We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children
(Native American proverb).

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The perfect storm: food

The perfect storm may be just an expression, but for those caught in the midst of the event, it is far more serious than that.

I recently read an article on the Australian wine industry which described just such a problem. Generous government incentives, followed by massive over investment by the largest players, global competition, unfriendly exchange rates, and the regular lag time from investment to return now mean that I can get online and bid for a box of wine from $9. That's $0.75 per bottle, which I am certain is not making them very happy at all, considering the hard work that goes into these ventures.

Recently there have also been many stories of the impact that unsustainably low milk prices are having on dairy farmers, and how many are faced with bankruptcy if they do not sell out to the larger players in the industry, or foreign interests. At the root of this problem is the power of the supermarkets where two firms control over 80% of the domestic market. They cannot claim any foreign competition pressure. This is purely a race to the bottom of the price pile. Many a processing company has had to fight for shelf space, some of whom have significantly larger budgets than the small farming family with no commercial influence. What hope do these producers have?

Just this weekend, I was talking to a new friend who comes from out west, and he tells yet another story of the impact of foreign and corporate interests in our rural sector. With years of drought taking their toll on rural families, and governments attempting to control water resources, many have left their farms, and the most common purchasers of these holdings are yet again the foreign and corporate interests. Their goal is either rationalisation of small holdings into enterprises with economies of scale, AND/OR direct transfer export to overseas markets without value or margin adding. Net result in this scenario is the communities which had developed over centuries now gradually decline until they are a shadow of their former selves.

A sad and romantic sentiment it may be, however the diversity that once came from a dozen smaller family holdings allowed for a greater degree of resilience for city consumers. For when the market for one food commodity was low, other grains or livestock could be substituted relatively quickly, especially when not every farmer produced the same product. Today however the scale of operations in many of these regions, especially in more marginal areas, means the infrastructure is solely geared toward the production of one commodity. If that declines, then the speed at which a wide scale operation can be reconfigured is slow if not impossible. And if it doesn't decline, their buying capacity of water licences, resources and supplies gradually freezes out those smaller operators who remain.

I have not even mentioned the loss of domestic revenue when this process involves foreign interests.

Friends in the city, and those visiting from overseas I have heard repeatedly comment on the cost of food and living in this country. Ironic for such a vast land, that we pay so much for our basics of food and shelter. Shelter I have already dealt with, but our food is a real concern. As we gradually loose the diversity we should theoretically pay less as economies of scale kick in. Yet, diseconomies of scale seem to be increasingly prevalent.

Big is NOT better. Big distorts the market. Big thinks of themselves and shareholders first, not consumers and communities. How much harder do you work to keep 100 customers happy than you do to keep 100,000 happy. (don't take my word for it...) The loss of one is negligable for Big! Yet Big has more money to throw at political parties or candidates, advertising, research, etc. Surely there are more out there who can see the folly of Big!

And so the perfect storm begins. As we produce more and more of less and less; as our human capital on the land is lost; as we generate more income for less food; and as our control of our sovereign resources diminishes, we will increasingly risk yet another perfect storm. This time however it will not be a luxury product such as wine, but a staple. It may not be unobtainable, however the price we pay may just push the limits of what is sustainable.

To be continued...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

All hail the golden arrow!

Ever seen "The Story of Stuff"? If not, while very simplistic, your understanding of this post will be enhanced by watching the clip first.

Now, with that in mind, we are all reliant upon money. As much as we try to take money out of our equation (have a look at my earlier post), it is undeniable that it is essential that we manage money, spending, and consumption as best we can. The problem is, most people tend to think along the lines of the following:

In a recent editorial, the Sydney Morning Herald identified one cause of a lack of consumer confidence in Australia has been the excessive level of household debt. Much of this debt has been attributed to the overblown housing market, but also significant has been the consumer debt from credit cards, store credit and other consumer credit sources. When the collective consciousness comes to the realisation (thanks to the Europeans and the Americans) that limitless economic growth cannot be achieved through continued retail spending, falling consumer confidence and a slowing retail sector result.

Aside from the issues of consuming consciously, with regard for ecological sustainability (this is NOT just a cliche'd slogan), or social justice issues, why do we consistently call on the retail therapist! My wife and I had a long conversation with our 10-year-old today, where we felt the need to defend our decisions about what we have chosen to surround ourselves with, materially speaking. While there is nothing like the questions of a pre-teen to sharpen and validate ones decisions, it brought focus to our drive to take money out of the equation, choosing to live with less, rather than enjoy all the spoils of living in a fortunate country.

