End the ethic of crass materialism! - Australian Fabians
25 September, 2023

End the ethic of crass materialism! By Jeff McCracken-Hewson

Sustainable Australia needs an equity model that transcends time, says Prof Ian Lowe

Reviewed by Jeff McCracken-Hewson

At the Australian Fabians AGM on Sunday 28 May, 2023, Prof Ian Lowe offered an optimistic view of Australia’s future, if we could embrace a social justice which includes equality across generations, reconciliation, treaty and truth. Speaking to Fabians from across the country, he boldly outlined the conditions for Australia to become the master of its own destiny. It must embrace sustainability, rein in population growth, increase foreign aid, and reinvigorate local production and manufacturing.

Prof Lowe proposed a telling thought experiment. He asked us to imagine that, in some dark back rooms, the Morrison government had established a Department of Unsustainability. Its aim: to fund our own lifestyle at the expense of future generations. It would fetishise economic growth. Its policies would drive population to an extra million every seven years. It would increase consumption by subsidising construction of sprawling suburbs of McMansions, navigated by petrol-guzzling 4WDs. There would be extraction of non-renewable mineral resources and the overuse of fisheries and water. Rising inequality and the erosion of public services in favour of private profiteering would amount to a culturally endorsed ‘ethic of crass materialism”. The government would appear committed to “destroying our children’s future”.

Australia, by slavishly following the USA as a model of neoliberal affluence, finds itself failing in OECD rankings of waste and emissions per capita, obesity, and the gender pay gap: The USA itself sits at 33rd of 34 OECD countries on such measures, with the four Scandinavian countries doing best. For Australia to claw itself up the rankings towards a more sustainable future, Prof Lowe drew attention to the principles of UKARA 2022. Reconciliation and population control should sit alongside a circular economy, where the waste from one industry becomes the raw material of another. He also called for a new environmental protection agency. This should move beyond a time-delimited concept of social justice, to one that recognises past owners as well as the needs of future generations.

In case anyone thought he was peddling naïve utopianism, Prof Lowe pointed out that women’s rights and the abolition of slavery were once viewed as utopian. It is hardly utopian to recognise that a flourishing society needs more than economic growth. And it is intensely naïve, in fact downright delusional, for successive governments to have thought we could achieve infinite economic growth in a closed biological system. Australia’s big issue is that its natural resources, though beautiful, are being sacrificed at the altar of consumerism, without regard to the fact that biological loss is entirely irreversible. This was originally highlighted in his own State of the Environment Report as well as the OECD and Ukara work. He called for all Fabians to broaden their remit to include ecological, as well as social, equity.

Insightful and thoughtful questions were moderated by Fabians chair, Dr Sarah Howe. Responding to Tim Diamond’s question on the needs of developing nations, Prof Lowe called for 7% of Australia’s GDP to be dedicated to foreign aid. We should help developing countries to enhance their social safety nets, decreasing the need for high birth rates driven by poverty. By improving social conditions in countries from which people are fleeing, we would also drive down the need for illegal arrivals in Australia.

Prof Lowe agreed with Dr Tony Webb, on the need for Australia to reduce reliance on overseas food production. He noted the tight correlation between petrol prices and a basket of food in Australia. This was due to unsustainable transport costs in service of international and out-of-season consumption of foods. Ann Greta Hunter asked how we can move towards this. Prof Lowe suggested redirecting massive government subsidies from fossil fuel and mining extraction to local food production. He also pointed out that the erosion of local manufacturing in Australia had made us the dumping ground for second-rate consumer goods, rejected by the European Union. This made us third world producers but first world consumers. Prof Lowe agreed with another questioner that a steady state economy in support of say, Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics, moves away from the economic growth paradigm. It recognises that current world consumption requires 1.5 times the number of planets we have at hand. This is entirely unsustainable.

Prof Lowe concluded that degrading our kids’ future is simply not morally acceptable. He reiterated his call for a social justice model that transcends time, and embraces the needs of traditional owners as well as future citizens of Australia. He called on the Australian Fabians to take a broader view of equity.





About the author

Jeff McCracken-Hewson has almost five decades of activism in the trade union movements and Labor/Labour parties of Australia and Britain. He joined the Victorian branch of Fabians in 2018, becoming its events manager and, in 2020, its chair and national board representative.

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