Doug Cocks

CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology, Canberra, ACT, australia


In October 1978, which is very nearly 20 years ago, I gave a talk to the Eurobodalla Progress Association which I called 'An Exercise in South Coast Futurology'. At that time CSIRO had just finished a major study of land use in the catchments of the Clyde, Deua-Moruya and Tuross rivers---the three catchments draining into Eurobodalla---and the president of the Progress Association thought I might be just the chap to tell them what things might be like in 20 years time, ie a couple of months from now. How did I go?

I started with a short discussion of the art of future-gazing and made a few obligatory jokes about how easy it was to predict the future, provided you made predictions about the right things. You know, things like: In this life only two things are certain---death and taxes. I remember mentioning Murphy's law which is a particularly useful aid for all future-gazers---If anything can go wrong it will. This powerful general law yields all sorts of very practical corollaries, like: If you drop a piece of bread and jam it always falls jam-side down. These were my only jokes 20 years ago and I am afraid they are all you are going to get tonight also.

Tweny years ago we were still getting over the 1973-74 oil crisis and most of my predictions were about how the South Coast might be responding to continued high energy prices in 1998 and what this might mean for the tourist industry and the second-home industry. The return of the boarding house, electric runabouts and better bus services were all part of my vision. I also had no trouble in predicting the subsequent doubling of the population of Eurobodalla Shire. As we now know, oil and electricity prices did not escalate after the 1970s and we are still using energy like junkies. I got it wrong.

The major lesson coming out of that CSIRO study of Eurobodalla's catchments was that if you looked carefully at what each parcel of land on the south coast could and could not be used for and at which pieces were best for which use, then there would be enough room to accommodate all land-users' long-term interests reasonably well---forestry, agriculture, tourism, urbanisation and nature conservation. Nobody listened of course. But it is my personal belief that, if they had, and if a proper regional land use plan had been produced back then, there would have been much less social conflict over land use and land management issues in this part of the world than we have suffered in recent years. If I'd had any real future-gazing ability in 1978 I would have predicted that. And the corresponding prediction today would be that because demands from all sorts of land-users are continuing to grow at the same time as the range of land-use choices continues to shrink, we will see a further intensification in land use conflict. You cant get a quart out of a pint bottle.

While I am not prepared to dogmatically make that particular prediction, I am still in the future-gazing business and have just written a book called Australian Futures: Where Might We Be in 2050? That's why I want to talk about the future of Australia tonight rather than the future of the south coast. One thing I can predict with high confidence is that I will not be turning up to your 73rd annual dinner to confront any predictions I might make here about life at that time.

In fact, I am much more circumspect nowadays. I don't predict the future; I identify and describe plausible possible futures which, in the trade, are called scenarios. I never say 'this will happen', I say 'this might happen, or it might not; and on the other hand such-and-such might happen'. For example, a best-case scenario for Australian cricket would be that Shane Warne's shoulder will be healed in time for him to play in next summer's Ashes series. A worst-case scenario would be that Warne never plays for Australia again. Understand that I am not talking odds or probabilities, just plausible possibilities.

So, you ask me, what is the value of scenarios if you cant use them to beat the bookies by sharpening the odds? The answer is that if scenarios really are plausible and believable they function as early-days indicators of upcoming possible problems or upcoming possible opportunities. Scenarios are about looking ahead so you can make better pre-emptive or opportunistic choices today. Proverbs provide good examples of the type of thinking that scenarios encourage. 'A stitch in time saves nine' is advice on what to do now to avoid a bad scenario like your trousers falling down and 'Great oaks from little acorns grow' is advice on what to do now to create a good future if you are in the timber business. So, where might Australian society be in 2050? Let me sketch out five possible scenarios.

The first of these I have called Struggling to cope and it is also my worst-case scenario.

Most modern societies have the the resilience to cope with small crises or even one or two large crises, but what happens when a complex society like ours is clobbered with five or six major crises in the space of a few years? And, as Shakespeare knew, it can happen: 'When troubles come, they are not as single spies but in battalions'.

Take your pick from the following list of possibilities:

Under multiple shocks like these, a complex society runs a very high risk of quickly reverting to a much simpler form of organisation. In extreme cases w call this a social collapse. The symptoms of collapse include breakdown in law and order, pervasive fear in everyday life, declining life expectancy, loss of cultural life, loss of civil and political rights, loss of health and education services and loss of basics like running water and sewerage. In a sentence, quality of life goes through the floor, although let me put a limit on what might happen and say it is hard to imagine a scenario in which quality of life for our grandchildren reaches the lowest point ever recorded in human history, namely the World War 2 German concentration camps.

