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The really inconvenient truth - part I

By Michael Fendley - posted Monday, 6 August 2007

With ever-increasing attention to environmental crises, be they climate change, habitat destruction or drought, what has been our response? What have we done or failed to do? Why? Have we done anything meaningful? What should we do? This article - divided into two parts - seeks to answer these questions, seeks to look at the big picture - across time, cultures and ideas - of our relationship with nature in an attempt to gain some perspective on where we are and where we are heading.

Part One begins with a snapshot of our current situation and goes on to explore why we are struggling to achieve a good relationship with the natural world, with a particular emphasis on the difficulties posed by our biological traits and physical circumstances. Part Two - to be published in two week’s time - will continue this search but shift emphasis to the dominant ideas and cultural systems governing our lives and will finish with suggestions as to how we might live better on and with this earth.

The Art of Living

It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress, as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of it being improved. John Stuart Mill, The Stationary State, 1848.


I wonder what John Stuart Mill would make of the “art of living” at the start of the 21st century? Of our willingness to embrace anything like a steady state? I think he would be shocked to see that what he saw as “scarcely necessary to remark” - the finite nature of the world and the pointlessness and destructiveness of our quest to forever overspill its boundaries - was in no way more accepted in our time than it was in his. Perhaps this is the real, inconvenient truth of our life on this planet.

The complete failure of Mill’s observation to take hold and have effect was brought home to me the other day when I glanced at some old notes and population figures while cleaning out my office on the way to new quarters. Looking at a population chart of the 20th century it struck me what an extraordinary species we are: in my short half-lifetime, commencing in 1960, our population has doubled. Yes, that’s correct, up from three billion to more than six billion.

As extraordinary as this is, it is matched or even exceeded by our growth in consumption of everything from oil, to water, to the simple space we require to live in. Even with the supposed environmental awareness of the 1960s and ’70s behind us, we in Australia blithely increased our house size by 23 per cent from the mid 1980s and by nearly 50 per cent since the 1950s while the number of people per house actually dropped.

Think of the bricks, steel, water and oil consumed to create and furnish these comparative giants, let alone the pollutants released in their construction and operation. Clearly, the art of living, for the average Australian in the last 20 or 30 years, has been the polar opposite of Mill’s steady state: it’s been the “Art” of third and fourth bathrooms, the home cinema, jet ski and gourmet cat food.

Within this headlong rush to expand and consume there have been a few dissenting trends, a slight questioning of the grosser elements of consumption, of selected excesses and problems. Melburnians, affected by drought for the last ten years, have reduced their water consumption by 22 per cent; we largely stopped using ozone-depleting gases in the ’90s once the threat to the atmosphere was known; and we are questioning, at least, whether enjoyment of food is all about gross quantity, or more about food quality and nutrition.

These actions are encouraging, but almost all are minor technical responses to the deep problems of raw growth. Yes, we should use water wisely in Melbourne, but as we account for only 8 per cent of statewide use we are marginal players at best in the water debate; yes, we should use low-flow showerheads and reduce or eliminate plastic bags and put out containers for recycling, but if our 2007 tinkerings are of no greater substance than our brief 1970s dabblings with small cars and native gardens, then it will have all the impact of a garden hose on a bushfire.


At the same time as we take our green calico bags proudly to the supermarket or rail against someone inadvertently hosing their driveway, we champion raw growth. At the same time as the state government runs urban water-saving advertisements on TV and has nifty little CO2 balloons leaking out of home appliances, it also runs ads for provincial Victoria which trumpet, in graphs and images, ever-upward population growth.

Headlines in The Age (e.g. September 22, 2006) warmly congratulate us on yearly population growth of 65,000 (equivalent to a city nearly the size of Ballarat), with the headline: “Victoria Enjoying Population Boom”. Parliament revelled in the State Auditor’s Report in October 2006 because of its population growth figures, and the Federal Treasurer has manufactured a new form of “populate or perish” with his calls to procreate.

The beatific grins with which our politicians greet these figures would seem to indicate that these additional people will, for the first time in human history, not drink water, consume food, live in houses nor produce wastes.

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About the Author

Michael Fendley has worked on environmental matters all his life and currently manages education programs and consultancies for Monash University’s Sustainability Institute. In the past he has worked for local, state and Federal governments on local conservation strategies, coastal conservation and endangered species programs respectively, taught HSC-VCE for six years, been Conservation Manager for Birds Australia, CEO of the Victorian National Parks Association, and a consultant to organisations such as Parks Victoria, Deakin University and the Murray Darling Basin Commission.

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The really inconvenient truth - part II - On Line Opinion

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