Maybe if we all put a little more emphasis on quality of life rather than standard of living (Ron Laura's words, not mine) we might be happy to live on less, and enjoy some realistic, sustainable, fair and legitimate economic growth.

To be continued...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Big is not...

...better. What big is, is big! It is heavy, cumbersome, slow and proud. It crushes whatever is in its path and doesn't stop to survey the damage. Big doesn't react, it merely labours onward until the force of gravity slows its onward march and then it slowly turns around and goes back the other direction.

Big business is big in every way. Big doesn't care for the employee with cancer or their family. It doesn't know the struggles of its customers in any meaningful way. Big doesn't respond quickly to change, doesn't create from nothing, doesn't give without thought of self sacrifice. Big doesn't care for the loss of 100 customers the way small does; nor does it care for the needs of their suppliers, unless they too are big. It doesn't need to promote its virtues in any other way than big discounts, big volumes... and big margins. Big is excessive, wateful and more likely to corrupt and be corrupt.

Small on the other hand has to innovate, offers real choice, provides value rather than discounted price. Small cares for small and large alike; doesn't exert undue influence; doesn't have time to gloat or destroy its competitors or policy makers. It is the foundation of big, yet has not forgotten its roots like big can. Small creates, out of necessity and also out of choice. Small is the true source of competition, which is the basis of sustainability, efficiency and choice. Small may need some protection from big lest it be crushed by the momentum of cumbersome economic mass.

I'm not saying there isn't a place for big, but NOT at the expense of small. Big can have value when it acts small and doesn't use its weight to force conformity. Vote small with your words, your dollars and your choices, because one day you may be small too, and until then, small will add to our quality of life and true choice.

To be continued...

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Lesson from Two Little Boys

He may be some distance from a household name these days, but Rolf Harris has enjoyed international and domestic exposure for his music and art. Tim Freedman tonight on the ABC sang the song "Two Little Boys" for which Rolf Harris is renown. It struck me at that time that the chorus is somewhat similar to that stereotypical Australian concept of mateship:

"Did you think that I would leave you crying?
When there's room on my horse for two
Climb up here, Jack and don't be crying
I can go just as fast with two."

When did we forget this idea as a nation? We have one of the strongest and most successful economies in the world, and yet we quibble and squabble and argue and fight about the refugee problem. We politicise the response, debate the morality and effectively do very little. When will we say to them that we won't leave them crying? We can go just as fast with two!

 To be continued...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Some are more equal than others

In George Orwell's allegorical critique of soviet communism, the egalitarian society in which "all animals are equal" descended into "some are more equal than others." Equally, in modern democracies such as ours, the equal rights and equality of our voice or expression in the political process is at risk of erosion through the sizeable budgets of interest groups, the likes of which we have not seen for quite some time.

With huge capital growth and a bullish market with which to bank roll their voice, we are witnessing the rise of those more equal than others, and their willingness to exert that influence (fairly or not) upon society at large. What's more, is that they are increasingly bold in their methods and overt in their intentions. Those who have the capacity to monitor and protect merely look on, or worse still, empower this by claiming it is the right of riches to exercise undue influence in the pursuit of economic returns.

Writing a blog is, at times, a lonely place; uncertain of who (if anyone) is reading, or even if it is achieving any lasting impact. What could I do with a spare $billion or two when it comes to my influence over public opinion? If our government suddenly decided to try and influence reporting and editorial content there would be howls of protest, yet the neo-liberal free marketeers seem quite unfazed, maybe even impressed by recent events in media ownership. If this is not a double standard then nothing is.

All it takes for a free press to disappear is for good people to do nothing when faced with threats such as these. I am not a green, nor a national, but I am most concerned that we are repeating the mistakes of a by-gone era of obscenely rich tycoons who feel entitled to throw their economic and hence political weight around, demonstrating that they indeed are more equal than others. It ended badly in the 1920s, and yet again for many more following Wall Street's failings in 2008, and still we do nothing to stop it. It is time for action before our voices cannot be heard any more above the roar of the "more equal".

To be continued...

