the peace as a necessary part of civil liberties.  Benedict worried that the US 'ran the risk of becoming a 'funnel' rather than a 'siphon' society' and that democracy would falter in the US because 'its system of government was based on reconciling special interests at the expense of the individual' and that 'its economy benefited the few over the many.'   Whilst undoubtedly worse in the US (see this posting) the place of special interests in formulating Australian national policy needs much more critical scrutiny and to be added to the national conversation that Swan has launched.

However we want a conversation of quality based on listening and mutual respect. I for one was sickened yesterday morning to hear on ABC radio Mitch Hooke gloating about his role, and that of the Minerals Council of Australia (of which he is CEO), in defeating  the government's original mineral tax proposals.   I also thought  the ABC's Emma Alberici's interview of Swan, heard on ABC News Radio this morning, discourteous and disengenouous.  To paraphrase  Margaret Mead, upbringing not race produces the differences between national groups.  So if Australia is to conserve its egalitarian nature then we need to attend to our manners of living together and, thus, the upbringing we provide to the inheritors of our culture.