13 August 2010

Wilberforce Award

Reposted from the Wilberforce Award website

'Dick Smith is one of Australia’s most recognised individuals. After a successful business career in retailing and publishing, Dick has become well known as a restless adventurer, making many pioneering and record breaking flights by helicopter, aeroplane and balloon.

He has also been active in public service having served as Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority and later as chair of the Civil Aviation Safety Board. He led the National Council for the Centenary of Federation and served as an Ambassador for the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

Dick is a passionate supporter of environmental and conservation efforts and since 1995 has been Chairman of the Australian Geographic Society. Less well known is his work as a philanthropist. He is a supporter of many charities and individuals in need. In recognition of this he was honoured as Australian of the Year in 1986.

Dick has never been shy to take on controversial issues, from aviation safety to support for refugees and the campaign to return David Hicks to Australia.

Recently he has involved himself in another contentious issue- Australia’s population future. Concerned about our expected rapid population increase, Dick is calling for a national debate on what he considers to be the most important issue facing the nation.

It has become obvious to me that my generation has over exploited our wonderful world – and it’s younger people who will pay the price. Like many people my age, I’ve benefited from a long period of constant economic and population growth – we are addicted to it. But sooner or later this consumption growth will have an end. We appear to be already bumping against the limits of what our planet can sustain and the evidence is everywhere to see.

Right now I believe we could be sleepwalking to catastrophe because we are failing to both acknowledge that there are limits to growth in a finite world and to prepare for a more sustainable way of organising our economy. In the 19th Century, empires were built on the labour of slaves, and it was believed economies would collapse if slavery was abolished. But brave people like William Wilberforce fought to end the slave trade – and economies still flourished. We need brave people like Wilberforce today, and I want to encourage a new generation of clear-thinking and inspiring young leaders.

So today I am announcing Dick Smith’s Wilberforce Award – $1 million to go to a young person under 30 who can impress me by becoming famous through his or her ability to show leadership in communicating an alternative to our population and consumption growth-obsessed economy. I will be looking for candidates whose actions over the next year show that they have what it takes to be among the next generation of leaders our incredible planet so badly needs.

Candidates will need to have a firm belief that we can have a viable and strong world economy that is no longer obsessed with growth for its own sake, but instead encourages both a stable population and sustainable consumption of energy and resources. They must be able to communicate that we cannot continue to squander the resources that will be needed by future generations, and they must also be able to communicate a plan that offers an alternative to our growth addiction.

Like the Nobel Prize, you will not apply for the Wilberforce Award. Over the next twelve months I will be following the media throughout the world to see who is the most outstanding individual in not only making a significant contribution to this important issue, but who also becomes famous through his or her contribution to the debate.

One year from now I will announce the winner of the $1 Million Wilberforce Award. The Award will go towards advancing the momentum the winner will have already achieved.'

12 August 2010

Peak Population: Thoughts for Dick Smith

Sharon also blogs at Post Growth, along with Josha Nelson and Scott Gast, both of Seattle

With his documentary 'The Population Puzzle', Australian entrepreneur and adventurer Dick Smith has done something very brave, and very important, in working to break the taboo on speaking about population.

It is taboo because raises many sensitive issues around immigration, fertility - and of course, because it challenges the growth consensus.

In Australia, the population issue has often been emotionally charged, because of the role of immigration in Australia's population growth. The debate is thus easily hijacked from being a discussion about exactly what a sustainable population for Australia would be, and instead becomes mired in blame games and fuels the agenda of racist elements.

In relation to fertility, there is a high likelihood that any attempt to discuss the issue will be taken personally, or will be turned back on the person who dared intrude in one of the most personal and intimate areas of the human experience. If you have kids, you are a hypocrite. If you don't have kids, you won't know what you are talking about, or you're 'anti-children'.

Anything to shoot the messenger and keep the taboo in place.

Anything to avoid the discomfort of acknowledging the issue, its implications and what can fairly and humanely be done about it.

It is a highly emotive topic, but in fact addressing population is important precisely so we can ensure that everyone's kids – now and in the future – can have the best life possible.

And the growth consensus...

One of the main concerns underpinning the fuelling of growth in industrialised societies is how are we going to take care of an ageing population demographic – we need more people of working age to support the increasing ranks of elders who live longer, who often require more [and more expensive] health care, and often end up in high levels of dependent care.

Until the 20th century, when improved sanitation and medical care enabled us to live longer lives than any of our ancestors, humanity did not have this problem at this scale. It is a real issue. But is this grow-more-young-to-support-the old approach – a population Ponzi scheme – simply deferring, rather than tackling, the problem?

