‘HOW DO I EVEN BEGIN to come to terms with this barrage of bad news?’ So begins a journal entry I wrote in March this year after reading recent reports on climate change.
WHAT A LOVELY DAY FOR SCRAREMONGERING. On 7 July this year, South Australia experienced a cold snap. As residents turned on their heaters, the still and cloudy conditions meant wind and solar power couldn’t contribute much to meeting electricity demand. The last coal plant at Port August had closed a few months before, pushed out of the market by renewable energy.
DISCONTENT HAS REACHED AUSTRALIA. The brash anti-establishment populism of the Tea Party and Trump in the US, Brexit and UKIP in the UK and a menagerie of left and right parties in Europe has finally washed up on our shores.
BY THE TIME POLLS CLOSE SATURDAY, tens of thousands of voters in marginal seats will have received ‘election scorecards’ from environment groups.
IT’S A CREDO of consumer capitalism: never address the cause when you can create an industry treating the symptoms. This is the logic behind many profitable businesses, from cholesterol-lowering pills that compensate for poor diet and lack of exercise to factories that recycle unnecessary packaging.
Now there’s a new technofix on the table, and it’s called geoengineering.
A FEW WORDS could build political will to tackle climate change much faster. Just a few. The problem is no one is quite sure what they are.
It would have made a great April Fools joke — if it wasn’t only February. On Wednesday, we woke to the news that Greg Hunt, environment minister in the most anti-environment government in Australian history, had been awarded ‘World’s Best Minister’ at an international summit in Dubai.
Toxic, poisonous, deadly – in the last few years, sugar has attracted some less-than-sweet commentary both here and overseas. But Australia remains one of the world’s biggest sugar exporters. Greg Foyster heads north to discover what effect, if any, the recent controversy is having on the industry.
BRIAN COURTICE COMES from a long line of cane growers. His grandfather started cutting cane in 1910 and farming it in 1922. Two of his grandfather’s brothers formed the Sugar Workers Union in Bundaberg and organised a canecutters’ strike in 1911. Brian’s father, also a cane grower, was a member of the board for the local sugar mill.
For three generations the Courtice men have lived and worked at Sunnyside, a nearly 50-hectare farm in the Woongarra region southeast of Bundaberg. And for almost all of those days, sugar has been a mainstay of life. Now 64, Courtice remembers school holidays spent cutting green cane in the fields. In the mornings he’d put a mound of sugar on his cornflakes, and three sugars in his tea.
But Courtice doesn’t put sugar in his tea anymore. Sitting on his front veranda and nursing a mug of Bushells sweetened only with honey, he explains that as he got older he became increasingly concerned about the relationship between sugar consumption and dental cavities. Courtice has the weathered skin of a farmer – his hands are tanned and calloused, with crescents of dirt under the fingernails – but his teeth have suffered worse deterioration. “I’ve got a mouth full of fillings from when I was a kid from using too much sugar,” he says.
Heatwaves have killed more Australians than any other form of natural disaster. Although there are now signs extreme weather patterns are being taken more seriously, is enough being done – or will more vulnerable people die?
SUFFERING THROUGH A scorching summer’s day is, quite literally, an act of patriotism. Last year, a group of academics from Macquarie University published a study examining extreme heat (meaning unusually hot weather for that location) in Australia from 1844 to 2010. They discovered that more people had died from the heat on 27 January than any other date, and suggested this was probably due to the aftermath of boozy Australia Day barbecues in the sun.
It says a lot about Australians’ attitude to hot weather. At the peak of summer, Australians gather in the sun, cook over coals, and then drink diuretic beverages, pissing away every last drop of deference to the climate.
OH HOW WE LOVE cheaper petrol. After years of writing pain-at-the-pump puns, journalists are giddy at the prospect of prices heading south for once.
I HAVE A cause to promote, but I’m not asking you to sign a petition, lobby your local member of parliament or take to the streets in a procession of orderly outrage. I don’t want you to do anything, because what I want to take action against is taking action itself.
I am proposing a National Day of Not Doing Much.
On the 35th anniversary of Australia’s first forest protest, Greg Foyster re-examines the so-called ‘fight for the forests’, and asks if the old image of greenies versus loggers is still relevant.
THE BLACK AND WHITE PHOTO shows two uniformed policemen dragging a male protester down a dirt track. His clothes are filthy and tattered, his hair matted in long dreadlocks. This is the first public image of Australia’s first forest blockade, which erupted over plans to log remnant rainforest at Terania Creek, a quick Kombi ride from the hippy enclave of Nimbin in northeast New South Wales.
