Towards a prosperous yet sustainable Australia?

February 12 2019

NSW Governor David Hurley

NSW Governor David Hurley.

Hugh Durrant-Whyte

NSW Chief Scientist Hugh Durrant-Whyte.

Australia’s 27 years of uninterrupted growth, the longest period without a recession of any developed country, puts it in an enviable position. Yet rising wealth inequality, unaffordable housing, increasing traffic congestion, under-employment and increasingly polarised political opinion are hardly signs of a prosperous and harmonious society.

To address this issue, the Royal Society of NSW and the four Learned Academies convened a forum at Government House, Sydney, in November entitled Towards a Prosperous yet Sustainable Australia – What now for the Lucky Country?

It was hosted by the NSW Governor, David Hurley AC FTSE, chaired by Brian Spies FTSE, Secretary of the NSW Division of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, and attended by 130 people.

Setting the scene, Hugh Durrant-Whyte, NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, suggested that our future prosperity and sustainability would be best secured through comprehensive and joined-up evidence-based policies that addressed the environment, population, energy, and business competitiveness.

He noted: “It is all very well to encourage STEM education; but Australian companies do not have the capacity to gainfully use STEM graduates.” Accordingly we need a long-term “prosperity agenda” that will allow professionals to build new industries to translate good science-based outputs to more productive outcomes.

That the sustainability of the nation is embodied in its people was addressed by leading social researcher, Hugh Mackay. While Australia had been successful in creating a diverse and (largely) harmonious society, social cohesion was threatened by crisis-level mental health and increasing social fragmentation. “Social isolation is a greater threat to public health than obesity,” he said.

Sam Mostyn, a member of the National Sustainability Council, discussed Australia’s progress towards meeting the international Sustainability Development Goals (SDG), agreed in 2012. While Australia’s position and trends in several areas were not good, he said, the SDGs provided a good framework for leading and tracking future change and transformation.

Graham Turner, from Earth Accounts Consulting, provided trends on population, economic and environmental performance. He showed that the 1972 Club of Rome modelling had been essentially correct. “A sustainable future requires a twofold increase in efficiency, zero population growth and a three-day working week,” he said.

A more optimistic picture – the circular economy – was painted by Ashley Brinson from the Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering at the University of Sydney. Our quality of life had been enhanced by science-based innovation, but at the cost of accumulating waste. In the future circular economy, product design would consider the material and energy flows from a whole-of-lifecycle perspective.

Chair Brian Spies opening the session

Chair Brian Spies opens the session.

Two speakers addressed the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to secure prosperity. Toby Walsh (UNSW) argued that AI could do many things better than humans, but the “robots won’t be taking over”, and jobs would change rather than be lost. Australia had a considerable shortage of IT graduates (especially women) “whose ideas on applications and design for AI will be more important than algorithms”.

Mary-Anne Williams FTSE (UTS) reiterated the rapid rate of progress in AI and noted concerns that we lag behind and risk becoming victims of others’ AI systems. China was already leading AI investment and Australia was rated 20th in AI government preparedness.

On biosecurity, Edward Holmes (University of Sydney) discussed how Australia had been lucky in avoiding major epidemics of infectious diseases, including SARS and influenza. Unlike China, however, Australia had no national organisation for disease control that could ensure a nationwide rapid response to a future infectious disease outbreak.

John Quiggin (University of Queensland) spoke to Australia’s modest commitment and a “decade wasted” in addressing carbon emission reduction. “To get climate policy back on track, we need to achieve complete decarbonisation by 2050 and a transformation of the narrow basis of government policies’ reliance on the assumptions of market economics,” he said.

Accurate measurement of prosperity and sustainability is essential if policy and implementation are to be evidence-driven. Jacky Hodges from the Australian Bureau of Statistics described the development of the national environmental-economic accounts system that included GDP adjustment for the depletion of natural resources.

A more radical way of integrating environmental and financial accounting was presented by Brian Czech from the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) and Virginia Tech. CASSE proposes that a steady state economy that does not rely on economic growth provides a hopeful way to achieve sustainability and equity in an increasingly constrained world.

Conventional economics, as presented by James Morley (University of Sydney), shows that Australia continues to be a safe haven for foreign investors and migrants. The current indicators of low productivity, low wage growth, low inflation, lower immigration, and reasonable output growth were reasonably comfortable to live with from an economic viewpoint.

In summing up, Ann Williamson (UNSW) reflected on the contribution of the presentations to the underlying Forum question: is a prosperous and sustainable Australia likely? The answer seemed to be more “possible” than “probable” on current trends.

Robin King
Professor Robin King

Deputy Chair of the Academy's NSW Division

Robin King was helped in compiling this report by Ron Johnston.