July 19, 2014

Australia's loss

For two days I have been trying to write about the carbon price having been finally, splutteringly laid to rest by Tony Abbott's government on Thursday. Everyone knew this was inevitable, but big bluster Clive Palmer and his new PUPs in the Senate had chosen to prolong the agony.

In a masterful weird-how-things-turn-out moment, Friday morning dawned with the appalling news that a passenger jet had been blown out of the sky over troubled eastern Ukraine; the second major disaster for Malaysia Airlines in four and a half months. There were 27 Australians among the 298 who lost their lives. And so it was that those of us mightily disheartened by this nation's misguided carbon emissions 'policy' were spared any more self-congratulatory smirking by the LNP's worst culprits.

Airliners exploding out of the sky is the stuff of nightmares for most people whose every waking moment is not dedicated to their basic survival. Within a few hours of the tragedy in Ukraine, Israel began a ground attack on Gaza. As the Palestinian death toll surpasses the number of dead in MH17 – while Israeli losses can be counted on half a hand – this has rapidly become a dreadful week for supposedly intelligent humankind. We exercise the same degree of recklessness towards each other as we do towards our planetary habitat.

I intended describing the demise of the carbon price in national and global headlines, which would have gone something like this…

The carbon tax is dead. Wrong way, Australia – go back   Katherine Murphy in The Guardian.

'A perfect storm of stupidity†': scientists react to news the carbon tax is gone   Simon Thomsen in Business Insider Australia

Australia tax repeal is big blow to fight against emissions   Michelle Innis et al in The New York Times

Australia becomes the first country in the world to go backwards on climate policy   Charlotte Meredith in The Huffington Post UK

But I found I could only bring myself to read those articles reflecting my own dismay, of course. In the end, if I could cite just one source, I would choose my old friend First Dog on the Moon, who usually makes me laugh, and did so on this occasion. But sometimes its incisive commentary cuts to the bone with pathos*.
An entire nation randomly driven hither and thither on the whims of petty resentments and unresolved rage… Direct Action isn't a policy position, it's the rules of a late night drinking game at Greg Hunt's place. It's not about economics or the environment, this is nothing more than gleeful glittering, skittering revenge.
To cheer you up in a week of mourning, here's the daft quote of the day award for Thursday. It went to Barnaby Joyce (is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?*), who, unfortunately for Australia's farming community, is Agriculture Minister:
Look at the weather today, look at the way you are dressed, no one thinks it is too hot.
† Professor Roger Jones, Research Fellow at Victoria University's Victoria Institute of Strategic Economic Studies
** with thanks to Shaun Micallef's Mad as Hell
This post was last edited on 20 July 2014

July 17, 2014

Trailers for sale

Another road trip into the Outback is planned, booked and only a month away. At one point we'll be travelling for a day from Birdsville to Innamincka over stoney, rutted tracks in a remote area, and both travellers' chat rooms and locals suggest that carrying a couple of spares might be prescient. And so we toyed with the idea of towing a small trailer. This would mean less cramming of stuff in the back of the car and the box-on-top, and we could fit in a few more just-in-case items such as sleeping bags and rugs, a second jerry can and more emergency food supplies.

An interesting aspect of living in another country – in another hemisphere even – is that you come around to entertaining ideas you never ever would have thought possible in another life. As if it weren't enough to waltz around in a 4x4, with box on top, we were now considering buying a trailer, and looking like real Aussie Outbackers.

My friend conducted thorough research on the subject; I would have expected nothing less. And one Saturday morning we headed off into areas of south Brisbane I've only heard of in traffic reports. I do quite like the name Browns Plains.

I wanted our first trailer stop – just off the Pacific Motorway beyond the Gateway merge – to be in Shailer Park, which would have been kind of neat. But it wasn't; it was in Underwood. Here we probably learned the most, from a chap whose advice I felt we could trust. We could have an off-road version, with chunkier wheels and a more robust ('seven leaf shackle') suspension, possibly with shockies (shock absorbers). There was a lengthy discussion about wheel size: they couldn't be as big as the car's because that would make the trailer too high. The two have to be horizontally aligned.

