On Leaving Lord Howe

Today we fly home from Lord Howe Island. It has been a wonderful experience. The views are spectacular, the snorkelling a glorious kaleidoscope of colourful corals and fish, the people friendly and the food delicious. Yet the thing that I will carry strongest in my heart is the way this community preserves its sense of community.

Two of the greatest threats to the community are isolation and the predatory rich. Isolation has given the island a unique flora and fauna, yet ever since people settled here to provision passing whaling ships it has also left the island economically and environmentally vulnerable. When the whaling industry died out the economy shifted to export of palm trees and when that died out to tourism. With each adaptation the islanders have found a way to work together for the common good. When, for example, planes are unable to fly out due to bad weather, leaving more tourists than beds, islanders take tourists into their homes. There seems to be a strong recognition that for their community to prosper they all need to work together. Their isolation and small population requires cooperation to be valued over competition.

The isolation likewise imparts a strong sense of environmental stewardship. On such a small island where the impact of human habitation is so evident, every resident I encounter has a strong sense of the need to be proactive in protecting the ecosystem.

And then there is the threat of the predatory rich, those who, given the chance, would buy up land, build large holiday homes and visit a few weeks a year. This would turn the island from a community of islanders into a tourist playground for the wealthy. There is no chance of this. To buy land on the island you need to live here for 10 years, your dwelling can occupy no more than 15% of the block, and you must live on your allotment for six months a year. It’s rigorous and demanding but the islanders have learned that to preserve the riches of community sometimes means saying no to money.

I couldn’t live here. The isolation and in-each-other’s-pockets nature of the small community would drive me crazy. But I leave here with more than wonderful memories of spectacular scenery. I leave reminded once more that to enjoy this life and world to the full our planet must be treasured and our communities very intentionally nurtured.

My day at IKEA, a symbol of hope or a sign of doom?

I am surrounded by a wall of sound. The low rumble of trolleys laden with meals, like whispered thunder. The chinking of cutlery on crockery. A cacophony of voices. Crying babies. Excited five-year-olds. Wearied parents. Lovestruck couples. Welcome to IKEA, where consumerism has become a form of recreation.

It seems that for many going to IKEA is an experience to be enjoyed, an outing to look forward to. The place is huge and has all the resonances of a theme park. The takeaway food stalls selling hotdogs and soft drink and soft serves. The cafeteria. The massive car parks. The long queues at checkouts located in vast open spaces. The palpable sense of anticipation.

It’s pure marketing genius. I despise shopping at the best of times, but I find myself caught up in the mood, thrilled by the discovery of bargain priced furniture and sensing that something that attracts this big a crowd must be worthwhile.

And it comes from a company that appears to be making serious efforts to ensure it has a sustainable and fair supply chain. IKEA has invested heavily in renewable sources of energy for its factories and outlets and ensures that the timber in its furniture can be traced back to the forest of origin and that those forests are sustainably harvested. In the last couple of years the company has begun rolling out living wage programs for its workers and suppliers. There is still some way to go but the direction seems to be positive.

I don’t know what to make of it. I find myself confronted with the feeling that we’ve become trapped inside consumerism and we simply don’t know how to find a way out. For all its laudable efforts to be ecologically and socially responsible IKEA feeds and is fed by consumerism, that malady of the human spirit where the experience of consumption is in itself a reward we seek, yielding the overconsumption that is driving our planetary ecosystems into dangerous places. And for all my desire to live in a way that is ecologically and socially responsible, I have to admit that I too enjoy the experience of consuming and acquiring. I’d like to believe that IKEA represents the hope that there is a way we can continue to consume at the levels we do and for it to be sustainable. But I suspect that is very wishful thinking.

My Hometown is the World’s Biggest Exporter of Coal, But I Believe the Industry Must End

One of the arguments commonly used to defend Australia’s minimal efforts to combat climate change is that Australia is responsible for only 1.1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, it is claimed, there is little Australia can do to make a difference.

There is however another way to consider this. The primary driver of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. The Climate Council of Australia recently released a report that showed we need to keep the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. They articulate a concept known as the carbon budget. This asks how much more carbon dioxide we can put into the atmosphere and avoid global warming of more than 2°. Using 2012 as the base year they concluded that to have a 75% chance of keeping global warming below 2° our carbon budget is 1,112 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, once we hit 1112 gigatons that’s it. Any emissions after this will drive warming beyond 2°.

The problem is that the world has reserves of coal and oil that, if burned, will see us massively exceed the carbon budget. If you take into account only those reserves that are commercially viable to extract and sell, we will reach our carbon budget once we have burned just 23% of the reserves. And on current trends we will reach this point well before 2030.

As we all know Australia is a major coal producer. According to the Minerals Council of Australia we produce 7.5% of the world’s black coal and have 9% of the world’s reserves. It is estimated that we have 110 years of black coal resources.

This puts an entirely different complexion on our responsibility in dealing with global warming. We are not a minor player, but a very significant one. Our reserves alone are sufficient to blow the global carbon budget. If we are to play our part in preventing global warming beyond 2° we must accept that most of our coal needs to stay in the ground. We don’t have to stop producing coal tomorrow, but we must surely be planning our exit from coal production over the next decade or two.

I live in Newcastle, New South Wales, which is home to the largest export coal port in the world. As a citizen of the world I recognise that the primary driver of the economy in my city must come to an end. As a citizen of Newcastle I am deeply concerned that the longer we fail to plan for the end of the coal mining industry, the more difficult it will be to develop new industries to replace coal. If we start investing now we have the technological and scientific know-how to become world leaders in clean industries. I wish we could go on burning coal forever. But we can’t do that and have a hospitable planet. It’s time for us to admit this and get on with building new industries.



