Five views of Guichen Bay

1.

Walk the cliffs and look upon the bay. A grey-walled westerly
has blown in overnight, cloud thick across the sky, horizon
to horizon. Spindrift blurs the line of the white beach and the ripple
of hills beyond. Off the point the island twins are sinking;
sea and sky fused. The cloud shades light and dark, a page
rubbed light with graphite, brushed, in no particular pattern, with no particular intent.
At hand the cliffs stand clear against the grey; their seams and faces,
naked, throw no shadows. The line of headlands curves
to the opening of the bay; a pattern which you follow, circling, coming back home.
Don’t try to impress it in the mind. What is here is to be attended to.
It will return in the evening, in the quiet. The night wind off the ocean runs through the trees.
The swell breaks along the cliffs. All night you hear it in your sleep.

2.

Seared days, dripping nights, too early in the year. At midnight lightning flickers,
faint breaths, fresh, then a wash of cool. Next day, the water is jade,
sand still settling; across its surface, stately as clouds, patches of blue move
through the breakers and the shore, the dunes and flats, to the swell
of the low hills, dunes of an ancient sea; they pause there, and look out.
On the edge of the reef, at the edge of sight, a circle widens; you wait, but nothing more;
a seam, perhaps, rocking in the wake; the wave surges on, doesn’t look behind.
The far shore blurs, more to seaward, spread and thumbed by the sea spray drift.
On the edge of the reef, at the edge of mind, a sea bird surfaces. That is
what it was. Bright-eyed, it shakes droplets from its head, faster than thought.
Ten minutes, more, under water, stretched forward like a seal
in the milky green, shafts of sun like columns reaching down
into the shadows. The bird seal dives into the pools, touches the rocks, plucks
sea moss and lichen. Down there, in the leafy brush, currents wash
cool, fresh; no heat can enter there; not now, not yet.

3.

A rocking calm patterned under a land breeze. Breathing in, it rises in a line
like a tendon, ripples across the face of the water, pools about a rock surfacing;
breathes out on the sands, a wash of foam. Across the cliff shrubs and trees colour;
the faces of the rock thrust them forward. Stems twist, toughened under gales;
tendrils as strong as spider’s silk have split the rock, gained entry
into the earth, found water, made flower and seed. They have earned the right.
Beyond the opening ocean swells break over offshore reefs,
sweep past the islands but take no account of them. Their gaze
is on the open water, they see something we don’t see: an ocean
which circles the earth, whose swells mount on a thousand-mile fetch. Along this coast, in winter,
whales move, nosing the deeps. One year a female entered the Bay, with a calf,
three days and nights. People came to the shore and the whales moved to them,
curious, perhaps, about the fauna that had appeared upon the borders of their world.
The watchers stayed all day, camped overnight. Astonished, clutched hearts.

4.

The shells and bones of small sea creatures drift down, rest and silt,
sit on the floors of unnamed seas. They aggregate, establish footings, turn
to stone, wait until the tides run backward to rise cascading into the sun.
Walk across the sand, wade through runnels of the ebb tide,
begin to climb. The island rock is visited by gulls,
terns, a sunning seal; transients, no foothold here.
And yet
higher up, behind a low ridge, a garden clings, miniatured
by salt and gales; your palms encompass it. The seams trapped sand
flung by winter gales, and seeds fell in and made
their own soil, to grow a ring of moss across the face of rock; spiky,
sere grass; blue-grey straps, rough; even the springing of a bush,
striated stem here like a tree. And scattered like diamonds,
smaller than your fingertip, flowers in white, ablaze.
Beyond, the dark horizon. The sea breathes; and the rock, held close,
islanded, alive.

5.

Early summer morning, cool, the sea
out-breathes across the reefs, in-drawn
recedes, and the ledges surface. Around their edges
fronds reach a few fingers taller,
break the surface first. The water
streams away; they open to the sun
tracing the edges of the shapes that shimmer
shape-shifting, shallower, gathering
whatever of natural force, integrity
is theirs from year after year
of making; gathering even, perhaps,
courage; which, it is clear, is needed to move
out of the protecting, temperate calm
beneath into the brilliant imperatives
of the light.
The question presents itself
each half day: will it be enough,
that which you have made in the bloom below?
This time, can you stand in the sun?

