The heritage deficit


Like Australia’s burgeoning current account deficit, Australia’s heritage deficit is growing by the hour. The heritage deficit is the difference between the value of our current heritage assets and their projected value in ten year’s time. And like the current account deficit, the heritage deficit is largely a consequence of the Howard Government’s liking for the status quo and short-term fulfillment.

In both qualitative and quantitative terms, e.g. biodiversity and fresh water, the heritage deficit represents expenditure of our natural inheritance. While this cash-advance does enable consumption today, it borrows heavily against the future wellbeing of Australian families; more heavily than I think the Howard Government appreciates. For want of the discipline necessary to conserve national assets and forgo purchasing power today, we may very well be squandering a unique advantage Australia has in the twenty-first century. The benefits of carefree heritage spending may well be publicly endorsed but the course we’re on is unrecognizable to most Australians.

Darling River -  Wentworth, NSW

Darling River – Wentworth, NSW

Extinction hangs over 1500 Australian native plants and animals, mostly within the almost 3000 ecosystems and ecological communities that are listed as threatened. In the last several decades twenty two Australian mammals, which represent a third of the world’s recent extinctions, have perished. If the quiet abuse of our heritage continues to accelerate, many more ecological communities will disappear in the next few decades.

Is this worth our attention? Yes, this reality is not just the loss of heritage assets that can never be replaced; it is also a morbid indicator of the direction in which we are heading. The loss of genetic biodiversity and ecological dynamics is tangible as well as aesthetic. We may not appreciate or fully utilize the product of billions of years of evolution today but it is certain that we will over the next one hundred years. Our understanding and use of life on earth has wholly enabled our prosperity, even though we understand just a fraction of what we have and how it all works. It stands to reason that the remaining mysteries and problems of the world will be further enlightened by further understanding of the material world in years to come. The benefits of a greater understanding of genetic diversity for medical technology alone should be warrant enough for protecting our heritage.

The broader problem though is not the aesthetic costs or loss of bioknowledge. It’s the pressure that continued erosion of the world’s natural heritage will place upon nations and economies, and cyclically, the plight of the world’s poorest people. The legitimate claims of the poorest third of humanity, some two billion people who live on less than two US dollars a day, for clean air, clean water, energy and a predictable climate will simply have to be met.

By spending down Australia’s natural inheritance and, in the case of climate change, leading the world to do the same, we are frittering away an historic investment. Without appreciating its current aesthetic or future utilitarian worth, such spending may seem like a good idea. But as any financial advisor will tell the beneficiary of an inheritance, maintaining your asset is the very least you should be doing. If you’re smart, you’ll invest your resources so that your assets appreciate.

The Howard Government has not seen fit to maintain Australia’s heritage assets, let alone prudently capitalize upon them. Efforts have been squarely focused upon old fashioned exploitation of agricultural and mineral resources to establish an economic platform to enable debt fueled consumption and property investment. One problem with this approach is that booms are not cost free and are relatively short lived, as demonstrated by the yawning current account deficit and rising interest rates. The longer term problem is that policies that spend down natural assets are at odds with the most obvious challenges of the next century; world poverty, technological development and climate change.

Developments in Asia and the Middle East, particularly those driven by poverty, water scarcity, mega-city development and climate change, will be dominant factors shaping Australia’s prospects. Again, it is difficult to see how running a heritage deficit prepares Australia for anything like the barely imaginable change we saw last century. By turning a blind eye to our heritage deficit and the behavior that drives it, how can we expect developing countries, whose already limited options will be further restricted by their demanding populations and their resource constraints, to act in our mutual interest?

It is arguably negligent that on the back of thirteen years of uninterrupted growth and the creation of much paper wealth that we are passing up an economically rare opportunity to invest in our future. Could we be better placed or more able to afford such an investment? When we can most afford it, when science can clearly visualize both ecological constraints and technological dividends, we should at the very least be reining in the heritage deficit. It may be tough to prioritize the current and future value of our heritage assets but is it really too much to admit that keeping our options open, by investing and not spending, is a conservative thing to do?