Alex Steffen of Worldchanging expressed this in his 2008 article on 'Peak Population':


1) The longer population growth rates remain high, the more total people there will be on the planet when we reach peak population, so one of our biggest goals ought to be seeing to it by every ethical means possible that the wave of population growth crests sooner rather than later.

2) If we are successful in reaching peak population sooner, at a lower number of people, rather than later with more people, we will be much more able to confront the myriad interlocking crises we face – a comparatively less crowded planet is an easier planet on which to build a bright green future.

When that population wave eventually crests – and it will – how high do we want the wave to be?

We need to think more creatively about how to address this genuine social concern – how to care for our elders with dignity – but not by encouraging more population growth to defer an even bigger problem that will need to be addressed.

Let's not fool ourselves that 'Ponzi Demography' is the basis for the future of Australia - because it is absolutely not. It's a house of cards.

Ultimately tackling population means facing our addiction to growth.

Climate change is merely a symptom of the biggest conundrum facing humanity: the assumption that we can sustain the current 6.5 billion people on the planet on western industrial lifestyles when the planet – according to every source from the IPCC to Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – is saying its not coping now.

The 21st century question is not whether we can sustain more than six billion people on a western industrial model of development, but how to sustain the projected global population so that everyone has a good quality of life – of which material living standards are only a part - within the biophysical limits of one planet.

The problem is that the discussion of limits challenges the policy position of all governments – economic growth. It would be tantamount to political suicide right now to question this consensus. People need to understand the conundrum before decision makers (not just politicians) will have the legitimacy to address it, before people will demand it.

We need to be able to have an open and honest debate about this issue.

Dick Smith has used his personal 'currency' to help bring this issue into the mainstream of debate.

There is one thing I would offer to Dick Smith to strengthen his case, and that is to reframe his question:

'How many people can Australia support?'

A critical question, HOWEVER seeking an answer to the question will lead only to an endless spiral of further debate, because the answer can only ever be - 'it depends'.

How do Australians want to live? Because this will determine our demands on nature - how much water and energy we use, how much greenhouse gas and waste we generate, how much and what kind of food do we want to eat? What kind of houses do we want, how will we get around?

It is a hot air question.

It is also not helpful in an era of global economic trade, where our resources are exported to, and imported from, around the globe.

What is needed is a scientific approach. In the early 1990s, Bill Rees of Canada's University of British Colombia and his then-PhD student Mathis Wackernagel created the Ecological Footprint.

Ecological Footprint accounting compares human demand on nature with the biosphere's ability to regenerate resources and provide services. It does this by assessing the biologically productive land and marine area required to produce the resources a population consumes and absorb the corresponding waste, using prevailing technology.

This metric inverts the 'hot air' question and instead asks 'how much nature does it take to support Australians at current levels of consumption?'

It's measurable.

In the mid-2000s, Wackernagel founded the Global Footprint Network (GFN), a non profit based in California, whose objective is to:

'Supporting creation of a sustainable economy by advancing the scientific rigour and practical application of the Ecological Footprint as a measurement and policy tool, with the goal of making ecological limits central to decision making.'

GFN maintains a series of biophysical accounts for most nations, which track whether they are running an ecological deficit. These are published in the Living Planet Reports:


GFN's accounts - which use a conservative accounting approach, and are therefore an underestimate - show that humanity as a whole is already in overshoot (when demand on nature exceeds available supply):


GFN are inviting national governments to work with them on strengthening the data for each nation's account through their Ten in Ten Program, designed to get 10 countries using the Ecological Footprint as a complement to GDP in decision making within ten years.

GFN work with national governments to use the Footprint to:

  • Assess the value of their country's ecological assets
  • Monitor and manage their assets
  • Identify the risks associated with ecological deficits
  • Set policy that is informed by ecological reality and makes safeguarding resources a top priority
  • Measure progress toward their goals

Dick, can you encourage a partnership with these accountants of natural capital and our decision makers?!!

Here is the man you need to speak with:

Mathis Wackernagel
Global Footprint Network

email: info@footprintnetwork.org
web: www.footprintnetwork.org

You could also talk to Brian Czech and Rob Dietz of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy for assistance with communication approaches, framing debates and technical questions on transitioning from a growth economy.

email: info@steadystate.org
web: www.steadystate.org

10 August 2010

Turning Estates into Villages

Reposted in full from Monbiot, 9 August 2010

'How good planning can make us slimmer, fitter, safer and less lonely.

It took me a while to recognise what I was seeing. It was an ordinary campsite in Pembrokeshire: a square field with tents around the perimeter. But it had a curious effect on the children staying there. Young people who had seldom experienced daylight slowly emerged from their tents and were drawn towards the centre of the field. Bats and balls left on the grass mysteriously appeared in their hands. Children with no prior interest in sport started playing football, cricket and rounders. Little kids ran around with older ones. As children of all classes played together, their parents started talking to each other. It hit me with some force: we had reinvented the village green.

