BARNEY FORAN. Its the economy stupid, but lets make it fit for purpose

Jan 31, 2020

Media rants on our summer firestorms blame the lack of fire preparedness or a tardy emissions policy. To nudge Australia out of harm’s way over the next fifty years requires systemic and harmonious change over six big areas: implementing local firecare systems, more taxes to pay for it, enacting the social contract to bring us all along, building in fire resistance, developing a fit-for-purpose economy and finally, driving the first five by more benign personal consumption patterns.

Local Firecare systems proposed by Tasmanian David Bowman are now essential in most peri-urban and regional areas. Perhaps nothing much would have saved us this year, but my local fire volunteers see practical sense in continuous 50-100 metre managed buffers around our 3,000 plus town. Local is best, so our Shire should have permanent skilled gangs supplemented by volunteers especially on their own bush blocks. Non fire work can focus on countless repair jobs like weed control, rehabilitation planting and biodiversity recovery. Australia has a lot to repair.

This will take money so more taxes, not less will assure permanent budgets not whittled away by political dynamics. The yearly Michael West analyses reveal our top forty tax dodgers had a combined income of $400 billion and paid $25 million in tax over the last four years. We gamble $24 billion yearly, about $1,200 per person. My supermarket shopping attracts about 2% GST because I buy fresh food. Surely we can focus the tax sleuths on the corporate dodgers and pay more ourselves, to help firecare and to remake the place.

We will need to enact the social contract if we want to repair local communities while transitioning national systems to be leading edge, rather than bottom of the ruck, in global emission and related impacts. Bringing everyone along can’t even begin until a First Nation’s Treaty is signed and a voice heard. Then addressing the growing inequality, hidden in dollar terms by our transfer payments system, but real enough once you get beyond the goats cheese suburbs who ride and walk to work. I remember one beefy Queenslander in the floods yelling at the TV journalist huddle, “We don’t want your money, we want help”. Long term enduring help is in short supply, when you really need it.

Fire resistant houses, precincts and suburbs are now a must. Apart from an underground concrete bunker, a fire proof house is mostly a mirage and too expensive. Steel shutters on windows, steel decks and stairs, planting mostly deciduous trees around the house and maintaining rubbish-free exteriors seem obvious and not expensive. Then a 100,000 litre water tank with non-electric pumps to cloak the house in spray as the firestorm approaches. Insurance firms will soon refuse to insure unless these basics are in place and signed off yearly, by the firecare crews. That’s the price of living beyond the ring road.

A fit for purpose economy seems necessary to organise all this. When I was a boy, the economy seemed to serve the people, but now we serve it, and have storage boxes full of rubbish to show how well off we are. Adjusting levers gradually from a consumption-led to an investment-led economy should effectively use the extra tax dollars winnowed from corporate dodgers and tight-fisted taxpayers. There are plenty of jobs in the firecare economy, particularly in regional areas. The renewable electricity and fuels economy can provide unbounded corporate enthusiasm, once they get over building high rise apartments, undercity tunnels and never ending suburbs remote from society. Desires for fiscal prudence and budget surpluses need not change. Population growth rates must be lowered. Our own household budgets know the risks of shopping led enthusiasms, fostered by the myths of gold and platinum status.

Changing the volume and makeup of consumption is central to all of the above. Without it, this planetary stuff and its local realities, gets worse. Consumption drives GDP growth while population growth drives both. We are now at peak stuff, energy, emissions, waste, material churn, water use and biodiversity loss. Efficiency policies drive rebound effects and thus the pressures increase, at home or abroad. The reduce and recycle policies have been unmasked as bureaucratic ineptitude. The circular economy is not thermodynamically possible, a sham, key metals perhaps an exception. As the treasurer implores us to spend, our waddling obesity and the firestorms outside become cause and effect, separated by time lags of human generations. Our habits and ourselves are the problem. The Government’s energy policies and their studied nonchalance merely a cynical response to our lesser selves and our self interest. The answer does not lie on solar panels alone.

Barney Foran is a biophysical scientist with 30 years at CSIRO and is now an honorary research fellow at Charles Sturt University. His former work included whole economy studies of population, energy, consumption and resources. His currently works on modelling the United Kingdom’s transition to a zero carbon economy and the future of Australia’s rangelands.

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