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You are here: Home Resources Nature and Society, Journal of the Frank Fenner Foundation 2002 Nature & Society - October/November 2002

Nature & Society - October/November 2002

The Forum's Journal

The newspapers seem to serve up alternating offerings from those who believe that humanity is doomed if we do not restrict our growth and learn to live sustainably, and those who believe that any restriction on growth is impractical, unaffordable and disastrous. What the latter group does not seem to realise is that the opposite of sustainability is unsustainability. By definition if something is unsustainable it will come to an end. So really the argument is about what is sustainable. Can growth be sustainable?

In strictly physical terms, in growth of absolute size of an organism (or a population), in consumption of resources, in damage to an environment, all growth must eventually cease. A living organism will die, resources will run out, an environment will die. It is probably true that life would continue in that environment, but it would be a different kind of life and from our point of view a lot less pleasant although the cockroaches and rats might not agree with us.

Growth that is sustainable could occur in more intangible things such as social capital, kindness, good health, knowledge and even wisdom. At present these desirable qualities and goals seem to be getting more remote. The daily news is full of disasters, threats of wars, sale of community assets and downgrading of many things on which, until recently, Australians prided themselves. Wisdom seems to be in particularly short supply worldwide.

There is some hope in that more people are noticing these deleterious trends and saying so. There is hope in that some people are actually doing something about them. The movement to ethical investment and the inception of community banks show that there is the possibility of a move away from the domination of market forces at any cost. The actions of some local and state governments in both Australia and the USA, to take greenhouse abatement seriously, could drag reluctant national governments in that direction, They might also recognise the growth potential in doing so.

Some business executives are realising that the way forward involves care of the environment and the nurturing of employees. Their efforts appear puny beside the corporate malpractice and greed of recent days, but that big business fraud may prove to have been a turning point. It has sickened and annoyed so many people that reform may happen and the public may turn to more worthy businesses.
Hubbard Foods, a New Zealand producer of breakfast cereals, is showing that business does not have to be ruthless to make money. The founder works an occasional shift on the factory floor and is on first name terms with all employees. He shares ten per cent of the profits amongst the staff, apportioning it according to length of service, not according to the status of the job. He shuns advertising as unethical. He pays medium, not top, wages and keeps the operation labour intensive so he can employ more staff. Most of the workforce are Samoan and the factory is located in an area of high unemployment with concomitant social problems. Yet the firm makes money with a satisfactory bottom line in all three areas, financial, social and environmental. Other companies in other countries also work in this way.

Another rather surprising area of hope for a sustainable future is that people around the world are having fewer children., Indeed the birthrate per woman is gong down so much that many countries, not only Australia, are worrying about a looming population crash. They should not worry. If the world’s population peaks at about seven and a half billion in 2050 and then declines to five billion in 2150 (New Scientist 20 July 02) surely this will be good news. It would give whatever other species that have survived human depredation a chance to reclaim parts of the earth - just as the decline caused by the Black Death gave Europe’s forests a breather in the 14th century. In another century there will be very little of the natural world left unless we come to our senses in the very near future. Even if we do that, if the human population keeps growing our sheer numbers will put too much strain on soils, water and biodiversity for much to survive. A smaller population can only be to the good, and far better that it comes about voluntarily than through war, famine and pestilence.

Once humans discover that happiness does not depend on ever larger disposable incomes and ever more consumption of energy and material goods, there will be time for people to decide that a few more children would be a good idea. But for the world’s sake each human must cut their ecological footprint back to some small fraction of that current in the USA or Australia now, even with a reduced population.

It does not take a great deal to provide happiness. One fascinating example in Australia is the development of a few community sheds. It has been said that every man needs a shed, but sometimes, where many retired or unemployed men have been transplanted, they have no shed. The men have no occupation, no purpose, and feel frustrated, useless and depressed. In some places, somehow a community shed has grown up. Men can get together and work together; with whatever tools and skills they possess, they make things, repair things.
In one area the men have taken on helping the local youth who also felt alienated. High school boys in danger of dropping out have been invited to join the shed, where they work with the men and learn skills and the joy of accomplishment. The men learn that the youths are valuable individuals, the boys gain a sense of competence and worth, as well as respect for the older men. Developments such as this could have an enormous impact on the drop out rate, the crime rate, the suicide rate. This is a way in which communities could grow, and the stock of satisfaction and happiness in the population could increase. This is an example of sustainable growth.

