Sunday, September 27, 2009

Saving Private Interests

The shark tower strikes back by Pants

The current big conversation in Australia concerns 'sustainability', you know that wonderful all-purpose word that impeccably credentials one's environmental integrity simply by its utterance? I can barely manage to sustain an interest in waking up in the mornings these days, much less trouble myself with the conflict of balancing the need to contribute to economic liquidity by purchasing white goods with the imminent climactic disaster occasioned by their use. But participation is no longer avoidable.

As luck would have it, even our very own professors have come to regard the learnin' of this highfalutin 'sustainability' fella above brushin', chisellin' and executin' triple knots. In short, colour theory is out, 'sustainability' is in. At this point I must declare an interest. Back when I first arrived in Larrikin's End to find that there were only three employers (Larrikin's End Municipal Council, McDonalds and my own beloved education provider), I applied for a job as 'Sustainability Manager' at Larrikin's End TAFE, the mother organisation of Larrikin's End School of Fine Art and Advanced Macrame where I am now a mature (as if) student.

I felt at the time that I could offer a seasoned perspective. Working in the field of neighbourhood renewal in Britain for around fifteen years brings one into frequent contact with the brow-scrunching notion that is 'sustainability'. Many a conference have I passed in its contemplation. There were six or seven wild years when the whole thing spun out completely under the tutelage of New Labour remittance man and Deputy Prime Minister John 'Prezzies' Prescott when 'sustainability' came to mean 'two of everything', (two Jags, two main squeezes, two country piles, etc). Eventually professional consensus settled upon the following definition,

'Just try not to make things any worse than they already are.'

It was with this informed view that I found myself in an interview situation discussing at length aspects of 'the customer experience' that wouldn't have been out of place at Coca-Cola. I wondered what this had to do with environmental ethics and economic viability. I have since learned that 'education' in Australia is not a service, but a business dedicated to fleecing Asians. It has the very useful added benefit of providing our youth with slight and easily recognisable targets on which to expel their pent-up enthusiasm for blood sports when there's no football on. By Australian measures, a highly sustainable industry. I didn't get the job. They wanted someone who could 'hit the ground running'.

Apparently the successful candidate did exactly that as he/she has not been seen since. After Mistress of the Brush sunk dismally in the attempt to wrap some hard science around her innate fluffy grasp of our new core subject, I suggested she ask the 'Sustainability Manager' to come down and put everyone out of their misery. An organic cyanide pill would have been more welcome at this juncture but suggesting a re-enactment of Jonestown would have sent the wrong civic message and I didn't have any fruit cup to hand.

The shy incumbent proved a persistent no show but eventually cobbled together an online 'course' for our edification. Subjects for study are no longer accompanied by what we might once have called 'a syllabus'. Apparently kids like it better if you just make stuff up - that way you don't risk intimidating them. Provided you knew the names of all five rivers that feed Lake Larrikin and didn't live in a big house by yourself or have a four wheel drive car (oops), you passed this online 'course'. You got extra credit for an energy-saving clothes dryer but not for having no clothes dryer at all. I figured they weren't going to come round my house to check so I lied about that, and the car. I got screwed by the clothes dryer question though.

I may not know enough about stewarding the world's resources to get a job sourcing eco-friendly bog roll but I do know that rounding on your neighbours for watering their azaleas when it hasn't rained for a few days and turning apoplectic at the sight of Peruvian asparagus or Californian lemons in the supermarket is really not the main event.

All over this country people are collecting up little trays of detergent-contaminated shower water and dumping it on their drought-evolved native plants. Why don't they let it go down the drain where it will be collected, recycled and sold on for use in farming and industry? Don't people read their water company newsletters? They're missing out on a source of great amusement. Where do they suppose the expression 'laughing like a drain' comes from?

As for the the 'debate' about the evils of 'food miles', this is sillier than Christmas cards appearing in July. Ever since the Sumerians sat down with the Mesopotamians over a pint to nut out how much salt they could get for their silver, there's been trade between nations. It isn't new and it is a vital pillar of global co-operation. If someone has something you want to buy, it makes more sense to go have a chat with them than lob a scud at their power station. Not all of it is good obviously - sending live sheep and cows three-quarters of the way around the world is cruel and pointless and should be stopped immediately.

I would no more buy Peruvian asparagus or Californian lemons than I would diamond-studded escargot forks. Why would I? Lemons and asparagus grow in abundance locally. Every second house in Larrikin's End has a lemon tree. Asparagus grows wild on the river banks. I'm happy to wait for summer for my strawberries and blueberries and even happier that every handful of seeds I toss in the general direction of my lovely black soil soon rewards me with edible leaves.

I'm all for locally-grown produce but some agricultural practices in this country make no sense in any imaginable context. Rice growing has been a major contributor to the destruction of one of our most important river systems and is entirely mechanised. Even the seed is sown by chucking it from planes. Why would we do this when several of our near neighbours grow rice efficiently using traditional methods in ideal climates and a large proportion of their populations depend on its export for their subsistence? No one talks about the environmental efficacy or civic responsibility of keeping our rice, tea and cotton industries afloat.

Smugly saving cupfuls of soapy water and totting up 'food miles' on recycled note paper will not save the planet any more than knowing the names of rivers will deliver them from irreversible salination. But somehow doing these things makes people feel righteous. Go figure. We've got teachers who can't even spell 'sustainability' telling students its all about taking a hessian bag to the supermarket and turning their lights off for an hour once a year. Whose interests are being served by trivialising the genuine threat that we might not be able to feed ourselves in the forseeable future?

Meanwhile, for the last twenty-four hours Larrikin's End has been beset by violent wind, hail and rain and Seat of Pants has nearly been shaken off its considerable foundations. It's mighty scary stuff. And that's climate change for you. No sooner will we get over this storm episode than we'll be into the dry season again. After last year's fires, the panic is already starting to grip. It might be cause for comfort if the feverish reviewing that consumed the winter had culminated in actual disaster-mitigation plans. But of course it didn't. All we got out of it was a new classification for the kind of conditions that create fires that move faster than the speed of sound - Catastrophic. So much for staying calm then. Well, for better or worse, I'm in Oz now. If this wind keeps up, I may well be in Kansas by morning...