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Nature & Society - June 2001

The Forum's Journal


Predicting the future has always been a tricky business; the famous oracle at Delphi couched her predictions in ambiguous terms open to various interpretations. The unlucky prophetess Cassandra was doomed to disbelief despite her predictions being quite clear and specific. As far as legend goes, no one ever turned around after the event and apologised for not believing her. Even more unfairly, her name came down to us as a prophet of doom, still with the connotation that the speaker is taking an unnecessarily gloomy view of the situation, never mind that Cassandra was always proved correct. It’s just that there was a lot to be gloomy about, especially if you were a Trojan during that famous war.

Prediction is still a risky business, as meteorologists know full well, although many other people don’t quite seem to have grasped that fact. But at least these days we have rather more tools at our disposal than the Delphic oracle had. Thus analysists of the petroleum industry can study what happened to oil fields at various stages of exploitation, and they can estimate the possibilities of new discoveries. Demographers can study population trends, business people can study consumption patterns and so on. But in the end the predictions depend to a certain extent on the predictor’s character and predilections. So anyone with a knowledge of geology must know that fossil fuels are finite and that although there are vast reserves of coal left, the end of oil and fossil gas must be coming fairly soon. If you are an incurable optimist like Mr Micawber, you will just believe that something will turn up. If you are a technological optimist you will believe that technology will provide an answer.

Some technological optimists, such as Amory Lovins, certainly have grounds for their optimism. Lovins may well be right to think that the hypercar will enable us all to keep driving for almost ever. But he does not think that we can go on using oil and gas in the way we do now. He is certain that we can and must learn to do more with less, that energy efficiency is of overwhelming importance, and that buildings need to be built so that they require very little heating or cooling to make them comfortable.

An opposite view of the future is that expressed by Robert Waldrop in ‘Life during the great decline’ on his energyresources website. Yes, buildings are weather proofed and insulated, but there are blackouts for eight hours per day. Petrol costs $ (US) 50 per gallon, on top of paying someone else $20 for their ration coupon, so people walk everywhere. If they travel much of a distance to visit they stay a week. (Remember the months long visits in Jane Austen’s books.) They produce most of their own food; transnational agricultural corporations along with other big businesses have ‘gone belly up’. War has ceased because it requires too much fuel, air travel likewise and crime has ceased because it is pointless. The former Northern countries have ceased to attract migrants because people realise it is more comfortable in warmer climes, so what migration there is, is in the reverse direction.

Whichever view of the future you take, energy efficiency measures are the undoubted win-win situation for everyone. It seems so strange that they are resisted by …, by whom? They would benefit industry, they would benefit the environment, they would provide meaningful employment, and they would make us all more comfortable, whatever happens.

There are other examples of such win-win situations which have been resisted, indeed fought bitterly, and which unfortunately seem to have to be learnt over again in every new case.
The establishment of marine reserves has been opposed by fishermen in many areas, yet when reserves are established fisherfolk find that in areas near reserves their catch goes up, the reserve has allowed recruitment of the stock. Declining fisheries can be saved by appropriate reserve systems and restrictions that permit fish populations to recover, as long as measures are put in place early enough. Leave it too long and recovery may be impossible.

Restoring tree cover on farmland can actually increase productivity as it provides shelter, reduces erosion and helps to combat salinity. Yet the push for land clearing goes on in other areas, despite the certainty of land degradation.

Studies by David Lindenmayer, assisted by Earthwatch teams, in the Eucalyptus regnans (Mountain Ash) forests of the central highlands of Victoria have shown that there too, it is possible to have a win-win situation that will produce timber while protecting the forest and wildlife, by not clearfelling. The old forests are sequestering unexpectedly large amounts of carbon in the fallen logs on the forest floor, and they are providing homes for many species. Timber can be harvested but clear felling would be out.

Even in viticulture Australian researchers have shown that by halving the amount of water applied, the vines produce less foliage, the grapes get more sun, the wine is better and the possibility of salinisation is reduced.

So win-win solutions are possible. We can help to protect the environment, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and get desirable outcomes for humans at the same time. Maybe you do not have to believe Cassandra, but you do have to accept that her predictions could come true. You have to accept that leaving the wooden horse outside the city walls is a safer option.

