Saturday, November 15, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - why environmentalists (and other enthusiasts) are sometimes bad for the planet

I am, in my own way, an environmentalist and have been so for many years. It's just that my views, the questions I ask, the things I want to do or see done, do not fit with the modern definition of "environmentalist". Perhaps it's just that I am not an "ist"!

I have been musing on this one because it somehow links together three apparently un-related issues.

The first is our habit of thinking in absolutes, black and whites. I am told that in western countries at least we have just been through, maybe are still in, what is called a post-modern age. I have never been sure that I properly understand just what post-modernism is. As best I can work out, it seems to imply that the certainties in values, morals and beliefs that somehow marked the past have been replaced by a world in which everything is relative.

I have always struggled with this one because it did not seem to fit with the facts. We actually live in a world that is becoming increasingly puritan, increasingly willing to assert that certain things are absolute.

The second issue is our belief that things can and should be be fixed through law, regulation or some form of official action. commonwealth-regulaton

One simple measure of this can be seen in the attached chart showing the growth of the size of Commonwealth legislation. You can add to this equivalent growth in legislation and regulation at state and local levels.

Beyond the complexity of it all, the net effect of our continued belief in absolutes in combination with our belief that things can and should be fixed, means that the public sphere - the areas subject to state and social suasion of one type or another - has grown at the expense of the private sphere.

The third issue is simple information overload. We have access to more information than at any other time in human history. In practice, we simply cannot process this. We have come to rely on visual media, on short grabs, on things packaged to attract our interest.

One side-effect of this is that we have come to live in a short term world always dominated by current problems and concerns. The problem is that the human spirit cannot endure constant exposure to negatives without becoming in some ways twisted. meaner, poorer. A second side-effect is that those who want to bring about change are themselves affected in terms of the information they receive (this helps form their views) and the way they have to operate to bring change about. In many ways, the first part of the new century has become the age of one-dimensional causes.

Let me start with a biggish example to illustrate my point. If you ask most Australians today to nominate the most important environmental problems they will probably answer climate change, water, whales, wood chipping, possibly species loss and oil. These are some of the environmental causes, issues of recent years. Very few will nominate phosphate rock.

Human life depends upon phosphate. The main source of phosphate for agriculture is phosphate rock. This is especially important in Australia whose soils are naturally phosphate poor. However, the world is beginning to run out of phosphate rock.peak_p_curve graph phosorus futures

The chart on the right shows projected global production of phosphorus. This is projected to peak just before 2040, then decline.

This is no small thing at a time the world is facing projected food shortages. In the absence of change, this will bite harder and earlier than either oil depletion or climate change. Already, increased fertiliser costs are feeding through into increased production costs.

If this issue is so potentially important, how come it is largely off the radar screen? I think that the answer here is that it simply does not have the popular drawing power of causes such as whales in mainly urban Australia. We simply don't see it.

We can see something of the same thing in the continuing cut-backs to rural R&D and rural support, most recently in the cuts to Department of Primary Industry staff in the recent NSW mini-budget. I discussed some of this in Agriculture, the environment and Australia's future.

On the surface, there is something seriously our of kilter when we obsess about climate change to the exclusion of agriculture. Don't get me wrong, climate change is important and we need to take action. Yet what we do locally will always be a small part of a global solution. In contrast, our capacity to feed ourselves and those around us is directly important. Yet we largely ignore it.

Rambling on, let me move to a small example that illustrates another problem, Sydney's water restriction. Here I have complained, most recently in The continuing insanity of Sydney's water restrictions about my inability to use a hand held hose to water my garden.

My point was a simple one. I like gardening. It's healthy for me as well as providing fresh food. I gardened in a very water efficient way. However, the way the restrictions were introduced made gardening very difficult. I thought that this was a bad result at several levels. I also thought that it was quite inequitable since other people were allowed to do things like filling swimming pools. I got really irate when dam levels increased, other restrictions were eased, yet I was still tightly limited in my use of a hand-held hose.

I did not get a very positive response. Michelle's comment is typical of many of the responses I received when I raised the issue with people:

What a fuss about nothing. Get a water tank and you will have no restrictions on how much to water your vegetable garden or any other type of garden. I do and my vege garden is prolific and little maintenance. I even run it on a irrigation system rigged up by my husband so I don't have to hand water. I also recycle the water from my washing machine directly into a small tank and use this on shrubs.

I cannot complain about Michelle's personal approach. I am sure that it is very praise-worthy. Yet I also think that it is in part almost a theological statement, a statement of general position (the need to conserve water) that has become so deeply entrenched in official thinking as to become an absolute independent of the actual facts or variations in local circumstances.

I grew up with real water shortages, not Sydney's ersatz version.

In town, limited dam capacity meant that there were often absolute limits on water usage. In the 1960s' drought we came within weeks of actually running out of water. In the country where tanks supplied water, my brother and I as kids used to have three inches of water in the bath, with one taking a bath after the other.

At home we had two tanks as well as town supply. We also had a big garden. We used tank water all the time for cooking, it was so much nicer than the town water supply.

In all this, water usage was a relative thing. When water was scarce, things had to be adjusted to fit. Because vegetable gardens were so important to town life, most people relied to some degree on them for food as well as pleasure, hand held hoses were one of the last things to go as water got tight. As water supply increased, we did more to take advantage of the increased supply.