Is it responsible? Yes. Older, bigger and wealthier countries spend a lot of time and effort planning and acting in their very long-term interests. As an Australian working in the US, the greatest novelty in talking to members of the US Congress, Senators and their staff about energy and environmental issues is their focus on the distant future (thirty to sixty years). Many staffers are entirely occupied with long-term strategic planning for social health, energy and biotechnology. I have little doubt the same attention to the long-term being paid in the US capitol building is also being paid in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

In stark contrast to most wealthy nations, Australia’s heritage assets are substantial. The philosophies and policies of nations without such recourses, especially those far wealthier, should not be our guide to managing or regarding our recourses.

Being in the right is a fine advantage. The British walked out of India at the behest of a righteous moral case. If Australia is to compete this century with India’s and China’s technical, resource and populous strengths, then upholding the cause of human dignity by acting in the interests of the world’s poor is an honest advantage and earned capacity of a developed state. We’d do well to grasp it. Australia, if any country does, surely has the capacity to minimize the risks to our status in order to mitigate pressures on the world’s poor, and indirectly ourselves, brought on by deteriorating world heritage assets.

The Howard Government’s approach, in this period of economic boom, of resisting the development of renewable energy while heavily subsidizing the methods of the last century, contrasts poorly with the very claims we are making against countries like China and India, e.g. that Australia can’t afford to act to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions but does demand that the developing world makes real sacrifices as a condition of our taking the lead on climate change.

Actual investment in our heritage would be via research and development of bio, info and nano science and technology but again, the long-term value of such endeavour is largely dependant upon the integrity of our heritage assets. So the heritage deficit has to be reined in as a priority. Heritage investment in the form of deficit cancellation and technology ventures would not penalize economic development any more than maintaining more familiar national assets such as universities or infrastructure.

The Howard Government employs a combination of two methods to resist reform and maintain its agenda of traditional development. The first is the construction of a national perspective on certain issues from which their policy position is positively regarded by swinging voters. A clear example is the babies overboard issue during the 2001 election. A national perspective of immigrants was constructed (that they’d kill their own children) so that swinging voters would be more positively disposed to the Government’s policy.

The second is to insulate from the public mind the aspect of an issue that has greatest potential to sway swinging voters. The relevance of this aspect, to which the Government may be vulnerable, is comprehensively insulated to lower its perceived importance. A clear example is the Government’s management of the Iraq war. A politically damming aspect of the Iraq War is the morally questionable demise of thousands of innocent Iraqi families. To insulate this potentially troubling aspect the moral victory over an evil dictator was presented loudly (implying that the greater moral good was served) which had the effect of insulating and thus isolating a potentially damaging political catalyst.

Both national perspective setting and catalyst isolation have been used to negate political objection to the broader and intertwined issue of the heritage deficit. An example is the Howard Government’s handling of climate change. As a recognised threat to our security, heritage and prosperity, the fact that Australia has the highest emission per capita on earth and is not acting to reduce its emissions should be of major concern. Nationally, though focused upon marginal electorates, a (misleading) perspective has been constructed that doubts greenhouse science. The potential catalyst of threats to agriculture, health and heritage has been smothered by (convoluted and unsubstantiated) arguments and threats about short-term economic impacts. By effectively obscuring politically salient aspects of issues, all other criticisms become politically irrelevant. Indeed, strident critique in general and of less politically relevant aspects, only serves to enforce polarization in the Government’s favour.

This strategy cannot be defeated by a general front-on attack; the vulnerabilities are specifically defended (catalyst isolation) to deflect general attacks. The creation of aligned national perspectives is a significant public relations construction project, one employing conservative voices from across the community. Challenging these perspectives will take as much coordinated effort as the conservatives have expended to establish and maintain favourable national perspectives. The Howard Government’s strategy is to obscure any offense to Australian values that furthering their agenda may cause. Accounting for facts and highlighting citizen’s interests tends to fall on deaf ears if the Government’s case seems to gel with the current idealized notion of the Australian way of life.

Failing to invest in our brilliant heritage commits to oblivion species and opportunities unique to Australia. It will take at least several years to rein in the heritage deficit. Standing in the way of this responsible reform are the short-term needs and objectives of the Howard Government. To overcome their political strategies, their very strategies need to be attacked. By exposing political catalysts, no matter how they are insulated, and by offering a national perspective beneficial to all Australians, critics and opposition parties can gain traction on issues where the Howard Government enjoys pivotal support.

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