Bronte Beach 7 am 1 July 2009. Photo: Michael Mobbs

by Michael Mobbs

June 3 – Should we expect an Australian politician in government today to go forth into our world, “heavily disguised as a human being”, and force the four banks to cut their usurious interest rates at least to levels recommended by the Reserve Bank? (1)

What’s this question got to do with The Fifth Estate, and developing so our cities sustain our culture?

These things tell me we’re not sustaining our culture, and we won’t have sustainable development, except in its current marginal dimensions, until we buy most of our food from farmers and we stop banks oppressing us:

* Australian banks closely study food prices and climate change to support their businesses; for example, in its 2007 study the ANZ concluded climate change, biofuels, and other factors will lead to a permanent rise in food prices with high spikes during shortages (2)

* Most development is unsustainable – in Australia sustainable projects are the exception and are usually trophy projects – head offices, etc for banks and large companies – projects which are not replicated in the core businesses of the trophy holders (3)

* The majority of projects built cost under $20-30 million. There’s no additional money to make these tight budget projects sustainable, especially when the profit-driven private checklist systems alone add at least a minimum $100,000 to a process which makes it harder, longer and costlier to obtain approvals

* Our high commercial interest rates are a disincentive for developers to spend on sustainable extras and for governments to increase requirements for sustainable development

* None of the urgent national infrastructure projects need be sustainable, and have all been specifically exempted from each state and territory’s environmental controls (4)

* Recently, the number of us who each day go hungry has risen to over 1 billion (5) – partly due to the collapse in international banking- that’s a sixth of our 6 billion

* The collapse in finance has increased the numbers of the hungry because it has increased food prices by 11 per cent world wide and poor countries have less money to buy food and less credit to invest in food production (6)

* The other reasons for food price rises are: oil price rises which pushed up transport and fertilizer costs and more rises are coming, food (biofuels) grown for transport instead of for eating, and bad weather

* By 2030, in 20 years, we need to increase the amount of food we grow by 50 per cent to feed our larger numbers of humans (7)

* Australia faces food shortages due to climate change (8, 9)

* Of the Australian companies borrowing money in the last year, those that did not need to borrow are those selling most of our food and controlling most of our agriculture, and they control over 80 cents of the consumer spending dollar – Fosters, Coles, Woolworths (10)

* Our “sustainability” checklist promoters – BASIX, First Rate, NatHERS, NABERS, Green Star – don’t earn money from consulting about food and have no training, expertise or interest in it (with rare exceptions (11)). The fundamental goal of the checklists is self interest, with the credit points promoting many of the promoters’ consulting businesses or things they might sell or design

* None of the sustainability checklists run or promoted by governments and the private sector require city or building designs (not even schools) to grow food or buy it locally from sustainable farms, and none promote competition to the government owned water and energy businesses – the BASIX internet program, for example, only recognises on-site sewerage systems for toilet flushing and clothes washing if the user of the program has the wit and courage to suggest it then seek a special ruling from its administrators

* There are plausible arguments that the US and the UK banks and governments have run up so much debt that those countries’ economies are at risk of failure or at least stagnation for several years – take a cold shower then read these two articles to warm up (12)

* Many of the sustainable costs result from the unfair subsidies and red tape which supports government owned monopolies. Governments need the revenue from their monopolies – water, power generation, transport – and won’t give it up: witness the explosion of government desal plants and compare that cost with rain tanks, for example

* The Kyoto process and environmental lobbying has failed (13)

* The Murrary-Darling river waters will continue to decline and take away water from most of Australia’s irrigated agriculture as the Federal government’s takeover of state powers is doomed (14)

What will make banks invest in sustainable food production and stop their profiteering, oppressive interest rates?

Three things, at least.

Firstly, we borrowers and citizens need to let go two illusions.

One illusion is that our governments will stop promoting unsustainable agriculture or reduce Coles’ and Woolworths’ domination of the food market or the four banks’ market dominance. Stop wishing they will do this.

The other illusion is that the media “governs” Australia and can force our managers masquerading as politicians masquerading as managers to control banks. Not so far. And don’t expect Australia’s media to challenge and expose the rorts of chain stores. It didn’t expose the financial rorts until after the damage was done. Media advertising is dominated by banks, chain stores and fast food hawkers so there’s a real disincentive for media to criticise them in order to help us out.

Secondly, we need to do our very best to reduce the money we presently give to Coles and Woolworths; don’t buy from them unless there’s no alternative. Buy from a farmer, a food co-op or a farmers market. In my experience it’s 20-50 per cent cheaper and the food is fresher, more nutritious and less polluting.

