Quarry and farm
I had promised more on what I thought of Tim Flannery's keynote address on climate change at The Age Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF). I'm refraining from critiquing the presentation itself, because two weeks later is hardly a timely 'review'. Instead, I'm pulling together some ideas and reflections of what struck me from his talk. I'm also drawing on some thoughts from one of Helen Caldicott's sessions at the MWF.
I am planning another longer post critiquing Flannery's green consumerism approach to solving global warming for another time, so this won't be exhaustive. Stay tuned for that.
One theme stands out from Flannery's critique of Australia's failure to address global warming in a meaningful way. He describe Australia as a 'quarry and farm'. He argues that Australia has for so long seen itself as a source of raw materials – from mining and agriculture – for export to the rest of the world, and that this puts us at a disadvantage in dealing with global warming in two main ways:
- Our attitude of 'buyer beware' – that the buyer should bear the ultimate responsibility and costs for the negative impact of the product we sell – can no longer be sanctioned. Flannery argues that Australia cannot just keep digging up coal and uranium from our land and shipping it off without concern for the environmental, social and political impact it has across the globe.
What Flannery doesn't spell out strongly enough, is that because of the centrality of mining – especially coal – exports to Australia's economy, our government's political will to make any meaningful changes to our greenhouse gas emissions is thoroughly compromised, if not corrupted.
He makes a clear enough case that a change in this 'buyer beware' attitude is required if Australia were to start mining and exporting more uranium – especially with the threat of nuclear proliferation in our region and beyond, and the dangers in processing nuclear power from the uranium we export. He insists that Australia must take greater responsibility for the dangers inherent in the uranium it sells.
Unfortunately, the dangers aren't enough for Flannery to disavow his support for nuclear power in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, it appears to lead him to support Australia becoming a site for the storing of the growing nuclear waste that will come from the 'inevitable' increase in nuclear power. His twist is so close to Howard's: that Australia must take responsibility for the waste products from the uranium it exports!
What is unfortunate about Flannery's stance on nuclear power and waste, in this regard, is that according to Helen Caldicott, he admits to knowing very little about the science of the nuclear cycle. Long-time anti-nuclear campaigner Caldicott told her Writers Festival audiences that she has heard from students who attended others of Flannery's talks that he had admitted to knowing little of the science of the nuclear cycle – much to her and her audiences' shock! She criticises him for recommending something without full knowledge of it, including its dangers – a failure she considers pretty bad for a scientist. Is this a case of Flannery's 'Buyer Beware' hypocricy?
- With the 'resources' sector (spinning money from digging stuff out of the ground and shipping it across the globe) and the agricultural industry so entrenched in Australian politics and economy, we are missing the opportunity to turn to manufacturing and exporting renewable energy technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Flannery pointed to Australia loosing its leading photovoltaic cell researcher to Germany, who are also pursuing a huge industry programme of R&D and manufacturing solar panels. We have huge potential for investing in research and manufacturing in geothermal, solar and wind generated renewable energy, but without government or industry support, we are missing out. (Not strangely, this is something Flannery, Caldicott and a host of other environmentalists agree on)
I would see this as a problem with Australia's industry overall - the dismantling of Australia's manufacturing industry has long hamstrung us – but so long as the mining sector keeps the finance, IT, insurance and other services sectors happy in this country, we won't look up until it's too late.
So, isn't this still the 'Banana Republic' that former ALP Prime Minister Paul Keating so disparaged – an economy built on exporting minerals, wheat and wool, and importing everything else? Keating wanted to move Australia beyond primary industry exports, but ended up assisting in the gutting of our manufacturing industry. So much for that.
This includes Inuit reports of drowning polar bears (sign of polar ice-cap melt) and evidence of a first-ever polar bear-brown bear hybrid in Alaska (the warming is driving polar bears south due to food scarcity etc).
However, I feel that Flannery has been at such great pains to impart to his audience the sense of impending doom speeding to overtake us faster than expected, that he has become so captured by the panic. Flannery has stared so hard into the abyss that I fear he is not seeing clearly enough anymore, or looking deeply enough into the solutions he suggests to us.