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Cities: a problematic paradigm of design

Our cities are spreading like a cancer into the regions that once sustained them. I recall as a child driving for mile after mile through productive farm land on my way to school. I never questioned where my food came from, and never expected that the huge expanse of urbanicity would one day consume all that had provided for me and my community as much as it had for those in the metropolis merely 60km away. Yet here we are. Those areas I once observed now only remain where insurance companies will refuse to cover in case of flood or fire. And it is not just the land of my childhood which has suffered a similar fate. Within sight of any of our ever expanding cities you will find the same picture. We have bought into a dream without an historical precedent, based on an inefficient allocation of scarce resources, in an era where the economic paradigm respects efficiency and intensity. It is the urban equivalent of supporting a low tech Australian consumer electronics industry, yet we defend it to the death because THIS is the great Australian dream.

Having bought into this misrepresentation of living standards, we realise something is fundamentally wrong with our present condition. Our response? rather than question the underlying design concept, we hanker for any small resemblance of the former paradigm. Enter the farmers market which now involves farmers travelling inefficiently vast distances in order to sell produce at highly inflated prices, not because their product is overpriced, but because they need to cover the ever increasing transport costs to bring their superior product to market. The alternative, growing your own produce in your ever shrinking backyard, street verge, roof top or balcony. And while this is also a move in the right direction, it ignores the fundamental flaw in the design: we have pushed our farmers away in a selfish desire to have a little (note, not a lot) more space to call our own.

With our trajectory set, the developers move in with big profits in their eyes, and a vested interest in maintaining the new status quo. Here lies a wonderful opportunity to cash in on the new bonanza of land and lifestyle, and inevitably dependence and a reduced quality of life. No, this is not a quantum leap in logic, merely a representation of the reality facing many Australian families, and perhaps families in many an industrialised country. With our patch of dirt, we bite off ever bigger pieces of economic dependence from financial institutions as our piece becomes a commodity to be traded in and upgraded, then downsized or subdivided.

With prices gradually moving beyond the reach of the average household, we sacrifice other elements of our lives in order to enter the fray, or at least, keep up with the trend. We first sacrificed our family model, and while much of the gains that were hard fought and won by the feminist movements of the 60s and 70s was rightly a fight for fairness in opportunity, it was also capitalised upon by that same developers who could see the benefit of it driving ever growing prices. But what happens when all the income a household can earn through their two or sometimes three incomes (often from two individuals or less) is still insufficient for the average house price? Enter the investor and the government handouts of negative gearing. If we want to discuss middle class welfare, one need not look any further than this. When government housing provided the safety net for renters, prices did not increase as rapidly as they have since it was wound back, and still it continued to push the affordability frontier beyond the average household. The USA provides us with a very clear demonstration of the consequences of this path, because even if we take out the effect of negative gearing, the drive to put people in suburban housing commodities eventually made it necessary for lending institutions to push the boundaries of sustainability and good business sense. Enter the sub prime time bomb.

Irony is everywhere in this model. In an attempt to continue the flawed rationale of the suburbs, we have laid the foundations of economic self destruction, design which is increasingly returning our suburbs to a false reality of space, and social fracture in the process. Sub prime loans are our evidence in the first instance, but what about the false reality of the spacious suburbs. With increasing affluence we have demanded larger homes and consumed more resources than ever before, and yet with our ever increasing wealth, why is it that our average land size in all major cities has fallen dramatically? It is yet another function of the failure of the entire suburban model. The ever increasing prices have pushed buyers out of the market, and therefore pushed developers into a volume race where each will outbid the other to maximise the return from each estate, not in terms of the price, but by reducing the size of the package they are selling, setting ever smaller average block sizes at relatively stable prices in order to continue the paradigm.

So what's next? Those who have realised they have been fooled by this false reality have sought to look further afield for REAL space. Enter the semi rural allotment. Have the space, and there certainly is space. And where can one find this space? None other than that rural urban fringe; the periphery where our sustaining food supplies once originated, or valuable conservation areas, or our open and public spaces. If we are willing to sacrifice our quality of life within the home in terms of the two full time incomes or two or more jobs per person, how much less will the collective consciousness care about such ethereal concepts as conservation or food miles, especially when we marvel at the size of our country or the effectiveness of our technology or transport. Who will subdivide further when faced with the continuing expansion of our cities into these peripheral areas? Will our new semi rural populations be as productive as our committed farmers? And if we are prepared to sacrifice this, then why not the rights of these new residents when the economic machine rolls on and discovers (or rediscovers) a more valuable resource in the same location? (Doubtless, the coal seem gas debate will continue to rage in this respect in Sydney at least!) Will we then say enough, or will it then be too late.