Brakes were another big topic. A trailer has to have its own braking system if it weighs more than 750 kg. Ours wouldn't, but it seemed like a good idea in case we have to stop suddenly, to avoid a kangaroo for instance. Then, disc or drum? The first and second dealers – Mr Honest-as-the-Day-is-Long and Mr Also-Trustworthy-But-Just-a-Tad-Smarmy – didn't seem to agree on that. Discs would not suffer as much from dust, an important factor on dirt roads and sandy tracks. And mechanical or electrical?

Finish was important, but a bit of a no-brainer. Driving off road, where stones fly, necessitates galvanised steel (immersed in molten zinc). Expensive, but not optional, in my friend's opinion.

We only wanted a small box trailer, similar to the one at the bottom of the page but with a lift-up lid (with gas struts), hinged offside; a flat lid – not a box lid – that would double up as a table top; and without a tie bar round the edge. Waterproofing was an issue, and security. The last man on our list, whose trailers weren't custom made but assembled from standard-size panels, and who obviously preferred not to have to fit a lid, tried to convince us neither was possible and a trailer tarp would do the trick. A bit faffy, we concluded: and we wanted a lid.

In terms of size, we started small (6 feet by 4 feet); went a tad smaller (5 x 4); then much bigger (7 x 5), which would be more useful for moving stuff; but then came back to where we started. Mr Trailer Tarp tried to persuade us to have deeper side panels than we wanted; and a non-off-road model; in fact, several specs that would have no doubt made his life easier but were not what we were fairly sure we wanted, even at this stage.

There were lots of other details to consider, but you must be glazing over by now, even if you've got this far. Briefly, did we want a drop-down tailgate; jerry can holders on the outsides in front of the guards; what length of draw bar (the longer the draw bar, the easier to reverse the trailer); which kind of tow bar; which kind of coupling; would we like a vertically mounted spare wheel for the trailer (carrying the spare spare wheel for the car) mounted on the draw bar; a swing-up Jockey wheel…? I could go on.

Unfortunately, we were unable to absorb the shock of the price (top) of a custom-made single axle off-road trailer. On the way home we discussed all we'd learned and our many options, and marvelled – as we often do – at the price of life in our adopted country. By the cold light of next day we had each come to the same conclusion: that it would be madness to pay so much for something that would sit in the garage most weeks of the year. Yes, it would be useful to have extra storage on our trip, but pulling a trailer would use more diesel, make reversing and parking more challenging, and limit our freedom to climb extremely steep slopes and negotiate narrow gulleys. For the same amount, I could probably arrange next year's holiday.

I'm thinking New Zealand's South Island, touring, but probably not with one of these.

July 15, 2014

Protecting the Bush

When recounting Australian experiences, I glibly and liberally throw in the term 'Bush'. It's a term used in other countries, but to me, it says 'Australia'. It basically means any sparsely populated area, no matter what the vegetation cover; but it also includes towns well away from large metropolitan centres, including quite large mining centres in remote areas, such as Mount Isa, which I recently rejected from our next Outback itinerary on account of its size; but that's by the by. The Bush has its own culture – music, communal activities, clothes, vocabulary – and millions of words have been written about its unforgiving landscape and climate; hardship and knuckling down; beasties; and the stuff of folklore that has no rational explanation. Despite deeply disturbing films about hapless travellers that fall prey to bushmen too long without civilisation, the Bush has a draw I succumbed to the moment I left Sydney the first time.

The Bush begins five minutes after you leave the big city, and extends for hours of driving until it becomes the Outback. I use capital letters out of profound respect for concepts and realities that never fail to excite me. I have no idea where the Bush becomes the Outback: some regions are both, but it's of no import. The Bush can be green and lush or dry as a bone. You can travel for days and not see much sign of life at all. Mad axemen in the movies excepted, fellow travellers will always help out should you get into trouble.
Mt Coot-tha near Brisbane
Outback near Windorah
Millions of Australians go bushwalking, which is more like hiking than a stroll in the park. Such a pastime isn't to be treated lightly: don't wear flip flops – unless you want to look a complete prat; always overestimate the water you'll need to carry with you, especially in summer, and take alternative-weather gear, insect repellent, sunscreen, hat and a basic first aid kit. But I digress (again).

