We share some amazing (and innovative) eco-friendly buildings from around the world – from the world’s first vertical forest in Italy to a stunning mountain hut that generates 90% of its own power in the Swiss Alps.
The world’s first vertical forest is being erected in the centre of Milan – the first of a pioneering new green architecture model that makes the most of limited urban land, while providing an improved atmosphere within cities. Plus, it creates an attractive and eco-friendly living space.
Each apartment hosts a small forest on its balcony – which filters out dust particles and brings down inside temperatures. And it only adds five per cent to construction costs.
The first Bosco Verticale will be two residential towers in the centre of Milan, hosting 900 trees, as well as shrubs and floral plants. On flat land, each Bosco Verticale equals 10,000 square metres of forest. The towers are 110 and 76 metres high, respectively.
This stunning Swiss Alps building is now a tourist attraction – with its silvery aluminum shell, it is ‘reminiscent of a mountain crystal’. It operates as a restaurant and lodgings.
That shell isn’t just for show, though – thanks to thermal solar collectors and a photovoltaic system built into the southern facade, the hut is self-sufficient for over 90 percent of its energy needs.
Construction of the ambitious Cor project in Miami has been delayed due to the financial crisis, but the plans are impressive, and architecture experts are watching eagerly for when it is finished.
Four-foot tall and 24 stories high, it will be both aesthetically striking and impressively sustainable.
‘Everything is supported by cutting-edge sustainable technology like recycled tile floors, bamboo-lined halls, energy-efficient appliances and plumbing, and a grey-water processing system,’ writes Eluxe.
The rooftop garden (pictured) is designed for low water use – and the walls around it house wind turbines that will produce enough electricity to light the building’s interior common areas.
This gorgeous house is built on Sentosa Island, Singapore. The grass roofs, which cover each level of the house, lower internal temperatures and create a lush garden feel.
By Greg Foyster
In the midst of a stellar advertising career, Greg Foyster came to the realisation that the work he was doing had grave consequences for the health of the planet. He became a walking contradiction, spending weekdays writing ads promoting petrol-guzzling V8 cars and weekends researching the dire impacts of climate change.
In this edited Lunchbox/Soapbox address, Greg discusses how advertising promotes discontentment with what we have in order to sell us stuff we don’t need – and how the resulting waste is choking ecosystems and causing dangerous climate change.
Why do we need a new and improved argument against advertising?
The first reason is that we now know much more about the environmental impact of consumerism than we did in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or even in the 1990s.
The second? In the last five years in Australia, the advertising industry has taken on a new public image. Margaret Zabel, CEO of The Communications Council, has said that The Gruen Transfer has been ‘a great tool in promoting the industry to future new employees’.
Of course, The Gruen Transfer was never intended to be a cheerleader for consumerism. But from the very beginning it had little leeway to seriously question the role of advertising in society. Any strong criticism would have angered advertising agencies, leaving the show without willing commentators.
The Gruen Transfer also focuses on individual ads; a true critique of advertising needs to consider its overall impact on society, culture and the environment.
Advertising’s new public image troubles me. As a former employee of the industry, The Gruen Transfer reminds me of conversations I had within the walls of advertising agencies, where social issues – such as the link between fast food marketing and obesity – were acknowledged, and then dismissed with a clever joke. The message, never explicitly stated, was that advertising is just a bit of harmless fun, so we shouldn’t worry about it too much.
Indeed, advertising is fun. The chance to get paid to come up with zany ideas was what attracted me to the industry in the first place. So while my friends sat in university lecture halls learning about history or philosophy, I spent my years of higher education staring at jam jars and sauce bottles, trying to write taglines that captured the emotional essence of kitchen condiments.
Once I graduated, I spent about five years working full-time in the industry. But as I progressed in my career, I started researching climate change, and I learned that the root cause of many environmental issues was overconsumption in developed countries. To put it simply, people in rich countries like Australia are using up more resources than the planet can replenish.
As someone who worked in the advertising industry, I felt personally responsible for promoting this overconsumption, and so I left my job.
Afterwards, I started researching my former profession, and I learned that the public has always had a healthy distrust of advertising. Throughout history, advertising has been criticised for a long list of social ills, including promoting materialism, reinforcing warped sexual stereotypes and cultivating discontent in order to sell more stuff.
So before we get to that new and improved argument against advertising, let’s look at the old arguments and see if they still apply.
Advertising creates desires. This might seem obvious, but it’s an important point because people in the marketing industry sometimes argue that advertising only responds to desires consumers already have.
However, as the The Advertising Age Encyclopedia of Advertising explains, in the 1880s businesses began to recognise that advertising could create desires to fuel a new consumer economy. ‘People bought articles they did not know they wanted until advertising told them why they could not live without it.’
In 1958, economist John Kenneth Galbraith published The Affluent Society and argued that advertising’s ‘central function is to create desires – to bring into being wants that previously did not exist’.
Let’s look at an example. In 2008, the global vice-president for Axe deodorant, which is marketed as Lynx in Australia, told The Times newspaper that in the UK before World War II people didn’t use deodorant; it took up-front advertising to educate consumers about unacceptable body odour. ‘The sense of paranoia created the market,’ he said.
The Unilever executive explained that one strategy for expansion was to make Asians self-conscious about their body odour. ‘Asia is a market we have never really cracked. They don’t think they smell …’
This isn’t to say that humans don’t smell, or that we don’t sometimes want something to mask our odour. The point here is that, through paranoia, the advertising is seeking to create a market where none existed before.
Here’s another example, this one from my girlfriend. You might have seen this ad on TV. It’s for a pad called Carefree Acti-Fresh that women are supposed to wear between periods. No, it’s not an incontinence pad. Its only purpose is so women feel and smell ‘fresh’ every single day of the month.
There are several products like this one, and they’re marketed at the general public, not at women who have health conditions. If they take off, they have the potential to create a new social norm. Eventually, it will seem normal for woman to wear pads all the time so that they can feel ‘fresh’, whatever that means. Again, a sense of paranoia is creating a market.
One way advertising creates new desires is to promote discontent with what you have. The best examples of this come from the late 1950s.
During World War II in the United States, industry expanded to supply the army, and factories exited the war with massively increased manufacturing capabilities. At first consumers absorbed the excess production by buying new appliances, but in the mid to late 1950s, industry began to worry that consumer demand would crash, leading to another economic depression.
This was known as the ‘crisis of distribution’ and the solution was to make hyper consumption a way of life. In 1955 US retail analyst Victor Lebow wrote in the Journal of Retailing:
‘Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption …We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace.’
This is a simple but accurate description of the consumer economy since the 1950s.
One strategy for increasing consumption was ‘psychological obsolescence’, which involved making things appear out of date or untrendy after a few years. Cars, such as the GM Cadillac, developed stylistic quirks like tail fins, tempting consumers to replace their vehicles just to keep up with changing fashions. Advertising’s role in this was to promote the new products as superior to the old ones.
Another strategy was to use social pressure to drive consumer demand. This is the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ theory we’re all familiar with. But the concept is actually more powerful and pervasive than trying to outdo your neighbours. It applies to the whole of society – as everyone around you consumes more, you must do the same, not just to get ahead but simply to keep your current position.
For example, if you work in an office and all your co-workers start wearing expensive suits, pretty quickly your own clothes will look shabby in comparison. You’re forced to buy something new just to maintain your current status.
One way modern advertising increases social pressure to consume is through showing ‘aspirational’ images of affluent people enjoying luxury goods. This makes the public aim for higher and higher levels of material consumption.
Much of the aspirational imagery doesn’t actually relate to the product being sold. For example, an image of beautiful and scantily clad women on a yacht may be used to promote a car. Aspirational advertising always shows images of wealth above what the average person can afford – that’s why it’s aspirational. In response, consumers feel discontent with their more modest belongings. Aspirational advertising uses this discontentment to promote an attitude of endlessly striving for greater luxuries.
But, despite its alluring images of the good life, advertising actually takes you further away from true happiness.
It does this by promising happiness it can never truly deliver. Sut Jhally, professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts, writes that although each ad sells a different product, the consistent and explicit message of advertising is that ‘commodities will make us happy’.