The Fractured Workplace And Its Remedies

This is an essay about the crisis of our modern workplaces and about ways to repair them.

Everyone knows that our modern workplaces are in crisis. They are often run under unethical rules and practices which would not be accepted anywhere else in our society. They routinely give rise to appalling behaviour, such as workplace bullying, which is somehow regarded as legitimate–in fact essential–in the modern business environment. “Nothing personal, just business” is the justification. This is wholly immoral and inhumane.

These attitudes and negative values infect every part of modern people management, such as performance metrics and performance management, compensation and rewards, hierarchies, position descriptions, contracts, teams, decision-making–in fact everything to do with the core business of the organisation, which is inseparable from its people. As a consequence, widespread, numbing damage is inflicted on both people and organisations. Given that we spend a considerable part of our waking lives in these places, the effects of lost human potential are dramatic, both for individuals and the society as a whole.

This essay examines these issues, with the aim of developing the remedies to them. In fact the remedies are not too far away. In many years of working with organisations, both for profit and non-profit, with boards, CEO’s, managers, employees, consultants, suppliers, customers, clients–the communities of organisations–I have come to see that given an opportunity the remedies are there in people themselves. I have been amazed and inspired by what I’ve seen people doing at all levels of organisations to repair toxic workplaces, to make them healthy, mature, collaborative and creative places to work. This is what the Greeks have called ‘practical wisdom’. It is the basis of common morality and of all approaches that support and foster the progress of people in the workplace, and enhance their organisational achievements.

Mount Tamborine

He sat at his desk. The front door was thrown open and slammed shut. Heels clacked into the kitchen, then returned to climb, with intent purpose, as if on a stepper, the wooden stairs. He turned to her. She rested against the doorway.

“A good evening?” he said.

“Of course. You know what Martha’s parties are like—well, no, you don’t—take it from me.”

He was silent, so she answered the unspoken question.

“It got late. I stayed.”

He nodded. “Right.”

She released the doorway. “I had fun—I drank vodka, I danced, there was music and happiness. You don’t approve, I know. Not in older women.

“I’m glad you had fun.”

“Sure you are, Harry.”

“I am.”

She stared at him, then swung around and clattered down the stairs. We should carpet them, he thought, then wondered at the ‘we’ of it. The percolator bubbled, and the aroma drifted up.

He turned back to his work. He told his friends he was writing a book on Judith Wright, the poet. It had been in the back of his mind for years—decades, even—but nothing had come of it. You couldn’t, he admitted, plead pressure of work. He had been a middle-ranking public servant responsible for lower-income tenants of state housing. He had done his job conscientiously, though largely without the thanks either of his superiors or his clients. His position had been cut and he’d retired early, with a package. The book was supposed to be the retirement project. Meg had been unimpressed: she wanted him to become an entrepreneur, working from home. He continued to resist, mulishly. And now, it had to be said, there was nothing to be done but to write the book.

It had been far more difficult than he had imagined. He’d read until his eyes had blurred, had jotted down references and notes and outlines, but had composed only a few thin paragraphs which didn’t approach the prose of his imagination. He wondered how you could capture the surge of the poems as they broke in the mind. Perhaps, he thought, the decades have choked the old springs. Or perhaps, after hundreds, thousands of memos and reports, he’d simply forgotten how to write.

Judith Wright was twenty-nine, he mused, and Jack McKinney fifty-three when they met, as the war was ending—a bookish researcher from an old pastoral family, and a veteran from the earlier war still suffering shell-shock. She wrote later of his charm and overflowing talk and Irish wit. But beneath the banter was a shared recognition that the flashes that had obliterated two Japanese cities had changed everything. They saw it had all gone wrong. He pursued the track of it through philosophy, without academic training, with only the clarity and passion of that bleak vision. She sought it in her own mind and heart, and in her country and her family’s history, and made her poems from it. They found a three-room weatherboard shack, and later a roomy house, in the Queensland ranges above rainforests, and lived, and loved, there, remaking the world because there was nothing else to be done.

