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Tricky navigation: guiding Australia to a safe, sustainable future

Future generations can no longer be assured of being better off: it’s a challenge to traditionally held beliefs in the value of progress. Australians face threats from climate change, reduced biodiversity…

How do we get to the Australia we want? Calsidyrose/Flickr

Future generations can no longer be assured of being better off: it’s a challenge to traditionally held beliefs in the value of progress. Australians face threats from climate change, reduced biodiversity, increased population and flagging economic growth. How might we reasonably move towards creating a world in which we would like to live? How might we consider pathways to an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable Australia?

The Australian Academy of Science has sought to answer this question through the Australia 2050 project. Phase 1 has just been published as “Negotiating our future: Living scenarios for Australia to 2050”.

It’s not an insignificant question: how do we reach the Australia we want? We must characterise the challenges and issues we face, not as a series of disjointed factors, but in a more inclusive and systemic way.

We must chart an uncertain future in the face of our different values and perceptions. Changes to social structures and communities' ability to respond and adapt to new environments will also be important. To achieve desirable change we need to better understand social perspectives, and use these to understand how to keep our society within a safe space for achieving both environmental sustainability and social equity.

The concept of a “safe operating space” has been applied to biophysical systems. It is a set of planetary boundaries that if breached by human activity risk environmental change that is both irreversible and sudden. But it hasn’t been applied to social dimensions. We don’t understand where the limits for social breakdown might be.

The social system is adaptable and resilient, and people’s perceptions about what is normal and acceptable also change. Notions of acceptable social conditions have varied dramatically over human history. Slavery was seen as acceptable within some regimes, but is not considered to be safe or acceptable now.

We also risk making value judgements about what aspects of the Australian community might be perceived as “safe”. Many sections of our community live with pressures such as poverty and the threat of violence, but that does not necessarily mean they live without joy and love. It does not mean they necessarily tip over an irreversible threshold of safety.

Even if we have trouble identifying specific thresholds, it seems possible and desirable to monitor indicators of social relations and processes to detect trends. Increased unemployment, homelessness, mental health problems and crime, loss of food security and growing inequalities – and political instability – are all warning signs of real pressure on the social (and economic and political) system. Shifting social indicators could act as a warning sign that society is moving towards unsafe operating spaces.

When we consider some of these indicators in association with the pressures on the biophysical environment, the picture becomes already especially worrying. In peri-urban and regional areas, exposure to climate change effects and existing social stresses are high. Adapting the fringes of our cities to become healthier and more sustainable places to be is complicated by ageing or inappropriate housing stock, and infrastructure that limits transport options and opportunity for social connection.

There may be clearly desirable zones for achieving social equity and environmental sustainability. But it is harder to say where thresholds for social disarray might occur. Social factors, system dynamics and individual perspectives are just too complex.

Instead of focusing on boundaries for social collapse, we can expand our view by shifting to building social capital. Stronger social capital can provide a buffer against social collapse. Social capital includes communities' understanding of the bigger social ecological system, whether individuals are able to express opinions, and whether governance systems have mechanisms in place for difficult decision-making. Examples of initiatives include sustainability education programs, access to an open media and community engagement in place-making and resolving contentious issues.

We can describe social and economic processes, but the roles that individuals play in creating change are important for understanding how things might happen. Our personal values and how we view input from our trusted networks will affect the success of initiatives steering us towards the desired future. Effective change depends on how people perceive their individual agency, their role in creating that future.

Addressing the future, and selecting strategies to ensure we can live within a safe operating space, requires increased attention on how we characterise the systems in which we live, and how we engage our communities to in shaping those systems for the future.

Social perspectives are important in creating futures. They allow us to better understand the processes of change and how people make decisions about the future. They add context about pathways, and about drivers for change that might be missed by approaches that concentrate solely on biophysical and economic considerations. Including social perspectives helps incorporate multiple worldviews into the process of envisaging Australia’s future.

Kristin Alford was lead author for a group exploring social perspectives as part of the Australian Academy of Science project “Australia 2050: Towards an environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living”.

The Australia 2050 project for the Australian Academy of Science has just published Phase 1 Negotiating our future: Living scenarios for Australia to 2050 which emerged from 35 scientists working together to explore social perspectives, resilience, scenarios and modelling as pathways towards environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living. Phase 2 of this project on creating living scenarios for Australia is underway.

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26 Comments sorted by

  1. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    In the absence of concrete steps from the author to keep our operating space safe, I suggest we double the order for Abrams tanks, lift the minimum submarine fleet from 2 to 8 active vessels and double our intercept fighter capacity.