But quality of life surveys show that, beyond a certain level of comfort, it is social values such as love, friendship, autonomy and self-esteem that are more important for lasting contentment, not material values, such as economic security and success.
In fact, psychologist Tim Kasser has drawn on decades of psychological research to show that ‘the more materialistic values are at the centre of our lives, the more our quality of life is diminished’.
And so we have what in marketing terms is called a ‘bait and switch’. Advertising lures us with images of our non-material desires and then tells us they can be fulfilled through material goods. We want love or romance. We get perfume. We want acceptance or status. We get branded clothing. We want autonomy or independence. We get a sports car.
As advertising does this, it draws us away from the things that really satisfy us, which are social values, and it gives us the things that can’t really satisfy us, material objects.
Car ads provide a good example of false promises. Again, we want independence or autonomy. We see an ad of a shiny new car on an open road, conveying a sense of freedom. We get the car… … but instead of the freedom of the open road, most of the time our experience is the opposite – we’re stuck in traffic.
Although a car might give us some autonomy and independence, it will never match up to the exaggerated images in the ad.
Another way advertising takes us further from true happiness is through commercialising social relationships.
This strategy is usually subtle, but a recent Coke campaign was shockingly explicit. In the lead-up to Christmas, the soft drink brand printed common first names on its labels, transforming a bottle of Coke into a bottle of ‘Chris’ or ‘Kylie’ or ‘Luke’. A television campaign then asked consumers to ‘Share a Coke’ with someone of that name, tapping into the affection we feel for close friends and family. The ads ended with the tagline ‘open happiness’.
Like so many ads, the underlying message of the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign was that material objects – in this case a fizzy brown liquid – could fulfil social desires.
At this point we should talk about how the industry responds to such criticism. One way is by assimilating the counterculture.
For example, in the 1960s a countercultural movement began to attack Western society’s emphasis on materialism, and advertising was portrayed as a profession for conmen and ‘waste makers’. The industry responded by using the language and symbols of the counterculture to sell products.
Coca-Cola tapped into the peace and love movement by launching an ad with people of different races standing on a hill singing the tune ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ while holding bottles of Coke.
Now, some people in the advertising industry argue that consumers are more marketing savvy these days, and they’re not so easily duped.
But it’s also possible to market to people sceptical of marketing. In the 1990s, Generation Xers were increasingly sceptical of overblown claims that a brand could deliver status or social acceptance. Sprite tapped into this anti-marketing sentiment with the tagline ‘Image is nothing. Thirst is everything’. The target audience loved it. According to a former president of The Coca-Cola Company, the brand grew at double-digit rates for the next three to five years.
So those are just some of the old arguments against advertising. Critics have pointed out that these arguments have their roots in the 1950s and they take a social or moral approach, making them vulnerable to accusations of subjectivity. But there is a more modern argument against advertising, and it’s based on evidence of ecological destruction, making it scientifically tested.
As you’ve probably heard before, things aren’t looking so good for planet Earth. By geological standards, humans have only been around for a short time, but we’ve already cultivated one quarter of the Earth’s land, dangerously exploited 80 per cent of world marine fish stocks, increased the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by over 30 per cent and multiplied the species extinction rate by as much as 1000 times. What’s more, the biggest and most damaging changes have occurred during the consumer boom of the last 60 years.
The root cause of ecological destruction from resource use isn’t overpopulation, but overconsumption. Overconsumption isn’t some vague term I made up – it refers to a level of consumption beyond what the Earth can sustainably replenish. For example, if everyone on the planet wanted to live the lifestyle of the average Australian we would need 3.7 Earths to supply resources.
Disproportionate resource use is also linked to climate change. The director of the Princeton Environmental Institute has calculated that the richest 500 million people in the world emit half the world’s fossil fuel carbon. Put another way, the world’s richest seven per cent of people are responsible for about 50 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions.
The same logic applies to species extinction from habitat loss. Those people who consume the most place the greatest demand on natural resources, and therefore cause the greatest destruction.
It’s advertising that helps to create desires to drive this overconsumption. Advertising does this through commercialising social rituals, encouraging impulse buying and a culture of bargain hunting, plus the previously mentioned strategy of linking social desires with material objects. And so, far from being just harmless fun, advertising plays a crucial role in driving environmental destruction.
I’m not the only one who has come to this conclusion. Sut Jhally, professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts, has written: ‘Simply stated, our survival as a species is dependent upon minimizing [sic] the threat from advertising and the commercial culture that has spawned it.’
At this point, you might ask: Can’t advertising be part of the solution? I would say yes, it can. What’s required is cultural change and, as experts in mass communication, advertising agencies could promote the transition to a genuinely sustainable culture.
Environmentalists have drawn parallels between the transition we need to make over the next few decades and the rapid mobilisation of effort in the US and UK during World War II, when propaganda was used to promote growing home vegetable gardens. Advertising agencies could do the same thing today, aiding the transition to a local food economy.
The Australian advertising industry has also run social campaigns in the past, such as the Grim Reaper AIDS ad, and the recent black balloons ad for energy conservation.
However, the reality is that most green marketing at the moment is greenwash. For his book Greenwash, Australian author Guy Pearse tested the carbon footprints of 150 big brands, including Walmart, Virgin, Coca Cola, Unilever and Levis. He had this to say about the results: ‘Not one of these companies can yet say the emissions caused by their products each year is falling.’
The major problem with greenwash is it pretends to promote sustainability while actually reinforcing consumerism. Although ‘green’ products may require fewer resources or use less energy per item, they are still pushed onto consumers with the same breathless urgency. We’re changing the products, but we’re not changing buying habits or the economic system. What this means is that we’re heading for a future where shoppers buy an unsustainable amount of sustainable products, and ecosystems collapse despite our good intentions.
But it’s worse than that because, as I explained before, advertising works to assimilate the counterculture, and that’s what’s happening with the modern environment movement.
Greenwash copies the language and symbols of sustainability – the colour green, words like ‘eco’, phrases like ‘a better world’, images of trees and leaves – but it uses them to promote more consumerism, and in the process the symbols lose their credibility. People stop trusting them. And without trustworthy symbols, the environment movement can’t communicate as effectively as before, so it loses momentum.
This means that not only is advertising part of the problem, but, through greenwash, it’s subtly undermining the solution.
So that’s the new and improved argument against advertising. To help it stick in your mind I’ve decided to come out of retirement and write a snappy slogan that sums up everything I’ve just said.
Advertising. Same old tricks. All new consequences.
This is the edited transcript of Greg Foyster’s Lunchbox/Soapbox address, Against Advertising, given at the Wheeler Centre last Thursday.
The Wheeler Centre Lunchbox/Soapbox addresses are hosted every Thursday at the Wheeler Centre, 12.45pm to 1.15pm. Admission is free, BYO lunch.
By Michael Green
Michael Green lifts the lid on the Victorian government’s ‘good news’ approach to climate change. ‘Gradual changes in temperature potentially enable industries to transition and develop,’ says the new Climate Adaptation Plan. But studies show that climate change comes in abrupt steps, not a gradual shift. And that spells disaster … which you’ll know if you look for the fine print in the appendix to the plan.
Here it is at last, the good news climate story we’ve been waiting for: the synthetic turf industry is about to boom – a happy consequence of our inability to grow grass.
So says the Victorian government’s Climate Adaptation Plan, released last month. Sweet reprieve! Providence still smiles upon the (artificial) garden state!
Chris Simpson, from TigerTurf in Campbellfield, confirms the speculation: yes, he anticipates bumper growth in a hotter, drier future. ‘I would expect the industry will more than double each ten years from here on,’ he says. In Victoria now, there are about 250 people working with synthetic grass at least one day per week, he estimates. Out of town, farmers could benefit too, the government says. Where it no longer rains, those lucky landowners can take advantage of the opportunity to ‘switch to different enterprises or production systems’. Drought and dust bowl? Bah! Salad days!
