“Just as Eithiopia has responsibility to its own people and the global community to take the pain of reforming its feudal and destructive land systems, we and other nations have an urgent responsibility to dismantle pointless and hypocritical impediments to nuclear power and get on with the job of deploying it to lower our emissions, fast.”
I am lucky enough to be writing this post from the position of having acquired a new home for myself and my family. After having mail delivered to 9 addresses in 11 years, it is a great feeling to finally be under a roof that will house us, for all intents and purposes, for as long as we need. So I have been thinking a lot about the concept of home; what it means and how it creates and shapes some of our most important decisions and indeed the varying natures of the societies and cultures in which we live. When we have placed our planet, the only one we have, on a trajectory of climate wipe out, it pays to reflect on the concept of home.
Firstly, a question. What relationship does a total bastard called King John have with my simply stunning new back garden? Let’s just take a quick tour of the garden first so you can appreciate why I have started the journey here. The back garden of my new home is an uncommon slice of paradise. It has a nice patch of good old fashioned aussie lawn, but it is characterised by a wealth of flowers, creeping roses, a vegetable patch, 6 thriving fruit trees and an impressive chicken run. The north facing orientation and slight elevation of the house provide us with the most stunning private sunlit vista. The garden has a rambling, cottage appearance to it, and looks like it has always been there. This belies the fact that it is the labour of love of the previous owner, Margie, developed over just 9 years (except the gnarled fruit trees and roses, which are probably 50 years old, as is the house).
The point of King John is that had he been somewhat less of a bastard, Margie might never have bothered to plant the garden. John took it upon himself to relieve the regional English Lords of their property to replenish his own reserves and did so with, shall we say, extreme prejudice. This is back in the day (around 1215) where Kings were, quite simply, God’s divine representative on earth, a supreme authority. Should they desire to relieve you of your wealth and property, they could, for they were your King. But come the era of John, the Lords got their act together and managed to bash the King into signing a bit of paper that said that no, as a matter of fact neither you, nor anyone else, can arbitrarily rob us of that which we own, be you King or not. The bit of paper I am referring to is of course the Magna Carta.
Now, while it would take some time for this radical concept to filter down to peasants, a defining concept of civilisation, progress and prosperity had been born: alienable and enforceable property rights. The importance of property rights cannot be overstated. From an agricultural plot to a factory to a home in Mitcham, the absence of property rights takes the common human drive to improve conditions and dampens it to the point of near non-existence. Why purchase a new piece of equipment for your factory if not for competitive advantage? Why plant a beautiful garden if the local warlord, upon taking a liking to it, can force you from it with impunity?
Why, or indeed how do you muster the enthusiasm to boost the productivity of your land when you are forced to stay there whether you want to or not, and it may be cut in half at any time? If that sounds a bit feudal, it is, but I am afraid it is also modern day Eithiopia.
The horn of Africa is, for many Aussies, synonymous with famine. Heaven knows there is more the the place than that but thanks to the Live Aid campaigns of the 1980s when I was a kid, and some horrible vision from the period, the strongest natural association I have with the word Eithiopia is hunger and famine. That was not the last famine of the region. Far from it. In the 20 years from 1984-2004 the country experienced 7 famines, with the 2003 event leaving 13.2 million people in need of food aid, a situation that repeated itself in 2010. Various reasons are discussed as to why this occurs and how to prevent it. Land reform is barely ever one of them. But as this amazing 2003 piece details, it is a vital step.
If you are an Ethiopian peasant, you are in a particularly tricky position. You are provided with land that you do not own. The Government owns it. You can neither sell it NOR leave it. You MUST farm it, whether you want to or not, and whether you are good at it or not. Every now and then as the population grows, the land is redivided and redistributed in smaller portions, and further land on the margins is brought into this inefficient system of production.
Imagine. You hate farming, but have a knack for diesel mechanics. Your neighbour is quite good at farming. You cannot sell up your land and go and retrain in diesel mechanics because you do not own it in the first place. Your productive neighbour cannot buy your land and boost the output using her/his skills because it cannot be sold. Nor can he/she use the land as security to take out a loan to swap his donkey for a second hand tractor and boost productivity further, because the land is not privately owned. So even if you somehow manage to retrain, no one has a tractor for you to fix anyway, everyone is busy with donkeys. One day, both you and your neighbour have a portion of your land removed and given to someone else. No attention is paid to who is the better farmer, who actually wants to stay on the land, and who wants to leave it. During the good and average years, everyone gets by. During the bad years, people struggle. In the very bad years, people starve to death, en masse, because the other years have produced no surplus food or income to provide some resilience.
How do you prevent famine in these conditions? How do you get traction with improved crop varieties, methods and technologies that are known to work in such a feudal system that is known to fail? The people need alienable land rights, so that they can choose to stay and work hard to prosper with certainty of tenure, or sell up and try their talents elsewhere.
