Future directions?

I’m starting to think I’ll get this blog back to issues on sustainability more directly related to the Lockyer Valley.  I know that the big issues that I’ve been canvassing of late have everything to do with whether or not life and land use in the Lockyer Valley are sustainable – only someone with tunnel vision could deny it.  But my original aim in starting this blog was to give an account of our attempts, and those of others in the Lockyer, to live and work more sustainably.

And I have to admit that right now, ground down as I am by the pitiful spectacle that our political masters are making of themselves in this election campaign, I yearn for simpler issues.  Maybe I’ll start another blog about the big issues, and maybe it could contain other material, like just how much Australia has moved away from being the country of the “Fair go” for all.  Or maybe not …

Anyway, to start on the path to simpler things, here’s what seems to me to be a typical view of the Lockyer Valley.  It’s one of the rejects from a photographic assignment I did five or six years ago.  No title needed.

WaterCannon_DSCF0955_BLOG small

What’s behind the major weakness in governance in Australia? And why does it matter?

The following is reblogged from today’s issue of The Conversation.  It describes the major governance factor preventing good decision-making that would lead to sustainable use of Australia’s resources – at all levels, from local government right through to national.

It is affecting our economy, our environment, our quality of life, and our individual finances – and it is destroying the future for our children and grandchildren.  Yet the tools that we need to change the situation are now available.  This should be the major election issue, but it isn’t even on the radar for either of the major parties or the majority of the minor parties.

A more sustainable Australia: measuring success

By Carl Obst, University of Melbourne and John Wiseman, University of Melbourne

A more sustainable Australia. As the 2013 election campaign continues, we’ve asked academics to look at some of the long-term issues affecting Australia – the issues that will shape our future.

How successful is Australia? You’d think we’d have a fairly easy answer to that – you could get it by looking at our gross domestic product, or GDP. But over the years we’ve gained a number of other success indicators, from health and wellbeing, to the environment, and they often tell a different story.

In 1968, US senator Robert Kennedy observed that GDP “measures everything … except that which makes life worthwhile”. These days not many experts believe GDP is enough to measure whether a country is succeeding.

It’s obvious that we should be using a winder range of progress measures. The real question is why we still struggle to bring those measures into decision making. Why don’t we take it for granted that all decisions must balance economic, social and environmental factors as a matter of course?

Why do we struggle?

People have a collective lack of willingness to think long term, beyond five to ten years. This is the normal state of humanity – we dislike change. This approach works well when external conditions pose no obvious threat. But this means we can end up like the frog in hot water, which doesn’t realise the water is warming until it’s too late.

We tend to assume that whatever is the case now will remain the same. This leaves us in a difficult position when some of the things we depend on, such as functioning environments and societies, gradually deteriorate.

Another problem is that these problems are collective, rather than individual. This means that when resources are used by everyone – such as ocean fisheries, or the atmosphere – self-interest always wins out and the resources suffers. This, known as the tragedy of the commons, continues to be a major problem for global resources.

We also fear things we believe are complex. Our approach to complexity is to divide it up: we find it easier to consider economic, environmental and social aspects independently. We can become quite expert in each one. But we lose the ability to consider all factors simultaneously. It makes it difficult for leaders to make balanced decision when these aspects have all become separated.

Reinforcing this separation, we have developed information that does not support balanced, integrated decision making. For example, over the past 50-60 years economic information has had a significantly larger weight in decision making, notwithstanding the significant increase in the amount of social and scientific data over the same time period.

Combined with the tendency to short attention spans, this leads to more weight being placed on information about current activity (such as income and consumption) rather than longer term drivers of change such as the condition of public infrastructure, the environment and social capital. We have information on the condition of these assets but it tends to not be integrated or organised in a meaningful way. That makes it hard to use it efficiently in standard analytical and related frameworks – let alone broader public debate.

The consistent recording of trends over time provides information to assess past decisions, correct mistakes and visualise the future. In the wonderful words of Abraham Lincoln, “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how do to it”.

Developing the habit of recording past events in a structured and widely disseminated fashion also has the significant side effect of reducing apparent complexity. There is nothing simple about the economic system or the measure of GDP that we use to reflect its performance. But we are now attuned to it and thus, as a collective, see the economy through a different lens to the one we use for environmental or social issues.