The adaptation plan is a long document. Prudently, the government emphasises the ‘new opportunities’ right up front. The risks? ‘Further details of the risks are provided in Appendix 1.’ Way back there, if you make it, you’ll find eight pages of frightening, cascading consequences: buckling train tracks, flooding of ports, algal blooms, water-borne illnesses, sewer failure, destruction of businesses’ assets, more pests and diseases in agriculture and fisheries, less farm output and income, pressure on ecosystems and threatened species, and more injuries, deaths and mental illness from bushfires, floods and heat waves. All health risks disproportionately afflict the vulnerable among us.
Never mind that. Our leaders will manifest a productive climate future by way of positive messaging: ‘In particular,’ the plan says, ‘gradual changes in temperature potentially enable industries to transition and develop’.
On 30 November last year, only weeks before the legislated deadline for the adaptation plan, Professor Roger Jones and his colleagues held a workshop at Victoria University, in Melbourne. It was called ‘Beyond the mean: valuing adaptation under rapid change’.
Jones is a climate scientist at the university – he used to work at CSIRO, and is a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report, due in October. His work challenges the idea that we face only gradual changes in temperature. Years ago, while studying the climate history of the crater lakes in Western Victoria, he found something puzzling. ‘The only way I could get the model to fit the history was to switch climate – to make the climate changes instantaneous. If I changed it gradually it wouldn’t work,’ he says.
He researched past climate data from elsewhere around the world, and found similar ‘abrupt changes’.
Then, during the worst of the recent drought, he began analysing temperature and rainfall across south-eastern Australia. After adjusting for natural variability, the temperature set showed a jump in 1997: ‘It took this step change,’ Jones explains. Sea-surface temperatures and ocean heat content, too, tracked ‘like a staircase’.
A paper he published last year shows that most of Australia’s warming is anthropogenic and occurred in two blips, one around the late 1960s to early 1970s, and the other around 1997 and 1998.
‘I’ve come to the conclusion that in climate modelling, smooth lines of best fit are an approximation,’ he says.
‘They’re a good way to describe how the climate will change over a century or so. If you’re interested in shorter time scales you need to look at the variation – and the variation is not random.’
Here’s an example: at Laverton, west of Melbourne, before 1997 there were an average of 8 days per year above 35 degrees. Since then, the average has been 12. ‘Fire danger in Victoria over the same period has gone up by about 30 to 40 per cent,’ Jones says.
The working paper for the ‘Beyond the mean’ workshop, co-written by Jones, directly contested the narrative of ‘gradualism’.
Step-changes, it concluded, ‘will produce clusters of extreme events… that are more frequent and larger than the statistics of gradual change would suggest’. In this scenario, the consequences and costs of climate change look very different: ‘extreme events can cause knock-on effects through several systems, leading to system failure and disaster.’
Given a jolting climate, adaptation is a matter of urgency, says Jones. ‘If the consequences are unknown, but you tell yourself change is gradual, then it’s okay – it makes it psychologically remote. Whereas, if it can change quickly and you need to respond, the threat is much closer.’ Most of the attendees were policy-makers, both state and federal. They discussed the other corollary of a step-changing climate: adaptation must be led by policy, not left to the market. Only policy can prepare for extremes, Jones says.
‘If those increases ratchet above our critical thresholds, things change very quickly. If you have a sudden shift in heat waves, with a more exposed or growing population, the number of heat stress cases can jump significantly.’
‘You find what we had in the summer of 2009 – our capacity to handle the sick or the dying gets stretched to the point where we’re putting bodies in freezers.’
In its final months in office, the Brumby government passed the Climate Change Act 2010. It set a target for the state to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2020 (from 2000 levels) and required government to take emissions and climate impacts into account when making various decisions. It also required a climate change adaptation plan be produced every four years. Before long, the new Liberal government ordered a review of the act; based on the recommendations; it scrapped the emissions target, but kept the adaptation plan.
After delaying as long as possible, the Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Ryan Smith, finally released the plan in mid-March. The headline announcement was a reframed agreement with the state’s 79 local councils, called the Victorian Adaptation and Sustainability Partnership. It carries the only new funding on offer: $6 million. Two days earlier, Finnish driver Kimi Raikkonen had crossed the line in the Melbourne Grand Prix, a big carbon-burnout subsidised by $57 million.
I spoke to Professor Barbara Norman, chair of urban and regional planning at University of Canberra, both before and after the plan came out. Beforehand, she explained that unless planning documents are tied to budget, nothing happens. Afterwards, she noted that this plan wasn’t tied to budget.
The $6 million? ‘It’s going to require a lot more money than that.’
Even so, Norman praises its regional approach, its delineation of the roles of different tiers of government and its recognition of adverse health impacts. But besides the lack of money, she says, there other gaps between the rubber and the road.
The biggest: there’s no obligation to consider the climate change impacts of planning decisions. ‘There are a number of acts listed where they must have regard to climate change,’ Norman explains, ‘but notably, the one missing is the Planning and Environment Act 1987.’
‘This plan should also bind state government on major infrastructure developments – they must be required to demonstrate the impact in terms of climate adaptation, energy efficiency and water-sensitive urban design,’ she says.
Many submissions to the review of the Climate Change Act argued the same thing: planning, infrastructure and transport decisions must be subject to climate considerations. But to no avail: the review noted that additional obligations ‘may impose further costs on decision makers and affected parties’. The next review will be held in 2015 – by which time billions of dollars may have been buried in the East-West Tunnel.
Smith, the environment minister, was not available to be interviewed for this article. His spokesperson said the planning system ‘already takes climate change into account in many ways’, such as zones and overlays.
But we already have evidence that the system isn’t doing enough. There’s an easy way to tell: the price of insurance has gone through the roof.
In February, the Age reported that a resident in South Caulfield had been denied insurance because of the risk of inundation and that some residents in Frankston had been asked to pay at least $5000 more for flood cover.
Throughout March and early April, the Municipal Association of Victoria has been consulting its regions: the cost of flood insurance has been a flashpoint in several meetings. ‘People are finding either they can’t get insurance or they’re facing massive premium increases,’ says Bill McArthur, the association’s president and a councillor from Golden Plains shire, north west of Geelong.
Karl Sullivan, the risk and disaster manager at the Insurance Council of Australia, agrees: ‘In some regions we’ve seen some classes of insurance go up by 30 per cent or more in a year.’ This issue – the availability and affordability of insurance under climate change – is being examined by a Senate inquiry into our preparedness for extreme weather. (It will report in June.)
But in its submission, the Insurance Council said the current price hikes aren’t yet due to changing climate extremes. Largely, they are due to bad planning: most of the properties flooded in Queensland and Victoria in 2011 were located in high-risk zones on flood maps.
To limit the financial risk of a big disaster, insurance companies buy their own insurance from huge global ‘re-insurers’. Until recently, those rates have been low. Not anymore, Sullivan says. ‘The rest of the world has woken up and said, “Australia has a systemic problem – they’re building more expensively in more hazardous locations in a more brittle way”.’
The Insurance Council argues for a national agreement on land use planning, together with better risk protection – levies or firebreaks, for example – and minimum durability standards for buildings.
Suncorp, the largest general insurance group in the country, was even more blunt: ‘As a basic concept, new homes and infrastructure should not be built in areas of high risk.’
‘For some reason,’ Sullivan says, ‘we lost our collective minds at some point, and started building these things in flood plains, on the ground.’
In other words, even now our planning system is allowing us to build the wrong homes in the wrong places. The extremes of climate change, abrupt and unexpected, only worsen our vulnerability.
Aside from the missing links to planning, infrastructure and budget, and beyond the distorted emphasis on the ‘opportunities’ of climate change, there’s another reason it’s hard to believe the adaptation plan will beget action.
In the coming months, the state government will make an announcement about a tender for new brown coal allocations in the Latrobe Valley. In December, then Minister for Energy and Resources, Michael O’Brien, said the state had one of ‘the world’s great brown coal deposits’ and that the government was ‘committed to maximising the opportunities’ to develop it.
Last year, the International Energy Agency said the world must leave two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground, if we want a 50-50 chance of keeping global warming to 2 degrees. Other analysts say four-fifths must go untouched.