This is the single most powerful thing we can do to cut climate change, to bring down interest rates and redirect our money away from the chain stores. By paying farmers directly we reduce the income of the chain stores and banks, and we increase our savings on food. I rarely go to those unfresh food rogues and when I do it’s mostly for toilet paper. I am wiping my hands of them.

Let’s spend our food money on farmers and sustainable agriculture. The more we do, the less money chainstores have and the more chance banks will reduce their abuses of our small, uncompetitive banking marketplace.

Almost every Aussie household or workplace can take this action, and the next.

The third thing you might consider to sustain your city is, you might buy one fruit tree to plant in your garden, or a pot on your unit or office balcony, and another to plant in the street in front of your place. If 10,000 Aussies plant 20,000 fruit trees this year then in two years we could grow over 50 fruit from each tree, or over 1 million pieces of fruit a year, year after year. That’s going to cut over 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas that year, and leave over 50 million litres of water in the rivers (15). Imagine what savings we can achieve when our cities produce 40-50 per cent of their fruit and veggies as they did some 50 years ago.

Not one “sustainable” building, whether scoring 100 points under BASIX, or the maximum number of stars under the other rating schemes, will achieve such savings; they all increase the amount of energy and water our cities use.

If my arguments haven’t convinced you, may I try one last throw of the dice?

Next time you buy an orange hold it in your hand and bring to mind that moon landing shot, looking back to Earth, that blue white ball image which is us in dark space; your orange can be your Earth. In truth, it is.

Let’s refocus away from our barren Australian political landscape, where there’s no standout character of substance in government to act with the necessary courage to rein in the banks. Let’s reject, too, the possibility that that landscape is ourselves writ large. We are better than our politicians.

References

(1) The words spoken by the hugely independent and courageous South African MP, Helen Suzman, when, as a minority of one, she advised the Minister for Justice to visit his constituency in that guise – during the days of apartheid – she was in Parliament from 1961 to 74. Ms Suzman died in January 2009 aged 91.

(2) ANZ Bank, Economic Outlook, 15 October 2007, pp21,24

(3) Governments keep no records of sustainable projects (because they’re not interested) but based on my experience I estimate there are over 1000 Australian sustainable houses and other projects built a year, few of which are ”trophy” projects like those in the commercial offices and other sectors. Interestingly a sustainable house saves far more water and energy than a BASIX, FirstRate or other house, but that’s another story.

(4)

(5), (6), (7) UN WHO, Jacques Diouf, DG of FAO

(8) (9) https://www.acfonline.org.au/uploads/res/Climate_change_and_food_prices_in_Australia.pdf, and, https://www.fcrn.org.uk/researchLib/PDFs/Larsen%20austr%20report.pdf

(10) “So far 33 of Australia’s leading 50 companies have raised new capital, with the likes of BHP, Telstra, Woolworths and Fosters notable by their absence due to their strong cash flows and their relatively healthy balance sheets as they entered the economic downturn.”, The Age 22 June; and, “. . . the current government guaranteeing of institutions means the Big Four banks are using the gurarantee to buy banks in Asia and insurance businesses and financial adviser networks at home – hardly Canberra’s desired policy outcome right now”: Michael Pascoe, SMH, 23 June 2009; https://business.smh.com.au/business/an-antidote- to-the-big-four-20090623-curt.html?page=2

(11) In September last year in the US a sustainability checklist with the acronym “LEED” recognised food for offices by allowing one point for buying local organic food.

(12) For two examples of courageous financial journalism: John Lancaster in the London Review of

Books: It’s finished; www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n10/lanc01_.html – and: George Monbiot’s column: Outsourcing Unrest: www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/06/17/outsourcing-unrest/

(13) One of the best analyses of how too many greenies think like fashionistas and lack the capacity to objectively review their failures is: The Death of Environmentalism. www.thebreakthrough.org/images/Death_of_Environmentalism.pdf

(14) The doomed results are carefully set out in the article, Two decades of Murray-Darling Water Management: A River of Funding, a Trickle of Achievement, by Lisa Lee and Tihomir Ancev, in Agenda, A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform Volume 16, Number 1, 2009 https://epress.anu.edu.au/titles/agenda.html

(15) Assuming one piece of chain store fruit has an average of 50 litres of water and 1 kg of climate change pollution in it (to grow, wash, store, transport, sell and eat); and assuming your home or street grown tree feeds on water and mulch from your compost, roof, road or verge.