Eons ago, on my first visit to this continent, I visited Simpsons Gap in The West Macs (the West MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs). I observed a creek and its statuesque Ghost Gums: there was an intense blue sky and the buzz of heat and insects; and I appreciated for the first of many times that I was gazing at an iconic landscape. With time, you recognise distinctive bird calls and typical vegetation, although I am a slow learner when it comes to Aussie trees: if in doubt, assume it's a gum.
There's a rough-and-readiness to the Bush: it's not always pretty and people often take advantage. They grub up trees to create new pasture; they clear it and divert its precious water channels to build new houses; they disturb its tranquility and wildlife by constructing recreational experiences such as zip lines and off-roading trails; they crisscross it with roads and pipelines; and they obliterate it completely by excavating massive pits for mineral extraction. Australia is such a vast country, you see: there's room for everyone to do what they want… I believe the thinking goes.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a public forum at the Botanic Gardens at Mt Coot-tha. Hosted by Protect the Bush Alliance, it posed the question: do species surveys make a difference to conservation? This question is pertinent because:
Queensland is grappling with a major extinction crisis, exacerbated by unchecked resource extraction in parts [of the state] that are largely out of sight and out of mind. By conducting flora and fauna surveys, the Protect the Bush Alliance aims to highlight the cumulative impact of these threat to Queensland's unique plants and animals.
The Alliance's member organisations range from Birds Queensland to Bat Conservation & Rescue; from the National Parks Association of Queensland to The Wilderness Society; from Householders' Options to Protect the Environment to the Lock the Gate Alliance; from the Northern Queensland Conservation Council to the Friends of Stradbroke Island; and from Bimblebox Nature Refuge to The Grass Routes (which strives to conserve bush corridors such as stock routes).

The PTBA conducts flora and fauna surveys in areas of high conservation value, with a view to that information being used to make the case for protection and conservation of those areas. Findings are submitted to the Department of Environment's Wildnet database, but are also made available to the public, landholders, community groups, conservationists, lawyers and those making submissions to government. The Alliance carried out 15 surveys in the last 12 months, mostly in areas at threat from mining, but also tourism, recreational and infrastructure development. This involved 3000 hours of work during which 15 threatened species were identified across 12 properties. From the range of skills offered by Alliance members, PTBA has to coordinate volunteer specialists such as botanists, ornithologists, zoologists and field-based ecologists as well as dedicated and experienced birders and wildlife watchers.
Australian Bustard at Bimblebox
The question asked at the forum may have an obvious answer, but it's slightly more complicated than that. In May, PTBA conducted surveys on properties that will be affected by plans for the recently declared Galilee Basin State Development Area, which includes two rail corridors serving the proposed large mines. An SDA does not require an Environmental Impact Statement, so there is less opportunity for interested parties to assess development or register objections. Both the Federal and State governments' preference for a 'one-stop' approval process has the same effect. Landowners must negotiate with the resource companies directly and they may lack detailed information about the biodiversity of their region, which also has ramifications for offsetting management planning. There are few if any cumulative impacts studies across larger areas, of bioregion corridors, for example. And there is a conflict of interest for a state government favouring development but lacking a higher level of accountability in Canberra.

Targeted species surveys have a role to play in the provision of adequate baseline studies prior to Environmental Impact Statements; contributing to supplementary or new EISs when necessary; providing information for all interested stakeholders in developments; supplying data for expert witness reports; investigating new acquisitions for proposed National Parks and other protected areas; adding depth to scientific study; identifying and monitoring at-risk species. Once information has been collected, it needs to be shared with collaborating organisations, added to data banks and used for lobbying developers and ministers. Surveys need funds and decision makers need open minds.

Find out more about the good works of Protect the Bush Alliance at http://ptba.org.au.
Bimble Box trees

July 8, 2014

'Solar has won'

So claimed the headline of an op-ed in The Guardian (Aus) yesterday*. It was written by Giles Parkinson, founder and editor of Reneweconomy.com.au, which claims to be Australia's leading website on clean technology and climate change issues, and former deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review. He's also a columnist at The Australian, so hopefully he can change a few fusty mindsets there.

