The long green march

 

Given the geopolitical realities facing Australia today, what would a good Green government look like? What would any good government look like?

One way to answer that question is to confront the handful of major issues that will dominate government agenda over the next few decades.

Those challenges have been spelt out in detail by many authors, some focused more on one problem than the others. One general and generally sound analysis is Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded.

The combined challenges of population pressure, energy decent, international greed and climate change will make every government of the twenty second century fundamentally Green, in exactly the way that every democratic government in the world is now liberal humanist.

The challenge for the coming century is to meet these challenges and make that transition in a robust and intelligent manner that combines the real-world-politic of planet earth with the principles just outlined.

Population

The most optimistic estimates of the population experts who helped governments agree on the Millennium Goals put the world’s population at a peak of 9 billion by 2050. The intention of the Millennium Goals is to provide sufficient education, economic and political freedom to women to bring down birth-rates so that population falls from that almost sustainable peak. We are two thirds through the official timetable for those goals and unlikely to hit our targets.

Unfortunately, the likely constraints on population are likely to be disastrous disruption due to the other challenges dealt with below. The displacement of billions of people due to climate chaos and the resulting food shortages will require a radical rethink of the way we employ our population and manage immigration.

A national transport infrastructure and a sustainable development plan for the north and west coast of the continent that engages Australia with the world on its doorstep is a sensible and pragmatic preparation for this geopolitical reality. If begun now, it can be developed in the most ecologically way possible. The longer we leave it, the more urgent the response will be and the more expensive the cost of Greening that response. To do nothing and pretend that the best use of the Australian continent is as a wilderness preserve is not only unrealistic, it is dishonest. The feral animals are currently changing the landscape in ways that are different to and not necessarily more sustainable than Aboriginal land management practices that tens of thousands of years old.

Our active participation in the global challenge of managing population is critical in a stable future for the Australian continent and would be a welcome contribution to a global problem that is beset by vested, and desperate, interests.

Energy descent

In a world that crowded, the reality is that scarce resources will be hard fought over:

  • The reality of energy extraction is that coal is the remaining abundant fossil fuel and the end game over oil and gas is already underway;
  • the net energy profit of shale and coal seam gas if vastly inferior to that of sweet crude;
  • renewables are the only long term future and coal, like it or not, is the transition fuel.

Future governments are going to have to trade in energy in a big way.

For the Greens movement, coal is the elephant in the room. On one hand it is a no brainer that burning pure carbon and combining it with oxygen leads directly to a more chaotic climate. On the other, it is so closely tied to our economic well being that its replacement with renewable energy has to be very carefully managed to maximise the chance of success.

The implementation of solar thermal plants as not just energy sources for electricity generation but other chemical processing, will not only reduce the amount of coal required for such processes, but also facilitate the conversion of coal into cleaner, albeit carbon intensive fuels.

Asset protection

The only escape from the commodity boom and bust cycle and the extractive approach to economic growth which drives it is to innovate and add value to the resources we currently extract. Some of that innovation will be put to better utilising the resources we continue to extract, some of it will go to creating non-extractive alternatives to ensure a sustainable, long-term basis for civilisation.

The only way for governments to ensure that public assets such as air, water, land, energy, transport and communications infrastructure is to say no to market forces when they attempt to wrest them away from the nation itself.

China only became the economic powerhouse it is today, by closing its doors to foreign trade from 1949 until 1979 while it rebuilt its internal industrial and economic apparatus. This is a pragmatic rather than an ideological observation.

Even the most strident free trade advocates have kept critical aspects of their infrastructure under close protection. Witness the USA policy on shipping between US ports, while aggressively pursuing free trade agreements that usurp national sovereignty abroad.

One good example of the Australian government sticking to its guns has been the protection of the pharmaceutical benefits scheme despite frenzied lobbying at the highest levels by international pharmaceuticals.

This is not to say that protectionism is Green. Simply that any wise government will embrace policies that support a diversification of the national economy, support for innovation and an upskilling of the workforce that makes this possible. The Taiwanese government lends money to industries interest and tax free to support investment in infrastructure that will build the national economy. That is a positive and readily saleable policy that builds an economic future and can be applied using Green principles. Backing renewable energy as an alternative to extractive industries is one such application. Investment in Aquaponics and other intense farming approaches that allow populations to feed themselves sustainably is another. Supporting the development of an infrastructure that manages global population pressures realistically is another.

All those examples can be applied without straying into the fraught arguments about protecting iconic industries from international competition. Perhaps the definition of iconic needs to place an emphasis on future vision rather than past glory.

Climate Chaos

In a world so addicted to economic growth and the cheap energy that makes it possible, it is inconceivable that we are going to win the battle to avoid dramatic climate chaos. All governments, therefore, will battle with major disruptions to economic water and food supply.

The challenges of water use are already well defined. The debate currently divides water between irrigation and the environment or between agriculture and mining. The debate needs to grow up and move away from those uses that are sustainable to those that cause degradation of the resource itself and the environment that supports us all.

The recognition that wilderness cannot be created simply by locking up a resource and that we are going to have to find managed solutions goes a long way to resolving the most fundamental of the disputes between Greens and Reds.

Four pillars to build on

The notion of Green development or sustainable infrastructure breaks some of the hard and fast rules about what the Greens are. These stereo types underpin the opposition mantra against Extreme Greens, much of the media presentation of the Greens and some important aspects of The Greens internal thinking.

A political wing of the Greens movement that announced plans for sustainable cities in the north and west, linked by a vast public transport network and an industry subsidy scheme that would see us reinvest, sustainably, in steel production, manufacturing, food processing and fundamental research would put some meat on the currently skeletal though sound Greens economic policy.

Part of the challenge is to spell out both the Malthusian limits that constrain our possible responses and the Solovian innovations that may give us room for optimism. It is also important to consider the transition strategies from the present reality to a sustainable green future.

The crafting of this plan to meet the fourfold challenge of overpopulation, energy descent, climate chaos and international greed would see the vast majority of the Australian people come naturally to recognise the Greens as the logical government for the twenty first century.

Those of us who have dedicated ourselves to realising a sustainable future need to get off our butts and start building. That is the only way to garner respect and support.

 

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