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Forthcoming NSF meetings

16 Oct.

Report on the World Summit for Sustainable Development.

Gösta Lyngå, Janis Birkeland, Brendan Mackey, Rolf von Behrens attended WSSD on behalf of NSF. Some of them will report at this meeting.

20 Nov.

Barry Neame of the Printing Industries Union of Australia, on modern developments in the industry.

The printing industry has a long history of environmental pollution, with high energy usage, much wastage and the release of toxic chemicals. How is the industry changing to achieve better practices?

Dec - Jan. No meetings

19 Feb.

Murray May - Unpacking aviation travel futures - a global/local take on the issue

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Good Grub

The book from the conference is out.

From a biased perspective (after all I had something to do with its production) I must say it looks good and is chock full of interesting information.

If you are interested in what you eat, or your health, or in what food production and distribution do to the planet, or in the ethics or social justice of the same, then this is the book for you. Yes, it is educational, but not dull. It would even make a good present for someone who is concerned about any of the topics above.

Just a little disclaimer. Bryan and I, Sue and Gabrielle and several other people went through the text with combs of various fineness (we are sensitive to and ashamed of mistakes and misprints). Despite our combs some errors slipped through. For these we apologise, and recommend the book none the less.

Conference participants get a free copy. For others the price is $20, but NSF members pay only $18 and multiple orders (10 or more copies) are $15 per book. Postage is extra.Good Grub is Good Value.

Jenny Wanless

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Population Trends

The replacement reproduction rate is considered to be 2.1 children per woman. Italian women are now producing 1.2 children on average and Spain, Greece, the Czech Republic, Russia and Armenia are about the same. Over sixty countries have fertility rates below 2.1 children, including much of the Caribbean, Japan, Korea and China, with Thailand, Sri Lanka and Iran likely to reach that level soon.

Almost all countries have fertility rates heading down. It does not matter whether they are rich or poor, socialist or capitalist, Muslim or Catholic.

New Scientist 20 July 02

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Smart Thinkers

Abel and Betty, two New Caledonian crows, are hard at work in Oxford challenging the idea that it was either their big brains or adaptable hands that enabled early humans to become toolmakers.

Back home on the New Caledonian islands of Grand Terre and Maré crows habitually use a range of tools and also make them. They not only use sticks to poke or fish insects out of cracks, but they carefully cut stepped probes out of pandanus leaves, and fashion hooks from vines and twigs. They adjust their grip on their tools, depending on whether they need force or precision to achieve their goal.

Human researchers at Oxford have tested their feathered subjects in a range of novel situations and in turn the birds have challenged the humans. Betty and Abel are insatiably curious and investigate every possible crevice, including electrical sockets, fire alarms and wiring cases. In experiments, if the humans think they have allowed the birds two possible courses of action the crows often find another way.
Once, when Abel carried away the wire hook that had been provided in the birds’ tool rack, Betty made her own one. She wedged one end of a straight piece of wire in a crack, then pulled on the other end until she had fashioned a hook suitable for use in the task she was engaged on.

New Scientist 17 Aug 02

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Annual General Meetings - NSF & ANB

There was an excellent turn out to the combined AGMs for NSF and the Biocentre (ANB).

In his annual report for NSF John Schoonevelt described the past year as one of consolidation, with much effort going into the Biocentre project. With Sue Gilbert as Office Manager there was a focus on improving NSF’s administrative and financial systems. The major projects for the year were the internet Food conference originated and coordinated by Bryan Furnass, and two major consultancy reports produced by the Sustainability Science Team. A new project is an investigation into the possibility of nominating the ACT as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

The new NSF management committee is as follows:

  • Coordinators: Stephen Boyden,David Eastburn
  • Treasurer: John Schooneveldt
  • Secretary: Jenny Wanless

Committee members:
Rory Eames, Kala Perkins, Alice Thompson, Alice Kingsland & Dierk von Behrens

Moss Cass reported on progress on the Australian National Biocentre. Several exciting possibilities are opening up Enough money has been obtained to allow a feasibility study to go ahead. Until that has been completed the ACT Government has agreed to make no decisions on the use of our preferred site at Kingston, between the Kingston Foreshores Development and the Jerrabombera Wetlands. Canberra Nature Park is interested in cooperating with ANB over the management of the wetlands, if we get the site. The ANB board is also having discussions with other possible neighbours, the Railway and ACTEW.