As the late and sadly-missed Douglas Adams said, “The best way of predicting the future is to invent it.” Our task is to invent a future which helps to keep our beautiful world beautiful, and populated by the myriad of species which should be able to share it with us.

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Forthcoming NSF meetings

18 July - 7.45 pm, Heysen Street, Weston, ACT

Communicating environmental issues through exhibits in New Zealand - Robin Garnett

Robin recently returned to Questacon after three years working at The Science Centre and Manawatu Museum, Palmerston North, New Zealand, where she specialised in biological exhibits.

15 August - 7.45 pm - Manning Clark Lecture Theatre 3, ANU

People, Planet and Debt: New Economics - Challenging Globalisation

Michael Rowbotham

Michael Rowbotham has had a varied career as a teacher, an editor and the manager of a wine bar. He is a lecturer and writer on economic and monetary reform, on globalisation and international debt. He has given lecture tours in Canada and South Africa and will be touring Australia and New Zealand in August. Michael's tour has been arranged by Economic Reform Australia.


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Winds of change

John Schooneveldt

The Australian National Biocentre (ANB) started life as a project of NSF a few years ago and is now beginning to develop a momentum of its own.

At a joint meeting of the NSF Management Committee and the ANB Board on 1 June, it was agreed to set up a working group to look at the possibility of using the Weston site as a temporary home for the ANB and look for ways the ANB and NSF might work more closely together. It was felt that if we could make a start to implementing the ANB on a leased, temporary site, it might help in our negotiations for a permanent home and improve the quality of the ANB’s eventual design and its displays.
The two organisations need to remain separate legal entities because NSF has a large (and potentially very large) member-ship base and tax deductibility status, neither of which are options for the ANB. The ANB’s links with the commercial sector and its need to earn some of its income through charging for services preclude these options.

One possibility the working group has been asked to consider is to change the name of this Journal to the “Journal of the ANB and NSF”. Another is to change the name of NSF to “Friends of the ANB”. The working group will also look at projects that can best remain in NSF or might be better transferred to ANB or vice versa.

Ultimately, any substantial changes are matters for the NSF and ANB membership to decide at a special or annual general meeting, but in the meantime there might be other ideas or suggestions out there that could be put to the working group. If you have views on these matters you could contact either John Harris or myself through the NSF office.

The task of the working group is to develop a plan for closer working relations between the two organisations and make recommendations to members. There are currently 12 members of the ANB and around 150 members of NSF.

Comments and suggestions welcome.

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The Earth Charter

The Earth Charter is a new international document articulating an ethical framework for a more sustainable way of living. The Earth Charter contains values and principles that can be used to guide the behaviour of individuals, organisations and governments in ways that promote a more environmentally sustainable, equitable and peaceful world. But why is this document necessary, where did it come from, and of what practical use is it?

Why an Earth Charter?
Over the last 30 years, there has been growing recognition that environmental integrity is a prerequisite for both national and global security. It is increasingly apparent that our environmental, social and economic concerns and problems are interdependent and can no longer be considered in isolation. Rather, they require integrated solutions based on co-operative action. This in turn demands a shared values system and ethical framework on which to base a common agenda.

There are at least two main factors that influence our value systems in relation to the environment. First, there are values that derive from acceptance of scientifically-based knowledge about the extent to which human well-being is dependent on maintaining a healthy Biosphere with its clean air, fresh water, productive terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems, and fertile soils. Thus we can value a healthy Biosphere out of self-interest, based on the knowledge we possess about how it functions and is being perturbed by human activity.

The second influential factor is a sense of universal responsibility for the global consequences of one’s actions. The meaning of ‘universal responsibility’ is best understood by asking the following question: which is the community for which you feel morally responsible? If we accept the broadest and most inclusive definition of the community for which we are morally responsible, then we have accepted a sense of responsibility for the well-being of those who exist outside our immediate surrounds, extending even to other life forms and future generations.