What was that kind of life, thought Harry, tapping a pencil on the desk, that partnership of fire—purifying, sustaining, regenerative? How could you know it, write it?

He picked up the book, a history of the Queensland pastoral industry, but couldn’t settle. He made a call, then pulled on a jacket and went down to the kitchen.

“I’m going to the park. For a walk.”

“A walk? You’ll need more than that. Look at yourself, Harry—obese at sixty. You’ll have a heart attack.”

“I’m not obese.”

“Denial, Harry.” Meg smoothed her tights, her toned thighs. She’d cropped her hair and dyed it brown, to take out the grey. It lay in wiry licks across her head. “Join the gym, get running, anything. It’s not all over yet.”

“’Rage, rage,’” he said to the ceiling.

Her lip curled and she turned away.

“I like walking,” he said. “It does me good. Albo’s coming.”

“Albo! So you’ll sit on a bench and smoke.”

“I don’t smoke any more, you know that. I don’t even have any tobacco.”

You smoke too much–Gunter Grass, in a poem to his wife on their anniversary, with love.

Her back was held against him. No obesity there—her ribs ridged through the cotton.

It was early spring and the park was at its loveliest—the ovals still in their winter green, the walks bordered by flowering gums, red blossoms swirled, as if by a brush, against the glossy green. The wattles were still out, and the path was golden under his feet.

Albo shambled amiably towards him.

“Nice day for it,” he said.

“Are we walking?”

“I doubt it.”

Harry nodded. They sat down on one of the green benches placed for oval spectators. Albo took a wallet from his pocket, flipped out a paper, teased tobacco into it and passed it to Harry. They rolled their cigarettes with care, appreciating the communal craft of it. The smoke drifted fragrantly between them and into the leaves above. A young couple moved round the shoulder of the running track and into the straight before them. The man moved easily, spare, well-muscled, the woman in a flushed bloom. His heart tightened and he looked away.

“You should be doing a bit of that,” said Albo, gesturing with his cigarette.

“Doing what?”

“Running.”

“So should you.”

“That’s true.”

A flight of lorikeets burst from the flowering gums and swooped away from them in emerald streaks.

“There’s a good story going around,” said Albo. “Gough at the airport.”

Harry smiled. He’d heard it, but it was worth hearing again.

“After he’d left politics. He’s striding ahead, the lackeys behind him with the luggage. He goes through security and all the bells and whistles go off. He never blinks. ‘I think you’ll find it’s my aura,’ he says.” Albo imitated the throaty disdain and fell into a coughing laughter, the smoke escaping from his mouth in puffs.

“The old bastard,” said Harry. “There was a lion.”

“A lion,” Albo spluttered.

“Look what we have now.”

“Rodents.”

“Jack Russells.”

“Not a bloody lion in sight.”

The best government we ever had, Harry thought—just the two of them, Whitlam and Barnard. They split the ministries between them and for two weeks spoke for us, acted for us. It had been the breaking of the dam, of the despair and anguish and, finally, unreasonable hope of a decade. You don’t remember all of it—the war in the jungles excepted, of course—but you do remember that: the hope. Meg in jeans, on one of the marches, her hair falling in a river of light down the lovely line of her back, speaking with grave intensity to a young policeman whose eyes moved uneasily behind his baton. We thought there was only us—on us, hardly more than children, the world of it.

The runners were stretching now, their shoulders shining in the sun.

“Come on, Albo, we’d better do something.”

“’Jesus Is Coming—Look Busy.’”

Harry grinned. “Something like that.”

They stubbed their cigarettes, disposed of them in a bin, and set off. The pools of sunlight on the path were warm on their backs—your life rose to it, thought Harry, like sap.

“How’s Meg?”

Harry shrugged. “Business as usual.”

“She looks great—fit as a flea. Nice.”

Harry said nothing. They sifted through a drift of winter leaves.

Another path joined theirs and they turned into it, around the back of the oval. The runners had pulled on tracksuits—or were they sweats, Harry wondered—and were walking away, their hips meeting from time to time, their hands interlocked. O my dears, he thought.

“I’m going away, Albo.”