How do we adapt our point of view?

One solution would be to change human nature. This is likely to be a tough ask. A more practical approach is to record trends in economic, environmental and social factors, on which we can base decision in the future.

Fortunately, new frameworks for this sort of data collection are being implemented in Australia and globally. In 2012 the United Nations statistics group adopted an international statistical standard: the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA). It integrates environmental data (such as flows of water, energy, waste, and emissions and stocks of natural resources) with the standard measures of economic activity.

This SEEA provides an information base for other indicators, such as resource efficiency and sustainable consumption, and inclusive and comprehensive wealth. It could also be used in standard analytical tools such as economic modeling and cost benefit analysis.

Further research has shown the potential to integrate ecological information with standard economic accounting. In particular, we need to consider environmental and economic data for small areas (such as forests, farms, or wetlands).

This integration of environmental, economic and social information at local scales could drive changes in the way we consider decision making at national and international scales. At local scales we deal better with complexity, since there are fewer unknowns and we have a greater interest in thinking for the long term since the impact of decisions and choices affect us directly.

Australia has a small yet strong tradition in environmental-economic accounting and has been a leading country in the development of the SEEA and other measurement frameworks. This work should be encouraged, supported and more actively co-ordinated to build nationally accepted histories of our relationships with the environment.

We need a comprehensive and regular Australian land and ecosystem assessment program along the lines of the recently commenced UK National Ecosystem Assessment. This would first entail dividing Australia up into regions of different land and ecosystem types, such as forests, agricultural land, wetlands, and coastal zones.

Then, using a variety of indicators we would:

  • assess the quality and change in quality of those ecosystems
  • assess the type and quantity of ecosystem services (such as food, fibre, air and water purification, and recreation) provided by those ecosystems.

While there are a number of related initiatives in Australia, these need to be co-ordinated, regularised and resourced through institutions. Maybe then we can stop thinking about the short-term, and start thinking about the future.

Thanks to the Sustainable Australia Report 2013 for inspiring this series.

Carl Obst was the editor and lead author for the United Nations System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) from 2010-2013 and continue to work on a consultancy basis for international organisations that are implementing the SEEA as an international standard.

John Wiseman is a Professorial Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI), University of Melbourne.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Inspiration for simple/different construction – the house of three tents

Check out this place:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toFBj9qBLQo

Sorry I can’t find a way to embed the video in this post (any suggestions welcome), but I think this place is pretty amazing.  No, not for the opulence of the setting and some of the furnishings, but for the vast array of building ideas that it sparks for me.

No need to buy the frame, it looks pretty simple to make. Even some non-structural pine framing from Bunnings would still be pretty cheap.  Add recycled windows from the secondhand timber yard.

No need to buy or make the tents, maybe old advertising banners would cover the frame equally well.

How about the pipe work on the deck.  Looks an awful lot like I could build the same with some steel fence pipe sections and fittings and some cage mesh from the hardware.

I love it when the videos show so much of the construction details.  This is definitely filed away in the “inspirational ideas” folder.

Can we have a sustainable Lockyer Valley without addressing climate change?

There’s plenty of time to get on top of climate change, right?

If we look at the priority the population gives to electing a government truly committed to doing something about climate change then it comes in at around 4th or 5th in their priorities.  On the other hand, observation of the political parties, both historically and in relation to their election promises, real action on climate change, likely to have significant effects within the necessary time frame, is hardly on the agenda.

I’m always heartened driving through the suburbs (whether in the capital cities or in small country towns) by the view of solar panels on roofs.  The proportion of houses with solar PV or solar hot water continues to increase, and this seems to me to be, at least in part, a visible statement of a commitment to do something concrete about reducing global warming.

However when I look at the generality of lifestyle and buying patterns of the average person, I don’t see any real recognition of the urgency for action, or of the scale of the action required.

Do we really understand the enormity of the changes that are happening?  Happening now, not some time in the future when climate change happens?  Yes, I know, climate change is happening now and has been happening for the last 50 years at least, but behaviour and the language used in talking about climate change suggests that it is still a way off in the future.