The photo occupied the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 18 August 1979, which happened to be the 13th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. The parallels were obvious, and 10 days later they were made explicit in the paper’s first big feature article on the blockade. “It was like Vietnam,” wrote journalist Craig McGregor. “Dense green jungle, choppers in the sky, men with guns shouting into walkie-talkies, a bulldozer smashing through trees, people being carried off…”
The battle lines were clearly drawn: ‘straight’ versus counter-culture, developers versus conservationists, old versus young, loggers versus greenies. Thirty-five years later the issue is still portrayed in the same militaristic terms – as a dramatic clash between timber workers and environmentalists in the bush.
COMPOST IS ITSELF A COMPOST OF IDEAS. The modern method was invented in the early 1930s when British agricultural scientist Sir Albert Howard witnessed the fertilising techniques of Indian peasant farmers, and began to conduct his own experiments in fermenting agricultural waste. Eastern wisdom, Western science and Mother Earth mysticism combined to create the miraculous process we still use today. Sir Albert’s compost principles, published in 1931, remain as relevant as ever. An efficient compost needs a carbon-nitrogen ratio of about 33:1, which means for every bucket of nitrogen-rich ‘greens’ (kitchen scraps, lawn clippings or weeds) you should add a bucket of carbon-rich ‘browns’ (dried leaves, hay or shredded paper). The trick is to keep the compost moist but not wet; a bit like the texture of a well-wrung-out sponge, or, in Sir Albert’s milieu, a sweaty colonialist’s breeches…
As the Australian public baulks at even a modest carbon price, climate change activists have set their sights on what is pragmatic and convenient, not what is truly necessary, writes Greg Foyster.
ON JUNE 18, the Australian Senate launched an inquiry into “The Abbott Government’s attacks on Australia’s environment, and their effects on our natural heritage and future prosperity”.
Initiated by the Greens, the inquiry lists a litany of grievances: abolishing the Climate Commission and the Biodiversity Fund, attempting to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and carbon price, cutting funding to Environmental Defenders Offices, and attempting to de-list a swathe of forest from the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Areas.
It was an obvious political ploy, and the message was clear: the Coalition is tearing through Australia’s environmental programs like a Hummer bush-bashing in the Daintree.
PERCHED ON A BABY SEAT at the back of an extra-long “ute” bicycle, Woody Ulman Jones scans the roadside greenery for edible treats. Up ahead, he sees a wild loquat tree and shouts, “More, more, more!” His mother Meg Ulman slowly applies the brakes, and the bike comes to a stop. It’s snack time.
Although only eighteen months old, Woody is already playing a role in putting food on the table. “Woody is an amazing forager,” says Meg. “While we’re pedalling with our heads down, he’s our chief spotter.”
Woody is the most recent addition to Artist as Family, a five-mammal artistic troupe that includes the primate hunter-gardeners Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman, their young cubs Zephyr and Woody, and their trusty canine companion Zero the Jack Russell. Since November 2013 this motley crew has pedalled and picnicked their way up Australia’s east coast, riding more than 2000 kilometres from their home in Daylesford, Victoria, to northern New South Wales, gathering material for a new book called Free Food.
SAY YOU’RE IN THE MARKET for a second car. You’ve already got the station wagon to drop off the kids at school, but your partner drives it and you want your own set of wheels, something zippy and hassle-free. You travel into the city for work so it’s got to be small and easy to park in tight spots. And fuel efficient, that’s important too. Money’s tight enough as it is.
If you went shopping for a vehicle with all these characteristics – small, fast, efficient and suitable for short trips into the city – what would you end up with?
You’d end up with a bike.
SIXTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD Bill McKenzie stands in the corridor on the eighth floor of the government housing complex where he lives, pointing accusingly at a thermometer fastened to the wall. He explains that at 4pm on January 17, as Melbourne sweltered through one of south-east Australia’s worst heatwaves, the thermometer read 43 degrees — hotter than it was outside.
LAST YEAR, my partner and I imagined setting up our dream home. We’d just returned from cycling 6500 kilometres up the east coast of Australia exploring simpler ways of living, and we fantasised about a bush block with a rustic cottage and vegie patch – our very own organic outpost in the hills. After ogling property porn online, we conceded that even the cheapest land in remotest Tasmania was beyond our meagre budget. But I still clung to my mental blueprint, picturing wooden floorboards, an antique Aga stove and compressed-earth walls.