Parkinson says:
As early as 2018, solar could be economically viable to power big cities. By 2040 over half of all electricity may be generated in the same place it's used. Centralised coal-fired power is over.
His piece describes a rare event the previous week that didn't make many mainstream media headlines: 'a negative [electricity] pricing event' in the middle of the day.

Such a thing usually happens in the middle of the night, when demand is low and coal-fired generator operators don't want to turn them off so they pay others to take electricity off their hands. But during the day, when everyone is awake and busy using something or other electrical at work or at home, and factory and farm machines are whirring, that is when electricity generators normally make a killing. Last week there was glorious sunshine in Queensland but it wasn't hot enough for air conditioning. The people in the 350,000 buildings in the state fitted with solar panels were the ones smiling about the returns on their investments. They may no longer be getting a solar rebate as of 1 July, thanks to the shortsighted, fossil-fool leaders of the Sunshine State, but in a short space of time they have turned the workings of the wholesale electricity business upside down.

There's more and more noise about the inevitable ascendency of renewable sources of energy, and especially solar, this being the sunniest continent on earth. Last night's Four Corners ably illustrated the extent to which the Australian Federal Government's energy policy is misaligned with that of the world's leading economies. President Obama may be thwarted by Republican dinosaurs in Congress, but individual states are just getting on with the job of reducing their carbon emissions in a warming world.

California has decreed that a third of its energy will come from renewables by 2020, which has stimulated huge investment and innovation. Energy Commissioner David Hochschild claims the state has the world's largest wind, geothermal, solar thermal and solar PV projects in the world as a result. California employs 50,000 people in the solar power industry alone. And the state's largest manufacturing enterprise is developing electric cars with a range of just over 500 kilometres on a single charge, and the lithium ion batteries to bring down their cost. (I read an article yesterday about a man who road-tripped more than 1000 miles from San Francisco to LA and back in a Tesla Model S, stopping to charge it six times**.) I wonder how many people were watching Four Corners in Geelong†.

California has also been experiencing severe drought, higher than normal temperatures as well as earlier and more serious wildfires. The drought has been linked to climate changes in the Arctic.

Next door in Nevada, we were treated to the extraordinary sight of the Crescent Dunes solar facility near Tonopah, a 'mechanical forest' of steel and mirrors and black tower containing molten salt, which will store the sun's energy as heat until power is needed, like at night. In this case – and even more surprising than the 'heliostats' – power will be supplied to the neon capital of America, Las Vegas. I wonder if Tony Abbott, who still believes solar power can't be used at night, was watching Four Corners; or the inhabitants of slowly dying Outback towns who believe the only hope of employment for their children is if giant coal pits are excavated in once proud cattle country.

There were examples of progress via renewables in Australia, too. There was the Orange City Bowling Club in New South Wales, where an astute treasurer, based on his experience at home, persuaded the Club to invest in solar panels and so reduced their annual electricity bill by more than a third. The panels will have paid for themselves in three years. There was Infigen Energy's wind turbines near Canberra that can already supply half the capital's homes. These are the very turbines, of course, that Australia's national Treasurer finds so 'offensive' as he drives to work.

There was also the story of an Aussie entrepreneur who moved to California seven years ago to take advantage of the American state's enthusiasm for innovation in the renewables business to set up a business selling rooftop solar panels online, using aerial photography and satellite imagery. Today his company generates hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue and employs more than 500 people in three continents.

Then we stepped inside the huge power station at Tarong, 180 kilometres northwest of Brisbane that has the capacity to consume 7 million tonnes of coal and 28,000 megalitres of water a year. It is run by Stanwell, a power company owned by the state; but Stanwell has been losing money in recent years and had to shut down two of its four generators, with the loss of 160 jobs.

Queenslanders have been using less power. As electricity prices went up and up – doubling in five years – they learned to use less, and demand fell. They also put solar panels on their roofs and received, until this month, ever decreasing subsidies for feeding excess power back into the grid. Although these people were the sensible ones, they were criticised for adding to the power costs of non-solar homes. It turns out, in fact, that solar feed-in charges are almost negligible in the sums, and that by far the largest proportion of price increases is attributable to over-investment in renewing the infrastructure (poles and wires) of the grid. Power companies got their forecasts wrong and consumers have been paying through the nose ever since.