Well, here’s the reality:

The planet is building up heat at the equivalent of four Hiroshima bombs worth of energy every second. And 90% of that heat is going into the oceans.  Right now.  Not in ten years, or fifty years.  It’s happening now.

Scary stuff, and I would guess that some readers are going, “yeah, yeah, you’re just trying to scare us into taking action and it isn’t true”.  Read on (the following is extracted from an article by David Holmes in today’s issue of The Conversation):

“John Cook, a climate scientist based at University of Queensland teamed up with oceanographer John Church and several overseas scientists to make an astonishing calculation, which unfolds like this:

Ninety percent of the excess heat trapped in our atmosphere by greenhouse gases is actually absorbed by our oceans and ice. Without the oceans, that heat would be in our atmosphere. But because of the oceans, we can underestimate climate change.

Wikimedia/National Archives

The Cook team measured the amount of heat the oceans have absorbed in Joules. In terms of visualising warming, Joules are not very meaningful. So the team chose to convert ocean warming into a release of energy etched into the collective memory of the 20th century – the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

And the maths of this is quite disturbing. The equivalent of the heat released by 345,600 Hiroshima bombs is absorbed by the earth every day, or four bombs every second. Ninety per cent of the heat released by those bombs is going into the ocean.”

The full article is available here.

Back to the question in the title of this blog – can we have a sustainable Lockyer Valley without addressing climate change?  “Sustainable” that doesn’t include realistic and necessary actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not sustainable at all, but rather a short-term fix to make us feel more comfortable about the way we live.

Here’s an element of sustainability that should be a major election issue

Do you keep a three-month stockpile of food in your house, including a freezer with frozen foods, or perhaps you are a keen permaculture gardener with a well stocked backyard?  Is there a stockpile of petrol in the backyard (this might be illegal where you live)?

Do you depend on having an essential prescription filled by your local pharmacy when you run out?  If you had a sudden medical emergency, would you assume that you could receive immediate treatment in a hospital that was well stocked with pharmaceutical supplies?

According to a report  on Australia’s Liquid Fuel Security, prepared by Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn (Retired) and released by the NRMA in February this year, if Australia’s oil supply was cut off:

  • dry goods could run out within nine days;
  • chilled and frozen goods could run out within seven days;
  • retail pharmacy supplies could run out within seven days;
  • hospital pharmacy supplies could run out within three days; and
  • fuel available to the public could run out within three days.

This is because Australia is one of the few developed nations that lacks a standard stockpile of fuel reserves.

The report highlights the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and fuel.

NRMA Motoring & Services Director Graham Blight said 85 per cent of Australia’s transport fuel comes from overseas crude oil or imported fuel.

This is a major sustainability issue, not just at the national level but also at the individual household level.  We can’t do much about the national issue, apart from raising it as a factor in the current election campaign.  However, at the household level it is one that we can prepare for.

If you haven’t got a large pantry (or even if you have) what about setting aside another cupboard – maybe clear some shelves in your linen cupboard, or get rid of the junk in those bottom drawers to make space – and set up a stock of dry goods, with each category arranged in use-by date.  You’d be surprised how far off the “best before” date is for a lot of dry and canned foods.  You can then rotate these into your pantry as needed and make a note on your shopping list to fill the gap in your stockpile the next time you go shopping.

How about starting a permaculture garden in the backyard; or joining a community garden; or asking if you can start a garden in that unused lot down the street.  And start growing staples first, not exotic herbs or fruits that you seldom eat.  That way you have a garden you not only can rely on in an emergency, but also one which makes an ongoing contribution to better nutrition.

Of course if you are in a suburban situation it is unlikely you will be able to grow significant quantities of a wide range of foods, but you might be able to link up with other gardeners to exchange excess produce of one type for something that you don’t grow.

From a permaculture principles point of view, the problem contains solutions – the fact that we have had a series of shortsighted national governments resulting in no liquid fuel reserves – contains the solutions to a whole lot of issues (emergency shortages, inadequate fresh foods in our diet, need for more outdoor exercise, not enough community linkages).  Addressing all of these through stockpiling, growing some of our own food, and establishing links within the community also increases resilience.

