Changing public attitudes to long-term issues

IF INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY is to survive, the next century will have to be a time of transformation, not just in technological capacity but also in our approach to the natural world and to each other. The second report in the Global Environmental Outlook series from the United Nations Environment Program says: "The present approach is not sustainable. Doing nothing is no longer an option."

A sustainable society would not be eroding its resource base, causing serious environmental damage or producing unacceptable social problems. But we are dissipating resources that future generations will need, damaging environmental systems and reducing social stability by widening the gap between rich and poor.

It is possible to move to a sustainable future, but it will require fundamental changes to our values and social institutions. While the UN report says that doing nothing about the huge problems we face is not an option, it remains the most common response of today's decision-makers; our National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, adopted in 1992, gathers dust in government pigeonholes. So how likely is it that we can achieve the fundamental changes needed for our civilisation to survive?

While sceptics point to the durability of cultural institutions and the reluctance of people to make voluntary sacrifices for the common good, we know that cultural traditions do change and people do make voluntary sacrifices. The examples that follow illustrate the willingness of people to make short-term concessions for the long-term good or to accept restrictions of their personal freedom for the good of the whole community. These examples suggest practical ways of achieving the sort of transition we will need for a sustainable future.


PERHAPS THE MOST dramatic example of recent change in our culture is the shift in the past forty years of attitudes to smoking tobacco, especially in shared spaces. In 1972, a persistent writer of letters to the existing domestic airlines celebrated the concession made by one of them to introduce a limited trial of setting aside a few rows of seats on some flights to be designated "non-smoking". Up until that point, it had been presumed smokers had a right to light up anywhere on aircraft, buses and trams; the same tolerance applied to restaurants, meeting rooms, public buildings and, in some states, even to cinemas.

The change on airlines was truly dramatic. With a choice, more and more customers asked for "non-smoking" seats until finally, in 1992, the Australian Government announced a total smoking ban on domestic flights. There was barely a flicker of protest against the total prohibition of an activity that had been presumed acceptable only twenty years earlier.

In the workplace, the crucial event was the successful legal action by Liesel Scholem against the New South Wales Department of Health. Scholem presented medical evidence to show that her emphysema was a consequence of the department's allowing smokers to pollute the air she breathed in a shared office. Within a year of the verdict, many workplaces became nonsmoking areas, forcing smokers to stand on the footpath outside their buildings. With the evidence accumulating that "passive smoking" is a health hazard, the prohibition has spread to most public-transport vehicles, public buildings, restaurants and even pubs. Most smokers have conceded that their right to smoke is overruled by the rights of others not to breathe exhaled smoke. As the right to smoke has been curtailed and more people have become aware of the health risks of smoking, the proportion of the adult population who smoke has fallen dramatically, from about half in 1950 to about a fifth today – a radical change, by any standard.

There are other, equally striking examples of radical changes in attitudes. When I first obtained my driving licence, police were allowed to stop a vehicle if they had reasonable grounds for believing the driver could be drunk. So a driver who attracted attention – for example by weaving all over the road or going through a red light – could be stopped, but an inconspicuous drunk could drive with impunity. Random breath tests were widely considered an infringement to personal freedom when first suggested in the 1960s. We are now accustomed to a regime in which drivers can be stopped "anywhere, any time" and be asked to provide a sample of their breath.

There is a close parallel with seatbelts in cars and helmets for motorbike riders. In each case, the compulsion was seen by some as an unacceptable intrusion, despite the overwhelming statistical evidence that the measures saved lives. Australia introduced compulsory seatbelts before most other nations. I recall bemused critics in the northern hemisphere seeing the measure as evidence we were sliding down the slippery slope to some sort of police state.

When I was young, plastic shopping bags did not exist and shoppers took their own permanent bags to shops. The plastic bag arrived and spread, so for a few decades there were very few shoppers taking their own bags to the supermarket. Now that increasing numbers of people are concerned about the wasteful practice of using throwaway bags, we are seeing a return to the practice of shoppers taking their permanent shopping bags. In some suburbs, those still using plastic bags are a small minority, attracting the attention and sometimes the opprobrium of other shoppers.