No, our chance is now. We need a moratorium on suburban expansion, and not just in our biggest cities, but in all our cities. Let cities be cities, and country be country. High density does not have to mean no green spaces. Country does not have to be so far away we can only access it for long weekend escapes. We have been sold the lie that we can have it all, but that is just not the case. Just as for every action in physics there is an equal and opposite reaction, so too is there a trade off in society. Often not in exactly the opposite direction, for society is too complex a beast to predict it so exactly, but the cost exists. It may be a health cost, an environmental cost, a cost in amenity, or security or in our very freedoms we hold so dear. No, our cost exists, and often it is not borne by those who create it. Does the mining magnate suffer the loss of their aesthetics when the fruits of their labour are constructed? Does the cost of the military contractor come back to the CEO or their family, or is it the price paid by the child soldier or the community destroyed by the wayward missile? This is not a conspiracy, but it is reality. It is vital that we all understand this reality so we might collectively act upon it and affect real change. Lets change the paradigm of design to reflect a more stable and equitable reality.

To be continued...

Monday, June 11, 2012


In Aldous Huxley's prophetic Brave New World, the masses are controlled through the liberal application of the drug soma. Dissent was quelled, free thought was diminished, order was maintained and freedom was eroded all through the use of a popular mind altering drug. One might say that without an opiate for the masses progress is more difficult, and rarely substantial. In a recent piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald, the development path taken by communist China and democratic India contrasts a great leap forward economically, technologically and socially in the former, while the latter remains firmly entrenched in inefficient, ineffective democratic systems which seem to only serve to maintain the status quo within Indian society and inhibit true progress. Yet there are those who seem to pay little attention to the fact that freedom is very limited in China, despite its obvious progress. Communism has performed its opiate role well and allowed for a directed development which may not have otherwise been so readily achieved in such a short time frame, but at what cost.

Somasites of the brave new world of the 21st century are here in force in so called free democracies also. Religious dogma, political ideology or chemical control; our society is far from free. Our soma today is the gross indulgence of a society so paralysed by greed, material wealth, success and power that we are prepared to sell our freedom to the highest bidder and applaud as their political puppets push it further and farther from our reach until it is too late to retrieve. Yes, despite claims of actions in the common good, many decisions presently made by governments in this country and others are far from altruistic, often associated with the forceful and resourceful posturings of well to do interest groups or commercial interests.

Why then do the vast majority of the public not cry out in disbelief or outrage? Put simply, most people with the will and passion to voice their concerns lack either the means or influence to be heard. Those who are complacent or apathetic have been conned by the pursuit of wealth, or distracted by the trappings of affluence, or in its most concerning form, prevented from hearing the truth by the very groups who would stand to lose their position of power or priveledge.

Therefore, our rage must be directed toward the two camps who perpetuate the falicy of the brave new world. Firstly, those who peddle the distractions of excess and greed: the media who control information or distract through mindless entertainment; the global corporate barons who stand to lose most from a tectonic shift in the economic or political reality; the politicians whose ear the corporate barons possess; the military industrial complex; or the legal fraternity who facilitate or perpetuate existing social, economic and political institutions to entrench inequities. Secondly, those who are blinded by the soma metered out by the first camp. Their blindness may not be directly due to their own choices, but is nonetheless an integral component in the continual decline in the justice and equitability of our society. To rail against one and not the other is akin to treating cancer and not the pain; effective, but intolerable. What is needed is a war on two fronts, with consomasites united against both the disease and the symptoms of an increasingly dysfunctional global community.

Our brave new world will not be built on the 21st century equivalent of soma, but upon truly free economic opportunities, equitable access to health and education services, fair representation in government, ecologically sustainable development, and open and free press free from economic and political distortion, and such goals being realised as global commons regardless of ethnicity, religion, spatial, social and economic background. Call those who will fight for such what you will: egathocomasonites as I did in an earlier post, consomasites as I do here, or any other name you care to use. Either way, you have your movement, and their time will soon come.

To be continued...