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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 04-Oct-2006

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Comment

Page: 15

Wordcount: 936

In the battle to be green, the human factor can work wonders

Elizabeth Farrelly – Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, planning and aesthetic issues for the Herald

NEWS from Britain that the Home Counties arms manufacturer BAE Systems will include eco-aware weaponry in its spring collection is heart-warming stuff, a spin-off, no doubt, of the Tories’ “vote blue, go green” election couture.

Low-lead bullets, low-tox rockets and self-composting explosives should really blow ’em away. Now you can invade a country, depopulate and go, while the landscape blooms. How to spread democracy in a way agent orange could only dream of.

Still, that’s the easy route. Anyone can solve nature’s problem by deleting culture; human culture, specifically. We, on the trigger end of the green gun, we’re the ones doing the hard yards, struggling to coexist with nature, to balance her demand for purity and ours for endless novelty so that we’re all happy little Chippewas.

It’s a familiar paradigm, the nature-culture war. And it implies that the more intense the culture, the worse it is for nature, making cities, as our most intense cultural monuments, enviro-evil central. Turns out, though, that this is a misconstruction, just our old need to polarise.

In fact, cities represent a fortuitous nature-culture alignment; what’s best for cities is also best for nature (which is good for citizens, and so on). A sustainable city is virtually indistinguishable from a healthy one – which is just as well, since by next year, says the UN, cities will be the dominant habitat of this over-dominant species.

Professor Howard Frumkin, the director of the National Centre for Environmental Health in Atlanta, spoke in Sydney last week on the public-health impact of car-dominated cities, especially regarding epidemics of heart disease, cancer, asthma, obesity, diabetes and depression.

Frumkin got a giggle with slides of drive-through funeral parlours and – no, really – drive-through, in-car public toilets. His theme, though, was serious: what makes a healthy, wholesome community? And his answer was simple; clean air, physical activity, safety, social engagement, greenery.

A new film on Cuba and peak oil, The Power of Community, screened at Sydney University recently, made similar points, only with a funkier soundtrack. Peak oil is the idea that global oil supply, after peaking, will decline. By 2010 half the world’s oil will be gone, and what remains will be hard to get.

In Cuba’s case it was Mother Russia, not Mother Nature, who shut off the taps, so it was more cold turkey than a “natural” dwindling in our drug of choice. Then again, as Al Gore pointed out in Sydney recently, “the Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stone”. Rather, because we found a better, more efficient technology.

In Cuba, the better, cleaner, healthier technology was human power; the power of community, giving the film its name. And not fake community, either, as in “gated”, but something that looks plausibly like the real thing.

Yes, the film was made by bearded Berkeley types. And yes, it was sentimental and probably over-rosy. But if it’s even half accurate, Cuba’s story is a salutary one.

Cuba had an annual oil habit of 10 barrels per head, just for food production. Suddenly, this became a trickle: no tractor fuel, no chemical pesticides, no fossil-based fertiliser. Then, no food. People began to starve. Imports and exports dropped by 80 per cent; gross domestic product by a third; average body weight by almost 14 kilograms.

Then the human factor kicked in, and the learning began. Supported by Australian permaculturists, Cubans taught themselves organic farming, colonised every spare pocket handkerchief of city land, developed bio-pesticides and fertilisers and rediscovered walking, cycling and buses (creatively customised on semi-trailers). The kilos stayed off but food was back. Neighbourhood organic markets sprang up everywhere and farmers became the new doctors.

Today an estimated 50 per cent of Havana’s vegetables are grown within city limits; in smaller towns it’s 80-100 per cent. On an annual income of $US3000 ($4000) a head, and with one-eighth of the per-person energy use, life expectancy matches that of the US. But the best organic product is the sense of community. As the lawyer Rita Pereira notes, Cubans saw for themselves that “you really don’t need that much to be happy”.

It’s ironic that communist Cuba offers so muscular an answer to the terrifying questions in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Gore doesn’t advocate communism, though he does point to China’s per-person carbon usage as less than one-tenth of America’s, while its $US7 billion ($9.3 billion) renewables investment is double.

True, Gore’s film is hard to swallow, but not because the science isn’t convincing. It is. Even our own federal minister, Ian Campbell, concedes that. Climate change is fact. No, the real stretch is that humanity could be so unbelievably dumb. That, even knowing what we do about corporate and political deceit, we welcome lies on climate change just as we did on the perils of smoking.

For if Gore is even half-right, it’s a gross oversight that we are not ending sprawl; severely constraining cars, making rainwater tanks mandatory; requiring worm farms, vege gardens and personal electricity generators. (Tell the kids: no screen activity till they’ve cycle-generated the power; sort fat and climate change at once).

Democracy hates that; hates to impose on the voters (though it’s less fussy about anyone else). Democracy’s best defence, though, is not to obliterate dissent, even with eco-weapons, but to demonstrate that even pleasure-seeking democracies can lift their heads from the trough occasionally and show some collective, long-term intelligence. Maybe the US needs a (genuine) conservative party.


Photo: The Washington Post


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