As a final local example, in the 1950s, soft-drink bottles incurred a deposit, so users returned them to get a refund. There was no deposit on beer bottles but community groups like the scouts collected them and were paid to return the bottles to distributors. We then passed through a throwaway era, with bottles used once and put into rubbish bins – a radical change. Recycling began in a half-hearted way, requiring trips to designated collection points, so few people took the trouble to return empty bottles. Then kerb-side recycling was introduced in many areas, with a consequent dramatic increase in the amount of glass, metal and plastic recycled. As with shopping bags, we passed through a stage of wasteful resource use before returning to the more responsible use pattern of fifty years ago: two opposite radical changes in less than the average human lifetime.


PROBABLY THE MOST striking example of radical change in the past twenty years is the end of communism, most dramatically symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall. For decades, the wall divided the city of Berlin and was patrolled by armed guards to prevent people fleeing gloomy East Berlin for the bright lights of the West. As a physical structure and as a symbol of the power of the communist government of the German Democratic Republic, it seemed absolutely impregnable. Only a handful of people succeeded in escaping to the West; many perished in the attempt. Then, almost overnight, the wall was abandoned. Joyful Berliners tore pieces out with their bare hands. Today, Berlin is a united city, once again the cultural and political centre of Germany. A small museum has preserved the history of the wall and entrepreneurs sell small fragments of the structure to tourists. But, for most visitors and residents, it is as if the barrier had never been there. The waters of history have closed over it.

The end of apartheid in South Africa is a similar story. For nearly a century after the Boer War, the Afrikaners ruled the country with their strange mix of Christianity and racism. The people of South Africa were divided into the three groups of whites, "coloureds" and Africans, a process that required some arbitrary decisions despite penal sanctions for sexual activity between members of different classifications. Public spaces such as beaches and even park benches were marked according to which group could use them. Those seeking change inside the country, like Nelson Mandela, were imprisoned or executed. Internal protests were ruthlessly suppressed in such actions as the infamous Sharpeville massacre. Antiapartheid feelings in other countries became stronger, but conservative politicians sided with the regime, with the Queensland premier, in 1970, going to the ridiculous length of declaring a state of emergency to allow police to deal with those protesting against a Rugby tour. Sports people who refused to play against official South African teams were ostracised, in some cases ending their representative careers. Calls for economic sanctions or sporting boycotts were derided by business leaders, sporting officials and most politicians.

Eventually, the rising tide of political reaction forced politicians in many Western countries to support pressure on the South African regime, leading in time to the dismantling of apartheid and the enfranchisement of the entire adult population. Nelson Mandela, released and almost saintly in his willingness to forgive his tormentors, became president of the "rainbow nation" and the long-banned "Nkosi Sikelele Africa" was incorporated into the national anthem, with Mandela's wearing of the country's Rugby jersey at the World Cup final a powerful symbol of reconciliation. Many of those unable to face the dismantling of their system of privilege fled the country, but most remained and adapted to the new reality of twenty-first-century South Africa. While a hundred years of institutionalised disadvantage meant there was a need for some arbitrary measures to accelerate change, such as quotas in sporting teams, South African cricket and Rugby teams are increasing representative of the diversity of the country. As with the Berlin Wall, it is difficult now for a younger generation to imagine the old system even being defensible, let alone appearing unassailable.

There are more modest examples of radical changes in community attitudes enabling political reform. London Mayor Ken Livingstone decided to try to cut through the policy impasse that was making the city unworkable. With the public-transport system becoming steadily older and less attractive to commuters, more people were taking cars into the city, producing congestion and pollution. The reduced patronage of the public transport system meant it was unable to raise the revenue to invest in improvements. Livingstone implemented a "congestion charge" – essentially a levy on those bringing motor vehicles into the inner city area – to fund the revitalisation of public transport, arguing that sticks (financial penalties) and carrots (better public transport) were needed to change behaviour. The levy was not trivial, equivalent to about $12, and there were dire predictions of economic and social chaos before the introduction of the scheme.

Instead, it was so successful that, after the first year, Livingstone had widespread support for increasing the levy to the equivalent of $20 to speed up the raising of funds to improve the bus and underground rail systems. Far from creating chaos, the change has made the inner city much more pleasant – the streets are less congested and the air is cleaner, leading to an increased willingness of people to be in the city. Instead of the feared collapse of commerce, shops are doing more business as people return to the centre of the city. This was confidently expected by the planners, because it is exactly what has happened when streets have been closed to create shopping malls. Now that the change has been made, it would be politically very difficult to return to the old ways.