The origins of the Earth Charter
The origin of the Earth Charter can be traced to the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Until then, the UN agenda for world security emphasized human rights, peace and equitable socioeconomic development. The Stockholm conference identified ecological security as the foundation of global security. In the mid-1980’s the UN World Commission on Environment and Development introduced the term sustainable development, calling for development that is environmentally and socially responsible. Their report (Our Common Future, 1987, Oxford University Press) argued for the creation of a ‘universal declaration’ in the form of a ‘new Charter’ that would ‘consolidate and extend relevant legal principles’ creating ‘new norms…needed to maintain livelihoods and life on our shared planet’ and to ‘guide state behavior in the transition to sustainable development’. An attempt was made by certain national governments at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to draft and have the UN General Assembly endorse what by then had become known as an Earth Charter. However the time was not right.

In the wake of Rio, a new Earth Charter initiative was launched by a group of international leaders who had been instrumental in the 1972 Summit, the Brundtland Commision and Rio: Rudd Lubbers (Prime Minister of Netherlands and now UN High Commissioner for Refugess); Maurice Strong; Mikhail Gorbachev; Jim McNeil (Sec. Gen. for WCED) and others. A decision was made to draft a charter as a non-government document, a peoples’ Charter, that would serve as an ethical framework that could be used by individuals, communities, organisations and governments. In addition, the document would be taken back for UN endorsement at the Rio+10 world summit in 2002.

The following process was established. An Earth Charter Commission was established chaired by Strong and Gorbachev. A Secretariat was formed based at the Earth Council, Costa Rica, now co-located with the UN University for Peace. A drafting committee was created headed by Prof Steven Rockefeller of Middlebury College, USA (the drafting committee consisted of a small core group and a larger circle of around 50 people). National committees were established in around 45 countries.

A unique drafting process was established whereby the document evolved over a period of time through drafts being circulated around the world for comment and critique by national committees, regional fora, and various expert groups. For example, a national Earth Charter forum was held in Canberra in February 1999 (see A final version was agreed to at a meeting of the EC Commission in Paris during March 2000, and the document publicly released at an event hosted by Queen Beatrice at The Hague Peace Palace.

A number of key sources influenced the document including: international law instruments and declarations; proclamations of the seven UN summits held during the 1990s on environment, development, population, habitat, children, and human rights; community concerns and sustainability ‘best practice’ uncovered in the consultation process; universal principles from the major faith traditions; and scientific understanding of the requirements of environmental protection and biological conservation.

The Earth Charter has a major but not exclusive focus on humanity’s relations with the environment. It has been constructed with the understanding that humanity’s environmental, economic, social political and cultural challenges are interrelated and can only be effectively addressed with integrated global solutions.

Structure of the Earth Charter
The Charter is structured as a layered document with:

  • a preamble that presents the global situation we face, together with the challenges and the opportunities
  • 16 major principles and 61 supporting principles organised around four main themes, (1) Care for the community of life, (2) Ecological integrity, (3) Social and economic justice, and (4) Democracy, non-violence and peace. The supporting principles ‘unpack’ the meaning of the main principles, and indicate strategies for their implementation
  • a concluding section entitled ‘The Way Forward’ which stresses the need for new partnerships between civil society, business and government.

How is an Earth Charter useful?
The Earth Charter has important roles to play in (1) motivating commitment to action, (2) education, (3) the development of environment and sustainable development law, and (4) accountability and governance. Individuals and organisations are being asked to formally endorse the Earth Charter. This can be done on-line at In terms of education, the Earth Charter can be used as a framework to help students clarify, evaluate and express their values systems in relation to environmental and social concerns and responsibilities. It functions as a map for curriculum development that explores issues of globalisation and sustainable development. The Earth Charter is an ethical framework that can be used to promote the sustainability agenda across all sectors of Australian society. For example, the Earth Charter is being used in Australia to help establish a National Council for Sustainable Development – an initiative recommended by the Rio Earth Summit’s Agenda 21. Recently, we hosted at the ANU a meeting of a multi-stakeholder steering committee that has formed to establish an Australian NCSD.

The full text of the Earth Charter can be found at

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Sustainability and petroleum supply

Report by Jenny Wanless

Brian Fleay, a former water engineer from Western Australia, has spent his retirement studying petroleum supplies. He has visited Canberra and spoken to NSF meetings on three earlier occasions; at our April meeting he brought us up to date information, especially with regard to the current energy crises in the United States.

