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The future of the environmental movement (The Australian)

If the environmental movement were to have one long-term goal it should be to make itself redundant, writes Ian Lowe, president of ACF.

This will be following the tradition of past successful social movements. After slavery was abolished, there were no longer abolitionist groups. After women finally got the vote, the suffragettes disbanded. There is no longer an anti-apartheid movement.

There are also local examples of environment groups achieving their goal and winding up.

When I returned to Australia in 1980 there was a very active Moreton Island Protection group, formed to save the iconic sand island in Moreton Bay from a proposal by the Bjelke-Petersen government to allow sand mining. That organisation no longer exists, because it would be political suicide to propose mining Moreton Island today.

Groups formed in the 1970s to oppose irresponsible plans for nuclear power stations no longer exist, although bizarre attempts to resurrect those plans may force a corresponding revitalisation of opposition groups.

Groups formed to promote a specific aim, such as abolishing slavery or protecting Moreton Island, are redundant when those specific goals are achieved.

More generally, environment groups will be redundant when environmental awareness is completely integrated into our thinking, so even the most blinkered economist or the most crass industrialist or the most opportunistic politician is aware of the need to act responsibly.

In the future we will all recognise that our most important duty to future generations is to maintain the integrity of Australia’s natural systems and protect our unique biodiversity. One day we will understand that no amount of wealth can bring back an extinct species and that it is not feasible to repair such problems as dryland salinity or degraded rangelands on any sensible human timescale.

All our social and economic decisions will be based on that fundamental responsibility to maintain the integrity of Australia’s natural systems.

Of course, we are still at a much more primitive state of human development.

Many of our leaders still appear to believe that any problem can be solved by rapid economic growth, even though three landmark reports on the state of the environment have all found that environmental degradation has been a direct consequence of population growth, increasing consumption and lifestyle choices.

All our governments, both Labor and Coalition, see their primary duty as promoting economic growth, almost regardless of the environmental or social cost. Even the obvious danger of climate change has so far only evoked a limp response from the government, while the Opposition works itself into an opportunistic lather at the prospect of action that might slow the growth of polluting industries.

The business world is not worried enough about climate change to stop exporting fossil fuels and is even urging governments to increase the subsidies that encourage this irresponsible action. It is largely ignoring the simple cost-effective ways to reduce our pollution of the atmosphere.

At the same time, some business elements are saying climate change is so urgent we should panic and write huge cheques with public money to build nuclear power stations, despite the evidence they would do little to slow greenhouse pollution.

The 21st century environment movement is, like the abolitionists and the suffragettes in earlier times, engaged in educating the community to recognise the moral imperative of change.

It was morally indefensible to enslave other humans or deny the majority of adults a say in how we are governed. It is just as morally indefensible to provide our material wealth by systematically stealing from our own descendants.

That is what we do when we generate wealth by eroding the capacity of natural systems to produce the essentials of life – breathable air, drinkable water and the capacity to produce our food – as well as such desirables as our sense of cultural identity as Australians and the spiritual sustenance we gain from the natural world.

That is what has to change.

We have to recognise that the only morally acceptable ways to generate wealth are those that work within the limits of natural systems. Where we are not certain of the impacts of our actions, it is our moral duty to be cautious.

Wherever you look in Australia, you see groups that are working effectively to change the irresponsible habits of the past and set our society on a secure footing for the future.

The Transition Towns initiative has spread right around the country, as have local food initiatives and groups working to put urban life on a sustainable basis. Groups are working on specific problems like climate change, the degradation of our inland rivers, industrial pollution or the destruction of old-growth forests.

The Australian Conservation Foundation is still inspiring people to protect our unique natural assets, but we are also an integral part of the broader social movement for change to a sustainable future.

Awareness of the scale of our problems is growing. So is support for a fundamental transition.

Ian Lowe is emeritus professor of science and technology at Griffith University and president of the Australian Conservation Foundation