Prospects for environmental quality

Doug Cocks, Divisional Fellow, Wildlife and Ecology

I can remember clearly the interest and enthusiasm with which scientists in Division of Land Use Research greeted the first issue of Ecos in 1975. At that time we were well into the process of expanding our research interests beyond agricultural production and northern development. Environmental issues like urban climates, land degradation, water as a resource and balanced land use were beginning to attract our attention.

Around that time Mike Austin and I were leading a large regional land use study called the South Coast Project (over 30 scientists were involved including some from the newly established Centre for Resource and Environmental studies at ANU) and we were delighted when Ecos devoted a complete issue to that study's findings.

That is all a long time ago now and, while not neglecting to congratulate Ecos on 25 years of sterling service to the environment, I prefer to look forward rather than backward in this editorial opportunity. The environment has come and gone as an issue in recent years. While it is an issue that regularly scores well in polls to identify public perceptions of matters for concern it is not high on any political agendas. This is evidenced by the fact that both main parties fought the last federal election with barely a mention of the environment during campaigning. Another example of this loss of profile was the Australia Unlimited conference organised by The Australian newspaper in May this year. It was a showcase for elite opinion on how we should manage our future as a society and economy. It revealed general support for a strategy of trying to clamber aboard the globalisation train before it accelerated but managed to avoid mentioning the environment except in passing.

This indifference in the corridors of power may reflect a view abroad that we can safely turn our attention from the environment to other pressing problems because governments have implemented a number of environmental programs addressing issues ranging from biodiversity and landcare to air and water quality. But that is not the picture that emerged at a series of expert workshops on Environmental Futures run by the Division of Wildlife and Ecology in late 1995. One general conclusion from the soil experts present there is that prospects for soil and landscape quality are grim, not only in the agricultural and inland areas but in coastal and urban areas as well. Prospects for future air quality are not so uniformly grim. Improvements in inland and farming areas are foreseeable---but not in coastal and urban areas. The experts' best-case scenario for water quality is that quality might hold up in urban and inland areas but not in farming, coastal and marine areas. As for biodiversity, it is difficult, the experts say, to see anything other than further decline in and around the big cities and in the coastal/marine zone. Biological controls for weeds and feral animals and the cessation of clearing offer some hope of improving biodiversity in the farming and inland areas. But if these improvement do not eventuate the outlook remains bleak.

These gloomy prognoses for coming decades by people who study environmental issues professionally assume that Australian society continues to muddle along in 'business as usual' mode. One implication of that assumption is that if the value placed by society on protecting natural capital were higher, the resources to improve environmental quality would be found. But that is doubtful for two reasons. One is that we just do not really know with any confidence what to do about many environmental problems---dryland salinity and various weeds are good examples. The other is that the resources required to tackle major environmental problems with any hope of success are vast relative to the size of government budgets. That is why the wide range of government-backed environmental programs can give a misleading impression. Most are just very, very small relative to the size of the problems they address.

While there are many specific reasons for the long-term degradation of natural capital, there is also one quite general reason and that is the ever-increasing use of energy. Historically, energy throughput has been strongly correlated with both economic growth and environmental impact. Putting this another way, environmental impact is the collateral damage accompanying our drive for economic growth. As we move to a services economy and away from a goods economy the impact of economic growth on the environment may stabilise because energy consumption is stabilising, but this is far from certain. Similarly, the environmental impact of energy use will probably decline as we make the inescapable imminent transition from fossil energy to alternative energy. Looking to be proactive, the most basic principle to be followed if we want to reduce the rate of loss of Australia's natural capital is to reduce the quantities of energy and virgin raw materials that we use. If and how this principle will get to be implemented, I do not know. I am pessimistic about it happening as a result of deliberate political choice.

Meanwhile, monitoring environmental quality remains fundamentally important. Humans are both adaptable and forgetful. The boiling frog would have done better if he'd had a pocket thermometer. Beyond that the kids are our best hope. We have to show them the difference between high quality and low quality environments because what humans have never known they never miss, not enough to fight for anyway. If we can do that, they will do the rest.

For the rest of us, the basic strategy for defending environmental quality has to be for each community to work at taking control of local land and resource use and management. We have to use every trick in the book to force the development of participatory institutions in which people have a powerful say in all decisions which affect their lives. Good luck folks!