We are, to a surprising extent, what the built environment makes us. Academic papers show that many of the problems we blame on individual behaviour are caused in part by the places in which we live. People are more likely to help their neighbours in quiet areas, for example, than in noisy ones (1). A long series of studies across several countries, beginning in San Francisco in 1969, shows unequivocally that communities become weaker as the volume of traffic on their streets increases (2,3).

Other papers show that people’s use of shared spaces is strongly influenced by the presence of trees: the more trees there are, the more time people spend there and the larger the groups in which they gather (4,5). A further study shows that, partly as a result, vegetation in common spaces strengthens the neighbourhood’s social ties (6). In greener places, people know more of their neighbours, are more likely to help each other and have stronger feelings of belonging. Social isolation is strongly associated with an absence of green spaces (7).

One fascinating paper shows that crime rates are also strongly affected by vegetation. In housing projects in Chicago with equal levels of poverty, taking account of factors such as the size of the buildings and the vacancy rate, there’s a clear association between the absence of greenery and both property crime and violent crime (8).

Another set of studies demonstrates a relationship between urban planning and body mass index. Where settlements are dense (and therefore able to support public transport) and close to shops, work places and recreation places, people are more likely to walk and cycle and less likely to be fat (9). One paper shows that women living in mixed places (where houses and amenities are close together) have a risk of coronary heart disease 20% lower than women living in areas which contain only houses (10). Suburban sprawl is partly to blame for obesity.

Build loose suburbs carved up by busy roads and without green spaces and you help to create a population of fat, lonely people plagued by criminals. Build dense, leafy settlements with mixed uses, protected from traffic, and you help to create safe, fit and friendly communities.

In Sunday’s Observer the doctor Steve Field blamed public health problems squarely and solely on sufferers and their parents (11). It’s true that we must take as much responsibility as we can for our health. But Field, like most conservatives, ignores the social and political context, condemning people for problems they cannot tackle alone. He lambasts us for eating junk food, for example, while saying nothing about manufacturers who ensure that it’s as addictive as the regulations allow (12). He suggests that we should encourage children to get outside and play games. Of course we should, but if there is no safe place nearby in which they can do so we’re wasting our breath.

Here’s one picture of what a fit, safe and functional community might look like. There’s nothing either radical or new about it: similar developments have been built for centuries (and most have now been monopolised by the rich). Houses or apartment blocks are built densely around a square of shared green space. It is big enough for playing ball games, but without fixed goal posts, allowing both children and adults to define the space for themselves. It could contain trees; perhaps some rocks or logs to climb on. There might be a corner of uncut meadow, or flowerbeds or fruit bushes: the space will work best when it is designed and managed by the people who live there.

Most importantly, the houses face inwards, and no cars are allowed inside the square: the roads serve only the backs of the buildings. The square is overlooked by everyone, which means that children can run in and out of their houses unsupervised, create their own tribes and learn their own rules, without fear of traffic accidents or molesters. They have a place in which to run wild without collecting ASBOs.

There’s a council estate a bit like this across the road from my house. Whenever I pass through it on a dry day in the holidays, I see dozens of children playing there. On the other estates here you seldom see children out of doors, for the obvious reason that there is nowhere to play. Proximity is everything: if a park is far away, most families won’t go there (13). Walking across a city with a small child is no one’s idea of entertainment.

Those who need such spaces most are the socially excluded. Because of poverty, unemployment and poorer health, they leave their neighbourhoods less often than the affluent (14). But they tend to have the least access to green spaces. A study of Greater Manchester, for example, shows that wealthy parts of the city have tree cover of around ten per cent, the poor neighbourhoods just two per cent (15). Housing built around village greens need be no more expensive and no less dense: just better planned and better regulated.

Instead, whenever I visit a new estate, I see only lost opportunities: houses that turn their backs on each other; spaces that should be dedicated to playing reserved instead for parking; loneliness and exclusion built into the plan. We have allowed property developers and weak planning to define who we are and what we shall become. As the government launches a new scheme for ensuring that more houses are built (16), we must demand that it recognises a truth all these studies point to: that there is such a thing as society.



1. This was first documented by S Cohen and A Lezak, 1977. Noise and inattentiveness to social cues. Environment and Behavior, 9, 559-572.

2. D Appleyard, 1969. The Environmental Quality of City Streets: The Residents’ Viewpoint. Journal of the American Planning Association, 35, pp. 84-101.