The ANB board elected at the meeting consists of:


  • President: Moss Cass
  • Vice President: John Harris & Valerie Brown
  • Treasurer: John Schooneveldt
  • Assistant Treasurer: David Eastburn
  • Secretary: Petar Johnson

  • Committee members:
    Gerry Gillespie, Rob Gourlay, Brendan Mackey, Wendy Rainbird, John Reed, Jacqui Russell & Derek Wrigley

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    Some WSSD Issues

    Gösta Lyngå

    The World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg was a disappointment in many respects. The back pedalling of USA and Australia on alternative energy and the Kyoto protocol, the lack of cooperation between the industrial countries, sometimes called “The North” and the developing world, “The South”, all that has been reported in the papers.

    However, at the same time there was another summit at a different venue. Almost symbolically, the governments met in the North of Johannesburg, under the crystal chandeliers of Sandton’s hyper-elegant halls, while Civil Society met South of the city at NASREC, a converted sports arena.

    At Sandton well trained diplomats, politicians and high ranking public servants delivered speeches in which words served the purpose of hiding content. At NASREC the 20,000 delegates of NGOs discussed problems and solutions, established networks and planned for the future. Dozens of meetings were going on simultaneously.

    Between the two venues was Ubuntu, the place where people could meet, watch cultural shows, take part in discussions and visit handicraft shops and restaurants. There was the world’s largest movable structure, an enormous tent with exhibitions from different countries and of different environmental activities. At Ubuntu you could have coffee and a piece of cake or a meal, all cooked using solar heating.
    Of all the topics addressed during those weeks, I will highlight three that had positive outcomes.

    The OECD panel member pointed out the importance of prices including the environmental costs of production of an item. Verification of labelling is also important.

    A delegate from Bangladesh made the observation that there is a difference in length of use of products in the North and in the South: much longer usage times in the South make for more sustainability.

    TCO is a blue collar union with 1.2 million members in Sweden; for 10 years they have tested and labelled computers, computer screens and now also mobile phones. The labelling is voluntary and market driven. Users’ demands are the guide. The TCO95 standards address four Es:
    Ecology: chemical emissions, including manufacturing; also deals with recycling options.
    Energy: low use of energy; availability of stand-down mode.Emissions: in particular the emissions from Cathode Ray Tubes.
    Ergonomics: occupational health safety; screens should not be tiring to look at.

    TCO now has contracts with 120 computer equipment manufacturers, all the big ones. The contracts concern displays, system units, keyboards, laptops, printing machines, photocopiers and now also mobile phones. The latter are one of the biggest experiments ever made on human brain cells: 60% of the radiation goes into the user’s head and it is unknown whether and when brain tumours are caused. Manufacturers are not sure if they should bother changing things; one might have thought that the precautionary principle should be applied here.

    Secretary General visiting
    A few thousand people in the Nelson Mandela hall stood up, clapped and cheered when Kofi Annan visited NASREC and the Civil Society.
    Kofi Annan said that NGOs have always been part of the UN; Rio was a turning point when the civil society became much more deeply involved. He feels affinity with NGOs in regretting the slow pace, in particular when those countries with power to do the maximum actually do the minimum. He said: You must challenge “business as usual”. Your initiatives hold the keys to the future because in civil society things get done.

    The question was put to Kofi Annan: Should the UN not change its governance and give veto in the Security Council to those states that have the highest population rather than those with the strongest economy? He answered that he has indeed worked hard with reform but reform is a process, not an event. Member states agree that the Security Council should be reformed but have not yet agreed how. It is for them to decide.
    He added: we now have priority actions:
    • war on poverty;
    • halve the number of people without access to clean water by 2015; and
    • fight AIDS.

    So: How did it all go?
    At NASREC a lot of contacts were made, dreams were dreamt and plans were made.
    At Sandton some type I outcomes agreed between all governments were recorded and altogether several useful type II partnerships were made, poverty reduction was planned and environmental reforms discussed, but in most cases without setting clear targets.

    The Kyoto protocol will now be signed by Canada, China and Russia, so the magic 55% has been achieved and USA and Australia have been made irrelevant.

    Altogether, the outcome in the form of the summit statement is better than it could have been but also a lot worse than it could have been. It certainly falls short of what is needed to change the disastrous global trends for society as well as for the environment.

    The outcomes from the Civil Society meetings were most encouraging. That is where the hope for the future lies.

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    Why are developers' houses so old fashioned?