Mitigating global warming and adapting to it are inseparable: if we don’t reduce emissions, the World Bank warned recently, ‘there is no certainty that adaptation… is possible’.
Yet the adaptation plan makes only one passing reference to cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Greenhouse gas reduction is ‘addressed primarily through the national carbon pricing mechanism’. That’s the same mechanism the federal Liberal party has promised to repeal, if it wins the election in September.
The thing about a step-change in climate is that we don’t know when it will shift. This year our record-breaking Angry Summer continued into mad March, in which Melbourne had nine days over 32 degrees. Then the old premier lost his job.
In Denis Napthine’s ministerial reshuffle, Nick Kotsiras took over the energy portfolio. The government has said that in deciding to allocate the brown coal, it ‘will be guided by the potential to secure long-term economic development, investment and employment benefits’.
Before he makes up his mind, the new minister would do well to refer to Appendix 1.
Spraying sulphur compounds into the upper atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet? Transforming the chemistry of the world’s oceans so they soak up more carbon? These ideas sound like science fiction, but technologies to ‘geoengineer’ the planet are being developed right here and right now.
In this edited version of last week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox address, Clive Hamilton argues that the potential risks of this meddling are enormous: disrupting the food chain, damaging the ozone layer, loss of monsoon rains in Asia – the list goes on.
By Clive Hamilton
Climate scientists have watched with mounting alarm as carbon dioxide concentrations have increased relentlessly. The anxiety has deepened each year as it has become clearer that the range of emissions paths mapped out by experts in the 1990s and early 2000s were unduly optimistic. The actual growth in emissions – boosted by explosive growth in China – has described a pathway that is worse than the worst-case scenario.
Alarm has spread to staid organisations like the International Energy Agency. In 2011 it declared: ‘On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.’ Late last year a report by the World Bank warned that ‘we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.’
It’s hard to communicate to the public what a world warmed by 4ºC will be like, or even that the IEA and the World Bank should be taken seriously. After all, for many people one unseasonable snowstorm is enough to nullify decades of painstaking scientific study. And psychologists have discovered that, after accounting for all other factors, when people are put in a room and asked about climate change they are significantly more likely to agree that global warming is ‘a proven fact’ if the thermostat is turned up.
So for at least a decade climate scientists have been disturbed by the widening gap between the actions demanded by the evidence and those being implemented or even considered by the major polluting nations. At the same time, their work began to focus on the dangers of feedback effects in the climate system, that is, processes that amplify or dampen the direct warming effect of rising greenhouse gases.
For example, as warming melts the Arctic ice cap, the exposed water is darker than the highly reflective ice it replaces and so absorbs more heat from the sun. Many in the expert community received a fright from the dramatic declines in Arctic summer sea ice in 2005 and especially 2007. And the melting of sea ice this past northern summer set new records.
The study of feedbacks has been closely related to another idea emerging in the scientific literature – that of tipping points. Small changes in one element of the climate system may initially have only small effects, but at some point a threshold may be crossed where the system, driven by amplifying feedbacks, flips into a new state.
Palaeoclimatologists have discovered many instances in the Earth’s geological record of the climate shifting abruptly from one state to another, within a few decades. The esteemed palaeoclimatologist Wally Broecker warned: ‘The palaeoclimate record shouts out to us that, far from being self-stabilizing, the Earth’s climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges.’
Against this background, climate scientists began to talk about possible responses to a climate emergency – such as a massive methane release with rapid melting of permafrost, the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, or rapid dieback of the Amazon forests.
Any of these could quickly shift the global climate into a new state, and there would be no way of recovering the situation. How, they asked, could we intervene to prevent these things happening? If Plan A, persuading the world to cut emissions, is failing, shouldn’t we have a Plan B? And so in the last few years, research into various schemes to engineer the climate has been accelerating rapidly.
Geoengineering may be defined as deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects. More than 40 schemes have been put forward, with some the subject of intensive research.
They are usually divided into two types: methods to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – such as by capturing it from the air, making biochar and adding lime to the oceans – and solar radiation management technologies aimed at increasing the Earth’s reflectivity. Methods include painting roofs white, putting mirrors in space and brightening marine clouds.
Let me describe very briefly the two leading methods – ocean iron fertilisation and sulphate aerosol spraying.
When we dig up and burn fossil carbon we make use of its trapped energy; but the carbon atoms do not disappear. So where do they go? First they go into the atmosphere. Some is then soaked up by vegetation. Some sooner or later ends up in the various layers of the oceans. The deep ocean has the capacity to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it would help if we could get more carbon down there and hope that it stays.
But how do we get carbon to the deep ocean? The answer lies in what is known as the biological pump. Tiny marine plants known as phytoplankton grow by combining carbon dioxide, various minerals and sunlight to multiply into blooms. On death, gravity causes the plankton to sink, taking its carbon to the deeps.
The effectiveness of the biological pump depends on the suitability of conditions for marine life, including the availability of micronutrients, especially iron. If a shortage of iron is limiting plankton growth in an area of ocean then perhaps the artificial addition of the missing ingredient can stimulate algal blooms.
Fertilising some areas of ocean with iron slurry does indeed induce algal blooms. But it turns out that much of the carbon fixed in the phytoplankton does not find its way to the ocean floor but circulates in the surface waters, feeding the food chain, before being emitted as carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.
And while iron fertilisation stimulates biological productivity in one area, nutrient stealing can see it fall in others. As one expert said: ‘you might make some of the ocean greener by iron enrichment, but you’re going to make a lot of the ocean bluer’.
It’s been estimated that a massive fertilisation effort over 100 years could absorb perhaps three per cent of cumulative emissions from burning fossil fuels over the same period. In the meantime, ocean acidification and temperatures would reach a level at which algal populations would be severely reduced. This is one reason why climate engineering without emission cuts would be disastrous.
The form of geoengineering most likely to be deployed is known as sulphate aerosol injection. The proposal is to spray sulphur dioxide or sulphuric acid into the upper atmosphere to form tiny particles that would reflect an extra one or two per cent of incoming solar radiation back into space, thereby cooling the planet.
The aim would be to mimic the effects of volcanoes. The particles spewed into the atmosphere by large eruptions have been known to cool the planet by a degree or more for a year or two, and to change the colour of the sky. In 1883, the spectacular sunsets in Oslo after the eruption of Mount Krakatoa inspired Edvard Munch to paint The Scream.
The most likely delivery method is a fleet of customised high-flying aircraft fitted with tanks and spraying equipment, although a hose suspended in the sky is also being investigated. In effect, humans would be installing a radiative shield between the Earth and the sun, one that could be adjusted by those who control it to regulate the temperature of the planet.
How effective would such a solar filter be in suppressing warming? All the models indicate that if we reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the planet, the Earth would indeed cool fairly quickly and evenly, although with less effect at the poles. The models also show that rainfall would be returned some way towards pre-warming patterns. Crucially, the solar shield would do nothing to offset the acidification of the oceans due to carbon emissions.
However, other atmospheric scientists argue that the complexity of the climate system means that it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions about the consequences of such a radical intervention in the Earth system. They point out, for example, that the chemistry of the atmosphere is complicated, so turning down the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth in a model can give little clue as to what would happen in the actual climate system.
One important question is how the extra sulphur compounds put into the stratosphere would interact with the ozone layer. The most comprehensive study concluded that injecting enough sulphur to suppress the warming associated with a doubling of carbon dioxide would indeed deplete ozone in polar regions, delaying the recovery of the Antarctic ozone hole by 30 to 70 years.
Other studies indicate that the Indian monsoon could be seriously disrupted, affecting food supplies for up to two billion people, although the disruption may be less than in a scenario of warming without the solar filter.
Even so, our understanding of what influences the monsoon is weak, our knowledge of how global warming would change the monsoon is weaker, and trying to estimate the combined influence of warming and solar radiation management is little more than educated guesswork. Who knows what would happen to rainfall patterns, but if catastrophe ensued after sulphate spraying at least we would know whom to blame. Or would we?
Here we get to one of the strongest objections to sulphate aerosol spraying. We cannot know how it would affect the global climate system through models or even by conducting experiments. Only by full-scale implementation could we get a clear idea of its impacts.