In the programme, the Prime Minister's fossil-fuel ideology and his Environment Minister's feeble excuses seemed woefully out of touch with the many contributors to this renewables debate. The question whether Australia has the motivation or the wherewithal to play catch-up seemed rather pitiful compared to California's bold strides into its climatically challenged future. This country is already way, way behind as far as action on climate is concerned, despite the best efforts of some of its more enlightened citizens. The Abbott government and state governments such as Queensland's dig their heels in daily in support of coal and gas investors: while elsewhere in the world fresh thinking and innovative design is driving an industrial transformation. The renewables revolution will be labour intensive, and the economic re-evaluation that goes with it will provide a much-needed shake-up of a tired old system that has created vast inequality and put the planet at grave risk. What's there not to like?

Just in case some Aussies remain to be convinced, take a look at the table below. Surely you don't want to be lounging at the bottom of the top ten with an old rival?
** http://www.wired.com/2014/07/tesla-supercharger-road-trip/
a city in Victoria where Ford factories are scheduled for closure

July 4, 2014

Hello? It's plastic free July

It's been relatively calm of late in this frequently windy city. Until last weekend, that is. The wind blew hard from Friday onwards. (It's a good job Little Tree is so bendy.) On Saturday we decided to check out the breeze on the Bay. The locals were well hunkered down, feathers were ruffled, and a Brahminy Kite seemed aerodynamically challenged by the sharper gusts.
It was a day when newspaper pages could easily be whipped out of the hands of older readers relaxing on the Esplanade, and paper serviettes and plastic carrier bags were half way down the beach before picnickers even realised they'd lost them.

I litter-picked, and from one small curve of beach near the boat ramp I filled a small plastic bag with another bag, miscellaneous plastic bits and a large tangle of fishing line with its ensnared detritus. Is it really that difficult for fisher people to take their unwanted gear home with them? And don't get me started on the thoughtless dog walkers whose big brown bounder disturbed at least half of the 17 resting pellies in their favourite corner of Wynnum. Carrying a folded lead in your hand is not quite the same as restraining your mutt, is it? But that's the rule, stupid.

I try to minimise my use of plastic and have done for years. I keep a folding shopping bag in my handbag and two in the back of the car. I place most fruit and veg directly into my basket rather than in small plastic bags. In markets, I empty fruit and veg straight into my shopping bag and return the plastic container to the stallholders for reuse. I buy produce that is sold loose rather than bound in clingfilm on polystyrene trays.

In the build-up to plastic free July, I surveyed my shopping haunts around Brisbane to see if I could find the produce I buy regularly completely plastic free. The item that proved the most difficult was baby tomatoes. The only place I've found them – in small plastic bags rather than hard plastic containers with lids – is at a farmers' market. But I do need to buy them more frequently than the second and fourth Saturdays in the month.

Takeaways present a greater challenge. They don't have to be in plastic trays, however. Cardboard trays and paper bags work just as well for some foods, and as doggie bags. Take a reusable coffee cup along to your favourite cafe for a morning fix. The discount they'll give you will soon cover the cost of the cup. These are pretty smart: https://jococups.com/shop-glass-cups/. And paper bags are fine for books and clothes and toys and hardware and makeup and… well… most stuff actually. Politely decline any plastic option and use your own bag.
Superfluous plastic packaging is even more evident with non-food items. Do tea bags need a tray, a foil bag and a box? And supermarkets are worse than little shops. If you buy your lunch in a metro store, the chances are your banana will have its own tray and plastic film. Online shopping has significantly added to the problem of plastic waste. We've all received extremely small items buried in a mass of polystyrene pellets in an awfully large box, haven't we?

Plastic Bag Free Queensland claim this state is the most littered on the Australian mainland. Their aim is to rid Queensland of non-compostable plastic bags. They also want reverse vending machines for collecting bottles and cans. Ban the Bag in Queensland want a complete ban on single-use bags. I think they need to get together.