A Coal Festival? Really?

In 2012 Rolling Stone magazine published an article by Bill McKibben that’s become famous. McKibben showed that when we burn through all known fossil fuel reserves in the world we will emit 2795 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The problem is, to have a one in five chance of keeping global warming below 2° we can’t afford to burn more than 565 gigatons.

Since McKibbin’s article was published other estimates have been given. They vary due to things such as the odds they deem acceptable (for example the scientific journal Nature published an article in which they asked what the figures would be if we adopted a 50/50 probability of keeping warming below 2°); calculations as to how much of the known reserves will be profitable to extract; how we allow for other sources of emissions. But what they all have in common is the alarming reality that the amount of fossil fuels we can afford to burn is only a fraction of the fossil fuels we have available.

This is why we need a legislated solution. Fossil fuels are the cheapest form of energy to extract because they don’t factor in the cost to the environment. As long as they stay cheap companies will dig them out of the ground in order to make a profit.

I live in a city that has made its money off the back of coal mining. We are currently celebrating the first ever Hunter coal Festival. Put together by some of the local business Chambers and the coal industry we’ve been invited to celebrate the contribution coalmining makes to the Hunter economy. It seems to me about as sensible as celebrating the wondrous gifts of the tobacco industry to humankind and evidence enough that we shouldn’t look to industry to do anything other than oppose attempts to shift away from fossil fuels.

In December this year world leaders will meet in Paris to nut out an agreement on emission reductions from 2020 forward. The organisation I direct, A Just Cause, has launched an open letter to the Prime Minister, urging his government to go to the conference with ambitious goals, realistic plans to drive progress towards those goals, and a determination to see the systematic decarbonisation of our economy over the coming decades. If we take things seriously now we can see continued economic growth on a clean economy model. The longer we wait the more difficult that will become. If you’d like to sign the letter go to ajustcause.com.au/letter

It Turns Out that Christian Attitudes to the Environment are Not So Christian

In 1967 a history professor from the University of California delivered a paper in which he argued the world’s environmental degradation had its roots in the Judeo-Christian notion of dominion. When the biblical text declared that humankind was to “rule” and “subdue” the earth it was mandating a view that creation exists to serve our interests.

Lyn White was surely correct that this was the way most theologians interpreted the text, but in Living with Other Creatures, Richard Baulkham points out that this interpretation owes more to Aristotle than Jesus. Aristotle and many after him imagined the universe as a great chain of being, with the gods at the top, humankind below them, animals below humans, and plants below animals. Each part existed to serve those above it. Early Christian theologians were schooled in Greek philosophy, accepted the Aristotelian paradigm, and used it as the lens by which they read the bible.

But this lens is not the lens of the biblical story. In the biblical tradition leadership is focused on service. In the book of Proverbs, for example, a king by the name Lemuel is advised against using his power self indulgently. His responsibility is rather to secure the rights of his most vulnerable subjects (proverbs 31.1-9). Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah castigated king Shallum for his self-aggrandising ways, when he could have served the interests of the poor like his father Josiah did. Then there is Jesus who taught that leadership is about serving rather than being served.

Read Genesis 1 through this lens and the mandate to rule and subdue is not a call to be served by the creation and the nonhuman animals, but to serve them. It is God’s world and our responsibility is to ensure it flourishes.

So I reckon it’s time to say goodbye to the Aristotelian paradigm and embrace the biblical.

Face to face with a great white shark

Face to face with a great white shark

Today I found myself face to face with one of the greatest predators on earth: the great white shark. I was there by choice. All my life I have been fascinated by sharks, and I have dreamt for years of joining in a great white shark dive.

So I found myself in Port Lincoln South Australia, aboard the Calypso Star, heading for the Neptune Islands where great whites feast on seals. Upon arrival the crew began burleying the water and within minutes a fin pierced the surface. A large cage, 5 m long by 3m wide by 2.5m high was pushed off the back of the boat, and the first group of adrenaline junkies donned wet suits and masks and entered it. The first shark to appear was a great white around 3 m long, soon to be joined by another, and another. And then the big sharks showed up, a good 4.5 to 5 m in length and with massive girth.

Soon enough it was time for my group, group number four, to get ready. A 7 mm wetsuit, gloves, boots, weight belt and mask later I enter the cage. It took a good five minutes to get used to breathing through a hose and regulator. The water is very clear. I expected I might feel nervous, but there were no nerves, just a real excitement about getting into the water.

A few minutes in and the first great white swims by. Minutes later I see a shadow out in the distance that turns into a great white shark swimming towards the cage, turning away before he reaches us to dive under the boat. For almost an hour I’m beneath the water with no more than five minutes between shark appearances, including one massive beast approaching 5 m. Some fly by at pace, some saunter past, some seem to be eyeballing me. At no point do I feel that they present a threat to me – I am after all inside a very solid cage – and at no point did they behave in a way that suggests they perceive I present a threat to them.

I’m struck by how effortlessly the sharks glide through the water, powered by an almost imperceptible swishing of their tail. This is truly their domain and they are masters of it. Schools of trevally that surround the cage quickly disappear whenever a shark arrives.

I don’t know why I wanted to dive with great whites. I don’t know why I got such a thrill seeing them so close up. All I know is that seeing these animals in their own environment filled me with excitement, a deep sense of joy and even greater respect for them.

Perhaps we all need to find our own great whites, to find those places at which nature simply dazzles us and commands our respect. Perhaps then we would be more motivated to treat this planet and its creatures as they deserve.

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