Even then we would need at least ten years of global climate data before we had enough information to separate out the effects of sulphate aerosol spraying from natural climate variability and, indeed, from the effects of human-induced climate change. The levels of omniscience and omnipotence required to make it work really would have us playing God.
To compound the risks, if after ten years, when we accumulated enough data to decide that our intervention was not a good idea it may be impossible to terminate the solar shield. Why should this be so?
For some time ecologists have known that the rate at which the globe warms is a greater threat to ecosystems than the amount of warming because a slower rate of warming gives plant and animal communities more time to adapt. It’s estimated that if warming occurs at a rate of 0.1ºC per decade, half of ecosystems have time to adapt. At a warming rate of 0.3ºC per decade only 30 per cent of ecosystems can adapt.
According to one study, if sulphate aerosol spraying began in 2020 and had to be stopped after 40 years, we would see a surge in average temperature by a scorching 1.3ºC in the first decade, falling back to 0.33ºC in the following decade.
Few ecosystems could survive the first decade of rapid heating after the solar shield had been turned off. So once deployed it is likely that we would become dependent on our solar filter, the more so if we failed to take the opportunity while it was in place to cut greenhouse gas emissions sharply. This is perhaps the solar filter’s most dangerous drawback.
A constituency advocating investment in a major research program has now emerged, and is gaining influence. At the centre of this network is a pair of North American scientists actively engaged in geoengineering research – David Keith, a Harvard physicist, and Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist based at Stanford University.
For some years they have been Bill Gates’ principal source of expert knowledge on climate change. Gates was persuaded to commit several million dollars to finance research into geoengineering. (Richard Branson is also promoting geoengineering as a response to climate change.)
Bill Gates is now the world’s leading financial supporter of geoengineering research. He is an investor in various geoengineering enterprises, including Silver Lining, a company pursuing marine cloud brightening methods. He is an investor in Carbon Engineering Ltd, a start-up company formed by David Keith to develop technology to capture carbon dioxide from ambient air on an industrial scale.
Gates is also an investor in a firm known as Intellectual Ventures, led by Nathan Myhrvold, formerly chief technology officer at Microsoft. The company has developed what it calls the ‘StratoShield’, a hose suspended by balloons in the sky to deliver sulphate aerosols. The device is marketed as ‘a practical, low-cost way to reverse catastrophic warming of the Arctic—or the entire planet’.
In recent years there has been a flurry of patents taken out over methods to engineer the climate. One of them is so broad that, if enforceable, it would place fertilisation of the oceans in the hands of one man. We are approaching a situation in which international efforts to protect humanity from climate catastrophe could depend on whether or not one company wants to sell its intellectual property.
Oil companies, anticipating a shift in the political landscape, are quietly backing research into geoengineering. Royal Dutch Shell is funding study of liming the seas. The chief scientist at the oil giant BP was the convener of an expert meeting that in 2009 produced an influential report on climate engineering as a response to climate emergencies.
Exxon Mobil, for years the principal funder of climate science disinformation, has inserted itself into climate engineering. The corporation’s point man on geoengineering is Haroon Kheshgi, who leads its Global Climate Change program. In 1995, he was the first to propose liming the oceans as a means of reducing acidification due to escalating atmospheric carbon. Through Kheshgi, Exxon has begun to influence various ‘independent’ reports into geoengineering, including one by NASA in 2007.
Burgeoning commercial engagement in geoengineering is creating a constituency with an interest in more research and, eventually, deployment. Such a lobby is naturally predisposed to argue that pursuing emission cuts is ‘unrealistic’ or ‘politically impossible’ and therefore geoengineering is the sensible alternative. This is the slippery slope concern about researching geoengineering. Already the chorus of demands for public funding is loud and governments are beginning to show interest. China recently decided to include geoengineering among its earth science research priorities, initiating a marked shift in the international climate change landscape.
It is fair to expect that if we reach the stage of deployment any move to terminate it (due, for example, to evidence of unexpected environmental damage or international conflict) would be fought by the new industry with complaints of asset devaluation and job losses.
Today it may seem absurd that factors like these should play a role in deciding the fate of the entire planet, but the history of environmental policy-making shows that these kinds of decisions are never based solely on scientific considerations.
All of which points to perhaps the greatest risk of research into geoengineering—it will erode the incentive to cut emissions. In a political and commercial environment where cutting emissions appears too hard, geoengineering arrives as the next great white hope.
Already in the United States, right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, which have for years promoted denial of climate science, are now advocating geoengineering as a substitute for cutting emissions. Economists like the authors of Superfreakonomics have joined in.
Which government would not be enticed by the technofix to beat all technofixes? Think about it: no need to take on powerful fossil fuel companies, no need to tax petrol and electricity, no need to ask consumers to change their lifestyles. And instead of global warming being proof of human failure, geoengineering could be the triumph of human ingenuity.
In short, while climate change threatens to destabilise the system, geoengineering promises to protect it. Yet beneath it all lies a gnawing question: What kind of beings have we become when we believe we can use technology to take control of the climate system of the planet as a whole and regulate it to suit our needs for thousands of years to come?
This is the edited text of a Lunchbox/Soapbox address given by Clive Hamilton at the Wheeler Centre last week.
Our Lunchbox/Soapbox events series runs every Thursday at 12.45pm – 1.15pm. BYO lunch, ideas provided.
When we think about cities of the future, we think about edgy architecture and technological breakthroughs. But what we should be thinking about is how to plan for a Melbourne that seems likely to be four degrees warmer by 2080. Unfortunately, Victoria – along with Brisbane and New South Wales – has weakened controls on planning for climate change, even in the face of recent fires and floods.
‘If we don’t prepare well, people will die,’ writes Michael Green in this sobering report. ‘At the moment, we are not planning well.’
By Michael Green
The sky was black on February 4, 2011, and by late afternoon, Melbourne was teeming with rain. Over the clatter of the storm, John Richardson noticed the wail of car alarms and sirens.
Richardson – who leads Red Cross’s disaster preparedness program – had only just returned from Brisbane, where he’d been doing recovery work in the aftermath of the devastating floods. He had returned to his home in Elwood so he could drop off his daughters that morning, the first day of school.
At 7.30 pm, Richardson and his family walked into their street, which runs parallel to the Elwood Canal, and saw water rising toward them, up the road. They learned from a neighbour that high tide was due at 2 am, and that more thunderstorms were predicted before then.
They decided to evacuate. Richardson asked his daughters what they wanted to take: his older daughter chose a blanket she’d had since she was a baby, the younger one picked her skateboard and a giant teddy bear. As they were leaving, she burst into tears and asked, ‘Are we going to see our house again?’
Forget driverless electric vehicles, forget telecommuting from arty cafes, forget idyllic renderings by landscape architects. Forget vertical gardens.
In 2080, Melbourne’s future is in Leeton, western New South Wales.
Leeton is 550 kilometres west of Sydney, and the climate there is hot and dry – it’s about four degrees hotter than Melbourne on average, and it receives a third less rain.
This is CSIRO’s ‘analogue township model’: a way for people to understand immediately how our climate could change. But the analogy only goes so far. Lower rainfall and hotter days are just the unpleasant backdrops for the biggest risks we face: droughts, heat waves and bushfires; floods, storm surges and rising tides.
Last December, the state Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, Professor Kate Auty, issued her Climate Change Foundation Paper, in preparation for the State of the Environment Report, to be released this year.
Here are a few points: global emissions are tracking higher than the worst-case scenario in the last IPCC report; each decade since the 1950s has been warmer than the last; and disaster relief and recovery cost Victorians nearly five times as much between 2009 and 2012 than it did a decade earlier.
‘In Australia we are vulnerable,’ Auty concluded. ‘In Victoria our seaboard, our biodiversity, our infrastructure are all at risk. Native species and agricultural production are both exposed. The risk of extreme events is elevated.’
‘Impacts cascade and compound … To read them is to be deeply concerned.’