You want disturbing statistics about plastic bags? I can give you some. Australians use 3.92 billion a year: that's more than 10 million new bags every day. About 3.75 billion bags (20,700 tonnes of plastic) are dumped in landfill across the continent every year: Australians dump 7,150 recyclable plastic bags into landfill every minute: that's 429,000 bags an hour. Australians are the second-biggest producers of waste per head in the world, 690 kg for each of them going to landfill a year. If you would like some more gobsmackingly bad bag figures, visit http://www.cleanup.org.au/au/Campaigns/plastic-bag-facts.html.

We all know what plastic can do to wildlife. We've seen the heartbreaking pictures of the stomach contents of seabirds that starved to death; turtles' growth retarded by six-pack rings; and even animals the size of seals strangled or suffocated by carrier bags. Animals on land and sea consume small plastic particles that have been broken down and then attracted toxic chemicals. Those animals are eaten by others higher up the food chain, and ultimately by humans. For more info, visit the Plastic Pollution Coalition's website at http://plasticpollutioncoalition.org/learn/basic-concepts/.

So, every time you go shopping, to the beach, camping, bushwalking, fishing, sailing, picnicking, fun running, or whatever, think about plastic. Notice how much there is around you and around whatever you pick up. And then do something about your wasteful, throwaway world.

If you're a First Dog on the Moon fan, you may have seen this. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to laugh or cry.

                                                                               Chris Jordan
This post was last edited on 16 July 2014

June 30, 2014

Old and New South Wales 2: Sydney

The following weekend it was Sydney's turn; a trip prompted by reading about Milonga at the Opera House and my friend working in the city for three days beforehand. I flew down from Brisbane on Friday arvo.

When you've visited a place many times and you have hundreds of pictures already, the emphasis has to be on the detail – colour, architecture, strange juxtaposition, a new angle – rather than the familiar.

On Saturday morning we headed off to The Rocks for a quiet breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien: most Sydneysiders were watching the Socceroos lose 2-3 to the Netherlands in their first group match of the World Cup. It was grey and a bit rainy.
Part of the city's public art programme, the bird cages suspended above Angel Place (off George Street) commemorate the native birds displaced by development. Forgotten Songs is supposed to include their calls, but I couldn't hear anything. Perhaps rain stopped play.

The Bridge, the House and the Botanic Gardens always provide photographic inspiration. And by then the sun was shining, although it was chilly enough for a hot chocolate at Guylian. Milonga, a tango-inspired Sadler's Wells London production choreographed by Belgian-Moroccan Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, involved a cast of ten tango dancers from Buenos Aires, two contemporary dancers and a tango band of five musicians. The choreography was intriguing and complex, and the footwork so deft the dancers became a mesmeric blur.
Dragon's Blood Tree
Bunya Pine
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo
After tea in Lion Gate Lodge, we continued out of the Gardens to Woolloomooloo and Kings Cross on our way to Darlinghurst, where I'd decided we should eat Italian. We didn't like the look of the place when we got there, however, and moved on to Surry Hills, to Mille Vini in Crown Street for an aperitif and then Bodega Tapas Bar in Commonwealth Street. With a certain feeling of déjà vu, we got caught up with Swans fans departing Sydney Cricket Ground, happy having beaten Adelaide. Bodega didn't disappoint. You can't book if you're fewer than 5 ('leaving our tables of 4 or less free for walk-ins'), so get there at 5.30 for opening at 6, and observe Australians' queuing (and parking) habits while you wait.
The 'inner-city village' of Paddington is often on our agenda. If you've never wandered around the Victorian backstreets north of Oxford Street, you've missed a trick. On Sunday, we got off the bus we'd caught on Elizabeth Street just beyond Paddington's town hall and turned up William Street, which has small, individual shops to tempt you with high-end chocolates, Marant or Kenzo designs and rather bizarre French fashion jewellery. To give you an idea: I loved a grey cashmere sweater with random blue stars. It wasn't even a label I was familiar with yet it would have set me back almost as much as it did to buy two flights for our next destination, Melbourne at the end of July.

We wandered almost as far as Woollahra in the east, back in the opposite direction to Five Ways for a coffee, before lunch at the London Hotel, on William Street once more.
 And, finally, this, right on Oxford Street. Can't believe I'd never noticed it before.
This post was last edited on 1 July 2014