Why we worry about defaunation

As the cancer of environmental degradation eats away at our future, all we’re getting from authorities is self-serving industry spin

The living ocean is a personal passion of Hobart scientist Lisa Gershwin, so a month ago she readily agreed to convey some of that passion to a group of people bothered by the state of Tasmanian coastal waters.

Her message to her Extinction Rebellion audience in Hobart’s Franklin Square on 3 October was about marine defaunation, or “the winnowing away of animal life” – a decades-long decline in numbers of fish and other species that is already having a dramatic impact on the coastal ecosystem.

“We could do something about it,” she said, “if only we bothered to notice… The species are still there to be recorded during surveys, but their reduced numbers function as mere ghosts in an ecosystem that is essentially the walking dead, just waiting for inevitable collapse.”

She told her audience about warming waters killing off East Coast kelp forests that had been home to a host of species including crayfish and abalone. She talked of regular blooms of toxic algae around Tasman Peninsula, of an introduced bioluminescent species wiping out native fauna, and of a 2011 scientific survey that found no native species – none at all – living in the Derwent Estuary.

She urged listeners to take these things seriously. “If you like fishing, you should be worried. If you like diving, you should be worried. If you care about vibrant, biodiverse, resilient, unpolluted water, you should be worried. If you love Tasmania, you should be worried. I’m worried.”

Her 150-strong audience of climate activists carried that worry into their subsequent “Dead Sea March” along Hobart streets. Twenty-seven of them – many under 18 years old – lay down on a busy intersection and refused to move when police directed them to. All were arrested and charged.

Gershwin, a highly-credentialled marine biologist internationally known for her work on jellyfish, also spoke of the impact of salmon farming in south-eastern waters – of waste clogging the gills of fish and other marine animals and stimulating bigger, more frequent algal and jellyfish blooms.

Many Channel residents understand exactly what she’s saying. A week after the Dead Sea March, Gerard Castles described North Bruny waters as a desert: “What was once rich with marine life is now slimed with algae from [fish farm] pollution, frequently full of jellyfish and little else.”

He said that after years of trying to negotiate with Tassal, the largest of Tasmania’s salmon producers, his Killora community had had enough, and was now seeking to have the leases resumed and the area made into an extension of the Tinderbox Marine Reserve.

Tassal’s defence was a well-used standard: all its operations fully comply with licence conditions and it goes “above and beyond the regulatory guidelines to accommodate our neighbours”.

The industry has no need to worry; the government has its back. Rejecting the idea of a marine reserve, Michael Ferguson, whose ministerial responsibilities include state growth, science and technology, said the community’s “not in my backyard” approach “might see people thrown onto the unemployment scrap heap”.

Primary industries and water minister Guy Barnett said much the same a couple of weeks later, referring to the salmon industry’s many regional jobs and a strong regulatory framework administered by an “independent” Environmental Protection Authority. Tasmania, he said, had “the most environmentally sustainable salmon industry in the world”.

I have read numerous scientific assessments and heard many first-hand accounts from fishers, divers and local residents backing up what the protestors are saying. The only arguments I have heard to the contrary are evidence-free assurances from government or industry that salmon industry jobs are essential to our economy and that all environmental safeguards are being met.

With straight faces and not even a sideways glance, Ferguson and Barnett dismissed out of hand all public alarm about the state of our coastal ecosystems. That alarm was not diminished by EPA advice that the salmon leases are classified as industrial areas with lower environmental standards than surrounding waters.

Ministers and public servants shouldn’t need to be told by Extinction Rebellion, fishers, divers or disgruntled seaside residents, or scientists like Lisa Gershwin, that the state of coastal waters really matters. A moment’s thought about the consequences of losing those waters’ natural resources ought to confirm in their minds that all public concerns should be taken seriously.

Hardened by years of ideological conflict, neither minister thought those angry protests were worth some independent consideration. As the spreading cancer of a degrading environment eats away at our future, all we get from authorities is self-serving industry spin, and I find that very disturbing.

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The tantalising promise of ultra-cheap power

The pandemic and the prospect of zero interest present a massive opportunity for clean energy development.

The story of 2020 has really been two stories, deeply interwoven, in which what happens in one keeps playing on the other and causing general mayhem. One is about the virus; the other the economy.

The virus I understand because the rules are simple: stay clean and away from sick people. But I have never really understood the economy – at least, not whatever it was that experts used to talk about every day. It seemed to be whatever you wanted it to be.

But COVID-19 did what those earlier drought and fire disasters didn’t manage to do. It transformed the perpetual economic chatter into a genuinely interesting conversation, stirring up some serious questioning of actions and directions previously treated as sacrosanct.

Queensland University economics professor John Quiggin has built a career on questioning accepted wisdom. He is a prolific and globally-cited author in academic journals. As a long-standing member of the Climate Change Authority he was known for challenging government claims about climate policies.

In the Melbourne-based online journal Inside Story last week he discussed the growing take-up of solar power in Australia and globally, citing the International Energy Agency’s projection that solar was headed for market leadership and, with wind and other renewables, enough capacity to meet all new demand. Australia, he says, should be acting now to take advantage of this.

Solar panels are getting steadily more efficient and cheaper to make, but Quiggin sees their greatest potential in the fact that they last three or more decades and cost virtually nothing to operate. The cost of a solar project today arises almost entirely from the need of investors to get a return on the capital they put into the project’s construction and grid connection.

The IEA has acknowledged that the cost of capital for new energy projects is dramatically less since the global financial crisis in 2008. Now, with the coming of the pandemic, it is widely accepted that ultra-low interest rates will probably be the norm for many years to come.