I call my second scenario Muddling along. In this scenario, quality of life declines slowly under what we might call 'do nothing' governments which only act under extreme political pressure or under gridlocked governments which find they can only take actions that do not offend any of society's numerous pressure groups. Under this scenario, so much energy is used up in arguing about who gets what that things just slowly stop working, they clog up; not just services and utilities and markets but institutions like parliament and the legal system. In a rapidly changing world like ours, a society that does very little to adapt to changed circumstances stands to go into slow decline even if it is not exposed to major shocks. Under this scenario we end up living in hovels and taking our goods to market in horse-drawn carts along disintegrating highways.

A good example of failure to adapt to changing circumstances is Australia's failure to adapt to a growing population. We fail to realise that unless we are increasing real expenditures on education, roads, the legal system etc by at least one per cent a year (which is about the rate the population is growing) we are actually going backwards. Like the boiling frog, we donít realise we are being slowly cooked under this scenario. An accumulation of small changes can squeeze a society like the anaconda squeezed the family donkey in The Swiss Family Robinson.

Having mentioned population, this might be the spot to take a short detour from tonight's topic to briefly mention population policy seeing that this was the topic I was really invited down to speak on. Let me at least tell you the conclusions I came to about what Australia's population policy should be after spending a couple of years writing a book called People Policy: Australia's Population Choices. I believe that we should aim to stabilise the population within a generation or so, basically by keeping net annual immigration somewhere below 40 000 a year which would lead to a near-stable population of about 23 million in about 2030. In writing my book, I went through all the arguments for a much larger population including economic, defence, social and moral arguments and found that they were pretty unconvincing. It was the environmental argument that convinced me that quality of life was more likely to fall than rise under strong population growth. Particularly in the big cities, we cannot cope with air, water and noise pollution nor with congestion nor deteriorating infrastructure today. So what chance do we have with growing populations and shrinking government budgets?

OK, back to scenarios. In my first scenario, Australian society collapses quickly because we are king-hit by a number of major crises squashed into a relatively short time period. In my second scenario, we decline slowly, we wither on the vine, because we are incapable of acting decisively to protect and enhance our way of life. You might scoff at my first two scenarios, but never forget, that just as there are a lot more extinct species than living species, there are a lot more dead civilisations than living civilisations!

Let me turn now to three more-optimistic scenarios under the general heading of Chasing the Rainbow As we all know, there is a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow if you can only get there before the rain stops. What these three more- optimistic scenarios have in common is that they assume that we Australians are going to collectively attempt to shape our own future; that we are going to try to be active future makers instead of passive future takers. The assumption that my three rainbow-chasing scenarios are making is that we are going to pick a strategy and stick with it for decades. In creating these three scenarios, I have tried to base them on three strategies that are as different as possible without being outside the boundaries of what might just be politically feasible. For example, it is difficult to see Australia being anything other than a capitalist society with a mixed economy and some form of democratic governance over the next 50 years. So I have picked three candidate strategies that do not violate that description.

I call rainbow-chasing scenario number 1 Going for Growth. The basic belief behind this strategy is that we really only have one problem to solve if we want everyone to have high quality of life and be living in a society with good long-term survival prospects come 2050. That problem is how to get the economy growing at a steady 3-4% year after year. The idea is that if you have very high income per head, it will be easy to find the money to protect the environment and to eliminate poverty. The other belief that goes easily with this scenario is that you have better prospects of getting high economic growth if you reduce the size of the government sector and the level of business regulation.

Rainbow scenario number 2 is called Conservative Development and it's a first cousin to what has been called 'sustainable development' for some years now. The basic perception behind this strategy is that we have three big problems to solve if we want a good life for everyone come 2050---solid economic growth, environmental quality and social justice. Our only chance of surviving in a globalising world is to use business welfare (lovely phrase that---business welfare) like research subsidies to boost our knowledge-intensive exports and social welfare and active job-creation programs to protect people from the roller coaster ride called globalisation. And that the only way to protect the environment is strong regulation of commercial and urban development and industrial production---preferably through environmental impact assessment and social impact assessment, and major government programs to protect ecosystems from people, weeds and feral animals. This is a 'tax and spend' strategy which is not prepared to rely on free markets to solve the problems of low economic growth, social justice and environmental quality.