As I was finalising this article, Sweden announced its commitment to clean energy, with a goal of phasing out coal and oil by 2020. Iceland had set the same objective in 1999. Denmark, which already gets about a fifth of its electricity from wind power, aims to increase the level to half by 2020. Public opinion in the Scandinavian countries reflects increasing awareness of, and concern about, the two problems of "peak oil" and global climate change. This has made it not only possible, but politically wise, for governments to adopt energy policies that appear radical from the perspective of Australia, where politicians are still in denial about both.


IT IS CLEAR from these examples that it is entirely possible for fundamental changes in public attitudes to happen. It is equally clear that it is no small task to achieve significant change at any level – the personal, the household, the small community or the nation. Most of the time, most people are reasonably content with the way things are and reluctant to embrace change, especially at a fundamental level. I believe that there are four steps to major change: discontent, a new vision, viable pathways and commitment.

Unless there is discontent, there is no motivation to change. If I am happy with my fitness, I am unlikely to change. If we are happy with our lifestyle, we are unlikely to change – which is why advertising tries to make us discontented and therefore more susceptible to the latest consumer fad. Richard Eckersley argues that the seven deadly sins – envy, greed, lust, pride, anger, sloth and gluttony – have been re-packaged as the seven marketing imperatives of the modern world. They are constantly used, as Clive Hamilton puts it, to urge us to spend money we don't have to buy things we don't need to impress people we don't like. Producing dissatisfaction is the aim of all advertising.

I am dissatisfied with our lifestyle because we are depriving future Australians of the sorts of opportunities we have taken for granted. Unless that awareness is widespread, there will not be the dissatisfaction that will motivate change.

Being discontented is not enough. Even if I am unhappy with my fitness or my lifestyle, I won't do anything unless I can imagine a better alternative. Without a vision, change might actually make things worse rather than better. So the second step to real change is to picture the future we want. Advertisers use this principle, portraying the life of indolence or the sexual pleasures that await us if we buy their products. In the case of my fitness, I can imagine the sort of state I would like to achieve, because I was there a few decades ago.

Achieving a sustainable society is more difficult because we haven't been there, so we have to invent it. Unless we have a credible vision of a future sustainable society, it is very unlikely there will be support for change. In writing A Big Fix (Black Inc, 2005), I described the essential components of a future sustainable society. There is room for argument about some of the details, but the general principle is clear. We must limit human consumption so it doesn't exceed the sustainable level of production from natural systems.

Again, even a coherent vision is not enough if we can't see a way of getting there from where we are. I do a fair bit of bushwalking, so I know that the easiest route from your starting point to your destination is hardly ever a straight line; you need to take account of the lie of the land and the vegetation. A friend might advise me against trying to recover my fitness of twenty years ago from where I am, but I might see a viable pathway, with suitable attention to diet and exercise. So the third component of change is developing and describing feasible pathways that would take us to our goal from where we are now. Again, it is more difficult with a future sustainable society. Even when a future sustainable society can be imagined and described, it is difficult – and contentious – to spell out the steps that will take us there.

Since a sustainable future must involve much less use of fossil fuels like coal and oil, the initial steps run counter to some very powerful vested interests. In Australia's case, the export coal industry and the heavily subsidised aluminium industry have been remarkably effective in blocking the sorts of changes that are clearly in the public interest. Before the Kyoto conference on climate change, which set preliminary targets for reducing the levels of greenhouse pollution from the industrialised world, I attended a briefing for interest groups. I sat with mounting incredulity as the leader of the Australian delegation set out the stance being proposed for the Kyoto meeting. When I asked whether it was possible to identify any nuance in the official position that differentiated it from the public stance of the energy-intensive industries, the delegation leader responded angrily, but was eventually forced to concede that there was no significant difference. The position adopted at Kyoto by the Australian Government, led by the Minister for the Environment, Senator Robert Hill, was to defend the interests of two industries that are largely foreign-owned – the export coal and aluminium businesses. Another example of a vested interest that has been very successful in blocking change is the road-freight operation, heavily subsidised because the registration charges and fuel taxes paid by large trucks are thousands of dollars less than the damage they do to roads. These examples illustrate that the pathways to a sustainable future must be politically feasible as well as technically viable.

