Professor Ian Lowe

THE WARNINGS from scientists are clear. We are using resources future generations will need and damaging environmental systems. If civilisation is to survive, we don’t just need new technology. We also need a new approach to the natural world.

The way we are currently living is not sustainable. We are at or near the peak of world oil production but behaving as if supplies were unlimited. We are over-using other vital resources like fresh water, soils and forests. Recent policies have made Australia much less equitable and increased social stress. Our economic strategy of exporting low-value commodities is a recipe for declining living standards. Our unique Australian culture is being swamped by global media.

Three national reports on the environment show very serious problems: land degradation, the state of our inland rivers, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of our unique biological diversity. We will only be able to tackle these issues if we recognise the cause: rapidly increasing demands on natural systems, the compounding effect of population growth and increasing consumption per person. In addition, much of our technology is out-of-date and wasteful. Finally, our economic system neglects the long term, ignores impacts on natural systems and is fixated on growth, despite the evidence that this approach is not improving our well-being.

We urgently need a new approach to give Australia a sustainable future. Achieving that is our duty to future generations. It will require some fundamental changes. The population and our overall consumption must be stabilised at levels that can be sustainably supported without damaging natural systems. Waste and greenhouse pollution must be dramatically reduced by developing renewable energy supplies and using resources efficiently. Natural areas have to be maintained and restored to protect our remaining biodiversity. For social sustainability, we must restore the sort of equity that once characterised Australia. To take hard decisions we will need a participative approach.

These are the real issues for Kevin Rudd’s April summit. We need a Sustainability Commission with a long-term perspective to drive a whole-of-government approach. To tackle the urgent issue of climate change, we need a serious short-term emissions target like 30 per cent reduction by 2020, an emissions trading system to drive the reduction by putting a price on carbon dioxide production, and a real commitment to renewable energy. A recent statement by the electricity industry body showed that the likely price of carbon will make coal power more expensive than a mix of renewables, so there is no reason to persist with steam-age technology.

Professor Ian Lowe is the president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.