July 10, 2007

There has been a somewhat surprised reaction to revelations this week that Canberrans generate the largest ecological footprint in Australia, consume the most water per household and that the city’s per capita greenhouse pollution level is 18 per cent higher than the national average. I personally was surprised at the surprise. I’ve only lived in Canberra for six months and one of the first things I noticed about the place is the extravagant taste and excessive consumerism of many who live here. In keeping with Canberra’s image of being a privileged city, census data released two weeks ago tells us that Canberra’s populace is also richer and more educated than the rest of Australia, with over 30 per cent of Canberrans having completed a university degree.

One could be forgiven for assuming that the high rate of education among Canberra’s populace would lead to people consuming less so as to lighten their ecological footprint and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. After all, the connection between consumption and the steady destruction of the natural world isn’t that hard to make or understand, is it? Is it that people aren’t making or understanding this connection or that they simply don’t care? Is it that they need to be shown something more tangible to be convinced that our very existence as a species (not to mention the millions of other species we share the planet with) is under threat? Surely an “educated” person has come across this evidence and has made the connection between consumerism and the destruction of our environment with some ease.

However, it seems that this assumption is made in haste. For the rate at which the most educated and privileged city in Australia is consuming natural resources far outstrips the rest of the country – not that their level of consumption is ideal either. While there is justifiable anger at how slow our politicians have been in reacting to environmental destruction (to use a very broad term that covers problems such as resource depletion and climate change), the fact remains that it is each person’s everyday choice that directly impacts on the natural world.

Every time you or I decide to buy a new lawn mower, a fancy new leather sofa, a top of the range coffee machine, order a 400g steak (for those of you who eat meat), drive down the road to work instead of walking or taking public transport, leave an electric blanket on instead of just throwing on another layer or travel around in a tank-like 4WD, we are making a huge combined impact on the natural world. As David Suzuki has pointed out so many times – everything we see around us has come from this planet and this planet only contains so much. This is not to say that business and government don’t play their part in impacting on the natural world – but they are also driven by what we as consumers and voters do and decide to care about.

The political action that needs to be taken to respond to the many different environmental challenges that we face is only one key element in the equation. In addition to pressuring our leaders, we as people need to stop kidding ourselves that we can keep living the excessive consumer-driven lifestyles that many of us have become accustomed to. The choice doesn’t just rest with John Howard or Kevin Rudd to do something, it rests with all of us.


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