In his first lecture years ago, Brian introduced us to the concept of energy profit ratio. This describes the amount of energy obtained from a resource per unit of energy needed to extract it. Petroleum has been by far the best source of energy on this ratio; apart from natural (fossil) gas nothing else comes close to it. For ease of extraction and versatility of use petroleum stands alone. But as oil fields pass their peak of production the remaining oil costs ever more energy and money to extract. In those earlier talks Brian showed us the graphs which illustrate the growth and then decline of oil fields; all known fields fit these curves. This time Brian Fleay concentrated on the problems facing the USA, which is suffering a triple whammy of declining oil production, problems in the electricity industry and insufficient supply of natural gas, giving a taste of an energy poor future.

George Bush has no alternative but to oversee a reduction in natural gas and electric power consumption in the USA. The oil fields of the lower 48 states peaked in 1970. The only hope for increased domestic extraction in the USA is to open up the Alaskan fields, including the ones that have been off limits as they are under wildlife reserves. It is Bush’s policy to open these fields.

Natural gas consumption in the US has been growing at three per cent per annum, largely driven by massive expansion of gas turbines to meet the growing summer peak electricity demand. Other major uses for natural gas are winter heating and the needs of industry and commerce. Natural gas is also feedstock for the manufacture of ammonia for use in nitrogenous fertilisers.

The North American gas fields are peaking now. the first natural gas province to do so, and will be unable to meet the expected consumption in 2005. Again there is the possibility of developing Alaskan and Canadian Arctic discoveries, but these will be hugely expensive and take nearly a decade to bring into production. In the meantime there is competition between the demand for ever more electricity in summer, and possibly life saving heating in winter.

Deregulation in the electricity industry has exacerbated the problems. Uncertainty about deregulation resulted in cut-backs in investment in power stations and transmission lines. Deregulation was supposed to bring lower prices and the price of electricity was capped at 6.5c/kWh during the transition yet the spot market in California reached $1.50/kWh, with an average of 30c/kWh last year. The price of natural gas quadrupled. As a result utilities have accumulated losses in the billions of dollars and have no credit left with which to buy power. Unexpected outcomes have included Kaiser Aluminium shutting down a smelter because they can make more money on-selling electricity (purchased under a long term contract) than they can by selling aluminium.

In California energy efficiency measures are on the agenda: Governor Gray has proposed reducing electricity consumption by seven per cent through energy efficiency.

Deregulation of publicly owned electric power utilities in Australia has followed similar lines to that in California. Here too, the deregulated industry is losing its generation reserve margin, so that supply shortages are likely at times of peak load. The occasional blackout or brownout may only be a very annoying inconvenience for some customers, but much of our modern living demands absolute certainty of supply. A millisecond interruption shuts computer systems and life support machines down.

In both the USA and Australia there is a possibility of opening up new fields, but these tend to be smaller fields further away, and deeper either under the Rockies, or further out to sea in Australia’s case. There will be technical difficulties in developing them, and the retrieval and distribution of the gas will cost a great deal more than in the existing fields. Construction of the infrastructure will take years. And they will only put off the day of reckoning for a short time.

Listening to Brian Fleay’s analysis it is blindingly obvious that we cannot go on using oil and gas willy-nilly, but it appears that governments and many people in the industry and the general community are blind to the obvious.

For anyone wanting more information on the current and future situation, Brian Fleay provided a list of web sites (see below).


Climaxing Oil: How Will Transport Adapt?
By Brian J Fleay approx 60pp.

Theme paper to Chartered Institute of Transport National Symposium 1998

Hubbert Center Newsletter
School of Mines, University of Colorado

A quarterly lobbying Newsletter since 1996
3/00 Issue has an article by Brian J. Fleay on Australia

Matthew Simmons & Co, Houston Texas USA
Merchant Banker and Financial Consultant
to upstream oil industry

Click Research

Good picture of the triple energy crisis emerging in the USA in oil, natural gas and electric power

Based in California
Articles by BJ Fleay and others

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A good start

Jenny Wanless

Why would an audience of geriatrics want to attend a talk on the importance of breast feeding infants? Because it is an important topic, with ramifications for the physical and mental health of mother and baby, with long lasting implications for the health status and costs of health services for the entire community. It is also a study in the marketing of products to vulnerable sectors of the community both within developed and developing countries, with surprising parallels to the tobacco industry. Yes, really!