[Update Edit 9/8/13:]

For an idea of how little it can take to tip countries into an emergency situation based on the lack of liquid fossil fuels have a look at this report by Kathy McMahon in August 2006, on her blog Peak Oil Blues.  She provides a detailed account of the impact on the UK in 2000 when oil supplies were cut off by public action.  It all started when some French fishermen blockaded the English Channel as a protest against high fuel prices.  They were joined by truckers and farmers who were similarly angry about fuel prices and blockaded refineries and distribution centres throughout Europe.

England was possibly the most affected country and within nine days of the first protests:

  • Enormous lines appeared at gas stations as panic buying spread across the country on day 4;
  • Over half of Britain’s gas stations were closed by day 6, 90% by day 9;
  • Food stores experienced the same wave of panic buying, forcing supermarkets to close or impose rationing;
  • Hospitals suspended all but emergency care and began to run out of blood and essential supplies;
  • Mail delivery and public transportation operated on reduced schedules;
  • Heavy industries — auto manufacturers, steel plants, aerospace plants and the like — began planning immediate cutbacks, layoffs and closures as they ran short of fuel, parts, raw materials and workers who could get to work [quoted from: Transition Voice]

This summary gives only an indication of the nature and extent of the impact.  For a more nuanced description read Kathy McMahon’s material.

Reading her material should lead you to greatly expand the list of measures that you need to take to be ready for interruptions to the fossil fuel supply.  Such interruptions will not necessarily come about through the actions of terrorists, and certainly will occur well before the oil actually “runs out” (it never will, but the price will become prohibitive for all practical purposes).
In nine days, from 5 September to 14 September 2000, a small number of angry people brought one of the major developed economies to its knees.  This needs to be remembered when governments are considering their policies in relation to peak oil.  It is not safe to assume that people will “adapt” to rising fuel prices brought on by diminishing supplies.  As Kathy McMahon says:

“We are facing a life or death situation that creates both an intellectual and emotional strain. Even this brief look into the British Petrol Sedition tells an interlocking and devastating tale of what an oil shortage looks like. It tells a frightening tale of the power held in the hands of a small number of emotional, angry people who feel that their very livelihoods are being challenged by high oil prices and want their governments to do something about it.”

I am grateful to Tom Lewis at Transition Voice who re-posted from original article at The Daily Impact (which includes a podcast version), for bringing Kathy McMahon’s excellent article to my attention.  Her article is fully referenced, so it constitutes a rich vein of material on the topic.

Why Permaculture?

That’s a reasonable question: why are we adopting a permaculture approach to the way we “farm” on our stony ridge top?

A post on Eric Krasnauskas’ blog Science Pope in early July spelled out a lot of reasons for adopting permaculture, though I hasten to add that the post doesn’t set out to justify a permaculture approach – the word doesn’t even appear in the page. By the way, it’s well worth reading the About section of Science Pope – Eric Krasnauskas is one interesting guy, and we need a lot more like him if we are going to change the direction the world is going.

I was alerted to Eric’s post through my subscription to Transition Voice (they re-blogged it the other day) – and they do have a quite a lot to say about permaculture.

Anyway, back to our reasons for adopting permaculture, in addition to wanting to be part of the solution to the mess described in the aforementioned post (and to survive its climax), we think that the only ethical approach is to tread as lightly as possible on the Earth, and to respect all the life forms and natural processes of the planet.

Here’s what Eric Krasnauskas thinks of the future of the economy, and while he may be talking mainly about the US, his summary applies pretty much to the  global capitalist model generally.

Re-blogged from Science Pope:

The economy isn’t coming back

Posted on July 10, 2013 by mrchumpy

Presently Americans wait with bated breath, watching sales numbers and unemployment statistics, grasping for signs that an economic recovery is underway. We search for signals that indicate we’re growing, that there will be a job for everyone who wants one, and that the United States will resume the prosperity and standing in the world it once had.

We wait in vain.

Sometimes it takes a cartoon character to show the absurdity of our global economic system
(click the image to play video)

The economy isn’t coming back. On the contrary, it’s a patched-together mess on its way to the crapper. Though the Obama administration might crow about a tepid recovery, even today’s insufficient economy is itself a lie, propped up by governments printing money to buy their own bonds and simulate growth. The Dow ascends to ever more lofty heights, and yet few believe it’s tied to improving conditions for regular people. China, the economic engine of the world, is now slowing precipitously, and experiencing serious market declines and confidence problems. Europe is an economic mess, and when the EU eventually implodes (it really is a when and not an if), it will send shocks through the rest of our globalized world.

