3E Intelligence

I sometimes complain that our political elites have lost all long-term vision focused as they are on feeding the quick-news-hungry media with sexy soundbites which have little value for the societal challenges these policy makers are supposed to tackle.

It is therefore very encouraging that, occasionally , there is a political figure who manages to grasp the new realities of the 21st century.

The one I want to give visibility today is called Andrew McNamara and he is Sustainability, Climate Change and Innovation minister in Queensland, Australia.

Here are some extracts (with my highlighting) of a speech of Mr McNamara at the Brisbane Institute on 12 April. The topic of his speech was “capital S Sustainability”:

I will look at sustainability in the context of today’s hottest issues – the crouching tiger of climate change and the hidden dragon of peak oil. We can’t talk about sustainability without talking about waste and resource efficiency. We talk a great deal about becoming a more efficient economy, but we really need to ask what we are becoming efficient at when we throw away more and more.

And finally I want to touch on the problem of population distribution. Until we start talking about population distribution, we can not honestly claim to have the whole problem on the table.”

Today, global demands on natural systems exceed their sustainable yield by an estimated 25 per cent. That means we are meeting current demands by consuming the earth’s natural assets, setting the stage for decline and collapse. With a population expected to top 9 billion this century, sustainability is the crucial social, economic and political issue facing the world today.

With some notable exceptions, policy makers have been guilty of allowing sustainability to be cast as a peculiarly environmental issue, marginalised from the main game of economic development.”

Global warming is a symptom of the problem of living unsustainably. Consuming fossil fuels without considering the waste is a sustainability issue. Industrialised society’s failure to minimise waste and emissions, and neutralise those necessary for continued industrial development in a sustainable manner has created today’s diminished environment.”

I suggest that we face an even graver threat, that is even more imminent than global warming, and in response to which we have chosen to look the other way for 50 years. The hidden dragon I speak of is resource depletion; of the peaking supply of those sources of energy that have enabled our explosion from around 2 billion people on the planet in 1900 to 6.5 billion today.”

what have we done but draw upon the Earth’s non renewable resources as if they were limitless, and create an economy that assumes – indeed demands – cheap energy to sustain the national and international movement of food and goods and water and people in ever greater volumes and numbers.

We have laid out our cities and built our suburbs and resumed agricultural land as if it were our purpose to live as far as possible from where we work and further than we can imagine from where our food is grown“.

As daunting as the work we have to do is, there is however still one piece of the puzzle not yet on the table. In an energy-constrained world dedicated to massively reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it’s time we spoke its name; population. American biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote: “The rampaging monster loose upon the land is over-population. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical construct.””

What is now necessary, however, is recognition of the fact that while carrying capacity is expandable, it is never infinite. Population is a topic for discussion at Kevin Rudd’s 2020 discussion and I look forward to that debate. The key to achieving a sustainable Australian population in the 21st century is population distribution – adopting policies which encourage and support population growth in areas where it can be supported sustainably, and discouraging it in those places where it can’t. Population maldistribution increases the stress on available resources and heightens the need for more stringent sustainable living practices, such as water restrictions. Developed countries have the double whammy of increasing populations and rampant consumerism.”

“In the 21st century, the human race must finally confront the reality that in the closed system that is planet earth, there are limits to growth.

No matter how clever we are, there is no escaping the physical limits of the world’s resources.

The laws of physics trump the laws of economics every time.

What we need above all is smart growth.

Growth that is low carbon.

Growth that is low pollution.

Growth that is resource neutral.

We need growth that actually adds to the natural capital, instead of destroying it.

The title of my talk tonight is “Highway of Diamonds.”

The Bob Dylan tragics in the room might have recognised the phrase from his 1962 classic, “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall.”

In the song Dylan poses the question “Oh what did you see my blue eyed son?” and offers in part the reply, “I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it.”

It has increasingly struck me as a perfect symbol for the choices we now face in dealing with climate change, peak oil and population; what to build and where; road or rail; seaport or airport; capital city or regional centre; balancing the enormous costs of providing infrastructure now in a time of momentous change against the undoubted costs of acting too late and in more uncertain times.

We need to get it right.

No one will thank us for a highway of diamonds with nobody on it.”

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I wish someone could read this speech before EU leaders start their meeting to discuss their “ambitious” climate-energy package on 13-14 March. What we will see in that European Council meeting is business as usual and muddling through. Real leadership, ladies and gentlemen, is something entirely different.

The full speech of Andrew McNamara is available here (highly recommended).

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