An intense storm can cut off communications, release sewage, and damage roads and houses. And in turn, it can send businesses broke, and render people sick and stuck at home. During heat waves, we can lose power – and therefore, air conditioning, refrigeration and phones – and that causes food spoilage, heat stroke and premature deaths.
The paper notes that if ‘the Eureka Tower in Melbourne lasts as long as the Royal Exhibition Building (1880) has already, it will have to deal with the climate of the year 2144’.
Planning for a city’s future involves many interconnected things: our food, water, power, waste and transport, our offices, homes, parks and gardens. Most broadly, it considers health and equity – the distribution of our ghettos and our Grollos.
It is not possible anymore to consider these things – to consider the present or future – without considering climate change. If we don’t prepare well, people will die. At the moment, we are not preparing well.
The Victorian government last year scrapped a requirement to plan for 0.8 metres sea level rise by the end of the century (except for new ‘greenfields’ developments). The Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy, described his measure as ‘based on common sense’.
The previous government’s ‘extreme controls’ had ‘locked many towns out of being able to grow sensibly,’ he said.
Professor Barbara Norman, chair of urban and regional planning at University of Canberra, says all three eastern states have weakened their controls on planning for climate change.
‘If you have flexibility in policy and flexibility in process then you really don’t have planning at all,’ she says. ‘In the context of climate change, it means you open the door too widely for development on land that could be subject to environmental risks: to coastal inundation, extreme fire risk and floods.’
One of the biggest risks, Norman says, is a ‘coincidence of events’. In this year’s Brisbane flood, rising rivers combined with a king tide to create a disastrous inundation.
‘We are not managing the impacts of current weather now, let alone being prepared for what climate change might bring,’ she says.
‘We need better discussions between scientists, planners and the emergency services to analyse those scenarios. What could be the consequences? What does that mean for planning today, and the next five years?’
Within the next two weeks, the Victorian government will table its climate adaptation plan in parliament. If its update on climate science – released in March 2012 – is any guide, we shouldn’t expect much. That document devoted only two-and-a-half pages to climate modelling and to the state’s future climate, and drew largely on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s now outdated 2007 report.
A more up-to-date appraisal would have looked like the World Bank’s report from late last year, called Turn down the heat, which combined a review of recent climate science with analysis of the likely risks and impacts.
It stated that even if all nations fulfil their pledges to reduce emissions, we’re still on track for 3.5 to 4˚C warming by the end of the century. ‘The longer those pledges go unmet, the more likely a 4˚C world becomes’, it said.
And exactly what does a 4˚C world mean? ‘Extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.’ All of which adds up to this: ‘there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4˚C world is possible’.
For citizens and governments alike, mitigating global warming – reducing carbon dioxide emissions – is inseparable from adaptation, because adaptation alone is not feasible. ‘The focus absolutely has to be on mitigation,’ Norman says, ‘because we are not going to be able to survive in a four-degree world, so far as I can tell’.
And yet, Minister Guy’s 111-page discussion paper Melbourne – let’s talk about the future includes the word ‘climate’ only four times. It refers vaguely to ‘a changing climate’, but not to climate change. This document will feed into the new metropolitan planning strategy.
‘In Victoria, climate change is missing in action,’ Norman says. ‘Whatever your views are, the solution is not to sweep it under the carpet. We have to deal with it, and we have to plan for it.’
Good planning, she adds, requires transparency and accountability, but also, a link to budgets. Given the seriousness of the issue – one where many lives are at stake, here and now – a good adaptation plan will include specific measures, costings and timelines. It will set about strengthening natural barriers, investing intelligently in engineered systems, buying back the land most at risk, and educating citizens to deal with some risks themselves.
It will focus on measures that mitigate climate change while also adapting: low-energy retrofits for low-income households; expanded public transport for the outer suburbs; more shade and open spaces to reduce the heat trapped in our city.
It will steer away from maladaptations, such as desalination plants and the spread of air conditioning, which give temporary comfort at the cost of future pain. And it will do these things immediately.
If only we could rely on the Minister’s common sense.
On the night of February 4, 2011, the forecast second wave of thunderstorms passed by Melbourne. The floodwaters receded before they reached the Richardsons’ home. While thousands of other residents weren’t so lucky, the full coincidence of events, as Norman puts it, did not coincide – this time.
Even so, the storm resulted in insurance claims of $384 million across the city. This year, after another summer of flooding and extreme weather, insurers have hiked their Australian premiums, driven by higher costs for reinsurance. Last week, the Age reported ‘some residents of Frankston, bordering Carrum Swamp to the east, have been asked to pay at least $5000 more for flood coverage’.
Elwood was built on the Southern Swamp. The construction of the canal began in 1889, but before long, the developers’ dreams of a Venetian waterway had been replaced by a muddy, smelly ‘plague canal’.
If the tide is coming in, a rush of water has no place to go. The land is low-lying – vulnerable to sea-level rise, storm surges and flash flooding.
It is also vulnerable to infill development and poor planning. ‘In the past when it has flooded, the catchment has been fairly permeable,’ Richardson says. ‘Now as more and more houses are bowled over and flats and apartments put on them, that is decreasing the permeability. And that only increases the potential for flooding.’
On the night of the floods, once his wife and daughters had evacuated, Richardson went out into the street. He checked on his neighbour Pat, who is in her eighties. ‘It’s a reasonably tight-knit community – we run street parties and stuff like that – which is really good because we knew who was here and who might need some help,’ he says.
The next day, he went door-to-door and handed out information on flood recovery. A few weeks later, he and his neighbours held a barbecue for people from surrounding streets. In the months that followed, residents established the Elwood Floods Action Group. The members meet once a month at the St Kilda RSL. They held a large community forum and attend local fetes. The group’s website includes local history and safety information, as well as a compilation of citizens’ suggestions for flood mitigation. There is a map with projections of the flooding risk associated with sea level rise and storm surges.
If our governments were to take climate adaptation seriously, this is the kind of neighbourhood they would be encouraging. American sociologist Eric Klinenberg studied the impacts of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago – the natural disaster that has killed the most people in the country’s history. In a recent article for the New Yorker, he described Englewood and Auburn Gresham, adjacent suburbs on the ‘hyper-segregated South Side of Chicago’. Both had similar proportions of elderly residents and high rates of poverty, crime and unemployment. But during the heat wave Englewood had one of the highest death rates, and Auburn Gresham, one of the lowest.
Auburn Gresham, it turned out, was the kind of place where ‘residents walked to diners and grocery stores. They knew their neighbours. They participated in block clubs and church groups.’ As the heat wore on, people knocked on each other’s doors. In Englewood, older people were apprehensive about leaving home.
‘During the severe heat waves that are likely to hit Chicago and other cities in the near future,’ Klinenberg said, ‘living in a neighbourhood like Auburn Gresham is the rough equivalent of having a working air-conditioner in every room.’
Richardson says many Elwood locals have been calling for new infrastructure investment, to cope with more intense deluges. ‘That’s all well and good for the long term. But what happens if it floods again tomorrow?’
We are already experiencing weather extremes more often, and on a warming planet, they will only get worse. Left alone, this is the future of Melbourne. If our urban planning system does anything at all, it should be doing something about this.
‘We’re looking at a completely new climate paradigm,’ Richardson says. ‘We used to seriously flood here once every 25 years. If that’s changing, what does that mean for people?’
This is the last in a three-part series of articles by Michael Green, exploring Ideas for Melbourne in three hot-button areas: homelessness, racism, and this week, planning for the city of the future.
Michael Green is a freelance journalist who writes about environmental, social and community issues. He has been published in the Big Issue, Meanjin and Overland. Michael also has a weekly spot in the Age, where he writes on sustainable living.
We bring you our favourite findings from around the internet this week.
It was the two-hundredth birthday of Pride and Prejudice this week – and the New Yorker and the Guardian were among those who celebrated with retrospective appreciations of Jane Austen’s much-loved (and lauded) first novel.
Our favourite, though, is still Helen Garner’s earthy, witty commentary on reading Pride and Prejudice on a hot summer’s day (between cool alcoholic drinks) – told with style and relish. (From the Age a few weekends ago.)
