Quantity or quality?
The problem with relying on growth for economic well-being is that it is not a sustainable strategy. Infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet. We are already past the limits of this strategy, with the planetâ€™s worst environmental decline in its 4.5Â Â billion year history.
When will the advocates of growth be satisfied? When Armidale is 50,000 strong, or not until 100,000? When it stretches from Uralla to Guyra? Will this be well-planned or malignant growth? Is it ethical to encourage population growth when so much of the world is actively striving to contain population growth? Should we restrict immigration to those who most desperately need it â€“ people fleeing from war zones, oppressive regimes and rising sea levels? Shouldnâ€™t we redirect immigrants to rural towns suffering population declines?
As the recent film The Economics of Happiness suggests, growth doesnâ€™t necessarily mean better quality of life. It may be the opposite when the streets are filled with traffic and the air with woodsmoke; when your morning walk, which used to be through quiet roads and paddocks, is now through suburbia; when your once-scenic skyline is now dominated by a telecommunications tower, such as that proposed for Apex Park. This latter will further reduce the amount of public land in Armidale (after recent Council decisions to sell-off public land), and further reduce bushland and habitat, near the developments which were permitted on an endangered ecological community at the top of Erskine Street. Presuming this is a fair price for progress is one reason why Australia has the second highest rate of extinctions in a world which has never experienced such rapid destruction of its biodiversity. Now we are faced with subdivision of habitat of the endangered koala below the Rockvale Estate, where illegal clearing has already occurred; is it really progress if we can no longer show our children koalas? We need to decide what is sacred to us.
We need to determine what size town we want, so we can plan it well, so we have good public transport and plenty of parks for children. We need some level of certainty, so if you buy in a semiâ€“rural area it will remain so. As with Burley-Griffinâ€™s plan for Canberra, we need to protect our bushland, hilltops and public spaces, rather than let them be locked up in private hands. We need to reduce our waste, so we donâ€™t need a tip next to a World Heritage area. We need to evaluate our strengths, and see whether growth will really deliver what it promises.
We have a great community now, where you can go out, meet new people, but always see someone you know, as opposed to big cities where almost everyone is a stranger. We have wonderful scenery and some great art galleries, with NERAM now hosting a thought-provoking exhibition about the ugliness of many rural towns. We have some great work occurring as the creek â€“ our most important natural asset â€“ is finally being rehabilitated with natives and sculpture near our bike-paths. We regularly host world-class music, theatre and film events. We have some wise, articulate Aboriginal Elders and some talented emerging youth leaders, as shown by the NAIDOC Week speeches at Booloominbah. As well as some strong womenâ€™s organisations, we have the award-winning Iron Man Welders, the Menâ€™s Shed, and many dedicated social workers and health personnel.
Education is our main employer. We have great educational facilities â€“ a university, colleges, a TAFE and a variety of schools â€“ state and private, Steiner and Montessori. People are attracted to bring up their children here because of the quality of life which a medium-sized, rural yet multicultural town offers. We need to take care not to impact on this aesthetic; the universityâ€™s unique rural setting (a major selling point) is increasingly threatened as stark, litter-strewn housing creeps towards it.
Any new industrialisation needs to be carefully planned so it doesnâ€™t result in more trucks through town. As with new housing, it should be well-serviced by public transport and amenities. It should be in a leafy setting, and well-integrated like Byron Bayâ€™s innovative Art and Industrial Zone. It should be industry that will last long into the future, producing environmentally-sustainable products rather than unnecessary junk. It should be locally-owned so the profits stay in the community, unlike the multinationals and franchises we have fast-tracked until now, with their ugly architecture, monopolies and, sometimes, poor employment practices and environmentally-unethical pasts.Â The community-owned wind farm, with its extensive consultation, is a better model, as are our cafÃ©s, shops and coops dedicated to slow food and high quality, ethical products. We have a new Community Garden, with other projects to follow. There are excellent markets, sustainable housing and gardening tours, a revitalised PCYC and a good skate park.
A solar panel factory could bring the costs of solar panels down â€“ could we cover and solar heat one of our town pools all year round now the uni pool is less accessible? Can we better support the locals working on an electric vehicle? More organic farms would employ people long-term, enabling the university colleges and town cafÃ©s to afford food that is healthy and comes from a system that sequesters rather than bleeds carbon. These are industries for the long-term, as opposed to coal seam gas which may benefit a few for a couple of decades while damaging farmland and water tables for centuries. We could lead and profit from sustainable industries and education or we could fall behind by sticking to a business-as-usual, growth-for-growthâ€™s-sake model.
We could also build on our City of the Arts reputation. We should reinstate the Arts Officer position which was bringing in more money in grants than her job cost. We could follow the lead of Walcha with its sculpture and Nambucca with its mosaics. Culture is not just vital to quality of life, it is an important rural employer and tourist attraction. Studies indicate that active investment and strategic support of the arts in regional areas can result in the return of the investment three times over. Job creation is a major aspect of this, with arts generating up to 22 per cent of total non-farm employment in some rural areas.
In short, we need to plan not for the short-term but for hundreds of years ahead, for a post-Peak Oil world.
By Dr Marty Branagan
Coordinator – Master of Environmental Advocacy degree, University of New England