Eithiopia is avoiding the tough issue of land reform. They fear people will, en masse, leave the land and head for the cities. They will; this fear is completely valid. The process is called industrialisation and modernisation. But they cannot keep preferencing short term pain avoidance over regular catastrophe as seen in 2010, 2003 and 1984. The impacts they fear need to be managed, not avoided.
Consider this. Rather than selling the land outright all in one hit and running the risk of blowing your cash and become landless and poor rather than landed and poor, instead you sell a 90% share. For the next 10 years, the income from that remaining 10% is yours. Now, you have a lump sum to invest in your skills, and a guaranteed passive income for the next 10 years. Assuming the new owner is more productive than you were, which is a virtual guarantee, that 10% will be worth more every year, not less. At the end of year 10, you can choose to either sell or keep the remaining 10%. Link this process to a Government supervised house building program to avoid the risk of the peasants falling victim to slum landlords. Now, they are property owners. Whatever lump sum and income is surplus, people are free to invest in themselves and their families however they wish. As it should be.
Land reform in the horn of Africa is not my specialty, to say the least. But if I can come up with that with a little head-scratching, the experts can make this work. An alternative model combines community ownership with private ownership. The model “allows communities to manage the land and buy plots if farmers decide to sell. Farmers could still sell their plots freely and use their land as an asset for bank loans.”
When people are starving to death, we must help them. But something that is instructive about this reality is it is a situation that western guilt cannot fix, and it is an example of where and how modernisation of institutions is simply a necessity to improve human conditions.
What has the mere issue of preventing starvation to do with the environment and climate change? Everything. The productivity of current practices in Eithiopia puts relentless pressure on the remaining wild lands. These areas are gradually brought into the system, squeezing out other species and eliminating the eco-systems services they were providing. Land reform and the dramatically increased productivity it catalyses will drive much needed land-abandonment. As Mark Lynas describes so well in The God Species, consolidating our impacts in smaller areas by making the most out of them is one of the best moves humanity can make for biodiversity preservation and restoration.
The energy equivalent is, of course, nuclear power. The extraordinary density means it has easily the lowest land footprint of any energy source. That means urbanisation and agricultural efficiency in a globe powered by nuclear and other advantageous zero-carbon energy sources is the way to go.
That brings us back to the power of property rights. Thanks to property rights, my family could buy this house from Margie and her family, enjoying the improvements they made and confidently making our own should we wish. These basic concepts have coalesced with some other necessary pre-conditions (being the application of reason through science, the widespread availability of reasonably priced capital, and availability of rapid transport, communications and reliable energy) to drive continuous growth in prosperity in industrialised nations for nearly the last 250 years (give or take a few recessions and a depression). That longevity of growth had never been achieved before. Property and prosperity are inextricably linked (1).
The Brits got started on the concept in 1215 and worked it out the best. It is not a coincidence that the wealthiest and most stable of new world nations were the colonies of the British Empire (Australia, NZ, the US, Canada) rather than the Portugese or Spanish. It is not the natural wealth that is the distinction, but the strength of the institutions that were transplanted. As Nordhaus and Shellengber explore beautifully in their book Breakthrough, an inefficient system of land tenure was one of the original drivers of another global environmental and social problem: the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the failure to improve the lives of so many Brazillians. This time the problem was not too many owners but too few. They say:
From a strictly economic point of view, Brazil would have been better off had it left the Amazon alone and focussed its agricultural and economic development elsewhere. But massively unequal land ownership- a residue of the colonial land system set up by the Portuguese Crown, concentrated national wealth in impractically large, idle estates, some the size of small European countries, resulting in almost ritualised conflicts between peasants and Brazil’s powerful landlords.
If I am banging on a bit forgive me, but I suspect most Australian’s take for granted, and barely grasp, the significance of their freedom to own property and improve it and the confidence that our institutions will respect that freedom.
Lifting my head from the garden to the house itself (whew), you may be wondering if Mr Climate Change has bought the greenest house in the city. The answer is an interesting one. In this house you will find simply nothing of technological note to support green credentials. Not solar hot water. Not solar PV. No intelligent climate control. No composting toilet. No micro gas combined heat and power. But with the steel rainwater tank, the retractable shadecloths, awnings, blinds, ceiling fans and good use of natural light, I was looking forward to the smallest summer energy bills for a long time. That came true this week: $2.60 per day over high summer (and we work from home). That resulted from a pretty standard house from 1950, plus a little good sense and ingenuity (and I admit, a couple of uncomfortable nights during the heatwave).
It all makes me think we have lost the plot a little on this whole sustainable housing thing. It seems we did it better 50 years ago by virtue of the fact that air-conditioning was unaffordable. I sound like a grumpy old man, but why don’t we build them like this anymore?
Let’s leave the house and venture into the suburb, Mitcham. From the cul de sac out front you can see the first row of the Mt Lofty Ranges that run to the east of Adelaide, continuing south to the Fleuriau Peninsula. Mitcham is a suburb in the foothills. Prominent in the view is Brown Hill. I have no idea if it is really called that, but I have always called it that. We will be heading there soon.