    Derek Wrigley

    If you think that is provocative consider this: If you compare the enormous strides in car design which use the results of research into wind resistance, fuel, economy, exhaust pollution etc, with the way in which houses are being built today you will realise that the housing industry is living in the Dark Ages with its head in the sand.

    Cars now have much less wind resistance, have more efficient combustion in order to reduce their consumption of fuel, and exhaust pollution has been significantly reduced-in short, the vehicle industry has (somewhat belatedly) woken up to the fact that our fossil fuels are now running in Europe, as are compressed air and electric cars, even solar energised cars and we will all see increasing numbers of these in the next few years.

    Developers and builders, however, seem to be unaware of research work that shows there are better ways of building, but, other than concrete slabs on the ground very little attempt has been made by the housing industry to use CSIRO research findings.

    Over the last 50 years a lot of research has been carried out to take advantage of free solar heat and psychologically beneficial sunshine to warm our houses in winter, take advantage of internal mass, use natural ventilation methods instead of reliance on air conditioners as well as the use of internal skylights to reduce the need for artificial lighting.

    External sunshading of windows is almost unknown and buyers are left to find out that they will have to rectify developer’s poor designs.
    Houses being built today will be almost unliveable in the Canberra Winter when the fossil fuels of oil and gas start to run out and although coal is still plentiful in Australia to produce our electricity, thinking globally, can we condone the enormous atmospheric pollution?

    Research into the thermal characteristics of external walls has shown that the traditional brick veneer wall is the wrong way round - it should have the bricks on the inside to give better thermal conditions inside in winter and summer. No evidence of this application of research is demonstrated in current housing stock. Why?

    Despite the fact that Australia was a leader in the development of solar water heaters in the 50s and 60s there are still only a sprinkling of these enormously useful devices on suburban roofs. Even cold and cloudy Denmark has more on show. Why?

    The housing industry has instead tended to go in the opposite direction - looking backward to meaningless Victorian pastiche of porticos, and pediments instead of investing that money into better living. Internal spaces have grown larger, there is little internal mass to keep houses warmer in winter and cooler in summer and natural ventilation is almost unheard of. Air conditioning is quite an unnecessary expense in a well-designed house, yet many of the current house designs will be inadequate without it.

    E.F. Schumacher said in the early 1970s that “the west has never learned when enough is enough” and this certainly applies to the housing market.

    Large houses cost more to build, they cost more to furnish and they cost more to heat and to insure. Environmentally sensitive (eco-logical) houses on the other hand not only help to reduce all these costs, they are more sustainable in the long run, leaving that little bit more of the world’s resources to be enjoyed by our grandchildren in years to come. Or is it developers and builders don’t think about grandchildren?
    Todays housing will be seen by future citizens as pompous, selfish, illogical and certainly against the public interest. Witness the way in which smoking has come to be regarded with public disfavour in recent years. Public attitudes can, and must, change if we are to have a future which is sustainable. The building industry has an enormous role to play in achieving a state of sustainability.

    Just suppose you had a choice of two houses - one has a grand portico at the front, giving an impression of opulence to the street, it has ducted heating, carpet throughout, lots of space, an impressive kitchen with dishwasher, a mortgage you can’t really afford plus running costs to keep you poor for the rest of your stay, plus a freezing house when the gas runs out or simply gets too expensive to use, hot in summer (no sunshades and no natural ventilation) -and the final straw - a house you will find hard to sell.

    That is your first and (usually) only option in the current market.

    Your second option (if you are lucky) will be one that has a pleasant, simple entrance, natural noise-free ventilation which keeps the house cool in summer, carpets in the cooler rooms but harder floor surfaces in the sunny areas which help to heat the house in winter, adjustable sunshades to keep out all the summer sun yet allow all the winter sun to penetrate, smaller but adequate rooms, no dishwasher, very small running costs, photovoltaic panels on a simple pitched roof which supply most, if not all of your electricity, rainwater tanks to conserve water for your garden and supply your WC’s, plus a conservatory which helps to heat your house, plus a state of the art reflecting system which will help you to provide warming sunshine in your southern rooms - and, at the end of your stay (if you ever want to leave) a very attractive, readily saleable (at a good profit) in a future, energy hungry market - all at approximately the same cost.
    These are comparable, feasible options - which would you choose?


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    Unpacking aviation travel futures

    Murray May will speak on this topic at our February meeting. Here he gives some background information.

