“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”

These are turbulent times. The catastrophic bushfires may have wiped it off the front page, but last week saw the passage through federal parliament of the Government’s $42 billion ‘economic stimulus package’.
This is a fraught attempt to cushion the economy from falling into recession, through a hurried mix of infrastructure spending and cash handouts.

How do we rescue a consumer society from a crisis brought on by short-term thinking and toxic debt? Apparently, we rescue it with massive short-term borrowing to provoke urgent consumption, on anything at all. The package has the imprint of a kind of desperation to rescue the runaway consumerism that speaks to a much deeper crisis.

In the background, stalking our collective consciousness behind more immediate demands, lie the waking giants of climate change and fossil fuel depletion. The two-hundred year orgy of fossil fuel combustion will be radically transformed in this generation, either through wisdom or regret.

Herein lie the seeds of the most extraordinary opportunity. The prevailing economic theory holds that in times of recession, the Government should borrow to stimulate the economy. We must take this logic one step further. This is our chance to set down the foundations of a 21st century renewable economy.

We can build more obsolete freeways or an electrified light rail network linking Fremantle and Perth with an archipelago of medium and high density urban villages. We can prop up the uranium mining industry or we can kickstart a solar century with a smart grid linking thousands of solar rooftops with wave energy plants, solar thermal farms and world-scale windfarms. We can keep bolting on airconditioners to sweltering brick and tile boxes and build the coal and gas-fired power stations to run them, or we can retrofit for radical energy efficiency and start building climate-sensitive houses on a large scale.

All of these things will stimulate the economy, provide tens of thousands of jobs and provide the financial liquidity that sleepless macro-economists are demanding, but if we make the right choices they will do much more.

Green amendments to the government’s financial stimulus package have provided for energy and water efficiency in the new public houses and schools, cycleways and retraining options for the unemployed. But one of the most pleasing amendments we were able to make was freeing up a $60 million down payment on heritage restoration works. Heritage properties remind us of where we’ve come from, but in a quiet way they also point to the future.

Fremantle was built, by hand, in an age before cars. It’s precious walkability, vibrancy and human scale recalls a pre-fossil architecture from which we can learn a lot. In its familiar streets lie some of the answers we’re looking for as we seek to turn our cities toward sustainability.

At long last, in small but persistent ways, capitalism is coming under long some overdue scrutiny as its terrible failures are laid bare every day. The global financial crisis is another warning – as if we needed one – that our economy is radically out of balance with the needs of a growing population on a troubled planet. Surely it’s not beyond our wit to connect these crises together and grab the opportunities of a renewable century as though our lives depended on it.


First published in the Fremantle Herald – February 2009