    Furthermore, and I know that many of our Western Australian commentators will agree with this, form an all-arms battle group in West Australia. It would have a single command under which armour, mobile artillery and infantry would work with fighter bombers. It would form a deterrent against those wishing to take our mineral and energy areas to the north.

    Then we will all feel safer in an increasingly dangerous part of the world.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      You can count me out of that enveloping 'feeling safer', Gerald - this kind of silly saber-rattling just makes me sade and nervous - so please don't pretend to speak for all of us.

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    2. Stephen Tanner

      traveller

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      We don't really need all that military hardware to stop Gina and Twiggy stealing all our minerals and resources do we?

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  2. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Is the author writing about the same Australia I live in when she writes thus: Increased unemployment, homelessness, mental health problems and crime, loss of food security and growing inequalities – and political instability – are all warning signs of real pressure on the social (and economic and political) system.

    Australia is not perfect, however unemployment at 5% is low by world standards, homelessness is no worse than before, mental health problems are handled more sensitively, crime is lower, food is cheaper in real terms and Australia, far from being politically unstable is a rock of democracy.

    Grossly exaggerating the problems Australia faces does not help this article at all.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Kristin Alford

      Futurist at Bridge8 Pty Ltd, Sessional Lecturer at University of Adelaide

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Exactly Gerard. These things - Increased unemployment, homelessness, mental health problems and crime, loss of food security and growing inequalities – and political instability – are all warning signs of real pressure on the social (and economic and political) system.

      Warning signs - it doesn't say Australia is currently experiencing these at levels that might indicate we are operating beyond a safe social space.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Mr Dean, 5% unemployment might look fine from the perspective of Glen Iris, but not from most other parts of Australia.

      Let's not forget that 5% unemployment hides a hell of a lot of UNDERemployment - the proportion of people who would work more hours than at present, if such work was available, is huge; nor should we forget that, when the economy starts employing people once more, the unemployment numbers will INCREASE. Why so? Because people who have dropped out of the official pool of unemployed…

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    3. Ewen Peel

      Farmer

      In reply to Kristin Alford

      Spot on Kristen

      I see a lot of issues like you mentioned above impacting on our nation now. With the loss of the manufacturing capability in Australia i just wonder what the unemployment rate will be when the mining slows.
      I also detect that our values and morals are not as they once were and i doubt if they will stand us in good stead to deal with issues that might arise. People seem a lot more willing to steal and lie than in the past.
      Something that is un Australian and a new feature of todays society.

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    4. peter mackenzie

      Transport Researcher

      In reply to Kristin Alford

      It is important not to exaggerate problems and I still believe Australia is a great place. But in fact for some of the issues mentioned by the author and Gerard Dean, the problems are often understated. Our health "arrangements" (there is no "system") are chaotic; our infrastructure and transport "approaches" (again no system as such) are appalling; much crime and enormous numbers of anti-social behaviour is unreported to officialdom; education is vastly inadequate; the unemployment figures are rubbery with the real figures much higher; mental health approaches and child protection are a mess; more specifically support for children and young adults with mental health and disability issues with regard to education and employment is a national disgrace.

      I may sound just a cycnic, but I have been a project worker for the aged, Crime and Safety Officer for a city, Health Information worker, and currently work in youth development.

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    5. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to peter mackenzie

      Peter - I think you're dead right about the problems.

      The seemingly-contradictory observation that Australia is still a great place (one that would be widely shared and generally supported by the evidence) really comes from the fact that, while we're not that brilliant, much of the rest of the world is just plain shithouse.

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  3. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    What does this mean? "Slavery was seen as acceptable within some regimes, but is not considered to be safe or acceptable now"

    I understand that slavery is no longer acceptable, but I fail to see the point about including the word 'safe'

    A Roman landholder would have felt much safer having a few slaves tilling his soil to ensure a good crop of olives. A Confederate cotton grower would have felt financially safer and more confident with a cotton field filled with slaves.

    Very confusing example. Try dropping the word safe, and the statement makes sense.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Kristin Alford

      Futurist at Bridge8 Pty Ltd, Sessional Lecturer at University of Adelaide

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      "Safe" in this context refers to the set of social conditions in which people can survive. Slavery was once seen as an acceptable boundary in which to live and operate (by some) and now it is not. Our point is that what is considered 'safe' changes over history and depending on an individual's own personal and social context.

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  4. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    'How do we reach the Australia we want?'

    Well, the system we have has worked pretty well - we do stuff ourselves, we band together when we need to, we make our voices heard, and we vote.

    However, it sounds the Academy of Science has already decided on its own vision for 2050, and we didn't get much of a look-in. For example, you state that increased population is a 'threat'. I and many others don't agree, so are we excluded from shaping this future?