I have called rainbow-chasing scenario number 3 Post-Materialism. This is a scenario of life in Australia after we reject consumerism, the social disease where most people want to buy ever-increasing quantities of goods and services. What does this scenario involve? Putting a cap, an upper limit, on total energy use and on the use of virgin minerals and metals would be one medium-term objective under this strategy. As would be the introduction of a regional land use planning system with real teeth to control all aspects of land and resource use at a region-wide scale, not just on a case by case basis. On the economic front, the challenge facing a post-materialist society would be to see if it could slow economic growth to a crawl without shutting down the economy or sending it plunging into recession. For tackling the issue of social justice, the main policy would be to narrow the spread of incomes in the community by raising the lowest incomes and lowering the highest incomes.

But Post-Materialism is about much more than slowing economic growth, narrowing the income distribution, planning regional land use and dejouling and dematerialising the economy. In addition to the problems of excessive economic growth, environmental quality and social justice, the Post-Materialism strategy recognises a fourth major problem that has to be tackled if most Australians are to enjoy high quality of life in 2050. This is the problem of social health or, looking at the opposite side of the same coin, social decay. A decaying society is not easily defined by a single characteristic but, to a large extent, a decaying society is one where more and more people believe that they are not needed and not wanted. The symptoms of social decay include alienation, crime, dissociation, anomie, conflict and distrust. In a healthy society, people feel secure, wanted, useful, empowered, and able to grow.

Advocates of a Post-Materialism strategy argue that dealing with social decay requires a change in the deep structure of society, that is, in the distribution and use of decision-making power within and between organisations, institutions and social structures.

The most dramatic change under a power-sharing scenario would be on the political front, where a post-materialist strategy would centre on creating a new tier of about 30 regional governments somewhere in size between state and local government. Simultaneously, there would be a disempowering of state governments which are too big to be close to the people they are supposed to serve and too remote to allow people to participate in political life. Of course, even though they are lead in the saddlebags, you couldn't really get rid of the States could you; for a start, there would be no Sheffield Shield competition and no State of Origin matches.

On the industrial front, a post-materialist strategy would encourage industrial democracy, worker ownership and what is called the stakeholder organisation, ie companies that have a sense of responsibility to the world, the environment and the community as well as to the shareholders. The education system would actively socialise children to appreciate the value of balancing competitive individualism with collaborative co-operative behaviour. The single word that sums up the post-materialist strategy's remedy for social decay is 'participation'.

Where have we got to? In addition to a collapse scenario and a slow decline scenario, I have now sketched out three proactive strategies for attempting to build high quality of life for our grandchildren. If time permitted I could have created more strategies. For example, I could have created one called Back to the Fifties which might be particularly relevant in the runup to the Queensland election .

And while I have found time to sketch out what we would be trying to do under these three rainbow-chasing strategies, I don't have time to spend more than a sentence on the best-case and worst-case possible outcomes of these three strategies.

Under economic growth the best case outcome might be that we would all be rich and prepared to spend lots of money on cleaning up the environment. In the worst case an ever-widening spread of incomes could create an angry underclass and social chaos.

Under conservative development, the best-case outcome might be steady progresss on all fronts---economic, environmental and social--- and the worst-case outcome might be a gridlocked society falling slowly behind in a changing world.

Under post-materialism the best-case outcome might be one of most people living in modest comfort but enjoying a strongly protected environment and the self-fulfillment that comes from playing an important role in one's society. The worst-case outcome would be a disintegrating economy with most people living in grinding poverty.

While I happen to think that my three strategies are a pretty good sample of our realistic options for shaping the future, I am not here to advocate supporting any one of them in particular and I have tried to present each of them as fairly as I can..

While I hope that you have found these scenarios interesting in themselves, the bigger point I do need to emphasise and finish with, is that it is just as important to identify and debate our options for managing the long-term future of Australia as it is to debate the different parties' policies for the next election. And yet, for reasons which escape me, we do not seem to be able to do this. We live in a society where the long term, to quote Peter Costello, is anything the other side of Christmas. An evolutionary biologist might suggest that, genetically, we are still hunter-gatherers who never had to look ahead because their environment was changing so slowly. It may even have been a disadvantage to spend time looking ahead in those days. Today the environment is changing too rapidly to allow genetic adaptation, we have to adapt culturally or not at all. It takes a long time to make basic changes to the social order but like all those extinct species, if the rate of environmental change exceeds our capacity to adapt, we too are history.