Ian Lowe’s “A Big Fix”


One of the more unexpected legacies of the Howard era has been the emergence of a coterie of genuine public intellectuals; or rather, people who think for a living and have decided, because of the urgency of the times, to enter the more open eras of public discourse. They have, in fact, created a level of sophistication and interest in public discourse that hasn’t been seen in this country for decades. Clive Hamilton, David Marr, Robert Manne, Stuart Macintyre, Tim Flannery and Ian Lowe come to mind.

In this group the last two are distinguished by their scientific credentials and their ability to write. There are precedents for such commentators in Australia: Francis Ratcliffe’s ‘Flying Fox and Drifing Sand’ and Jock Marshall’s ‘The Great Extermination’ are two of the best of them. Both those books were concerned with environmental problems in Australia, rabbit and flying fox plagues in the first, and Australia’s lamentable record of conservation in the second.

Flannery and Lowe are leaders of the succeeding generation of accomplished Australian writing scientists. It is particularly important that they are writing now, when the greatest problems looming for the international community are, in their impact if not their roots, environmental: climate change, biodiversity loss and peak water. In a recent radio interview, a distinguished water scientist expressed the view that although a wide and authoritative scientific research programme had been carried out on the biophysical foundations of the Murray-Darling Basin, the scientific community had been for less successful at gathering and summarising the research, and communicating it to the Australian public and policy makers. Flannery and Lowe are clearly determined to ensure that that outcomes, so disastrous for our inland rivers, should not be repeated for other environmental policy issues, particularly the last and greatest of them, climate change. As the Australian community engaged in public discourse about these great matters we should all be particularly grateful that they have pursued their course so resolutely and with such academic and intellectual distinction.

Ian Lowe’s monograph, A Big Fix, is the most recent offering in what is becoming a distinguished line of Australian thinking and writing. I have written elsewhere of his fine 2008 essay, Reaction Time: Climate Change and the Nuclear Option. The 2009 monograph is even wider in scope, if that were possible, although it is still centred on the earlier themes. The subtitle of the work is ‘Radical Solutions for Australia’s Environmental Crisis’, but it doesn’t do justice to the scale of the analysis. Lowe’s theme is the global environmental crisis, illustrated by Australian examples. It is a brave, uncompromising and, against all odds, optimistic account of the world crisis. Since this crisis clearly has no precedent in human history, we desperately need informed, principled and integrated accounts of it, including an analysis of its causes and considered, innovative ideas about possible solutions to it. A Big Fix is just such an account.

It could be said that the monograph is a modern attempt to answer the ancient question, “How shall we live?” On one side, Ian Lowe’s message is a clear though not simple: “We are not living sustainably and fundamental change is needed. . .The road we are travelling on now can only end in disaster” (3, 20) . On the other side, “I am incurably optimistic about the future. I don’t discount the difficulty of change, but history shows that human societies can shift radically when we realise the need” (18). It is indeed rare among modern commentators on the global condition to find both propositions argued together, particularly with such lucidity and professional authority. The outlines of this argument are worth sketching.


Lowe begins with a brief history of the science of sustainability, from Carson and Erlich, to the oil shock of the 70’s, to the Limits to Growth reports and some of its key predictions, in peak oil and climate change; and to important international reports, including the Millenium Assessment Report and the UNEP Global Outlook Series. The picture of the planet presented over decades by the successive research reports is remarkably consistent, and arresting:

“We now have the capacity to reconfigure the natural environment so that it is much less likely to support human life. Successive warnings from such scientific bodies have gone unheeded. Responding is now a matter of urgency: nothing less than the survival of civilisation is at stake.” (16)

These are, to say the least of it, large claims. Lowe brings to them his own authority, as a scientist, and the authority of the scientific community that underpins these reports. His plain speaking is in consequence sobering.

In supporting and exploring these claims. Lowe begins with the elusive notion of sustainability. It is remarkable that a concept which has such currency in modern discourse is so undefined; or, perhaps, defined too much, in too many ways. There is the Brundtland definition, of course, which is relatively straightforward; but definitions since that time have multiplied. Lowe, characteristically, cuts through the competing formulations: “The meaning of ‘sustainable’ is clear: able to be sustained, ideally forever, but certainly at least for the foreseeable future.” This literal conception is then applied to six dimensions—resources; natural systems; society; economy; and cultural and spiritual foundations—to form what Lowe calls ‘criteria’; that is, tests or standards of sustainability. This set of criteria captures at one stroke most of the sustainability schemas previously advanced, such as the triple bottom line. It doesn’t resolve all the conceptual difficulties: what it means to say that an economy is sustained for the foreseeable future, or a society, or a culture, is far less intuitively clear than it is for resources and natural systems (although these applications, too, as will be seen, are far from simple). It is less a definition than a methodological framework, or a plan of attack.