Should interest rates fall to zero, says Quiggin, “the notion of a payback period ceases to be relevant. All that is required for an investment to be justified is that its lifetime returns should exceed the cost of construction.”

Solar’s low capital cost is stretching the “payback period” of projects – the time available for investors to be repaid in full – so far into the future that the power generated is virtually free. Quiggin calculates that over a module’s lifetime the cost could drop as low as 2c per kilowatt-hour.

Yields from current Australian government bonds are lower than likely inflation. European countries are offering bonds maturing after 50 or 100 years, and the US government is selling similar bonds at negative interest rates.

Given all this, Quiggin believes that governments should issue perpetual bonds yielding inflation-adjusted returns of zero. “In the world of zero real interest rates that now appears to be upon us… governments can, and should, invest in projects whenever the total benefits exceed the costs, regardless of how those benefits are spread over time.”

If there is a powerful case for public investment in renewable energy, the case for doing the same for transmission, says Quiggin, is even stronger. “Electricity transmission lines have the same cost structure as renewables (low operational cost and long lives), if anything more so, meaning that the cost of transmission depends primarily on the need to secure a return to the capital invested.”

This is where Quiggin’s interesting idea really starts to sing. A modern, smart, efficient electricity grid over a wide area like eastern Australia can make intermittent solar and wind power work well for us, rapidly switching demand to where the sun shines and the wind blows and minimising calls on alternative generators or energy stored in batteries or hydro schemes.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese proposes to spend $20 billion on transmission infrastructure to allow the national grid to fully integrate new renewable sources. The government could go one further by investing in both transmission and renewable generation. But it is still in pre-pandemic mode, offering just low cost finance for private transmission investment.

The pandemic has disrupted everything we knew, killing the old economy and its ideological stereotypes. In these times of upheaval and flux, as John Quiggin says, there are huge opportunities for large-scale public investment in a new, cleaner economy.

Our recovering economy will need a lot of public investment. All we ask of the Morrison government is the vision to see what’s possible and the courage to act.

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Arts put-down is narrow, self-defeating

Dan Tehan’s disturbingly limited attitude to arts education

Yesterday’s passage of the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill has formalised the Morrison government’s stated position that universities exist to turn out “job-ready graduates”.

When education minister Dan Tehan began promoting the legislation last June, he said it aimed to raise graduate numbers in areas of high employment demand while strengthening universities’ relationships with business “to drive workforce participation and productivity”.

He sought a partnership between universities, government and business in the recovery from the pandemic. The new funding arrangements, he said, would “incentivise students to make more job-relevant choices, that lead to more job-ready graduates, by reducing the student contribution in areas of expected employment growth and demand”.

So from next year, students in agriculture, mathematics, nursing, clinical psychology and languages will pay around half the fees they pay now. Science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT, and engineering students will have a fifth of their present fees discounted. Law and commerce students will pay 28 per cent more.

But the real hammer blow is to students of the humanities or “liberal arts” – fields like philosophy, archaeology, history, social and cultural studies, anthropology, politics, diplomacy, literature and creative writing. The costs of study in these areas, for both arts students and those whose principal degree is in another faculty, will more than double.

In their early years and for centuries afterwards, universities meant nothing more nor less than the study of “the Arts”, in which mathematics and all the sciences sat alongside historical and classical studies. Students were exposed to the full spectrum of knowledge. Without that broad sweep of learning they had no claim to being educated.

By the time I became a student in the 1960s it was common practice to offer degrees in science, law, economics, medicine, engineering and so on, distinct from an arts degree which contained all the general areas of learning not covered by those other faculties.

But the basic idea endured – and has persisted right up to the present – that universities are more than vocational training centres; they are places of advanced learning, offering something intangible but nonetheless vitally important to their communities.

As a university student I learned something I’ve carried with me ever since, that real education doesn’t crave financial reward. Among a university’s scholars and teachers – some well paid, most not – you’ll find all the usual faults and foibles of any community. But what gets them and their students up every day is the huge buzz to be got from good ideas and the thinking that led to them.

The qualifications that Dan Tehan wants to support are a permanent part of the university landscape – prescribed conditions of entry to many occupations. But a good arts education is a degree not just for a job, but for living. It offers a lifelong love of ideas and learning, along with broader skills in research, critical analysis and communication.

Former University of Tasmania history professor Michael Bennett disputes that those criteria aren’t “job-ready”. He cites his institution’s finding that overall, a Bachelor of Arts degree gets a better job outcome than a Bachelor of Science. (It should be added that science employment is severely limited by Australia’s appalling dearth of R&D funding, both public and private.)

The Australian Academy of the Humanities would agree with Bennett. In a submission to Tehan in August it cited multiple government sources to show how arts studies benefit all employment along with the wider community. “The Job-ready Graduates Package risks jeopardising this human capability development when Australia needs it most,” the Academy said.

If a 113 per cent increase in fees isn’t enough to deter students from taking on an arts degree or individual arts subjects, it will have them in debt when they’ve finished to the tune of $43,500 – or $48,000 if they’ve completed an honours degree.

All that in a time of pandemic, when school leavers have had the year from hell. Those who might have thought that in these hard times they could study sociology to become a social worker, or Indigenous culture to work with Indigenous people, will have to think again. The low pay for this sort of work would not allow them to pay off their student debt.

In the 1970s, convinced that universities are a public good to be funded out of the public purse, we made higher education free. The 1989 Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) was the first nail in free education’s coffin; the Morrison government is now intent on cremating and burying it.

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