Julie Smith, the speaker at our May meeting, is a persuasive advocate for the importance of breast feeding. She pointed out that a woman’s decision to breast feed is not made in isolation. It depends on the attitudes of society, including family, friends, work mates, health professionals and politicians too. So it is a social decision.

There is growing evidence to support the intuitive knowledge that breast milk is indeed the ideal food for infants. It confers immunity against many childhood illnesses, it promotes brain development and the act of suckling helps to form good facial structure. Its effects last into later life with decreased susceptibility to many adult disorders. By its strong influence on bonding between mother and child it can promote the mental health of both. It is also good for the physical health of the mother.

Julie’s talk was entitled Mothers’ Milk and Markets and it focused in part on the research conducted by formula manufacturers and on their complete understanding and manipulation of their market; with detrimental effects which have been particularly obvious in developing countries.

Unfortunately breast milk does not feature in the GDP, whereas baby formulas do. Attempts to value breast milk have various flaws. However, did you know it is estimated that around 33 million litres of breast milk are produced in Australia each year? How do you value this? In countries where there are breast milk banks, they pay $50 per litre. The Norwegians have a policy that every baby should have breast milk for the first three months, and milk banks ensure this is possible. Milk banks also provide breast milk for feeding the very sick and very elderly who need this excellent source of nourishment.

Julie Smith is one of the contributors to our September internet conference. Log on and you may be surprised at what you learn.

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The right amount

Alan AtKisson

Alan AtKisson is the author of Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World. He is president of AtKisson and Associates Inc., a consulting firm focused on accelerating sustainable development. He is also a Senior Fellow with the independent policy institute, Redefining Progress, and formerly its program and executive director. Mr AtKisson is a member of the board of directors of the Centre for a New American Dream.

My friend in Sweden has two towels. Actually she has three, but the third she uses for travel. When the bathroom towels are dirty she washes them. When they wear out she buys two more — and very good ones, so they'll last a long time.

"Why do I need more than two?" she says. "Dar ar lagom."

What she says in Swedish does not quite translate to "This is enough". The word "lagom" — pronounced melodically, the "la" in a falling tone, the "gom" (rhymes with home) a shorter syllable that's right back up where the "la" started — means something like, "exactly the right amount."

What a delight to learn this word! When it comes to thinking about responses to over-consumption and consumerism, we are stuck, in English, with far less pleasing words. "Enough" sounds to most American ears as though it had the word "barely" just in front of it. For some reason, "enough" never sounds like ... enough. "Balance" sounds difficult; I'm always losing mine. "Sufficiency" carries the whiff of technical economic jargon. Even "simplicity", the current fad-word-of-the-moment in some marketing circles, tends to appeal only to those folk with either a moral commitment or a serious case of overwhelm.

We need a concept for thinking about how much, in terms of stuff, is the right amount — and the Swedes have given us a word for it.

The concept of "lagom" can be applied to everything from cake to carbon dioxide emissions. What is "lagom" for chocolate cake? For me, it is usually a little bit more than "enough". But what's "lagom" for CO2? Only as much as the ecosystems of the earth can reabsorb, and no more. "Lagom" allows for more than enough — but it still sets limits.

What if our society were organised around the concept of "lagom"? Not that Sweden is organised that way; although my friend is hardly an extremist, she is a more enthusiastic lagom-ist than many of her fellow Swedes (imagine the Vikings taking only "lagom" when they plundered!). And most Americans have trouble just pronouncing it. But I have developed a small fascination with this word, because it has an attractive quality that "enough", "sufficient" or even "simple" often lack.

Most people in the world do not want enough. They want more. They certainly want more than the bare minimum, and research suggests they want more than those around them. This desire for more seems to be deeply wired in the human organism. We developed over a millennia in hostile environments, both natural and social. To have more than we need has always been our first defence against the vagaries of an uncertain future. Hoarding is the first act of those who believe themselves to be in the path of a storm (or a marauding army of plundering Vikings for that matter).

