Monday, March 31, 2008

Follow up to Earth Hour

Someone I'd never before heard of called James Bow had a good post on Earth Hour, giving another reason to take part.

This sort of behaviour is actually pretty typical of the right in the US and Australia these days. In America it may not bite them too hard. A range of factors mean there is a receptive audience for it, which may just be large enough to keep them in business.

However, in Australia it just strikes people as weird, and is one of the reasons the Liberal Party does not have a future, a theme I'll return to many times on this page.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Where will the people go?

Australia’s major cities are struggling under the burden of fast population growth. Massive congestion and unaffordable house prices are two of the symptoms. Some people would prefer that we shut the borders to slow the growth, but this isn’t practical for a variety of reasons.

Better town planning, particularly better public transport, would certainly help. However, a big part of the answer has to be, as the wonderful Possum has argued, to encourage more people to move to regional areas.

Possum deals with questions of why this is needed, and how to get people to move, but leaves aside the issue of where we want the people to go. There is no point starting growth in areas where natural limitations will mean we soon run into the same problems, or where any growth will be at the cost of destroying priceless natural areas.

I’ve been trying to think where one would fit an extra ten million people into Australia. I think the figure is pretty realistic. At current rates of growth it is about what we will put on between now and 2050. I don’t think we need to worry too much about population growth beyond that point. By that time Australia’s natural growth will have reversed and the growth will be entirely from immigration. What is more, 2050 looks to be about the point where global population will peak and start to decline.

While it is likely that, even in a world of declining population, there will still be plenty of people keen to move to a wealthy nation like Australia, the moral imperative to take large numbers of people will be lessened, and it is quite likely that we will simply take enough to counter the natural fall in our population from birthrates below replacement.

So where would these 10 million go?

I’d say ideally none to outer Sydney, but infill projects such as Green Square will take a fair few, so perhaps 100,000 there.

Melbourne is straining, but I think with better public transport we could take another 500,000 in the north and west – they still won’t sprawl as far as Cranbourne.
Perth 500,000
Brisbane 300,000
Adelaide 300,000

So the big five cities, that currently hold most of Australia’s population will be able to take less than 20% of the growth before they start seriously compromising quality of life.

Looking at the next tier of cities I’d guess something like this (figures very rough):

Darwin 150,000
Gold Coast 100,000
Townsville 100,000

Canberra 100,000
Newcastle 100,000
Geelong 100,000
Wollongong 50,000
Hobart 50,000

So we’re still barely past a quarter. I agree with Possum that building entire new cities is not a good way to go. Instead we need to bolster regional centres. As I noted on Possum’s blog, I think university towns are the way to go. I think Warrnambool, for example could go from being a city of about 30,000 as it is today, to being a thriving centre of 150,000 people based around a world class university centred on the current Deakin university site.

Still, if we are talking about cities of 100-200 thousand people we will need something like 70 of them to take on the people expected. It seems unlikely doesn’t it? So what’s the answer: Fit more in the big cities, have the new regional centres grow to half a million each rather than 150,000 or actually have 70 new substantial cities?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Earth Hour

I was always a bit suspicious of Earth Hour. There's nothing wrong with symbolic actions, but people need to understand what they are doing is symbolic, not think they've done their bit to stop global warming by switching off the lights for an hour. I'm not sure a lot of Earth Hour participants get this.

Combined with a general suspicion of a the woofers (WWF) this lent some sympathy for the large proportion of the environment movement who have labled it a croc. When Crikey ran a piece showing how companies could get credit for being part of Earth Hour without actually doing anything (why are office lights on at 8pm on a Saturday anyway?) my suspicions deepened.

Nevertheless, I joined in last night, and realised there may be a quite unintentional benefit to the whole thing: It was really nice. Sitting around by candlelight chatting with friends is a pleasure not a chore.

This is a good thing on several levels:

* I subscribe to the view that pleasure is, of itself, a good thing. Sometimes negative factors outweigh the pleasure gained, but I'm not sure thats the case this time.
* An evening with friends unencumbered by TV is pretty much the textbook case of social capital building.
* If people are reminded how nice it can be to do without electricity for a while it may genuinely produce a change in behaviour, unlike a one off diet that just encourages people to splurge afterwards.

But I still think WWF needs to make companies do something meaningful to get credit for taking part.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

What’s With the Name?

I’ve used Feral Sparrowhawk as a nom de net for a while on other people’s blogs. It may be pretentious, and it’s certainly obscure, but it is my attempt to honour two artists whose work has influenced me more than any others. One of these is reasonably famous, while the other one deserves more publicity than I can provide, but you do what you can.

In both cases the name comes from what I consider a truly stunning work of art. In each case the piece in question is one of those things you can experience over and over again, and find something new each time. Both works referred to served as my introduction to a superb, and hugely influential, body of work. And in each case the piece in question gave me one of those extraordinary moments of revelation and joy you cherish your whole life, although I think those are stories for another time.

The original idea came from Penelope Swales’ inspirational meditation on environmental activism and deep ecology Black Carrie. The song is dotted with references to sparrows. To understand the multi-layered symbolism and references you need to read the full lyrics, or better still hear it performed. However, the pertinent line runs, “Sparrows, although feral, remind me that sparrows are not to blame for what they are…we’re like sparrows, we’re not to blame for what we are.”

A note for non-Australian readers*: sparrows are an introduced species in Australia and something of a pest, taking up ecological space that would otherwise be filled by native species, often endangered.

Feral sparrow was thus the first pseudonym I came up with. However, it doesn’t really sound right, and anyway no one meeting me is likely to consider my totem animal a sparrow.

More people are probably familiar with the other part of the name. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books are fairly popular with teenage readers, predecessors of sorts for Harry Potter. Some readers come back to them later and discover, as I did, just how deep the waters run. Much as I enjoy JK Rowling, she can’t compare with Le Guin’s wisdom. Btw, stay well away from the abomination which is the television version of Earthsea – it’s worse than you could possibly imagine.

Le Guin’s father was a leading anthropologist and all her writings draw heavily on myths and cultural practices common across many civilizations. Central to the books is that names have power, and the characters only tell their true names to those they trust most intensely and have “usenames” by which the rest of the world knows them. The central character’s usename is Sparrowhawk, because an early sign of his magical abilities was his capacity for calling birds of prey fromt eh skies.

Arguably, I’m not much of a hawk either, but in rare moments of maximum intellectual clarity it can seem that problems I have been struggling with are laid out before me like an open field before a circling raptor. It may not happen often, but I treasure the sensation above almost all others, and aspire to achieve that clarity more often. Feral sparrowhawk gives me, in a sense, a personality to live up to.

* in the unlikely event there are any