A FEW WEEKS AGO, as a cool change swept away Melbourne’s mid-January heatwave, my partner and I went for a walk around our block. The air temperature had plummeted about ten degrees in 30 minutes, but as we passed a new two-storey home with no surrounding vegetation and a mound of gravel for a front lawn, I felt a surge of residual warmth. The house’s dark-grey exterior seemed to shimmer with stored-up heat.
Hurrying on, I wondered how this house — and so many others like it — would cope with future heatwaves.
THE FIRST TIME my partner, Sophie Chishkovsky, suggested cycling up the east coast of Australia, I thought she was crazy. “That’s impossible!” I said. I was an inner-city yuppie, and my only daily physical activity was a 5km bike ride from home to work, after which I sat at a desk for 10 hours. I was part man, part adjustable office chair. How would I cope with pedalling thousands of kilometres?
The bigger question, of course, was why do it in the first place? I was on the cusp of my thirties and had started to think more seriously about settling down, but the idea of committing to a mortgage in the suburbs, and the decades of full-time work required to pay it off, filled me with dread. I wanted to explore some other options – not just the obvious ones – before embarking on the next phase.
THROUGHOUT THE 2013 Federal election campaign, both major parties have pledged to address ‘cost of living’ pressures. Kevin Rudd used the phrase 14 times during a press conference the day after calling the election, and the Liberal Party includes ‘cost of living’ among its 11-point criticism of Labor on its campaign website. Tony Abbott’s recent announcement of a generous paid parental leave scheme is another example of tapping into middle-class anxiety over making ends meet. But is the average Australian household really ‘doing it tough’?
THE TERM ‘CLIMATE ALARMIST’ is usually reserved for high-profile activists, scientists or politicians — think Bill McKibben, Tim Flannery or Al Gore — who raise concerns about the catastrophic impacts of future global warming. But with the release of some frightening reports over the last 12 months, those who deny the scientific consensus on climate change will have to expand their list of ‘alarmists’ to include some unlikely suspects — the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency.
From March 2012 to November 2012, my partner and I cycled 6500 kilometres up Australia researching the simple living movement for a book titled Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race, to be published spring 2013 (through Affirm Press). You can read about our adventure in this Age profile or at our website www.simplelives.com.au.
From the blurb:
Greg Foyster quits his job in advertising and decides to live more simply. Looking for inspiration, he and his partner Sophie cycle from Melbourne to Far North Queensland (via Tasmania, naturally) scouting out ideas.
Preposterously underprepared, they are propelled by the inspiring and eccentric characters they meet along the way – from a forest activist living up a tree to an 18th-century woodsman and a monk walking barefoot through Queensland.
Featuring eye-opening encounters with DIY downshifters and leading figures in sustainability, Changing Gears is a jaunty adventure that explores an important question for the future: can we be happier with less?
WE COULDN’T have chosen a worse time to ride. It’s been raining all day, there are floods in the state’s north-east, it’s nearly peak hour and the rapidly darkening sky is threatening to unleash another torrent. Yet we’re about to enter four lanes of traffic on Dandenong Road in Malvern East, following a route on which our guide, Lachlan Toose, has come off his bike five times in two years (when we first met, he held up his elbow to show the result of a recent run-in with a delivery van door. “Just scabs,” he said. “To be expected”). Now we’re on a tour of his collisions, a 12-kilometre journey from Orrong Road, Balaclava, where he works as a primary school teacher, to his home near Warrigal Road in Camberwell. Toose speeds up on his blue Giant racing bike, mud flicking from the back tyre onto his T-shirt. Up ahead, the Dandenong Road intersection is a lagoon of shallow puddles. Toose rarely sees cyclists out this far from the relative safety of the inner city and, apparently, neither do drivers: shortly after we cross Dandenong Road, a silver Holden hatchback swerves in front of him to reverse park. Toose says it’s comonplace: a driver cuts him off once every three weeks, someone opens a car door on him – an illegal act – once every few months, and he receives verbal abuse fortnightly, with the usual insult an unimaginative but revealing, “Get a car!”
THE ADVERTISING INDUSTRY can sell just about anything. Whether promoting the slave trade in the eighteenth century, peddling quack medicines in the nineteenth or flogging cigarettes to impressionable youth in the twentieth, advertisers have persuaded the public to consume an astonishing variety of unethical, ineffective and sometimes deadly products. But there is one thing the advertising industry has always had trouble selling – itself.