When the ship of state strikes rocks…

As a global economic depression begins to look ever more likely, what are the prospects for redirecting our own economy? [24 January 2012 | Peter Boyer]

A satellite view of Costa Concordia on the rocks of Isola del Giglio, Italy. SOURCE DIGITAL GLOBE

A satellite view of Costa Concordia on the rocks of Isola del Giglio, Italy. SOURCE DIGITAL GLOBE

If there’s a single all-embracing emblem of what most of our political and business elite promote as an ideal economy, it has to be one of those floating fantasy-lands we call cruise liners.

They tick most boxes. Their huge size and sleek, modern lines proclaim stability. They attract the investment of large numbers of passengers who in turn become model consumers, opening the wallet or accumulating debt for all those little on-board extras.

Costa Concordia offered an escape from humdrum cares as its crew took care of clients’ every need. Gleaming white by day, brilliantly luminescent by night, it oozed permanence, certainty and success as it cruised the enclosed pond called the Mediterranean.

And then it hit a rock. As it lost its power and rolled alarmingly in winter darkness, its crew were found wanting, and passengers had to rely on their own initiative to help themselves and each other. The grand symbol of serenity and stability had suddenly become a death-trap.

In the harsh light of day Costa Concordia (which means “peaceful coast”) looked anything but permanent — a sad, decaying hulk defiling the coast of a small island whose peace it had shattered.

The analogy with the global economy, especially the sad state of affairs in Europe, is obvious. But in considering likely culprits (the hapless ship’s captain, the Greek deficit, European governments or banks) it’s prudent to consider our own back yard.

Australia is travelling much better than Europe or Costa Concordia. The rising global economic power, China, just happens to be in our own region and to want commodities like iron ore, coal and gas — which we just happen to possess in abundance. Our luck might continue for some time yet, but we shouldn’t count on it.

Tasmanians know all too well that economic prosperity is transient and often illusory; for all our wealth in primary production we tend to lag behind mainland economies. But we were ill-prepared for the sudden drop in GST revenue in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.

We’re now in a bind. Good long-term policy demands that we focus on a sustainable economy based on real wealth, not the Costa Concordia model based on the illusion of endless growth. Yet to achieve this seems to demand serious allocation of resources that we don’t have.

Or does it? The public advocacy group Climate Action Hobart believes the government has tools currently available to implement an effective policy at minimal cost to develop a sustainable economy while mitigating climate change.

They’ve outlined their ideas in a submission to Climate Change Minister Cassy O’Connor. Based on scientific advice that early action is imperative, the group lists “low-cost or no-cost” steps to make Tasmania a national leader in climate change action. Among its 93 proposals:

• Take a national lead on climate policy, arguing for strong national actions and making climate action a defining feature of Tasmania. Set 2050 as the target for a carbon-neutral Tasmania and set 2020 as the target for 60 per cent emissions reduction. Define greenhouse emissions as pollution.

• Apply early and argue vigorously for Federal funding for home initiatives such as solar hot water.

• Manage forests as carbon stores, fund a State seed-bank, regulate private forest management, encourage closed-loop timber use and apply a state-wide fire management strategy.

• Provide funding for low-income households to cut energy use, require disclosure of building energy efficiency in property sales and rentals and support trades training in energy efficiency.

• Make Tasmania’s electricity 100 per cent renewable by 2020, taking a national lead on renewable energy. Support community-based power generation and remove aluminium smelting subsidies to release energy for more sustainable purposes.

• Protect productive land near population centres for growing food, develop a state-wide building code to ensure green building standards, embody sustainability principles in State and regional planning, and preference “fill-in” development over expansion for new housing.

• Use funds from increased registration fees for fuel-inefficient vehicles to subsidise bus transport and prioritise rail renewal throughout Tasmania, divert bypass road funds to low-emission transport, and introduce free buses and park-and-ride on key routes.

• Adopt triple-bottom-line accounting covering financial, social and environmental responsibilities. Salary packages for all public servants to favour adoption of Metro Greencards, fuel-efficient vehicles, and bicycles. Ensure departmental support for government carpooling.

• Investigate and support commercial enterprises less vulnerable to energy constraints, preference local marketing, promote low-carbon tourism and in-season food consumption.

• Develop small-scale recycling enterprises in Tasmania, introduce a deposit scheme to encourage recycling, discourage curb-side waste through less frequent collection, implement regular green waste collection, encourage cradle-to-grave manufacturing legislation

• Implement a “green scissors” program to cut barriers to appropriate behaviour and perverse incentives in government fees, charges and subsidies.

Faced with a daunting reality Costa Concordia passengers improvised, using a human chain to save lives. If the government can find the courage to act decisively for a more sustainable future, who knows what resources might be brought to bear by a supportive population?

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