So while there will always be those of us who love the idea of "enough-ness" and "voluntary simplicity", it seems likely that such concepts will never quite be ... well ... enough to transform the masses of humanity (or the marauding army of corporations vying to fill their houses with stuff, in a kind of reverse-plunder operation).

But it does seem possible to promote a sensible Swedish sense of "lagom" worldwide — if we can find other good words for it — because it speaks more to what people actually want. Let's admit that it's very nice to have good shoes. No one can be faulted for wanting them. But does a person really need fifteen pairs? No. But is one pair enough? Perhaps not. "Lagom" acknowledges that people have varying needs at different times.

They want nice things, and comfort, and security. They want more than the bare minimum and they might even need it. If their desire for more than enough is accepted, even supported, perhaps they might be willing to consider how much is too much.

Clearly, here in America, we are far beyond the limits of "lagom". Once in a while I make a point of wandering into a Costco or a Sam's Club — huge retail warehouses full of consumer goods, on sale cheap. The spaces are large enough to house a submarine assembly plant. You can buy everything from taco shells to trampolines to model wooden boats, by the crate. The shopping carts are as big as a small car. Walking around the aisles of one of these stores allows me to indulge in several radically different feelings: raw consumer lust, great moral outrage, and aching environmental angst.

But when I took my same Swedish friend to see one of these places, her response was more practical. "I suppose people can save quite a lot of money here," she noted. "And it's much better to buy some things in large quantities" (not towels). "But perhaps it's just very tempting to take too much in such a place." Nobody really needs too much, and in fact, most people don't really want it. But nobody wants too little. Perhaps our vision for a sustainable world should include not just enough for all but "lagom" for all, with fewer temptations to take too much.

And while I could write a great deal more about this lovely new addition to my vocabulary, perhaps this page, too, is "lagom".


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Global Greens meet in Canberra

report by G�sta Lyng�

They came from 70 countries from all over the world, to Canberra at Easter 2001: Greens in government, Greens in parliament, Greens in the middle of political life and many others who aspired to help create a better society, but who in the countries they lived in could not work politically or had not yet started to do so. There were 700 participants in this first-ever conference of the Global Greens.

Some extraordinary experiences were related. Ingrid Betancourt, a member of the Colombian parliament has to have ten body guards while in her country, two Chinese delegates have to keep a very low profile at home, while the big New Zealand parliamentary team has the influence that balance of power can give. Many European Green parties are in a similar situation and some of those parties have opted for taking part in coalition governments. This necessarily means some compromises which may not be well understood by the grassroots in the party. All these experiences and problems were shared and discussed in some 20 parallel working groups and in the huge plenary hall of the National Convention Centre.

The acceptance of a common Global Greens Charter was a great achievement by excellent facilitators aided by everybody’s positive desire to resolve differences of opinions and to transcend different cultural boundaries. I had the challenging task of being one of the three Australian delegates on the charter issues, which involved first getting consensus opinions from the Australian group and then presenting these at the plenary session.

An example of a controversial issue was the view of most western countries that respect for sexual diversity is fundamental to social equity; however, in many countries of the world homo-sexuality is a crime and it was difficult for the Greens from those countries to accept tolerance in that case.
Another instance where the attempt to achieve consensus failed was regarding pacifism. Strict adherence to the ideology of nonviolence would not condone the use of weapons in UN directed activities. However, the European Greens were not willing to agree to such a degree of non-violence and the final version of the Charter has a modified formulation.

Agreement was easier to reach on environ-mental issues and strong policies could be accepted on climate change issues, biodiversity, water conservation and forest preservation.
The final wording of the Global Greens Charter is on the web site:
After a long day of debate the Saturday dinner was hosted by Senator Bob Brown in the big hall of Parliament House. There might never before have been such a joyous event in that solemn place. Certainly, a dinner for 750 people wearing non-formal clothing followed by line dancing among the tables to a youth band would be a rare sight.

Most of the future cooperation between Green parties in different countries will be through a network structure where the Internet will be used to exchange experiences, ideas and plans. The Australian Greens are part of the Asia-Pacific network, one of the four major networks. For efficient, frequent and energy saving communication e-mail is the way to go. Even so, there is a particular value in face-to-face meetings and the Africans have invited the Global Greens for the next Global Greens Conference.

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