Mitcham Village was one of the earliest settlements of Adelaide, dating from 1840 (Adelaide was settled as a colony in 1836. It was a free settlement unlike the filthy crim holes of Sydney and Melbourne. Being of Sydney extraction I can say this, and Aussies are proud of that heritage anyway, holding it against us is a waste of time). I rather suspect that if you lived in Mitcham back in the day, you spent a bit of time there. A walk around reveals quite a bit of this heritage, including a cobbler, an apothecary (two words of such auditory delight that I mourn their decline in use), the old town hall and the pub, The Ed(inburgh). You may remember The Ed from a recent post. They have been pulling beers there continuously since 1850; stopping there at the end of the day after working the local quarries would have been a welcome thing.
Mitcham may just offer me and my family something that is a bit tricky to find in modern Adelaide, which is some genuine affiliation with local community and place. We are a bit of a drive-through city as I have written about before. Low in density, high in vehicle kilometres. It makes it tricky and frankly not that enticing to try to live locally, support what is around you, get to know your neighbours, that type of thing. Mitcham may offer it. With a locally badged kindergarten and primary school, a High St in name if not completely in nature, local pub, restaurant and coffee shop all of which you would not think of taking the car to, I think I could warm to this place as part of my identity.
Behind Mitcham is Brown Hill as I mentioned before. Here is the view from the top, a city called Adelaide.
Along with my little patch of Mitcham and Mitcham itself, Adelaide is my home. In the words of celebrity chef Simon Bryant who chooses to remain here “Its a stupid little town, but I love it”. I share Adelaide with around a million other people. I’m wisened enough to realise that but a small portion of them are either as aware of the issue of climate change as I am or as driven to finding solutions. That’s why the solutions need to be largely centralised. If I am relying on every Adelaidean turning the lights off when they leave the room, we are doomed, because they will not. The energy behind the light needs to be clean, and the user decides to turn it off or leave it on (preferably, turn it off). Yet in terms of humanity, Adelaide must be one of the most wieldy places on earth. A million people living next to each other, and little else around. A handful of major investments, and the task of decarbonising our electricity is pretty much done. It would send a great signal.
For our last stop, I’ll use one of my favourite images to remind us of something we seem to be in denial of; we live on a planet, one with a thin layer of atmosphere upon which we completely and utterly depend. That atmosphere is global commons. The focus of global efforts to preserve this atmospheric commons in a state that protects us seems to be the creation of a market solution, with carbon dioxide as the commodity.
Now, we can probably do it. But unlike my block of land in Mitcham, in terms of boxes to tick for something that is ill suited to markets and commodities, the atmosphere has it all. As Ian Wills tells us in Economics and the Environment, maintenance of a stable climate is:
- A high cost market. Information is decidedly impefect, and feedback to the market about our pollution is subject to significant time lags and blurred by the underlying chaos of normal weather
- A non-excludable good. You cannot prevent benefits accruing to those who choose not to pay to help out, so the incentive for free-riding is ever present. You can’t (or at least, it is proving to be very difficult), exclude people from using the resource badly i.e. polluting and undoing the efforts of others
- It’s a common pool. Like kids all sucking from the same milkshake, the incentive is huge for everybody to simply consume the carbon budget as quickly as they can
- The main answer to the above problems is to deploy the coercive power of Governments. This is then subject to the pressure of interest groups who will seek to water down the outcome by providing bad information. In Australia, the issue of carbon pricing unseated both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader who had demonstrated the clearest intent to do this.
So these markets we are trying to create are not the solution. They are, and will only ever be, an enabler of solutions. Unless the solutions are big enough, easy enough and cheap enough to help contain the costs of running that market, there will only ever be incentive to game the carbon market system to high heaven, or just ignore it altogether, and fail to achieve lasting change.
The biggest single climate change solution is nuclear power technology. The impediments to nuclear in Australia run far deeper than price signals. Just as Eithiopia has responsibility to its own people and the global community to take the pain of reforming its feudal and destructive land systems, we and other nations have an urgent responsibility to dismantle pointless and hypocritical impediments to nuclear power and get on with the job of deploying it to lower our emissions, fast. If we fail to do so, we will fail to retain a hospitable climate. Failure means the end of home as we know it. The marginal peasant farmer will be the first to suffer. But the middle class of Mitcham will not be immune; that will just be a matter of time.
A house in a suburb. A suburb in a city. A city on a planet. The only one we have. Home is everything.
Time to fight for it.
Thanks to the many great writers and thinkers who influenced this post(1)The issue of preconditions for sustained prosperity is explored in a great book by Bernstein called The Birth of Plenty. Wonderful that is right up to a glib and ridiculous dismissal of the potential for ecological pressures like climate change to forcibly inhibit growth, but nobody’s perfect