Lowe lays out some of the implications of thinking this way across the five dimensions:

  • Under resources and natural systems attention is given to peak oil and renewable energy (mainly solar); water (both fresh water, as in the Murray-Darling Basin, and groundwater, as in the Great Artesian Basin); natural capital and ecological footprint; and uranium and nuclear power.
  • Under society, the emphasis s on social equity and its implications for education, health and security.
  • Under economy, attention is given to its basis in environmental services; the economics of mining those resources as against other forms of use (such as tourism); science and innovation; economic planning and the free market; and the steady-state economics of Herman Daly. From Daly comes a sustainable decision-making algorithm (34): “Ensure that the total scale of human activity is ecologically sustainable; distribute resources and property rights fairly, both within this generation and between generations; allocate resources as efficiently as possible within these constraints. Free-market economics, of course, navigates solely by the third of these principles, in the belief that the conditions expressed by the other two principles will somehow be simultaneously optimised; a view characterised by Lowe as “a naïve faith in the magic of the market” (33). Naive is, perhaps, a tolerant description; I would be inclined to replace it with ‘illogical’, ‘intellectually incoherent’, ‘damaging’, or all of these.
  • Under cultural and spiritual foundations, Lowe emphasises local rather than imported elements; the central place occupied by consumption; and the decline of the moral underpinnings of modern society.

The discussion makes a first case for the theoretical and applied power of this formulation of sustainability, together with a first exploration of the implications of these principles for the way we are to live. The documented view of the world through the prism of this framework, Lowe asserts, is deeply troubling: “The evidence is clear. The way we are currently living is not sustainable; in fact I believe it does not satisfy any of the main criteria” (14).

For more detailed evidence Lowe turns to Australia’s environmental crisis. Again he draws on the high-level reports, compiled mainly by national government departments or agencies, particularly by successive State of the Environment reports, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics Measures of Australia’s Progress. Five major (not to say iconic) arenas of environmental policy and debate are discussed: the Great Barrier Reef; the Murray-Darling Basin; salinity and land degradation; the biodiversity crisis; and global climate change. The evidence cited is unambiguous: with the exception of urban air quality (which has been improved by motor vehicle exhaust regulation) all the environmental measures show rapid declines: “more threatened species, more degraded land, declining river health and increasing greenhouse gas emission” (40). The policy paralysis induced by free-market ideology is again noted. The active resistance to urgently required action, or a grudging low-level responses, of successive Federal governments is exposed and contrasted with some more useful State initiatives. Even the current Federal government, which came to office on a strong environmental program, is not spared:

“On the whole, the Commonwealth government’s approach to the environment continues to be a disappointment. There is no strategic vision, no sense of urgency and no indication that the government understands the scale of the problems” (57).


With evidence for serious decline across the Australian environment established, Lowe turns to an analysis of causes—a demanding task, as the variables that might be considered are literally numberless. However, he moves sure-footedly among the most important and most widely accepted of them, and begins to sketch the response to them that the sustainability criteria might require.

These are factors that have long occupied sustainability thinking and writing: population; consumption; life-style choices; technology; and the economic system. To each, however, Lowe brings new insights, linked to emerging evidence. On population, he is firm:“. . .there is no prospect, even in principle, of a sustainable society unless we stabilise the population at a level that can be supported at acceptable social and environmental standards” (61). At the same time, he explicitly requires of an Australian population policy that it include provision for refugees, family reunions, and the immigration of skilled people where there are shortages—all issues of strong debate in recent years.

On consumption, by way of example Lowe provides an analysis of Sydney’s consumption between 1970 and 1990: while the city’s population grew 30% over that period, its total consumption rose 70%. The significance of such increases for a sustainable society lies in the combined effect of population and consumption: “The impact on our environment is determined by how many of us there are and how we choose to live”—a typically blunt but precise formulation.

