Public Sector Informant: Growing disasters show world must turn a new leaf

I was walking home from the shops the other day, when I encountered a man using a leaf blower to eject leaves from his driveway onto the road. The leaf blower was an electric one, so at least the noise was not as deafening as the petrol-driven ones produce.

He stopped, courteously enough, to allow me to pass. I don’t quite know what made me speak to him, but speak I did. “You’re just blowing the leaves onto the road,” I said.

“I know,” he replied with some heat. “The leaves come from the government’s tree,” (he gestured towards a hapless eucalypt on the nature strip) “and I don’t like them in my garden.”

I was going to point out that, with the prevailing winds, the leaves would simply blow back onto his property. But something about his manner – somewhat belligerent – made me continue on my way.

Since then, I’ve realised that all of us, to varying degrees, are susceptible to the same blind spot as the man with the leaf blower. Despite our increasing concern about climate change and other environmental problems, as a species we still don’t quite get that we live in a closed system. Wherever we live on the planet, we’ve reached the point where the leaves, metaphorically, just keep coming back at us.

Many of us have come to accept that climate change is real, and urgent. But climate change is just one symptom (the pandemic is another) of a fundamental mismatch between humanity’s behaviour and the needs of the planet we inhabit. Regulatory solutions can go only so far. If we are to deal with causes rather than symptoms, as a global community we need to start thinking about moving beyond economic growth as the fundamental goal of our politics.

It is not as if this is a new, or strange, perspective. The alarm was raised decades ago about the consequences of an economic and political system that gives us everything we want but not enough of what we need. In the distant 1960s everyone was talking about Vance Packard’s exposé of planned obsolescence in The Waste Makers. Rachel Carson drew our attention to the consequences of pesticide use in Silent Spring. Although plastics were far less ubiquitous then than now, we already knew they were a bad idea because they did not break down when they were thrown away.

And then, for the most part, the concern went away. Rather than a new economic and social agenda, national and international policy transitioned towards rampant globalism, and an obsession with growth that has grown stronger rather than weaker over the years. Growth is invariably portrayed as an unmitigated good, and the only way to alleviate poverty on a global scale. Unfortunately, economic growth takes as much as it gives, both because of the environmental destruction it causes and the impoverishment of those, in both the developed and developing worlds, whose livelihoods and values must be sacrificed to it.

Giving the lie to growth is not as difficult as it might appear.

So, what to do? To see how far away we are politically from addressing this fundamental issue, try imagining one of the four major political parties in Australia – the Liberals, Nationals, Labor, or the Greens – putting forward a platform of true sustainability based on (ultimately) attaining a steady-state economy (i.e. one based on growth in quality rather than quantity).

A major paradigm shift would be required. And we know, historically, that paradigm change is a rare phenomenon. In some ways, though, it is not so much a change in ordinary people’s thinking that is needed. There is plenty of evidence that many of us would like some relief from growth mania. Rather, the assumptions of elites in government, business and the media continue to hold us back.

A good example of this divergence is population growth, which (along with economic growth) is a massive contributor to environmental degradation. Those in power (usually men) are obsessed with the idea that bigger populations are essential for national prosperity. Yet when empowered to do so, women everywhere choose to limit the size of their families. Smaller families are part of a natural progression towards a more sustainable world, yet governments everywhere view stabilising populations with alarm.

The business world, and the development industry in particular, remains hooked on growth. Even “good” businesses, such as some in the mining sector, seem to put too much emphasis on green energy production and not enough on the uses to which energy is put. Denying finance to activities that depend on coal seems heroic, until we realise that all businesses are implicated in the production of waste.

Elite opinion on the desirability of growth will not change any time soon. There is too much power and money at stake for that. On the other hand, giving the lie to growth is not as difficult as it might appear. If GDP growth were corrected to account for environmental damage, we would see it for the illusion it is. Public policy would be much more effective if consistently focused on reduce, re-use, recycle, and repair rather than the latest industrial techno-fix. To return to the analogy I began with, if we were to take responsibility for the leaves and use them on the garden, rather than blowing them onto the road, we would be on the way to true sustainability.

Appeared in The Canberra Times Public Sector Informant – 2 Mar 21

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