3. Subsequent work on this issue is summarised and reviewed here:

Joshua Hart, April 2008. Driven to Excess: impacts of motor vehicle traffic on residential quality of life in Bristol, UK. www.livingstreets.org.uk/news/uk/-/driven-to-excess

4. RL Coley, FE Kuo and WC Sullivan, 1997. Where does community grow? The social context created by nature in urban public housing. Environment and Behavior, 29, 468-492.

5. S DePooter, 1997. Nature and neighbors: Green spaces and social interactions in the inner city. Unpublished master thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Cited by FE Kuo et al (see below).

6. FE Kuo et al, 1998. Fertile Ground for Community: Inner-CityNeighborhood Common Spaces. American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 6.

7. ibid.

8. FE Kuo and WC Sullivan, May 2001. Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime? Environment and Behavior vol. 33 no. 3 343-367doi: 10.1177/0013916501333002

9. Andrew Rundle et al, 2007. The Urban Built Environment and Obesity in NewYork City: A Multilevel Analysis. American Journal of Health Promotion, pp 326-334

This paper also summarises several similar studies.

10. Lee R Mobley et al, April 2006. Environment, Obesity, and Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Low-Income Women. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 30, Issue 4, Pages 327-332.e1. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2005.12.001

11. www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/08/steve-field-patient-responsibility-health

12. See David A. Kessler, 2009. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Rodale Press.

13. AE Kazmierczak and P James, 2007 cite research which suggests that ” for most people the distance between 500m and 1km is the furthest they would walk to a park”.
The Role of Urban Green Spaces in Improving Social Inclusion. www.els.salford.ac.uk/urbannature/outputs/papers/kazmierczak_BuHu07.pdf

14. A.E. Kazmierczak, P. James, ibid.

15. B Rudlin, and N Falk, 1999. Building the 21st century home, Architectural Press, Oxford, cited by A.E. Kazmierczak, P. James, ibid.

16. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10910048'

09 August 2010

Heading for a Cliff With Thelma & Louise

Who do you know who can help support the production, funding & distribution of this film?

Reposted in full from Growthbusters, 9 August 2010

'That’s my line in the opening tease for this recent conversation on Peak Moment TV. If I do say so myself, this is a good metaphor to explain how we’re fiddling around at the margins while we fail to recognize we’re participants in a growth-seeking system that has us locked on a collision course with limits to growth.

Janaia Donaldson interviews Dave Gardner on Peak Moment

I’m happy to share this interview produced by Janaia Donaldson and Robin Mallgren of Peak Moment TV. They gave me an outstanding opportunity to explain the what and why of my upcoming documentary, Hooked on Growth. If you want to understand what the non-profit GrowthBusters film project is all about, watch this interview.

Back to my Thelma and Louise metaphor: To elaborate, it’s as if we’re in a convertible roaring toward a cliff. The cliff is far enough in the distance we can’t make it out clearly. It doesn’t seem like an immediate danger. But as we get closer and begin to realize where we’re heading, what do we do? Instead of stopping or turning the car, we fiddle with the radio – change the volume, tune to a different station. We roll down the windows, dust off the dash, clean the mirror. But we don’t slam on the brakes or do a James Bond J-turn to quickly head in another direction. Heck, we don’t even gently change course.

Of course, I’m referring to modern society’s irrational, growth-addicted response to mounting evidence we have hit the limits of Earth’s ability to meet our needs and wants. We’re experiencing peak oil, peak water and peak food. We’ve passed peak soil, peak fish, peak biodiversity, and optimum climate. You get the picture.

NO, you don’t! None of us do. We are not behaving as if facing an emergency. I count myself among the irrational here. Trust me, I’m working on it, but I’m still navigating, living and working within the system that all evidence demands we leave behind. I still get in a car and drive several times each week. I still board a jet airliner from time to time. I confess! I even enjoy the occasional cheeseburger! At our best, mainstream environmentalists give away compact flourescent light bulbs, fight sprawl, and promote composting, carpooling and permaculture. While these are all good moves, at this stage of the game they will make about as much difference to the outcome as cleaning the mirror of Thelma & Louise’s convertible. They are not enough if we don’t change course. Why do so few of us address the systemic problems?

As I explain to Janaia in this episode of Peak Moment, my documentary Hooked on Growth attempts to answer that question.

A growing grassroots support network is helping produce, fund and distribute the film. With their help, and yours, Hooked on Growth will hit screens the first half of 2011. Check out the complete interview, and explore other episodes of Peak Moment. I love what Janaia and Robin are doing. And join us at GrowthBusters. Become part of a groundbreaking film project that will deliver a much-needed wake-up call. It was sad to see Thelma and Louise drive off that cliff. Let’s not join them.'

Dave Gardner is producing the non-profit documentary, Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity.'