Things change. Tanks were phased out at the direction of state and local authorities largely, I think, on health grounds. I always thought that this was a bit silly, but those were the rules. Now, of course, they are back in a big way because fashions and views have changed. Water restrictions themselves became progressively more absolute, mandated independent of relative supply or local conditions.

When I look at our environment problems over time, at our environmental successes and failures, I think that the thing that really stands out are the way in which the failures are so often associated with official action at state or national level, the successes so often associated with local action. Too often, official action has been driven by causes and has taken the form of mandated, universal, rules.

Anybody who has been involved with Government policy knows that policy actions often have perverse and unforeseen results. In solving one problem, we create another. Local action is often more effective because it is based on local needs. Official action is often most effective when it facilitates change at local level, rather than mandating universal measures.

Like most things, this statement is a guideline, not another universal. Sometimes mandated universal action is the only way to deal with a problem. However, to my mind such official action should be used sparingly. Once you get to the position that we have now with an absolute over-burden of rules and restrictions, it becomes very hard to even see the pattern, let alone identify what might be done to improve things.

Looking forward, the thing that stands out to me is the diversity of responses that are going to be required to deal with the overall environmental challenges Australia faces.

I am quite fascinated by this one at the moment because I can see some of the the ways that these changes are already manifesting themselves. Take a very simple example, the composting toilet.

This was opposed for many years by local authorities on health grounds. There were good reasons for this because of the diseases associated with human faeces. It took - and this is a case where full credit has to be given to alternative life style and environmental activists - many years of agitation before such toilets were allowed in Australia.

Composting toilets have the advantage that they do not require water, while the urine in particular becomes a useful source of phosphorus. They are not a universal solution, just another small step.

We are going to need many such.


I did not give a source in the post for the legislation graphic. I had run it before, and downloaded it from my picture collection. I could not find my orginal post. The graphic came, I think, from an earlier Club Troppo post.


Lexcen said...

Very interesting post Jim. I was extremely pleased to see the graph on increasing government legislation. This has been one of my biggest gripes. We as citizens are being crushed by more laws than we can cope with.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Lexcen. I obviously agree about the crushing effect.

Neil said...

I second the motion that this is an interesting post.

A couple of things:

1. You say: " I am told that in western countries at least we have just been through, maybe are still in, what is called a post-modern age. I have never been sure that I properly understand just what post-modernism is. As best I can work out, it seems to imply that the certainties in values, morals and beliefs that somehow marked the past have been replaced by a world in which everything is relative.

"I have always struggled with this one because it did not seem to fit with the facts. We actually live in a world that is becoming increasingly puritan, increasingly willing to assert that certain things are absolute."

I am not sure I know what Pomo is exactly either, but there is a sense in which the label fits: the grand ideas like Marxism or rampant Free Market Capitalism or traditional and confident religion or Progress are exposed as more than a bit unreliable. Also, very many of us seem to hold contradictory views about many issues without compunction, believing (as I do) that this reflects the way things actually are.

Many people can't stand this and crave certainty. Hence to other side of your equation, but this nostalgia (or worse sometimes) is itself part of the post-modern condition. I don't imagine the Victorians were as strident, as they were confident.

Mind you, exactly how this is different from Modernism I am never quite sure -- except someone I read once remarked that Modernists saw all this uncertainty and tended to hate it or lament it (T S Eliot comes to mind) while Post-medernists tend to revel in it.

What a long comment.

2. The Chinese have been putting human waste to agricultural use for ages...

Jim Belshaw said...

What an interesting comment, Neil. I agree that we all hold contradictory views - I think humans have.

But if your are correct that in Pomo or post Pomo (!) we have replaced our sense of certainty, if we have lost our belief in progress as an example, yet retain our belief in ansolutes, doesn't this make us all a bit of a mess?

On China, that's why you get told not to eat the veggies!

niar said...

It's really interesting posting Jim,
about postmodern, my study have taught me about it. but my knowledge about it is not too broad. like contructivist, or critical theory, postmodern is a new point a view in the international relations world which oppose neorealist, and another positive group.
postmodern scholar try to make the world aware about their ' conceptual trapper'. It means that the most important of conceptual trapper is an mind and argue that modernity can cause a progress and better life for everything. But the postmodern expert throw it away by their belief that there is an objective knowledge above social phenomena.
the postmodern expert refusing the idea about the truth, and objective truth mind. But They believe that there 's a knowledge that can increase and expand. So it can increase the ability of human not only about their nature, and social life but also international system

nickysam said...
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rummuser said...

Jim, perhaps I am being contrarian here. Broadly speaking, there are two types of people who live on this planet. Informed people and uninformed people. Sadly, the majority are in the latter category. Out of the latter, the majority are also on a survival trip. No amount of our pontificating is likely to have any effect on them as they will do things to keep body and soul together such as, cut trees, clear forests, kill animals, whatever. All these have disastrous effects on the total.

We need to address a delivery system of primary needs to these people. In doing these, the informed group, has to come up with action plans. Take the Koyoto protocol, every one is talking about it, including the Australians now, but who is doing what to implement?

My own take is that human beings in total are bad for the planet. If by some miracle, we can all be wiped out, the earth will rejuvenate itself in about three hundred years time.

Jim Belshaw said...

Niar, your comment made me realise how little I know of some forms of thinking - like postmodernism in international relations! I will have to do some reading; so far I have just browsed Will respond further when I know more.

Jim Belshaw said...

Ramana, as you might expect, I disagree with you at a number of levels. However, I think that I will hold my response to a full post. Some of the issues are quite complicated, and I need space if I am to do the arguments justice.