    The growth of air travel
    Air travel has grown at an average annual rate of 9% since 1950, and is predicted to grow substantially in the decades ahead. Consider some examples of the current trends:

    Between 1950 and 1999, the number of international tourist arrivals worldwide grew from 25 million to 664 million. The World Tourism Organization expects the numbers to reach 1 billion by 2010 and 1.6 billion by 2020. Such growth is closely linked to the expansion of air travel.

    Macquarie Bank recently purchased Sydney Airport for the sizeable sum of $5.4 billion. The price is equal to 14.3 times the forecast gross earnings for 2003 of $377 million. The bank views it as a 100 year asset with 100 years of investment life. Boeing predicts that airlines will spend US$1,800 billion buying 24, 000 new aircraft over the next 20 years, as a result of the increased demand for air travel.

    Paul Dempsey’s Airport Planning and Development Handbook (2000) includes a global survey of new airports and airport expansion projects. His survey is representative, not exhaustive he says, but still catalogues US$200 billion of projects worldwide, including $98 billion for the fast growing Asia-Pacific region.

    The above “growth forever” scenario, if you like, is one linked strongly to the globalisation of tourism and trade, a strong driving force for the substantially increased use of aviation worldwide.

    An interconnected web of businesses and organizations operate within this economic globalisation scenario. They include for example, alliances of airlines, travel agents and tour operators, international hotels, theatres and entertainment, car rental companies, credit cards, and the list goes on. The values underlying this scenario are well represented in the label of the so-called “freedom to fly” coalition in the UK representing a network of aviation industry, business, trade union and tourist groups. As Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic, recently summarised the matter: “A no-growth solution is simply unacceptable”.

    Aviation under challenge
    Such a vision of the future is increasingly being challenged on a range of ecological, resource, capacity and safety grounds. There are the broad ranging challenges relating to the unsustainable patterns of consumption and production involved. In addition, more targeted critiques are coming from Green politicians and environmental NGOs with interests in sustainable transport such as the Green Skies Network. Generally, these alternative scenarios challenge both the notion of “hypermobility” and the numbers of people on the move, and envisage long-distance travel in the future as being much reduced.

    Aviation’s environmental, energy, pollution and noise impacts are considerable and growing. They include the effects of emissions on global climate change, local environmental impacts such as the effects of aircraft noise on people living near airports and under flight paths, as well as the local air quality effects of emissions, many of which are known potent carcinogens. Add to this the intensive use of a non-renewable resource (oil), the impact on biodiversity and communities of airports’ voracious appetite for land, the raw materials used for producing aircraft, and so on…

    With respect to climate change, aviation is the fastest growing segment of the transport sector, with the transport sector as a whole being the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions. A pivotal report, Aviation and the Global Atmosphere, appeared in 1999 for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It concluded that while the contribution of aviation to human induced climate change was about 3.5% of the total in 1992, by 2050 this is projected to be 7% of the total for the mid-range scenarios, and up to 15% of the total global warming for the high-range scenarios. These projections take into account improvements such as more fuel-efficient engines and better airframe designs.

    For Australia, carbon dioxide emissions have been projected to more than double for domestic air services from 1995 to 2015, and to triple over the same period for its international air transport contribution.

    To concretise the issue further, the Centre for Sustainable Transportation in Canada gives an example of a person flying from Toronto to Paris and back. The global warming impact of emissions at the level subsonic aircraft normally fly, 10 to 11 kilometres above ground, is about three times that of carbon dioxide alone. The Centre thus concludes that one trans-Atlantic round trip would be equivalent in global warming impact, per person, to more than two years of typical car usage (assuming average occupancies of cars and aircraft).

    These upward trends in greenhouse emissions are clearly way out of kilter with what is needed for ecological sustainability. A couple of years ago, the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommended “deep cuts” in emissions, of the order of 60% by 2050.
    Projected technological improvements and efficiencies are swamped by the massive forecast increases in the consumption of air travel. Even “substitution” strategies such as hydrogen-powered aircraft - a good way off yet - may still have significant global warming effects, as the water vapour contrails act as a greenhouse gas too.

    For aircraft noise similarly, the air traffic growth projections point to increasing noise at large airports, and also at smaller, regional airports. In spite of quieter aircraft engine technology, the weight of sheer numbers wins out. The concerns have now moved beyond just noise per se, to include respite or rest from noise events, given the higher movement numbers. Some people have likened this aspect of the intrusion to that of a dripping tap.

