Page 903 - Week 03 - Thursday, 10 March 2005

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The Measuring our progress report uses the ecological footprint to show that the way we live in Canberra is indeed unsustainable. The main value of the ecological footprint is to provide a comparison of relative environmental and social impacts of different groups of people, measured in the amount of land required to sustain individuals across a group. Simple mathematics tells us that, if the earth’s land mass were divided equally among the entire population, there would be around 1.5 hectares per person. This, of course, includes mountains and other areas unavailable for cultivation, but it is a useful metaphor for revealing that there are limits to our ever-increasing consumption and inevitable inequities. There is a range between seven hectares per person—such as in Canada and the United States—and half a hectare per person in Bangladesh. You will not be surprised to find that Australians are among the highest consumers of resources, but you might not have realised that Canberrans are the worst of the lot. The average Canberran needs 5.7 hectares of land to sustain the lifestyle they enjoy. Of course, there is variation in that range, with the richest 20 per cent using close to 6.7 hectares and the poorest 20 per cent using 3.6 hectares.

Let me say right now that I am not making an argument for reducing incomes. While I certainly see equity as a key ingredient of sustainability, I do not think that making everyone poor is the way to achieve it and you will be relieved to know that I do not plan to argue for this here. I do, however, believe that societies as well off as ours have a responsibility as global citizens concerned about sustainability and equity within and between future and current generations to reduce the size of our ecological footprint. At the same time, we need to be working to assist others to improve their standard of living without significantly increasing their resource use. After all, we do not have the three earths necessary for everyone to live like we do!

Too often governments shaft the onus for reducing resource use back to the individual. Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute calls this the “privatisation of environmental responsibility”. This is an extension of the market-led economic view in which government’s waive their responsibility for leadership to the doubtful wisdom of the world’s biggest business interests, which have far more control over the market than the small percentage of householders prepared to go to the trouble of reducing their resource use.

Take the issue of plastic bags. When the Irish government imposed a levy on plastic bags their use plummeted. In Australia, plastic bags, along with cigarette butts, make up a large percentage of the rubbish littering our streets, blowing in the wind, hanging off trees and blocking up waterways. Yet none of our governments is yet prepared to go the tiny step of adding a charge to encourage more shoppers to take their own bags. Hamilton points out that it is no coincidence that the “Say NO to plastic bags campaign” is funded by Coles Myer, Franklins, IGA and Woolworths.

I want to acknowledge that the reductions called for in our motion would have been just a start to the changes in urban and building design which will be necessary for us to guarantee that we pass to our children a life at least comparable to ours. If adopted, our changes would need to be followed by similar regulations for commercial developments, by significant investment in public transport and by requirements to government departments to set indicators for progress to sustainability that they would report on in their annual reports. A program for retrofitting public buildings would be needed, with

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