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Shaping a Sustainable Future

Professor Ian Lowe, Spirituality and Sustainability Forum – 6 June, 2007

I begin by thanking His Holiness the Dalai Lama for being in Australia to share with us his wisdom and unique insights, as well as for giving me the opportunity to share this occasion with him. I also acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, because a sustainable future has to be built on genuine reconciliation with the original Australians.

I’m delighted to speak here today as President of the Australian Conservation Foundation. For forty years, ACF has been a strong voice for the environment, promoting solutions through research, consultation, education and partnerships. Our members and supporters have played a key role in protecting outstanding natural areas and raising public awareness of the importance of our unique environment.

The most important question we face is: what sort of Australia do we want? The future is not somewhere we are going, but something we are creating. Will it be a clean, green sustainable future? Or will it leave our children a dreadful legacy of climate change, radioactive waste and derelict land? The Australian Conservation Foundation has analysed the growing threats to our continent. We have developed an ambitious strategy to inspire Australians to move to sustainable practices within a generation. To focus our attention on what that means, let me take you through an exercise called negative brainstorming. Imagine we have been asked to develop strategies to ensure an unsustainable future. How could we achieve this goal?

We would start with a population growing exponentially. No species can expand its numbers indefinitely in a closed system. If we don’t stabilise our population by socially acceptable means, they will be limited in time by starvation, disease and fighting among ourselves.

We could increase the impact of our growing population by increasing consumption per person, putting compounding pressure on resources and the natural environment. We could deplete important non-renewable resources, such as oil, and over-use renewable resources like water, forests and fisheries. We could do serious environmental damage, like causing a major loss of species or changing the global climate. To ensure our economic decline, we would adopt the trade pattern of a Third World country, exporting raw materials and importing value-added goods and services. To increase social instability, we could widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. As a moral foundation for this unsustainable society, we would embrace consumerism.

I don’t think I need to elaborate. The way we are currently living is not sustainable; it doesn’t satisfy any of the main criteria. Despite the evidence that our consumption is degrading our environment, we encourage both growing numbers and increasing consumption per person. If the optimists are right and we haven’t yet passed the peak of world oil production, we are certainly near it, and there is no prospect of scaling up production to meet the demand which has been stimulated. The evidence is overwhelming that we are over-using water and degrading our major river systems. We are changing the global climate, with serious economic and social consequences.