To try and remedy our situation, every government is of course promoting growth. We continue to push the lie that we’ve all internalized but have never spoken: that we could have infinite growth on a finite planet. Expecting infinite from the finite is an absurdist proposition, one that falls apart for the same reason the world economy has stalled: resource constraints. It might seem preposterous to talk about resource constraints, when we in the Western world are surrounded by endless abundance. After all, don’t we have the choice of ten different kinds of kitchen sponges, and 20 types of diet soda?

Yet if you can look past the bounty of the supermarket shelf, there are really dire resource shortages advancing from all sides. For example:


Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization…and it’s running out. The world’s biggest fields are running dry, leaving humanity to scrape the bottom of the barrel with high effort-low reward energy options like Tar Sands and fracking. Peak Oil is and always has been a real thing, so if you’re unfamiliar with the concept I’d recommend a quick introduction.


Oil may be civilization’s lifeblood, but water is life itself — and it too is becoming scarce as sources are ravaged by climate change and rampant overuse. Water will be more valuable than oil in the future, and already conflicts over water rights are common. You might shrug and assume I’m talking only of sources in arid regions like the Middle East and North Africa, but even within the United States the water wars have begun.


Right now rich countries are buying up huge tracts of land in poorer countries, primarily to grow food and ship it back home. These countries, of which China is the most prolific, need this extra production because as their population and consumption levels skyrocket, they are increasingly unable to feed their people. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that  humanity is pissing away its topsoil, making much of Earth’s arable land worthless.

Oil, water, land…these are the basic building blocks of modern civilization, and all three are in serious jeopardy. Everyone knows the economy is terrible right now, yet for each person you’d no doubt get a different opinion about the cause — lazy people, corporate abuses, excess regulation, automation, corruption, partisanship in Washington, the list goes on and on. But step back for a moment and consider the fact that what’s unfolding is much more fundamental: our output is so low because our inputs are dwindling. Beyond even the fundamental inputs outlined above, there are dozens of other key shortages contributing to our economic woes like phosphorus (fertilizer), rare earth metals (electronics), fish, and copper. All of those are legitimate crises in their own right; taken together, it’s the death knell for a growth-based economy.

A brief interview with author Richard Heinberg, who explains this stuff much better than I do
click the image to play video (7:20)

So I put to you again: the economy we knew isn’t coming back. As our resources run out, prices will skyrocket and we will no longer be able to afford those that come from far-flung places after winding their way through an energy-intensive distribution system. In a world where every calorie of food you consume requires 10 calories of energy to produce, package, and transport, your Chilean Sea Bass and your Saudi Arabian oil will share the same fate.

But though our growth economy cannot survive, if we are diligent and inventive a new economy may bloom in its stead. The future of the world is local: economic inputs like food and energy will be produced in your local community. Prosperity will be found within worker cooperatives, which often perform much better than traditional businesses in times of economic turmoil. Things will not be easy, and there are no silver bullets here. Saying goodbye to the growth paradigm will be scary and strange, because it’s really all we’ve ever known. But I feel confident that with grit, determination and a bit of luck we’ll find our way through to something better on the other side.

Do we need to be paying high prices for unsustainable electricity?

Alex Wonhas (Director of Energy Flagship at CSIRO) has an article in today’s issue of The Conversation on options for Australia’s energy future.  Apart from the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid runaway climate change, high and increasing electricity prices should be a major driver for changing the way we generate and distribute energy.

As Wonhas points out:

Over the past five years electricity prices have risen more than 60%. This is due to a combination of factors, but upgrades of electricity networks are the main driver for the increases. At times, we as consumers chose to use this expensive infrastructure in an inefficient way. Network infrastructure worth $11 billion across the National Electricity Market is only used for an estimated 100 hours per year of peak demand.

Australia needs a pricing system for electricity that signals the true network costs to households and businesses. We also need to remove barriers to deploying solutions that can enhance energy productivity and reduce costs.

Many solutions already exist that could make our electricity system more efficient.

The full article is well worth reading.