Sustainable Futures

goldieRating: ★★★★☆

Jennie Goldie and Katharine Betts (eds). 2014. Sustainable Futures: Linking population, resources and the environment. CSIRO. ISBN 978 1 486 30189 8

When I first saw the sub-title I was transported back to my beginnings. Surely population, resources, environment was the name of the text and wasn’t it by the Ehrlich’s ? Yes on both counts and the issues they identified there are still with us but in slightly different ways. The authors are also still active, providing not only considerable links with previous works upon which modern environmental concern was founded but also contributing the first chapter outlining our key threats! In essence, this book came from a conference in 2013 examining issues of sustainability within Australia (but with obvious links elsewhere).

Let’s start by considering those links. The Ehrlich’s started their 1970 text by noting: “the explosive growth of the human population is the most significant terrestrial event of the past million millennia”. Given human population was only the last 3 of those 1000 it’s a large leap of faith but the basic idea was very much of the times. Population (Ehrlich’s book “Population Bomb” said it all) was the main issue. Fast forward 45 years and go to chapter one here and see how the threats add up; “humanity is faced with a perfect storm of environmental problems…climate disruption… loss of biodiversity…ecosystem services…pollution…” to name but a few. These are then linked to the big issue of overpopulation and overconsumption so, to that extent, the old issue remains. However, note that the complexity and inter-relatedness of the issues have come to the fore and there are some who would suggest under-population would be an equal threat (although that’s unlikely as an issue of the global scale for some time yet) although Ehrlich would not be amongst them.; It’s a great, if brief, opener to a book whose focus is on the sustainable use of the vast but complex land of Australia.

This sets the scene for the remainder of the book. What we see are not large papers by few authors but a few pages from a range of contributors. There’s no set sections and themes but the book does group together like-minded pieces. Given that the Ehrlich’s were key movers in building the modern environmental movement, it is appropriate that the first six contributions focus on population. After the Ehrlich’s summation, various facets are expanded upon and a range of key questions posed. Is Australia failing to understand the issues facing them by failing to have an education system closely linked to ecological education (in its broadest sense)? Can there be wildlife and population in Australia? This would seen bizarre to those outside this huge nation and yet, as any student should know, Australia leads the world in biodiversity and extinctions! Whilst there are those trying to control Australia’s population, politicians call for a “Big Australia” to compete globally. The issue is not where they will go (the place is vast, the population small – c.23 million), but what resources will they consume (how much water is in the world’s driest inhabited continent?). What happens if too many people arrive? Finally, what happens if we have too few people and those remaining are ageing? The arguments over supporting an ageing population (perhaps we should teach it as increase in the mean age of population because we are all ageing!) – largely, costs and age-dependencies – disappear if you have a fitter, older population and you transfer benefits from one kind to another e.g. disability to age pension. Summing these contributions, about the only parts they agree upon is population is important and that we need to know far more about its dynamics.

The next set of ideas centre around minerals and mining. Another ‘blast from the past’, “peak oil” gets a reprise with the obvious point that, under most resource models, oil (and a wide range of other, equally valuable minerals and foodstuffs) has a finite life and that we are reaching or have reached it already. Strangely, rather than tackle the debate, the contribution looks at the responses of key interest and the impact those have. If we assume this (and there are real reasons for accepting it despite propaganda assuming a far longer supply of minerals), then we either do more with less or increase the supply. In a nation as resource rich as Australia, we change mining practice! Mining works on larger areas of lower grade than before and so the impacts per unit are far greater. That we rely heavily on coal is an issue not just for mining but for but for the planet. This in turn, requires that we open strip mine with subsequent loss of soil – vital for a farming nation. A final contribution here considers water and our reactions to the environment. It’s a significant area and very much at the heart of the driest continent. Should we continue or even expand irrigation? Like most of the cases mentioned here, there are issues on both sides.

The final set of chapters looks largely at global warming and also our reactions to it and other debates. In an already warm climate, an increase in temperature is going to be a crucial matter. There are real concerns that tropical diseases will find their way into the South of the country.  Clearly “Something Must Be Done”. Capitals are deliberate – there is a call for action here – that neither the country nor the world cannot live easily in raised temperatures and that this is unlikely to decline. Debate then moves to more philosophical positions. Theology, both for and against sustainable development is invoked. Denial is now seen as a major force against change and this, all-too-brief contribution outlines some of the issues involved. Final chapters consider, from a range of perspectives, what might be done.

Sitting with Ehrlich’s book on one side and this on the other, it is fascinating to see how debates have changed (or perhaps, more frighteningly, haven’t!) in the intervening period. Population is still seen as a key issue but now, not the only one and it’s mentioned in a  more nuanced way. The idea that we are far more of a global species has taken hold as has the notion of interdependence and the complexity of problems. The older text focussed on a more certain set of issues; the current one realising that we have already had these debates and still issues arise. Perhaps the best part of this text is that it gives a new set of ideas to students of sustainability. Clearly education is still the way to go and with this text, there are heaps of ideas set in small chapters – ideal for discussion and debate. It’s here that the book’s strength lies. For those studying these topics for years, there is nothing new but for those just seeing the issues they will need to confront, the text provides an excellent series of ideas. Given that the Australian National Curriculum has sustainability as a key focus, it is clear that here we have a book that can start to drive debate. It deserves a wide readership, especially in education circles.

Leave A Comment