‘Choose’ is a critical notion. It emphasises that, for wealthy countries such as Australia the answer to the question “How are we to live?” carries dimensions of choice that are denied to poorer countries. Lowe notes the array of sustainable technologies now emerging: solar hot water, rainwater and grey-water use, green buildings, fuel-efficient cars, and so on. And if the choices are there, given the urgency, the question is why more choices for sustainable living are not being taken up?

Part of the answer, Lowe argues, lies in perverse economic incentives. Economic policy should encourage environmentally responsible behaviour: for example, power purchased from renewable sources should cost less, not (as it does at present) more. The general economic principle is that prices should incorporate all the costs to society of the environmental and social impacts any economic activity creates. In theory the revenue that accrues should then be used to remedy those impacts or (less usefully) to compensate those affected by them. Hence electricity sourced from coal-fired stations should be made more expensive than if sourced from wind-farms; the use of carbon, which leads to higher greenhouse emissions, should be taxed; so should land-clearing; the prince of electronic devices should include the cost of their disposal; the cost of motor vehicles should include the cost of the damage they do to community health; and so on. The principle is one of internalising social costs so that price signals and incentives operate to improve environmental outcomes.

All this is well-established in the theory of environmental and natural resource economics. Lowe adopts these principles, along with the challenge of these disciplines to high discount rates in discussing the costs and benefits of development proposals, since such rates favour the present generation over future generations.

Finally, in the analysis of economic causes, Lowe deals with the idea of growth. He aligns his argument with Clive Hamilton’s vigorous challenge to prevailing orthodoxy, Growth Fetish. Interestingly, Lowe draws on a future studies framework called, forbiddingly, Causal Layered Analysis (CLA). CLA identifies three levels in most public policy debates: superficial ‘litany’ discussion; an attempt, at a deeper level, to identify ‘social causes’; and, at the deepest levels, ‘myths and metaphors’ which are largely unrecognised and unexamined. The idea of growth as a fundamental social and economic good, Lowe argues, falls into the third of these categories, and is in consequence enduring, powerful and pernicious. The steady state economics of Daly, in contrast, is based on constant physical wealth (implying comprehensive re-use and recycling), and is opposed to the neo-classical economics based on growth. Lowe concludes:

“The survival of human civilisation depends on us developing beyond the primitive notion that bigger is always better and that faster growth is always better than slower growth. These ideas were not a problem when our numbers were small and our demands limited. The growth of the past means that future growth is now threatening the viability of civilised society. It is impossible to overstate the urgency of our situation (77).”


What, then, is to be placed against this apparently relentless pattern of decline? There is a sense in which through the preceding analysis this question has already been answered. What is required is simply the opposite of the factors which Lowe has identified as lying at the root of the crisis. Thus population must be stabilised, with human flexibilities. Consumption must be held in total to the level that ecosystem services can support. A new sustainability science must be developed to establish these critical thresholds. Waste must be brought to zero through industrial ecology. The loss of natural habitats and the invasion of exotic species must be reversed. A low carbon society based on renewable energy must be created. Global poverty must be addressed and equity in the standard of living across the world’s populations secured. Resource decision-making must be based on a participative political process, informed by professional analysis. In a sense, stated like that, the conclusions of Lowe’s essay are unexceptional: it is difficult to think that any reasonably intelligent person would dispute them. Or is it? Perhaps, in fact, stating such conclusions unambiguously is truly radical, if one takes them seriously, as guides to action. That is particularly true when these conclusions are taken together, as a set of principles and actions: their implications are, as it were, synthetically enhanced.

But in the end action is the crucial issue, and it must be admitted that to a large extent Lowe evades—or at least, doesn’t attempt to take on—the question of how all this is to be done. It is certainly an achievement to identify what has to be done; but simply identifying it doesn’t make it so. If any reader needs evidence for this observation, he or she can simply refer to the outcomes of the recent Copenhagen summit on climate change. Despite the agitation of marginal climate sceptics there was no real disagreement on what needed to be done. Remarkably little, however, in the way of committed action came out of the summit. More conspicuous was the absence of the kinds of international institutions, and, more significantly, the ways in which the international consensus required to underpin that institution, might be developed. Behind the biophysical analyses and derived initiatives is, in the end, the human dimension of human kind. Handling that requires an entirely different framework of reference. Lowe doesn’t attempt to locate or delineate it; but, to do him justice, there’s no reason why he should feel it is his job to do so. It’s not his expertise, as he is the first to accept. Within the range of his expertise, however, his analysis is forthright, timely, and powerful. We would do well to use it as a foundation for principled, practical action in favour of the world.