God bless Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, and the current of deep, warm, erotic attraction that flows between them. And long live the Lydias of this world, the slack molls who provide the grit in the engine of the marriage plot.
Chinese millionaire Chen Guangbio is selling cans of fresh air to make a point about the toxic smog that is routinely choking North China. ‘If we don’t start caring for the environment then after 20 or 30 years our children and grandchildren might be wearing gas masks and carry oxygen tanks,’ he said. Already, manufacturers can’t keep up with the demand for air purifying machines and pollution masks.
(Not that Chen is the first to think of it – remember ‘Perri-Air’ in Mel Brooks' sci-fi spoof Spaceballs?)
Thanks to Bookslut, we’ve just stumbled on this video of comedian Louis C.K. talking about censorship and Huckleberry Finn. (In 2011, a publisher removed the ‘n’ word from Mark Twain’s classic.) Louis talks about the role of that word in the book, and the way that Twain portrayed racism in order to criticise it. Of course, he also says he didn’t want to read the book to his young daughters, because he didn’t want to be reading them the ‘n’ word over and over again …
There’s a new Australian literary publication in town – and it’s pretty impressive so far. The Sydney Review of Books is edited by respected critic James Ley, and board members include David Malouf, Kerryn Goldsworthy and Gail Jones.
Its first issue includes a fascinating essay on the question of book reviewing, the ‘epidemic of niceness’ especially prevalent in the online world, and the way thin criticism ‘turns reviewing into infomercial, allows established writers merely to churn out material, reinforces industry nepotism, and denies new authors the reception they need to flourish’. Ben Etherington sets the scene, then samples local reviews of Anna Funder’s All That I Am as a case study to illustrate his point.
In the UK, GPs will prescribe self-help books, to be borrowed from local libraries, to patients with ‘mild to moderate’ mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression and panic attacks. The project has been developed over the past year by the Reading Agency charity, whose chief executive says, ‘There is a growing evidence base that shows that self-help reading can help people with certain mental health conditions to get better.’
Tim Flannery spoke to a passionate crowd at the Wheeler Centre last night about the crisis in biodiversity. He was urgent about the need for immediate, informed and ‘businesslike’ action on the issue of halting animal extinctions.
In his new Quarterly Essay, After the Future, he shows how Australia is on the brink of a new wave of extinctions, which threatens to leave our native parks as ‘marsupial ghost towns’. He looks at why species are becoming extinct despite the tens of millions of dollars being spent to protect nature – and what more can be done.
Tim was in conversation with Jane Rawson, section editor for Environment & Energy at The Conversation.
‘If you go back 60 years, there was no national park system,’ said Flannery. ‘People didn’t care about biodiversity.’
He was positive about the rise of various social groups who want to do hands-on work with the environment, which he said has ‘swept Australia’. He mentioned groups like neighbourhood creek associations, or groups devoted to protecting particular local animals.
‘That’s foreshadowed what the next step needs to be.’
Flannery said that what we’re doing now to protect biodiversity is not working; we need to change our approach. ‘National parks cover 13% of the country. We’ve had native species legislation in place for over 20 years.’
‘And yet only one vertebrate species has been taken off the endangered species register because its numbers have increased – and that’s the saltwater crocodile.’ That has happened because hunting of the crocodiles for their skin has been banned.
There are 72 introduced vertebrate animals in Australia – from foxes to cane toads.
Northern Australia has retained its biodiversity for longer, partly because it’s a more hostile environment for introduced animals like foxes and partly because there’s more Aboriginal land management.
The second wave of extinction started in 2009.
‘The creation of native parks in this country is the greatest achievement of the past half-century, but it’s not enough,’ said Flannery. ‘Management of those parks needs to happen.’
One thing that’s ‘gone terribly wrong’, he said, is the mistaken belief that if we preserve communities, we preserve biodiversity.
‘It’s about good science driving good policy.’
Flannery talked in detail about the importance of reintroducing the Aboriginal fire regimes that had been discontinued, to help restore biodiversity. This land management was crucial in maintaining habitats for various species, he said.
He cited the example of the endangered Gouldian finch in the Kimberly region. They found the females were unbelievably stressed during breeding season: they were having to fly too far to find seed, because of the altered fire regime.
Aboriginal people were hired to bring back the fire regime as a result.
‘Monitoring and focusing on species is the way to go,’ said Flannery. ‘Then you can report on outcomes.’
Why should people put biodiversity on the national agenda? Why should we care about it?
When asked that question, Flannery said that he asks people: Are you opposed to torture? They inevitably say yes. Why are you opposed to torture when it takes place in distant places, done to people you will never meet or have any contact with? He then asks.
The response will be something like: ‘Because it degrades all of us to let it go on. It’s an affront to all of us.’
‘It’s the same with species,’ believes Flannery. If we can’t hand them on now to following generations, when we’re the richest nation on earth, ‘there’s something wrong with our moral code’.
‘We need to treat this in a businesslike manner,’ he said. There’s a ‘very destructive debate’ on the right side of politics, where libertarians say that anything environmental is toxic. But traditionally, the right have a good record in acting on conservation.
‘We need results. We need business people.’
He was scathing about the actions (or inaction) or government in this area. He cited the fishing lobby as just one example.
The population of flathead in Port Phillip Bay has declined 97% in the last decade. Fishing communities are fighting the expansion of marine reserves, though this would ultimately lead to an increase in numbers – and a healthier industry for them.
‘It’s a destructive cycle. People need a dose of reality. Governments need to act.’
‘Pandering to special interest groups is not, in my view, what governments should be doing.’
Flannery said that while there is a role in the public service for monitoring outcomes, governments are no longer the place for monitoring biodiversity – due to the ‘gutting of expertise’ within them and the rise of a risk-averse bureaucracy.
‘There is a role for not-for-profits.’
Flannery’s solution? Set up an independent federal authority that would take taxpayer money and distribute it to not-for-profits that are best equipped to monitor biodiversity.
‘For $40 million a year, we could protect biodiversity in the Kimberley. It’s peanuts.’
He criticised the current government funding priorities, saying the search for the Gippsland panther ‘needs to up there with Bigfoot and the Yeti in terms of creatures we need to look for’.
In the 1950s, the government took a series of photographs of central Australia, around the time that the British came to test rockets in the area.
When you look at those photographs, Flannery said, you can see the ‘marvellous mosaic’ created by firestick farming.
‘The Aboriginal people who did that moved out of the desert in the 70s and 80s to live in settlements.’
Those people were familiar with all sorts of animals thought to be extinct; in fact, they ate them on a regular basis. Scientists were very excited to hear that, but when they went back to that country to look for those animals, they had gone.
The fire pattern broke down after the Aboriginal people left that country, leaving the vegetation to grow thick – leaving it vulnerable to ‘fires that could burn down three states’, which left the country looking like ‘the surface of the moon’.
‘Aboriginal firestick management had enabled an environment where animals could survive.’
‘Among Aboriginal people I spoke to, there’s a sense of guilt that they’ve allowed these things to happen,’ said Flannery. ‘Though it’s not their fault.’
In Kangaroo Island in South Australia, they’ve reintroduced firestick management that’s allowed a range of plants to grow back, said Flannery. ‘It is really essential.’
‘To do that, we need decent science, funding and management.’
He said that bringing back firestick management involves working with Aboriginal communities, retrieving knowledge and creating jobs. ‘It’s a genuine partnership.’
Flannery said there are other solutions to biodiversity we’re not pursuing, and should be. ‘Why aren’t we reintroducing the Tasmanian Devil to national parks on the mainland? Fifty thousand years ago, it was all over Victoria. It could play a role in checking foxes and cats.’
‘Why not reintroduce the komodo dragon?’
‘They’re scary,’ quipped Jane Rawson.
‘Rampant Queensland politicans are more scary than the komodo dragon,’ said Flannery.
Becoming serious, he said we need to think about reintroducing native apex predators despite them possibly being dangerous. We’ve learned to live with saltwater crocodiles and dingoes, he said – though we’ve learned that dingoes ‘can kill children and even teenagers’.
We expect poor people in villages in Bangladesh to live with tigers, because we believe there should be tigers in the world, he pointed out.