    Where are we headed?
    There is no easy “technical fix” for air travel. Different values underlie the different futures conceptions. Lewis Mumford’s words describe the “growth forever” scenario well: “There is only one efficient speed, faster; only one alternative destination, farther away; only one desirable size, bigger; only one quantitative goal, more.”

    Ecological scenarios on the other hand speak to slower, saner ways – even “inner travel” as more productive than “outer travel”. Fundamental redesign to satisfy ecological limits is called for – whether is it is video-conferencing or tele-immersion to create a three dimensional interactive environment in real time across space. Engineers, scientists and doctors can then collaborate across the globe on design projects, with much reduced need for physical travel.

    In a “redesign” scenario, investment and production could be much more locally focused, so that the international movement of goods and materials is greatly reduced, as is the need for much long distance business travel. Imagine advertising slogans for demand management approaches to aviation travel, akin to water conservation programs: “Do you really need to take that extra trip?” “Can you holiday locally this year?” “Take the train instead”.

    How might the aviation industry contribute to the shift that’s needed? One example is investment in fast train services that are more greenhouse friendly than aircraft, particularly for short haul travel.

    Politicians and policy makers involved in the rapid expansion of airports and airport developments around the world might look again at whether economies and airport developments must become increasingly integrated. What if world oil production peaks around 2010, as many experts think? Aviation is still very much tied to oil, and there do not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for several decades. Many of the infrastructure developments may turn out to be unwise investments. “Crash” scenarios are clearly not out of the question either.

    For further information: See the Green Skies website at and also
    May, M. & Hill, S. B. (2002). Unpacking aviation travel futures – an application of causal layered analysis. Journal of Futures Studies. Vol 7 No 1, pp 41-65.

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    The Victorian Government has a 59 point plan to meet its own emission target under the Kyoto Protocol. The plan includes committing $420,000 over three years to pay for tree planting to offset the emissions from government cars. The Queensland government has also signed up its whole fleet of over twelve thousand vehicles.

    Both Governments chose Greenfleet, a five year old company which promotes cleaner fuels, more efficient cars and tree planting, to reduce emissions. They calculate that the average car will put 4.3 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year and that an average native tree will sequester 268 kg in its lifetime, so each car needs seventeen trees planted each year.

    Individuals can sign up their own car for $30 per year. Fleet rates are calculated on whether they are used for long, heavy hauls or for running around town. About 12,000 individuals and forty fleets, totalling about 36,000 vehicles are on Greenfleet’s books.

    The company is currently planting in five states. The aim is to get maximum environmental benefit from the trees, so most planting will be in the Murray-Darling Basin where it will improve water quality, reduce erosion and provide wildlife habitat . In partnership with Scouts Australia Greenfleet is running Murray River Rescue, with the aim of planting at least ten million trees in the next decade. Essentially they are trying to restore ecosystems. They choose local varieties and tend them so they will grow successfully.

    Earthbeat, Radio National 8 June 02

    It is gratifying to observe the emphasis on tree planting as a benefit to water quality, erosion control and wildlife habitat. However, the point about planting trees to provide carbon sinks is correct only if the total amount of forest is increased. A mature forest will absorb as much carbon dioxide when trees are growing as it emits when trees are decomposing or burning, providing equilibrium as far as the atmospheric composition is concerned. The burning of fossil fuel will, on the contrary, increase the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere.

    Gösta Lyngå

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    Back to Minamata
    Decades ago Japan was shocked by the occurrence of a dreadful disease of the nervous system occurring in both humans and cats in the Minamata region. Investigation showed that mercury from industry was flushed into the bay and returned to the land by fish, which formed a major part of the local diet.

    If Japan succeeds in reversing the ban on commercial whaling, and in promoting the consumption of whale meat by the Japanese, they may be in for another epidemic. Tests on products from small toothed whales and dolphins, which are not covered by the International Whaling Commission’s ban, show alarming levels of mercury. Out of 26 liver samples two showed over 1970 micrograms of mercury per gram of liver, compared with the official limit of 0.4 micrograms. There were very high levels in kidneys and lungs and even muscles were from two to 25 times the limit. Whales accumulate mercury from eating contaminated fish and squid.

    New Scientist 1 June 02
    [According to the ABC’s Health Report (16/9/02), mercury contamination is very wide spread, and is particularly bad in the Arctic regions.]

