We owe it to our kids

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - Society - By Bernard salT ◖ mag­a­zine­feed­back@theaus­tralian.com.au ◗

Ihave a sim­ple at­ti­tude when it comes to the is­sue of cli­mate change. And that is: it’s not my field of ex­per­tise, and not one that lends it­self to am­a­teur con­jec­ture. It is pru­dent to take the ad­vice of ex­perts. I there­fore ac­cept that there is a need to take cor­rec­tive ac­tion now in order to avoid en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe in the fu­ture. I un­der­stand some do not agree that the sci­ence is set­tled; how­ever, the over­whelm­ing sci­en­tific con­sen­sus seems to be that we need to act now.

I get this. I am on board. I am ready to make sac­ri­fices now in order to se­cure the fu­ture. It seems like the right thing to do. Plus, even if the de­nial­ists were right, I quite like the idea of a cleaner planet, and that of a na­tion, or na­tions, pulling to­gether to achieve a com­mon goal. Noth­ing like a per­ceived ex­ter­nal threat to unite a hu­man­ity oth­er­wise pre­dis­posed to petty squab­bling.

What I ad­mire about the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment is the way the cause is now be­ing in­serted into ev­ery as­pect of life. It is al­most im­pos­si­ble to read a com­pany’s an­nual re­port or a gov­ern­ment re­port with­out en­coun­ter­ing terms such as sus­tain­abil­ity and cli­mate change. It is the com­mon lens through which the in­tel­li­gentsia in­ter­prets the fu­ture. And rightly so: this is an im­por­tant is­sue.

But the phi­los­o­phy of be­ing pru­dent with re­sources, of mend­ing our ways, of shar­ing the bur­den of sac­ri­fice in order to de­liver fu­ture sus­tain­abil­ity shouldn’t be lim­ited to en­vi­ron­men­tal mat­ters. Surely ev­ery­one who is con­cerned about the fu­ture hab­it­abil­ity of our planet should be also con­cerned about the con­cept of eco­nomic sus­tain­abil­ity? We should not be liv­ing be­yond our means ei­ther from an en­vi­ron­men­tal or bud­getary per­spec­tive. And if we are, it’s only a mat­ter of time un­til there is a day of reck­on­ing. The planet, and cred­i­tors, are not end­less sources of benev­o­lence; there are phys­i­cal lim­its to the with­drawal of re­sources.

A decade ago this na­tion had no net debt. To­day, depend­ing on how it is mea­sured, this fig­ure is es­ti­mated at about $380 bil­lion, which is roughly 20 per cent of GDP. We have been liv­ing a fis­cally un­sus­tain­able lifestyle for a decade and, as far as I can make out, we have only just got to the point where we’ve stopped adding to the debt level.

If you are con­cerned about pass­ing on an en­vi­ron­men­tal li­a­bil­ity to the next gen­er­a­tion, surely you will also be con­cerned about pass­ing on debt. I know there are de­nial­ists who say we can live per­ma­nently with debt, or maybe they think cred­i­tor na­tions in the fu­ture will say, “Oh, those Aus­tralians are pretty spe­cial peo­ple, so we’ll go easy on re­pay­ment terms”.

The prob­lem with in­ter­gen­er­a­tional debt is a lot like the prob­lem of cli­mate change. One gen­er­a­tion – per­haps due to naivety, per­haps due to greed, per­haps a bit of both – racks up a debt that is passed on to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions all be­cause too many peo­ple have an in­ter­est in en­abling the ex­ist­ing sys­tem to con­tinue unchecked and un­changed.

To sig­nif­i­cantly and im­me­di­ately re­duce car­bon emis­sions im­poses fi­nan­cial pain on vested in­ter­ests. To sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce our na­tional debt im­poses a level of pain that to­day’s elec­torate is un­likely to ac­cept. What we need is for the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment to share its play­book so that ev­ery pub­lic re­port, busi­ness meet­ing, school project and celebrity ut­ter­ance com­ments on the fu­ture through the lens of both en­vi­ron­men­tal and fis­cal sus­tain­abil­ity. No point sav­ing the planet if in the in­terim so­cial co­he­sion dis­in­te­grates be­cause debt lev­els were never ad­dressed by a peo­ple too afraid or too self­ish or too greedy to make the re­quired sac­ri­fices.

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