“What, for good?”

“ Don’t be ridiculous. Just a trip. To Queensland.”

“You and the rest of the country. Gold Coast?”

“Yes, but not the beaches. The ranges—a mountain—Mount Tamborine.”

“What would you want to do that for?”

“Some research—for the book.”

“Your old poet? At least do a rainforest.”

“She’s not mine,” said Harry, “and she wasn’t old, not even when she was. And there is rainforest on Mount Tamborine. There’s a forest boardwalk named after her.”

They were back at the bench.

“Well, why not,” said Albo. “Any excuse. Strange man, you.”

Harry pursed his lips judiciously. “So they tell me,” he said.

He flew into Coolangatta, which had a pleasantly dishevelled air—still a country airport, in spite of the Gold Coast gloss—and hired a small car. He drove north, between the ocean and the hills. The big B-doubles passed him with irritated roars. The looping line of the volcanic ranges from valleys to saddles to sharp peaks struck against his southern sensibilities, constructed as they were from rounded, flattened, sandstone and slate. He turned off at Oxenford—diverted by the incongruity of that ancient name on this brash coast—and drove across the flats, which near the foothills were dissected by watercourses into small timbered farms. Almost before he was aware of it he was into the mountain.

The hairpins were soon overlooking gullies, some cultivated, others cupping remnants of forest. As the road dipped and climbed the forest closed in, walls of green, shade broken open into pools of sunlight, with traceries of red and blue and yellow as the birds swooped between the trees. You came this way, he said, with Jack, over half a century ago. Did you drive up, in an old wheezing truck, your boxes of books and suitcases tied onto the tray and slipping backwards on the steep grades? No, he decided, those were still the days of country trains and buses. You sat beside him, listening to his talk tumbling over itself. You watched his face, his blue Irish eyes, which were bright with love, as you knew, too, were yours.

At the top of the mountain the road circled beside a small park, housing an information centre. He turned off, parked and entered. He only knew the names they had given to their houses: ‘Quantum’ and ‘Calanthe’—sorry. The young woman, her fair hair tied back into a ponytail, was sceptical: a famous poet, you say? You sure? She went off to call the Council. He sat down to wait, browsing the literature. Parks, gardens, walks, wineries, lookouts, galleries, craft shops, fairs, festivals—a busy tourist centre, these days. Poets, evidently, not on the list. The young woman returned, suitably abashed. Yes, he was right, isn’t that interesting. Calanthe, he told her, is the name of a rare native orchid. He was about to add that Tamborine was the local Koori name, not the name of an instrument, but thought better of it. She thinned her lips and gave him the address.

It was less than two minutes away. He pulled up short, on the other side of the road, from some impulse of politeness, of not wanting to intrude. There it was. A rangy weatherboard house, sitting on the ridge, a second story down the slope. There was a space around it, but hardly anything you could call a garden. He felt obscurely pleased: it had not, at least, been remade. In any case, you hadn’t needed a garden, you and Jack: it had been all about you. Outside, the cycads and strangler figs, the palms and hoop-pines, the orchids, the lovely, tangled falls; inside, the other place, your own.

He got out of the car and walked along the footpath, to a break between the houses where he could see beyond their facades. The ground fell away over the tops of the trees and across perhaps twenty kilometres to the blue of the Pacific. Out there somewhere was the Reef. You sailed over it, in a barge, Jack a deckhand, you a cook. You saw the coral gardens, as they were then, in their full glory, before the starfish and the bleaching. You fought for them, against the politicians and companies who wanted to drill it. And you held them back. For a little while longer.

And that is the point, isn’t it. You never walked away. From the pillaged land, from its dispossessed people, from the lunatic ambitions of nations and their nuclear obscenities. Somehow you held steady and looked at it, and fought it. You even made it into art, transmuted it, poetry that people loved. You hardly think of Australians as loving poetry, but they loved you. That’s something, to speak for a people, the best of them, the best of us. You and Jack, your partnership of fire.

He returned to the car. A Landrover pulled up at Calanthe—he found himself using the name, although there was no heritage notice of any kind, just another Queensland weatherboard house. A couple emerged from the car, with two young children, a boy and a girl, and headed inside.