    Saline Solutions
    Enterprising people at Pyramid Hill, in central Victoria, decided to turn a liability into an asset. They have been reclaiming farm land by pumping out saline water, then precipitating the salt and selling it. Their products include high quality salt for use in food processing and also salt blocks for cattle. At this stage demand is outstripping supply.

    Their latest venture is to extract heat from the bottom of a solar pond and use it to dry their salt, thus reducing electricity consumption. Future developments will see the use of heat trapped by solar ponds to actually generate electricity. They expect to be able to power the whole salt works and sell surplus electricity to the grid. They also see potential for exporting their technology.

    ABC TV Landline 14 Sept 02

    More Good Oil
    Psychiatrist Joseph Hibbeln thinks that dietary changes could be a cause of the epidemic of depression in the western world. When humans ate wild game, plenty of leafy greens and seafood, they consumed a lot of poly-unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, which are important in brain chemistry. Over the last century our diet has contained increasing amounts of omega-6 fatty acids from soy, corn, palm and cottonseed oil. These are favoured by manufacturers of longer shelf life foods. If these oils are hydrogenated to give an even longer shelf life, they are worse for the consumer.

    Hibbeln reasoned that the brain is largely fat, the contents of which can be altered by diet. The balance between omega-3 and omega-6 oils is important. He also noted that as populations switch to eating more processed and fried foods, depression rates rise.
    Omega-3 fatty acids are recommended for heart health and are also thought to help minimise arthritis. Now psychiatrists are investigating their role in depression, schizophrenia and attention deficit disorders, with at least ten clinical trials in progress. The US National Institute of Mental Health would like more trials to take place.

    Fish and shellfish are excellent sources of omega-3, and capsules of fish oil are popular over the counter medicine. Other sources of omega-3 are olive oil, linseed and walnuts.

    New Scientist 26 Aug 02

    Biorock Reefs
    An engineer, Wolf Hilbertz, and a marine biologist, Thomas Goreau, teamed up ten years ago to grow artificial reefs. They have artificial coral reefs growing in nine sites spread through the Caribbean and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The reefs consist of a framework of steel girders electrified by a current powered by solar cells on a raft floating overhead, or on nearby land. The structure electrolyses sea water depositing aragonite, a very hard rock, on the cathode. The anode is titanium mesh covered with a layer of ruthenium oxide which resists corrosion.
    The aragonite continues to grow up to five centimetres per year. Chunks of living coral are attached to the frame with wire. Coral polyps seem to love the biorock, and happily settle on the frame. After a few years the diversity of creatures living on and around the frame appears to match that on natural reefs.

    Corals on the frame seem to be more resistant to pollution and global warming than are natural reefs, with growth times three of four times greater on the biorock than on ordinary rocks. In the catastrophic bleaching event of 1998 less than five per cent of natural corals in the Maldives survived, but eighty per cent of the ones on biorock continued to thrive.

    Biorock could be a cheap way to build sea walls, breakwaters and jetties for nations threatened by rising sea levels.

    New Scientist 6 July 02

    Coral Bleaching
    The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is asking for community input into plans to rezone the reef. Currently less than five per cent of the Great Barrier Reef is protected in no-take zones and GBRMPA wants to increase these Marine Protected Areas to 25%. The authority needs volunteers to report on the health of the reef: it is important to know where bleaching has or has not occurred, to guide decisions on which areas to conserve. Where there are corals tough enough to survive bleaching and also where the currents keep the water cool enough to prevent bleaching protection could maintain living reefs.

    Unfortunately surveys show that early this year the Great Barrier Reef suffered its worst ever bleaching. Nearly 60% of the reef suffered, with 90% mortality in some areas.

    There is one hopeful sign; some corals contain fluorescent pigments that, like a sunblock, form a shield around the zooanthellae, the plants which live inside the corals, providing them with energy. The pigments transform harmful wavelengths of light, like UV and blue, to lower energy green and yellow. The plants can continue to live so bleaching does not occur. If more corals develop fluorescent pigments then a greater proportion of corals could survive.

    Australasian Science Sept 02

    Life Saving
    In 1999 66,000 people died of sleeping sickness in Sub-Saharan Africa. The disease could have been treated with Eflornithine, but production of this drug had ceased in 1995, because it was not profitable.

    Now an alternative use of the drug has been found and it is back in production. The manufacturer, Aventis, has donated supplies of this life-saving drug to African countries. So what use is Eflornithine to wealthier people? Women can use it to remove facial hair.

    Australasian Science Sept 02

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