Has sustainability become a dirty word in Australia?

Dealing with complexity means dumbing down information, issues and interests

Above all else sustainability is a scientific proposition.  What has to be done to ensure that human life at an acceptable quality or standard endures into the future?   It may have emotional and moral connotations but at its core the question comes down to the laws of thermodynamics, systems theory and flows.   And yet increasingly the general public is taking matters which are defined empirically and scientifically and making them a question of belief.  For example, the taxi driver will ask “Do you believe in climate change?” A mother will ask “Do you believe in immunisation for whooping cough?” I think the question of belief is one for religion.  “Do you believe in God?”   I can get that.  But to be asked ‘do I believe in climate change?’ that is asking me to range into epistemology and cast an opinion on whether scientific knowledge is valid.  It is a wasted question and reflects the “dumbing down” of our education system or at least a weakening in the teaching of science and mathematics.

Compounding the dysfunction of our schooling system is the largely self imposed isolation and learned irrelevance of experts, particularly university academics.  I recall a former head of the CSIRO Dr Geoff Garrett saying last year that only 3% of innovation sourced by Australian industry came from universities.  A former head of the Australian public service, Professor Peter Shergold has described the influence of our academics on Australian public policy as one of being “seen but not heard”[xi].  In the place of independent career expert researchers, much of the input to national discussion these days is provided by consultant “hired guns”, think tanks funded by particular interests, and media polemicists the so called “shock jocks” of talk back radio.

Risk communication has become a matter of “spin” eg always maximise the benefits and minimise the costs of policy, programs and projects.  British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the master of it, but he had local equivalents in PM Kevin Rudd, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, and the Liberals in power were not bad at it too – viz the Costello budgets which gave away as tax cuts and middle class welfare the dividends of a mining boom and a decade of record terms of trade, masquerading it as responsible economic management.

Complexity pervades, simplicity prevails – modern life in scale, pace, communications and expectations is far more complex than a generation or two ago and yet we keep expecting our teachers, politicians, business leaders indeed anyone in authority to keep it simple and “dumbed down”.  The media willingly goes along with this need because most journalists are not sufficiently educated or technically adept to make sense of much of the economic, technological or social complexity.  This is certainly the case with the media’s treatment of science – as reflected in its view of climate change as being too complex to communicate and preference for science feel good stories involving topics like a new Mars rover, exotic animals particularly those that photograph well, and new wonder drugs for cancer which give immediate “human interest”.

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