We were swamped, in the end. We looked away. It closed in, became a pinched thing: from the assault on a world of suffering, to the making of a living. It was pusillanimous, small-souled. We didn’t have your spiritual toughness, the fifth-generation bones of the country. We were diminished. We diminished ourselves. It’s difficult to forgive, each other, to forgive each other.

He looked back to the house, and its family. He thought of getting out, of stopping them and telling them, it seemed to be important, but they were gone before he had resolved upon it. In any case, they looked content; and the Landrover was a recent model. Why not? he said. He started the car, swung into a u-turn and drove away, watching Calanthe in the mirror until it dwindled and disappeared, and then as an after-image all the way down the mountain.

On an impulse, he called Albo.

“Harry? Where are you?”

“Coolangatta. Waiting for the flight.”

“How did it go? You track her down, your old poet?”

“Yes. Took a while. They’d never heard of her up there.”

“Well, that’s old Queensland for you. Uncle Jo had it under martial law, remember that?”

“I remember.”

“Long time ago.”

“Long time. What have you been up to?”

“Nothing. Gave up smoking.”

“You didn’t.”

“As of today.”

“What are we going to do now?”

“Well, I don’t know. Got to strike a blow sometime, don’t you?”

“Strike a blow, yes.”

“Next thing you know we’ll be jogging.”

“Stand easy, soldier.”

“Yeah, well, see you when you get back. Best to Meg. It’s time, brother.”

“Yes, it’s time. It’s always time.”

It was early evening when the taxi dropped him home. The evening star was just visible in the west, a steady point of gold in the greening flames. He came through the door. Meg stood in the hall, before the mirror. The silver dress clung to her thighs. She balanced on high heels, a hand fluttering at her necklace. She turned to him. Her face was wet with tears.

He placed his luggage on the polished boards, took the few steps and put his arms around her. She stood unresisting. The bones of her shoulders shook against him.

“I know,” he said, and pressed his lips to her long, soft hair.

© Geoffrey Wells 2020

Wendell Berry on “The Idea of a Local Economy”

In these days of international economic crisis–days when the economic underpinnings of the global economy are being exposed as seriously flawed–it is worth looking at other ways forward.  What is new about this global financial crisis is that no one can see how it can be reversed by policy intervention: the fiscal and monetary levers that have been used to stimulate economic growth seem to have been almost entirely exhausted.  Policy-makers are reduced to the expedient of printing money: the last stand of a bankrupt system of thought and practice.  I am ruminating on the need to write a book entitled “The end of economics”; because surely, if economics regards itself as a science, subject to the scientific discipline of “conjecture and refutation” (to quote Karl Popper), then the present extended series of crises begins to look like a serious refutation which threatens the legitimacy of its intellectual foundations.  So it is useful, as I say, to look at other ways forward.

In 2001 Wendell Berry wrote a piece for Orion magazine on “The Idea of a Local Economy.”  He has written many other pieces along these lines, gathered in such publications as “Home Economics” (1987) and “What Matters?  Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth” (2010).   This piece seems to me to be particularly apposite to the times. Wendell Berry is one of those rare writers who think clearly, write beautifully and are fearless in taking disparaged positions on moral grounds.  Often, I find, he simply says (very well) what everyone knows to be true, on the family and community level, but which national populations and their policy-makers find it convenient, for reasons of short-term self-interest, to ignore.  A particular virtue of his critiques is that they don’t remain critiques: he has something to offer in place of the current conventional wisdoms.  He writes on behalf of  ordinary people and their ordinary, human concern for the welfare of their families and neighbours, and for the welfare of the world–a conspicious contribution to the public discourse on how we are to live.

There is a proverb of sorts, variously attributed (I like Benjamin Franklin, as it sounds like him, although it probably wasn’t), to the effect that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”  I leave you to draw the implications.  Wendell Berry offers a different thing.  At the very least he seems to be in and around the right place, which he firmly believes–and I agree–is likely to be local, not global.

Wendell Berry The Idea of a Local Economy

Ian Lowe’s “A Big Fix”

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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.

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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).

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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).”

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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.