Blowing in the wind


There was once, my older readers will remember, a Victorian premier called Henry Bolte. Remembered now only for ensuring that he would be the last state premier to order a hanging in Australia, and for his famous response to the growing concern about the environment in the 1960s. “Air pollution? The wind blows it away. Water pollution? The sea washes it away.”

He would have thoroughly approved of the work at the crippled nuclear reactors in Japan, as water rich in radioactivity was pumped out to sea. What could go wrong – radioactive fish? As indeed what could go wrong with pumping chemicals down into coal seams to extract gas in rich farming areas with deep alluvial soils? I mean, where could the chemicals finish up – in bore water? Or open slather import of foods (exploding watermelons anyone?) and toys (high lead levels anyone?) from other countries with poor safety and regulation records, no chance of any problem there for our children?

Look, maybe I am an extra bit sensitive at the moment, given circumstances, but I think we have all got a bit blase about chemicals in the environment. Concern in the 1960s eventually got smoothed over, wished away, regulations gradually relaxed in the interests, you understand, of increasing profits. But now I wince when I read about coal seam “fracking”, shudder when I see trucks spraying weeds along roadsides as I drive past, groan when I see a bunch of grapes in a supermarket labelled “exposed to SO2″, worry about the nuclear industry push in Australia. And each time I read a study showing an inexplicable increase in some childhood (or adult) medical condition once largely unknown I wonder whether the pollution Bolte so blithely waved goodbye to as it blew away from Victoria has gone around the globe and come back to bite us all.

And I don’t know what we can do about it. I was as careful as could be about what I ate and drank and used in the garden, on the farm, but if there are invisible tasteless chemicals, in the air we breathe in the city, or the food we buy in supermarkets, or the water we drink in the country, then careful doesn’t really cut it.

The environment needs the old Hippocratic oath applied to it – first do no harm. After that make all the profit you like. Henry Bolte believed in the reverse, but then he believed in hanging people too. Times are a changing, aren’t they?

Turkey in the straw

I rarely go into town these days, and when I have to I try to make the trip worthwhile by doing as many things as I can while I'm there. Get my watch fixed, eyes tested, two or three of the most immediate birthday presents, some new socks to replace the ones with holes, buy some food, and so on. Kevin Rudd obviously thinks the same way, because when he goes off to these conferences overseas he tries to pack a lot in. While he was at the G20 summit the other day attending the conference on the financial freezeup (or is it meltdown?) he found time to do some errands including a chat to the Chinese president about the proposed free trade agreement between China and Australia. Gave him a bit of a hurry up, I'd imagine – come on Mr Hu, stop dragging the chain, extract the old digit (wonder how these phrases sound in Mandarin?). "Whaddawe want?" "Free Trade Agreement" "Whendowe want it?" "Now".

Only we don't. I tried to ring Kevin to tell him no thanks Kevin, no more Free Trade Agreements, but he seemed to be constantly on the phone to some George fellow, apparently explaining that it wasn't the G19, but the G20 ("No George, Australia, not Austria, but Europe is in. No, Europe isn't a country George. No, nor is Africa, but it isn't there anyway." And so on). So I gave up. Would have done no good anyway, becase a few days later he popped up in Peru agreeing fulsomely with that George fellow again that what the world needs now is more and more free trade. Will solve all our problems apparently. May not have done so yet, but you gotta have faith, and say what you will about Kevin and whatsisname, they have faith in bucketloads.

Look free trade agreements were never a good thing. We all knew that. Oh, there was soothing talk about selling sugar to the Americans but that was all just feel good stuff to make the medicine go down. Free Trade is always just about two unequal countries, the stronger dictating to the weaker. Like the schoolyard, where the bully gets the best bits from all the school lunches. And it is about big corporations ensuring that none of that messy democracy stuff, or social justice issues, or environmental concerns, will ever again get in the way of big business, anywhere in the world. No matter what the people of a country think they want, they will be told what is good for them.

But they are a much less good thing now. Faced with a world in which climate change, financial crises, overpopulation, and sea level rise, to name a just a few, are issues of rapidly growing concern, every country needs to be able to make its own decisions about what it grows, what it imports, how it regulates, how it looks after its people. Every country is going to have a unique combination of circumstances to deal with, and the days of IMF, World Bank, and various multinational corporations imposing uniformity are over.

Sure there are going to need to be common approaches, one for all, and all for one, to the reduction of greenhouse gases. But these are going to need to be worked out over the dead bodies of the energy companies by people of good will acting together for the planet. And we are going to help many of our neighbours as sea level rise swamps islands, and crops fail, and drinking water is lost, and fishing faces barren oceans. But this help is also going to be needed not on the basis of profit making for water sellers and food shippers, but on the basis of morality.

See if you can get Kevin on the phone. Tell him there is work to be done at home. Oh and no more free trade agreements, and if he could mention to George that we would rather like to end the one we have with America already that would be a decision even a lame duck president could make. Bit like pardoning a turkey, and the FTA is certainly a turkey.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here