QUARTERLY ESSAY 9 Beautiful Lies



Barney Foran

It is easy to be romanced by Tim Flannery’s engaging polemic, the turn of phrase, the millennium captured in a single phrase and the catholicity of his tastes in history, peoples, politics and science. It is the sort of essay that people read to each other savouring a word sequence, delighting in a well-thrust dagger and captured by a range of ecological insights that only a well-trod traveller in time can bring. A scientist examining Flannery’s huge canvas could easily become pedantic and lose the broad thrust and forget Flannery’s role as a provocateur. Instead I’ll adopt a role similar to Flannery’s, put the data to one side and present my own polemic where he left off.

Australia does not have a water problem, a biodiversity problem and a population problem as Tim Flannery suggests. In reality our environmental problems are driven by a protracted trade problem and an affluence problem. Most national policy churn and environmental hand-wringing is aimed at ameliorating the knock-on effects of these primary drivers rather than attacking the causes directly.

First to trade! Because of history, location and preference we have locked ourselves into paying for imports by trading in food, fibre, minerals and some manufactured products. True, we are increasing our trading acumen with wine to Europe, cars to Saudi Arabia and farmed tuna to Japan, giving great copy for ministers of both persuasions telling us how bright we’ve become since the Hawke and Keating era modernised our economy. But beautiful lies abound. For every one billion dollars in hard-won car exports we still import three billion dollars worth of flash transport from Japan and Germany, so preserving a three-to-one imports-to-exports ratio that has been with us for some time. Generally, we have locked ourselves into high energy and water transaction costs for every hard-won export dollar. We wonder, myopically, why our inland rivers are becoming saline drains and why we are derided by most countries for our greenhouse emission profligacy and our Kyoto non-compliance.

Perhaps one solution lies in finding alternative methods of trade exchange such as bartering, rather than writing our trade contracts in dollars, yen or euros that in the end discount the value of an Australian dollar. Australia exports more water in net terms (embodied in traded goods) than we supply to our cities and towns. Prices are set in world terms, economists talk about comparative and competitive advantage, and every Christmas time our national dailies promote the “water crisis” while ministers meet and Wentworth Groups advise. Trade goes almost unmentioned, although local papers take twice-yearly swipes at rice and cotton growers as though they were the cause, rather than the symptom, of the problem. The import bill may have to adjust radically because the environmental account is, seemingly, always in the red.

Water-poor countries abound, some with items that we require and pay lots for. Saudi Arabia (oil), Korea (manufactures) and Singapore (computers and musical instruments) are all surprisingly water-poor on a per capita basis. In twenty years’ time we may exchange goods on the basis of the environmental services embodied in them rather than using a financial rate of exchange. Barter could be catching.

Alternatively, if world trade attributed environmental negatives to the country of consumption rather than the country of production, then the parlous state of local environmental accounts could be sheeted home to the consciences of consumers in downtown Singapore, Los Angeles and Tokyo. However, our greenhouse account still stays in the red, since what we lose in exporting the emissions with the aluminium will return in spades, embodied in consumer electronics and fancy cars.

Then on to personal affluence, the central driver of Australia’s trade problem. Flannery is correct when he says that the more people, the more problems, because technology cannot deliver a big enough finger to stop the flood from the dyke. It does not matter whether the consumer is black, white or brindle, a consumer is still a consumer. Technology tends to produce as many environmental problems as it solves. As a race, humankind delights in newness and difference. When there are no paddocks to plough, no forests to fell and no web pages to design, we salve our beleaguered spirits with a trip to the shopping mall or the e-commerce portal. Consumption and affluence makes us feel good, it makes jobs and it makes the economy grow. It is a brave commentator who would question this way of living.

Beautiful lies abound in terms like “sustainable consumption”. We are kept busy sorting our rubbish for the recycling bin without really knowing whether the wheelie bin culture provides any net benefit in energy and material terms. We could find out, if we wanted. We could design society as a new-age chemical plant where every output is an input to another cycle, another product or another service. But urban Australia is a rather anarchical beast and perhaps we’d lose the magic of the pizza shop and the eternal car yard if we attempted to implement some grand design. The thought that we might consider some top-down overall design which intersected with some bottom-up consumer action is a rather heavy concept that smacks of a centrally planned economy. Let the market fix itself!

But could we ever change and would we want to? I remember a discussion at a conference about Sustainable Seattle. It started with an urban stormwater problem caused by intense thunder-pumps and too many hard surfaces. The Seattle engineers found that tree-scapes (slowing down the water) were more effective than concrete drains. When the streets were treed, the people came back, the neighbourhoods and their local shops emerged, people walked on the streets, the streets were safe and people had a life again apart from cable TV and the blank stare of the shopping mall. At a micro-scale this is happening in some suburban blocks in Australia. But it is local government stuff and seemingly what the people want. Unfortunately it’s not the stuff of how you’d run a “real” country.

But somehow we have to substitute the rush and excitement of a real life for the rush brought on by buying and owning things. Flannery’s picture of “mothers with grown-up families wanting to save whales and forests” is fascinating. But how do we turn ardent corporate managers into consumption misers who care more for clean air and clean water than a corporate spreadsheet and a profitable bottom line?