    Also, ideas like 'sustainability education programs' suggest we need experts to guide us to this future. Do experts create a better society than normal people?

    It all sounds suspiciously like reaching the Australia 'you' want.

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    1. Kristin Alford

      Futurist at Bridge8 Pty Ltd, Sessional Lecturer at University of Adelaide

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Good points and not the intention - the only part of the vision we were specific about was moving towards an environmentally and economically sustainable, and socially equitable Australia. This piece, and the book it draws upon are not designed to state a single future, but to scope out what concepts, information and pathways might be useful as people within in the broader community discuss their hopes for the future and how they get there. I don't see that these conversations are only the domain of experts, but nor do I see that such conversations can reach their true potential if expertise is not taken into account.

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  5. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    "Examples of initiatives include sustainability education programs, access to an open media and community engagement in place-making and resolving contentious issues."

    Forgive me, but Australia, unlike many other countries, has 3 tiers of government where office holders in every locality, state and the nation are regularly voted in or out. I sense that the author's subliminal message, hidden under layers of vague wordage, is that 'contentious issues' are those that she feels the governments should…

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  6. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    There is going to be plenty of opportunity for experimentation.

    At present immigration levels, Australia will need to build a new city for over 100,000 people each and every year.

    Most of these cities will have to be built along the coastline.

    Disregarding economic costs or the ability to fund the building of these cities, a city totally destroys exiting natural environment, with Australia already having one of the highest ecological footprints of any nation in the world.

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    1. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Gary Murphy

      Wow. freaky! Not long ago apparently the Libs were racist for wanting to cut immigration. Now it's progressives wanting to keep people out.

      You're all as bad as each other.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Gary Murphy

      It is very difficult to get exact figures. I don’t think the government knows exactly how many are now in the county.

      Immigration places have increased from 108,000 in 2002-2003 to 190,000 in 2012-2013.

      http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/02key.htm

      The government has to build a new city for at least 200,000 each and every year.

      Considering the type of new suburbs I have seen buil recently, they are man made hells, that have no positive social aspects, and destroy all living things, plant or animal, when they are built.

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    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      One new city could be built near Lake Argyle, in the Kimberley, half the FIFO distance from Pilbara mines as Perth, and relieving Perth of demands on its ever-diminishing water resources.

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    4. Gary Murphy

      Independent Thinker

      In reply to James Jenkin

      When did the Libs want to cut immigration?

      It's not racist to want to reduce the numbers. It's racist to demonise certain groups of people with different coloured skin.

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    5. John Harland

      bicycle technician

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Now which particular Liberal policy were you talking of? Wanting to cut relatively small numbers of refugees (under whatever pejorative label), or when Costello was begging Australians to breed, or when was it?

      Immigration is not an all-or-nothing question. What is a reasonable rate of immigration, allowing for reasonable rates of social absorbtion and working out where the heck they are going to go without destroying the land?

      As it is, a great deal of the most-fertile and well-watered land…

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  7. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Thanks Kirsten.

    We can be certain that coal exports are going to cease altogether, when (not if) the world ceases using fossil fuels.

    For Australia to sustain its standard of living, it needs to decrease its unemployment rate to a less debilitating proportion, like 1%. In turn, this requires restoration of adequate education and training, notably assistance to long-term unemployed people (carrots and sticks as appropriate).

    It requires planning and construction of new cities near where…

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  8. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Brilliant Article, thank you very much for sharing

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  9. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    My 62 years of experience on this planet suggests that we're good at small scale, local planning - when and where should we build the next primary school? for example - but we're hopeless at planning the big picture. Life is what happens as we're making plans, even plans for our future sustainability, so the best that government or the AAS should hope for is that we set some desirable goals, offer modest financial or other incentives and then wait for the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Alfred Nobel, etc, to come along and give us a completely different but better world than the one we'd hoped for.

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  10. James Patterson

    PhD Candidate in water governance at University of Queensland

    Thanks for the article Kirstin. It's great to hear of this project by the Academy of Sciences to think about how we apply some of the cutting edge thinking on planetary boundaries and 'safe operating space' in Australia (for other readers this paper may be of interest to explaining some of these concepts: http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/dp-a-safe-and-just-space-for-humanity-130212-en.pdf)

    I strongly believe that as a society we need to foster far better joint capacity to think about and negotiate more purposeful futures and trajectories of change. As you point out, this requires improving our capacity to think and act systemically (e.g. better recognising interactions between social, environmental and governance dimensions).

    This report looks like a great contribution to promoting thinking and dialogue on these issues, and I look forward to reading it.

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