Things seem to be ‘hotting up’ on the subjects of environmental sustainability and its close cousin, climate change. The loss of most winter crops in southeastern Australia due to utter failure of spring rains and severe bushfires this summer tied up resources and caused severe losses, while Al Gore’s compelling film convinced many about the Inconvenient Truth of global warming has generated widespread discussion within our community. These events lifted public awareness to a new level and the Stern Report from Britain and local political developments since have at least maintained that level.
Willoughby City Council has been encouraging greater awareness of sustainability issues through many of its ‘e-Restore’ suite of programs over several years. We now have a larger and more loyal group of volunteer bush-carers than any other council in New South Wales. Our recycling achievements are also the envy of many local government councils. The e-Restore program was funded by a levy on rates. That levy was introduced and extended with very little objection. So I draw the conclusion that most ratepayers are in favour of our actions. However, a paucity of new faces at e-Restore events suggests that many ratepayers remain largely uncommitted. Perhaps they remain ‘on the fence’ with thoughts such as ‘I just don’t have time’, ‘what impact can I have?’ or ‘what impact can Australia have?’
Some leaders, such as Al Gore and Tim Flannery, exhort us to start the change process with small steps in our own lives – steps like recycling, saving water and reducing our energy consumption. Others, like Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute, say that we need to be ‘told’. He points out that leaded petrol, with its health risks, was not abolished by people deciding not to buy it, but by prohibition through government legislation. But which politician or party will be brave enough to propose such legislation in the face of powerful vested interests while the public appears apathetic? Both views are correct: let us have voters demanding political (and corporate) change and backing it up with visible actions of our own. Obvious activism in Willoughby might involve joining a Sustainability Street group. We might choose to buy ‘green’ power, ie, electricity that is generated from renewable sources. If we believe in the power of the market, we might be prepared to advocate (or at least acknowledge to friends and colleagues) the logic of higher prices for energy and water.
A recent commentary on the level of affluence in present-day Australia mentioned that we now spend a smaller proportion of our income on water and most forms of energy that at any time in the past. The economic ‘system’ encourages us to use more. How many of us are prepared to concede that, in terms of protecting the environment, the system is not working and needs to be changed? Perhaps Australia can be the place that makes the necessary changes and shows that possibility to the rest of the world.
Furthermore, can we here in Willoughby be at the forefront of that change process? We are well placed to do so: affluent, educated and progressive. It seems to me that this must be where not only our priority but also much of our energy must be directed as a community. For me, many of Willoughby’s traditional concerns become inconsequential by comparison.
To paraphrase from an epoch-changing book: what profit for mankind if we gain the whole world but lose the planet?
Councillors will be addressing the future of e-Restore and its stance on sustainability and climate change in a full day workshop in late April. Watch this space. I would welcome any thoughts you may have on how and when we might involve you, our constituents.
Clr. Barry Thompson (Naremburn Ward)
Phone: 9412 1596; Email: Barry.Thompson@willoughby.nsw.gov.au