The fourth component is commitment. If I can spell out a coherent program of diet and exercise that will enable me to regain my physical fitness, it will still take commitment to stick to the regime. We all know people who have good intentions but lack the will to stick to their plans. The politics of sustainability hinges on developing such a public commitment to a sustainable future that the change becomes politically irresistible.


AS THESE EXAMPLES show, traditional politics will only respond to urgent long-term issues when there is irresistible pressure. The historian Paul Kennedy argues that those who succeed in democratic political systems are usually those who have refined to an art form the avoidance of any threat to powerful interest groups. So they are unlikely, he proposes, to adopt significant changes in the interest of future generations as long as they can argue that experts are divided or more research is needed.

In the case of complex issues like global climate change, there will always be some division among experts, making it feasible to claim that more research is needed before we embrace significant change. It has become steadily more difficult to find scientists with any credible claim to expertise who will deny that human activity is changing the global climate, but media organisations and governments have responded by intensifying the search rather than accepting the overwhelming consensus.

While several European countries have now adopted serious targets for reducing greenhouse pollution, in Australia we are still getting evasion and spin from our national government, like the extraordinary claim that we are "on track to meet our Kyoto obligation". The basis for the misleading claim is Australia's uniquely generous target, an eight per cent increase in emissions when most developed countries are required to reduce, combined with what is known around the world as "the Australia clause" in the Kyoto Protocol. Our delegation demanded that changes in land use should be counted in the greenhouse-pollution calculation. So our baseline was inflated by the huge scale of land clearing in 1990, and the Beattie Government's actions to stop that clearing allows the national government to claim we are doing our share for the global effort. In fact, our energy-related emissions, mainly from electricity and transport, are more than a third above the 1990 Kyoto baseline and spiralling out of control, with no serious policies even to slow down the rate of increase.

The crucial first step will be committing to the principle of a sustainable future. It should not be necessary to say this, because the Council of Australian Governments adopted the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development as long ago as 1992, but there is little sign of these ideals in 2005. We should be flexible about how we get there, but the goal must be unambiguous.

In A Big Fix, I tried to set out the the principles of a future sustainable society and a process for achieving that goal. This year, the Australian Conservation Foundation has set up a group called Australia's Future Makers. The aim is to develop a charter for a sustainable future and gather public support from prominent Australians, leading up to a Sustainability Summit in October. It is intended to create a groundswell of public opinion that politicians will be unable to ignore.

The crucial step will be to develop awareness that the change will benefit all of us, rather than being a massive sacrifice in the short term to help future generations. It will then be feasible to advise voters at future elections on the policies that are needed, allowing them to make their own judgements about which candidates or parties will be more likely to fulfil our hopes.


IT IS SOMETIMES claimed that environmentalists are trying to "spoil the party" and stop people enjoying our modern lifestyle. Rather than spoiling the party, I am suggesting that a new party is starting up. It is a better party because it won't run out of food and drink, it will be more satisfying because it will be based on personal fulfilment rather than gluttonous consumption, it won't damage our shared "house" or leave us with a hangover, and it won't have envious neighbours looking on or throwing rocks on the roof. It will be a party we can all enjoy, and a party we can expect our children to enjoy as well. All around the world, people are striving to develop social and institutional responses that will enable the transition to a sustainable future. We have to recognise above all else that we share the Earth with all other species and hold it in trust for all future generations. That moral duty provides the impetus for the transition to a sustainable future, just as moral principles underpinned the end of apartheid and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. As in those cases, the changes we need are not inevitable, but those examples serve as a reminder that radical changes happen when enough of us want them.

So what are the realistic prospects for the changes we need to make? Some appear relatively straightforward. For example, I think there would be widespread public support today for a responsible approach of phasing out coal-fired power as existing plant reaches the end of its life, replacing it with a mix of renewable fuels. There would be little public objection to improving the efficiency of appliances and vehicles, since this provides economic gains as well as reduced environmental impact. Replacing dangerous pesticides with safer alternatives should not be contentious, while there would probably also be political support for preferring local foods to those carted halfway round the world.

The really problematic changes relate to growth in population and consumption. While it is clear from elementary biology that no species can increase its population without limit in a closed system, most of us are still in denial about the application of this iron law to humans. In similar terms, our right to consume more per person is almost the defining myth of our time. The real challenge is to spread awareness of the need to achieve a future steady state and develop political support for that change. 

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