24 Aug 2006 THE MAN’S NAKED
My latest piece about environmental protection is published by 'The Brisbane Institute' on its website.
Hans Christian Andersen's story of the Emperor's new clothes is a much-loved classic about hoodwinkery, venality, wilful stupidity, sycophancy, peer pressure, and a refusal to be taken in.
It is, alas, a story which could have been written about environmental protection in South East Queensland outside the region's sparse National Parks.
The line being sold about environmental protection in SEQ by most politicians, bureaucrats, developers, planners and much of the media, grouped in a seemingly monolithic alliance, is the ridiculous notion that development and growth are consistent with preserving the environment.
“THE MAN’S NAKED”
Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the emperor’s new clothes is a much loved classic about hoodwinkery, venality, wilful stupidity, sycophancy, peer pressure, and a refusal to be taken in. It is, alas, a story which could have been written about environmental protection in South East Queensland outside the region’s sparse national parks.
The line being sold about environmental protection in SEQ by most politicians, bureaucrats, developers, planners and much of the media, grouped in a seemingly monolithic alliance, is the ridiculous notion that development and growth are consistent with preserving the environment. It is a line which appears to have been accepted willy-nilly by a majority of SEQ’s residents.
For decades Queensland governments have measured their success by the amount of development and growth which has occurred during their time in power, and at best have paid little more than lip service to protecting South East Queensland’s areas of rich biodiversity and outstanding natural beauty from development, while duplicitously liking to proclaim otherwise. One has only to consider the chronically low status accorded the Environment portfolio to realise that environmental protection has not been a priority for State Governments. The recent environmental protection record of local government in SEQ, patchy as it is, has been superior.
The simple fact is that it is impossibile to reconcile environmental protection with development and growth. If we, as a community, are serious about environmental protection, we cannot ear-mark a given place for protection and allow development to occur there. Even to limit the damage development inevitably causes to environmentally significant areas by imposing stricter controls on development won’t do. The best protection is to get hold of the land. Thus, we need to acquire SEQ’s remaining areas of rich biodiversity and outstanding natural beauty for the public estate through purchase or deed of gift. This acquisition programme would dwarf that of the short-lived Regional Open Space System (ROSS). Meanwhile, we must at the very least prohibit development in and around these areas.
The SEQ Regional Plan is the latest attempt to divert attention away from the refusal by successive State Governments to increase the amount of publicly owned land in SEQ (needed for outdoor recreation as well as environmental protection) from shamefully low levels, currently about 17%, to a benchmark 25%. This is a figure appropriate for a region with SEQ’s present population, let alone the extra million plus expected by 2026, and significantly less than the amount of land now in public ownership in Sydney (42%) and Melbourne (33%).
Typical of our predicament, the term ecologically sustainable development, when allied to the mantra of development and growth, is nothing more than an oxymoron and not the high-minded and noble concept it is commonly believed to be. The only way we can hope to achieve ecological sustainability anywhere is NOT to develop there.
It seems to be a given in planning legislation, documents, applications and reports that development is indeed consistent with preserving the environment in a particular ‘place’.
The recently legislated SEQ Regional Plan duly obliges on the opening page. The Foreword states that the plan was created “so that this region can grow and prosper during the next 20 years whilst also preserving our uniquely beautiful environment such as our parks, scenic delights, wildlife and habitat.” My emphasis shows the obligatory link between growth and preservation. I single out wildlife because it is fanciful to believe that it will not be harmed by a population increase of 1,000,000 plus people bewteen 2005 and 2026.
The Foreword continues “It (the plan) protects more than 80% of all land in South East Queensland from urban development.” As if this were all that the government needs to do to preserve “our uniquely beautiful environment.” There are uses other than urban development, such as extractive industry, which cause harm to wildlife on non-urban land, and in any case, SEQ’s wildlife is not conveniently confined to land protected from urban development under the plan.
The Foreword also states that the plan “will build a sustainable future for the region.
The plan seems to assume that SEQ’s population can increase enormously without any adverse impact on either residents’ lifestyles or the environment. This is rich indeed with the region fast running out of water as the hordes are invited to rush in. The absence of supporting data to justify the population increase and demonstrate the region’s ability to absorb it, is deeply disturbing, unsatisfactory and totally irresponsible.
As for the “scenic delights”: the homes, schools, roads, shopping centres and work places for the extra million are likely to render some of them less delightful.
Claiming that development is consistent with preserving the environment is bad enough. The even more far-fetched notion that development can enhance the natural environment also crops up. An example of this crazy thinking is the Aim of the current Tamborine Mountain Development Control Plan, regarding Conservation and Land Management, which is:
To ensure that future management and development is carried out in an ecologically sustainable manner which preserves and enhances the environment of Tamborine Mountain.
When building begins on pristine land its ecology is irreversibly compromised and it ceases forever to remain what it once was.
The community and the environment pay a high price for this lunacy. Individuals within the bureaucracy who equate protecting environmentally significant areas with prohibiting development do not seem to get a look in. I wonder if there is a State MP who would publicly declare that development and growth are incompatible with environmental protection, that in any one place it is a case of either or, but not both.
People who campaign against excessive and inappropriate development because they know that it is not good for the environment, are often criticised for being anti everything. The criticism does the critics no credit. Activists tend to be motivated by their love of the environment and their desire to keep a locality intact for the benefit of present and future generations. What is not sufficiently recognised by the wider community in general and local and State Government and the media in particular, is the fact that the activists are working for the greater good out of a sense of personal responsibility.
The contrast with landowners and developers who are motivated by personal pecuniary gain and who seem to be exclusively interested in their rights, preferring to overlook their responsibilities – one of which in the case of farming, I suggest, is not to degrade the land – could not be greater.
There appears to be a tradition in Queensland political culture, which may be a more pronounced version of a national predisposition, of promoting individual liberty at the expense of fostering the public good. Promoting individual liberty, if taken to the nth degree, leads to the law of the jungle, whereas fostering the public good is in my view not inherently extremist, but a desirable curb on any socially destructive tendency of unfettered personal freedom. The kind of conformity which characterises authoritarian regimes does not equate with fostering the public good.
The political culture bedevils the whole question of land use. It is exemplified by the prevailing attitude of landowners who have the expectation that no one can tell them what they should or should not do on, or with, their land, regardless of the consequences for their fellow citizens, the environment and future generations. Their proprietorial attitude to land is diametrically opposed to the less commonly held, but more socially and environmentally responsible custodial view. It is an attitude which time and again has been richly rewarded thanks to Queensland’s development and growth agenda. Little wonder then, that the cause of environmental protection in Queensland remains in such a parlous state.
Peter Kuttner August 2006