This is the original longer version of a column published on August 15, 2011, by WME's new Business Environment Network.
The cause of global sustainability desperately needs to make the most of 2012 as a transformative year, writes Murray Hogarth, while taking a mini trip down a regional road to a low-carbon future. READ ON
On a narrow country road, winding through green hills between Mullumbimby and the hamlet of Federal in far northern New South Wales, the narrative for this story finally gelled. Next year, 2012, is a critical time for sustainability, in my view the most important year yet in the history of the planet. I’ll explain my reasoning for this grand assertion in a moment.
First, however, as I drove through beautiful Byron Shire in my manual two-door Hyundai Getz, the smallest most fuel efficient and cost effective option I could find on the hire car menu, I drew a sliver of comfort for the future of people on the Australian continent and across planet Earth.
It’s because there, in the coastal Byron Shire, I could see a transition in society under way. Albeit a tentative, often-disputed, and still totally inadequate set of changes, but the beginnings of a transition nonetheless – and the clues were everywhere, like a crumb trail to the hidden destination of a more sustainable future.
Those clues include things like solar PV arrays on rooftops, local farmers markets, roadside signs offering organic produce, feisty hand-made signs opposing coal seam methane projects, recycled furniture shops, a green mayor, committed young entrepreneurs pursuing solutions for householders, and an array of micro businesses like cafes and stores incorporating sustainability into their sales pitches.
I was in Mullumbimby to speak at the launch of a new sustainable food business directory for the Byron Shire, which includes the famous, and famously arty and spiritual, tourism town of Byron Bay. A modest-sized positive initiative by the local council, which has a Greens politician at the helm in the shape of Mayor Jan Barham, the directory actually speaks to a much bigger agenda with global sustainability implications.
This part of Australia, just south of sprawling Brisbane and the gross ‘theme park for over-development’ that is the Gold Coast, has lost much of its traditional agricultural base, with subdivisions replacing cow paddocks, motorways slicing through cane fields, and tree-changers moving in while farmers grow old and move out.
Stirred in part by the controversial arrival of a Woolworths supermarket in Mullumbimby in recent times, local food production and security, community resilience, and diverse opportunities to resurrect the agricultural potential of the region are now genuine public policy concerns in these environs; as they should be for the whole nation, especially with a federal review under way looking at National Food Policy (submissions close September 2).
At least there’s already action on the ground in the NSW Northern Rivers district, which includes Byron Shire. Through government-funded initiatives like the Northern Rivers Food Link Project, involving seven local councils plus a public water utility, the aim is to ‘mitigate climate change impacts associated with food production and distribution, and strengthen community resilience to climate change and peak oil impacts’.
This is scarily practical, when you consider what’s really stake, such as the future of food and energy, and works well as a microcosm of a bigger Australia-wide scenario. While much of the national political debate in Australia still appears to revolve around whether climate change and natural resource constraints like declining oil reserves are real, and require serious policy responses such as a price on carbon pollution, up here in Byron Shire official programs are saying food security and fossil fuel energy supply need proper attention.
That’s the segue back to the overwhelming importance of 2012, when the capacity of the whole of human civilisation to feed and power itself will be back at the top of the United Nations to-do list. These issues will be graphically illustrated by ongoing political disruption across the oil-rich Middle East, messing with fuel prices and market security, and the terrible toll on human lives of a global warming impacted drought in the Horn of Africa.
For the sake of this story, I am going to assume that ancient Mayan calendar inspired fears that the world will end in 2012 won’t come to pass. Nonetheless, humanity is far from off the hook.
The modern-day concept of sustainability will be 25-years-old next year, with its origins in the UN’s Brundtland Commission on Development and the Environment, which released its Our Common Future report in 1987. It will also be 20 years since the Rio Earth Summit, in 1992, and 15 years since the Kyoto Climate Conference, in 1997. Year 2012 will include Rio+20, and will mark the end of the first and perhaps only Kyoto commitment period, which runs 2008-2012, highlighting the big unresolved question of what comes next? There will be a vital presidential election in the US, the rise of China will step up in its trade and geo-political potency, ongoing financial crises will be gnawing away at the very concept of traditional ‘economic growth’, and here in Australia we will most likely see the start of the Clean Energy Future policy package including, finally, its price on carbon pollution.
When I look in the rear vision mirror at landmark yesteryears, I see 1990 for its international wave of environmental awareness, 1992 for the largest gathering of world leaders in the history of the planet in Rio, 1997 for the painful birth of the Kyoto Protocol, and perhaps crucially, 2000, when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore for the presidency of the United States of America.
A 100-year history written towards the end of the 21st century on how the world moved to a low-carbon, sustainable economy, if it does manage a happy Hollywood ending of course, may well speculate on how differently the first decade could have played out under Gore instead of Bush. We can never know, yet it’s relevant to canvass this ‘what if’ in discussing why 2012 is now so pivotal. It will be a huge, epoch-shaping outcome if America casts out Democrat President Barack Obama in 2012, after one term, especially in favour of a climate-skeptical Tea Party Republican candidate. Demolishing the EPA will be but a first salvo from such a presidency, and hopes for serious climate action will be put off for a decade or more.
Over a billion people have been born since modern-day sustainability was ‘invented’ a quarter of a century ago. New generations have grown up, some in great wealth and others in deep poverty and deprivation. Species have gone extinct, global economic stability has deteriorated dramatically after a long boom, and the negative environmental footprint of humanity collectively has exceeded the sustainable carrying capacity of our one and only planet. The fossil fuel sector, the source of so much of the world’s climate troubles, has expanded massively, not only in traditional coal, oil and gas, but in major new areas like tar sands, shale gas, and coal seam methane too.
If we have learned anything since Brundtland and Rio and Kyoto, it’s that governments and corporations will not deliver the transformation towards sustainability that our world needs. At least not at the speed and scale that is required, and certainly not through UN talk fests in isolation. Doubtless the failure to fundamentally change the path of our world away from unsustainable growth to a sustainable model will be much discussed and argued over in 2012. Yet the importance of the year will go unrealised unless whole nations and industries shift decisively from lip-service sustainability to transformational change.
So where might real change come from? On the drive between Mullumbimby and Federal, it was suddenly clear to me the road ahead has to be bottom up and led from the community and small business levels. If we want to move once and for all from coal-fired power stations to renewable energy, then a critical mass of homes, small businesses and local communities have to make the transition themselves. The same goes for moving from vulnerable, wasteful, supermarket-dominated food supply chains, to resurgence in local food production and community resilience. And it’s up to individual farmers and environmentalists, networked using modern Internet communications and alliances like Lock the Gate, to force accountability on to powerful expanding industries like coal seam methane, with its tens of billons of dollars of investment just in Australia, from thousands of wells to giant new port facilities.
Governments and big business will follow when the will of the people is clear, but they won’t lead the transformation. Byron Shire is somewhere on the Australian coast where people are starting to populate a better future. When enough of us make that shift, then transformation becomes unstoppable reality. It may be more about symbolism than anything else, but 2012 must be a year for moving sustainability to a new level – the paradigm for successful human society in the 21st century, replacing the ideological battles over capitalism and socialism that so dominated the 20th century.