Jane Rawson asked whether the expansion of Australian cities poses a threat to biodiversity.
‘Cities in Australia are one of the most interesting environments of all,’ said Flannery. ‘When I grew up in Melbourne, you didn’t see native birds at all.’ Now there are ibises in Sydney and owls in St Kilda.
‘I’ve seen a brushtail possum eating souvlaki on a bin. Cities can be great environments for biodiversity.’
There’s not necessarily a conflict between biodiversity and the growing human population, he said. ‘It doesn’t cost a fortune to fix. We just need policies in place to manage it.’
‘We should have a national policy that no species should go extinct. That’s not too difficult or expensive to do.’
‘It’s not a resources issue. It’s about policy and process and will.’
The Dolly Parton show is in town and so it’s a good occasion to pay tribute to the veteran country singer’s work to promote literacy among poor kids. Since 1996, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library USA has mailed every child under five in participating counties a book every month until their fifth birthday.
Should YouTube have a literature channel? It’s a question raised by the blog The Fiction Circus (brought to our attention by Media Bistro). Needless to say, we endorse the campaign wholeheartedly so that videos such as this one may find their true home. But then again, we would say that, what with our own YouTube channel and all.
One of our favourite collective nouns is ‘murmuration’, in reference to groups of starlings. Murmurations used to be a more common and more spectacular sight in Europe, but starling numbers have dropped some 70% since 1970. It refers to the sound made by the great clouds of starlings that flock together on late wintry afternoons in northern Europe. We found this YouTube video of murmurating starlings hypnotic for all kinds of reasons. It’s a promotional video for a book on economics, although you wouldn’t know it from the footage, which inspires in the narrator all kinds of grandiloquent philosophising. Do murmurations of starlings have something to teach us about the future of humanity? We’ll reserve our judgment on that, but enjoy the spectacle. (More murmuration.)
Historian Bill Gammage’s recent Lunchbox/Soapbox event was subtitled ‘How Aborigines made Australia’. In the course of his address, Gammage gave the audience a bird’s eye overview of what central Melbourne would have looked like when Batman and co first arrived in 1835, using eyewitness accounts of the time.
North of the Yarra, the land was ‘park-like’, ‘open grassy forest, rising into low hills’. But it was not all the same. Imagine a line from the bottom of Swanston Street to Flagstaff Hill. Southwest, hill and valley were grassy with scattered trees. Northeast was eucalypt woodland, open but with dense forest patches. One patch east of Swanston Street and south of Bourke Street perhaps shielded a dance ground, while at Fitzroy and Treasury Gardens open forest suddenly gave way to ‘dense gum forest’, mostly manna gum. Hilltops varied. Flagstaff Hill was ‘covered with a beautiful grassy surface … [It] had the appearance of a large lawn’. Batman’s Hill (Southern Cross Station) was grassy but topped by sheoaks.
A creek down Elizabeth Street separated two hills, ‘rising and picturesque eminences … on the verge of a beautiful park’, one cresting east at Spring Street, the other west at William Street, each burnt differently. ‘The Eastern Hill was a gum and wattle tree forest, and the Western Hill was so clothed with sheoaks as to give it the appearance of a primeval park’. Both were ‘lightly wooded’, which means regular fire, the west topped with mushrooms, the east with a grass clearing between the Museum and Parliament House. Along the river stood tea-tree patches, as you’d expect of a shallow stream choked with debris and flooding easily, but the patches alternated with grass, which you wouldn’t expect.
All this, Gammage argued, was to promote grass and suppress tea-tree to encourage animals such as kangaroos to feed, and all of it was a landscape managed by just a few families. Gammage’s book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, systematically outlines for the first time how the Australia European settlers found from 1788 on was not a wilderness but in fact a continental-sized garden carefully tended by Aboriginal Australians in a mosaic pattern to maximise its natural abundance.
The passing of a raft of bills associated with the carbon tax through the House of Representatives this week earned Prime Minister Julia Gillard a place in the Atlantic magazine’s list of the top 50 Brave Thinkers of 2011. The prime minister rubs shoulders alongside Barack Obama, recently deceased Apple demigod Steve Jobs and filmmaker Terence Malick for, in the words of the US magazine, “betting her job on a plan to tax greenhouse-gas emissions”. A profile of the PM on the magazine’s website adds that “80 percent of the country’s electricity comes from coal, helping to make Australia the worst per capita carbon polluter among wealthy nations. Australia is also the world’s leading coal exporter, and vocal factions of the powerful mining industry say the tax scheme will destroy jobs and sink the economy. Such fears help explain the prime minister’s horrendous job-approval numbers.”
Also on the list is Richard Muller, a prominent physicist who was considered a climate change sceptic determined to debunk the scientific consensus on climate change. Muller led a team of researchers – called the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST) – on a thorough review of the science behind anthropogenic climate change… only to testify before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology that the science was credible.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has pledged to scrap the tax if and when he is elected. Layer and climate change policy analyst Fergus Green argues on Crikey that this pledge might be made than kept.
Meanwhile, the New York Review of Books has published a review by John Terborgh of Tim Flannery’s book Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet that puts the global environmental situation in stark terms. Titled Çan Our Species Escape Destruction?‘, Terborgh writes, “Estimates of how bad the situation is, or course, differ, but various assessments agree that the global economy is consuming resources at a rate equivalent to 1.3 to 1.5 times the earth’s capacity to supply them sustainably.”
Today is PARKing Day, where across the world devoted park enthusiasts wake before dawn and go about taking the ‘car’ out of ‘carpark’ by transforming a carpark space into a mini-park. PARK(ing) Day is an annual, worldwide event that invites citizens everywhere to transform metered parking spots into temporary parks for the public good. It was born in San Francisco in 2005 and has since grown into a global urban beautification movement. Its manifesto is subtitled, ‘User-generated urbanism and temporary tactics for improving the public realm’.
In Melbourne, PARKing Day volunteers were out at 7am working on a metered parking space on Little Lonsdale, between Russell and Exhibition (closer to Exhibition). The little plot was decked out with chairs, pot plants, a mini picket fence, Scrabble, a beach brolly, hula hoops, picnic lunch and nice company. The space was metered until lunchtime.
The carbon tax debate is amping up ahead of Julia Gillard’s announcement of the long-awaited carbon tax specifics, to be broadcast nationally on Sunday night. Gillard has said that almost 70% of households will be compensated.
The government’s chief economic adviser, treasury secretary Dr Martin Parkinson (pictured), is on the record as a supporter of a carbon tax. He succeeded Ken Henry in the role only a few weeks ago after heading the government’s Department of Climate Change. In March, he weighed into the debate on a carbon tax, speaking before a Senate committee earlier this year, when he voiced his doubts that the Coalition’s direct action policies could achieve the target of a 5% cut of 2000-level carbon emissions by 2020.
Speaking at an emissions trading panel during the Deakin Lectures last year, Dr Parkinson said, “We conceptually have a choice between a carbon price and regulation.” (View the video here.) To meet our bipartisan target, said Parkinson, we need to take into account that, at current rates, our carbon emissions in 2020 will be 121% of 2000 levels, so in fact what’s required is not a 5% cut but a cut of 26%.
“Any effort to achieve the targets that we have adopted bipartisanly [sic] in Australia that relies on regulation essentially relies on bureaucratic prescience… Now that by itself is so patently unrealistic it should give us all cause for pause when we come to think about regulation. The second thing that’s important in thinking about regulation is just the sheer magnitude of the abatement task in front of us.”
The choice, in the Treasury chief’s view, is a no-brainer. “These are incredibly ambitious targets… So the bottom line for us is, can we meet these bipartisan targets without a carbon price? In my mind, there is absolutely no chance we can do so.” Maybe so, but some commentators, such as Bernard Keane writing in Crikey, wonder whether the proposed tax will achieve any emissions cut at all, questioning the wisdom of so many handouts to households and business.
Australia has a proud tradition of gardening, and of gardening literature. In this video, ABC Radio National’s Ramona Koval leads a discussion on the reading habits of three prominent gardeners.
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