To supplement Flannery’s eight coda items, here are six physical realities that are precursors to beating the beautiful lies at their own game.

Reality one is that the composition of Australia’s international trade is what drives environmental decline. We need to foment a revolution in what we grow and, most importantly, in what goods we are prepared to trade.

Reality two is that shortening the production chain and bringing the producers and consumers into physical proximity could bring many social and environmental issues into confluence. This does not mean building jumbo jets and advanced computers in the local community hall. But it may mean vegetables and fruit becoming seasonal again, so that I won’t be able to buy Californian grapefruit in Esperance in the middle of an Australian summer.

Reality three is that the prices we pay for many sorts of food in Australia may have to change appreciably because of the water, land and energy impost of the current production systems. Current ideology sees that this price increase should be levied at the production base or at the farm gate. Other ideologies see that the polluter-pays principle can equally be applied to the consumer in the grand sweep of things where the individual consumer is both the driver of the economy as well as ultimate recipient of all the goods and services that it produces. What about a cappuccino tax to pay for the water and greenhouse cost of the milk production chain?

Reality four is that urban Australia is directly responsible for the parlous state of Australia’s environmental quality. Urban demand for cheap services and products from Australian landscapes is a primary driver. Of equal importance is urban imports which in turn put more pressure on the farm and the mine to balance our external trading account under the current structure and functioning of the Australian economy.

Reality five is that corporate and government managers are running a marathon with blindfolds when it comes to key infrastructure and machine stocks that determine how Australia works physically. These stocks determine our long-term future, they are slow moving and turn over every fifty years or so. Yet we implement first-home-owner schemes without any cross-compliance requirements for greenhouse emissions. We sink billions of dollars of industry assistance into the Australian car industry without the requirement that they produce hybrid-engined cars that all government fleets are required to purchase.

Reality six is that urban Australia, home to three-quarters of our citizens, is becoming critically energy-dependent and lacks the robustness and resilience to deal with energy shocks that will be with us from 2020 onwards unless we start a revolutionary response tomorrow. Each year the fossil fuel industries in Australia receive six billion dollars of subsidy and we still buy the story that in general renewable energy is not price-competitive and that the propellers of wind-power generators kill endangered bird species.

Perhaps the biggest lie of all, foisted on us by the national spin doctors, is that economic growth forever, at a rate of 3–4% per annum, could ever be compatible with the concept of environmental sustainability. For every consumption dollar that I spend in today’s Australian economy, I cause the use of thirty-seven litres of water, I use the energy equivalent of one quarter of a litre of petrol and I stimulate three square metres of land disturbance.

If Australians are to “rescue the future” and refute most of the beautiful lies, urgent and direct action is required on three fronts.

The first is to acknowledge that every consumption dollar has an impact. Much is heard of the many benefits that flow from each additional dollar, but somehow the negatives are always someone else’s problem. Tim Flannery gets the lie just right when he describes the “sheep-carrying-capacity story” that was ascribed to Minister Ruddock by the Australian’s Paul Kelly. So consumption dollars are great and we all love them. However, we’d better start labelling each of them so that we can judge for ourselves whether the downstream effects of a hundred-kilometre car journey, a kilogram of beef and a litre of wine are just the gift we had in mind for our children’s children.

The second is to change the footing of the Australian economy from promoting personal consumption to encouraging investment into brainpower, robust communities, urban infrastructure and repairing the farm and the river. National income must be derived from investments into fine design and great ideas rather than bulk consumption. Currently $600 billion in superannuation funds is slopping around the system looking for a place to work. The investment community tell me that good projects are few, apart from a few one-offs such as buying Sydney Airport and building yet another connector ring road to join one node of congestion to another.

The third is to start valuing people as solutions rather than relying on technological wizardry. Technology can certainly help us stall many of the effects promoted by the beautiful lies. But for many environmental challenges, technological solutions are like bandaids and aspirins for a broken leg. We need to get past the symptoms and attack the real cause of the pain.

Rescuing the future from the current trajectory we appear to be on is the most urgent task facing Australia. Flannery despairs that we have frittered away the opportunities that Federation brought us a hundred years ago. Long-term population modelling1 tells us that we have a twenty-year window of unparalleled good fortune before past indecision will catch up with us. While in 2020 Australia will not turn into a pumpkin, it is then that we will start our slide into ageing, arable land loss, oil depletion and river salinity. We can avoid the worst effects of these, but do we have the courage?

Now is the time to create an era that we could be proud of, when we fixed up the place. The next ten years will tell.


Barney Foran is an environmental scientist and the co-author of the report for the federal government, Future Dilemmas: Options to 2050 for Australia’s Population, Technology, Resources and Environment, which was published in November 2002.

1. See Barney Foran and Franzi Poldy, Future Dilemmas: Options to 2050 for Australia’s Population, Technology, Resources and Environment, November 2002, http://www.cse.csiro.au/research/program5/futuredilemmas


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 9, Beautiful Lies. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 10, Bad Company.


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