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Nature & Society - October 2001

The Forum's Journal


Some ten years ago Stephen Boyden gave a lecture at Questacon - The National Science and Technology Centre, for World Environment Day. His message was that society is facing an overwhelming ecological crisis but there is a lack of understanding on the cultural level of how humans fit into nature and the consequences of this for the wellbeing of humans and the ecosystems of the biosphere.

In Stephen’s opinion a new type of organisation was needed, one that enabled concerned, interested people to learn about the problems, their causes and what could be done to solve them. Armed with that knowledge these people could help to educate the rest of the community and get society to take effective measures to solve the problems. The lecture resulted in a group of people getting together to form such an organisation and thus the Nature and Society Forum began.

Among the many important things Stephen said in that lecture was a list of what humans need to enable them to live a happy and healthy life. As well as the absolute essentials of clean air, water and food, he said we need shelter from extremes of weather, and clothing to protect us from the same. Apart from those material goods we need a number of social goods: a feeling of belonging and appreciation (usually conferred by membership of a group) and something worthwhile to do.

It was interesting to find, in Alain de Botton’s “The Consolations of Philosophy” that Epicurus had prepared a similar list in the fourth century BC. His list of essentials consisted of friends, freedom, thought (about the main sources of anxiety, such as death, illness, poverty and suspicion), food, shelter and clothes. The things he thought it was natural to want, but which were not necessary for happiness, included a grand house, private baths, banquets, servants, fish and meat. But fame and power, in his opinion, were neither natural nor necessary for happiness.

In a truly classic case of misunderstanding Epicurus’s name has come down to us as the adjective Epicurean, meaning “devoted to the pursuit of pleasure, hence luxurious, sensual, gluttonous.” It is sometimes used to persuade people that they need to purchase yachts or eat in expensive restaurants. The misunderstanding started with his contemporaries. Epicurus did indeed talk of pleasure and happiness and founded schools of pleasure that admitted both men and women. This resulted in lurid tales being bandied about.

The truth was that when the philosopher moved to Athens and set up a group house with friends, they lived a simple life. In order to be free of employers they grew their own vegetables and were happy with meals of bread, vegetables and olives. A pot of cheese provided Epicurus with a feast. Their great pleasure was to be with friends and to talk about what interested them.

Epicurus was concerned with discovering what would make us truly happy and healthy. He considered that humans were woefully bad at analysing what really contributed to their own wellbeing. For well over 2000 years his message has been misunderstood.

In NSF we, too, are interested in what is necessary for wellbeing, but our main sources of anxiety have shifted somewhat and include a great concern for the environment, both in its own right and as necessary for human welfare. We also talk, and at our monthly discussion meetings over the years we have had a wide range of speakers all concerned with various aspects of this broad problem.

Some of the speakers whose talks have had the greatest impact on me include: John Burton several years ago, talking about conflict resolution; Michael Rowbotham, only last month, on third world debt and the inbuilt defects in the current financial system; Brian Fleay, several times over the years, on petroleum depletion. These concerns all seem to have come to a head in recent weeks. John Burton pointed to the impossibility of solving problems by war, the need for quiet negotiation out of the public arena, away from television cameras and reporters, so that disputants have a chance to recognise their common humanity. Somehow, peaceful solutions need to be found, but that necessitates a lack of grandstanding for public viewing.

It was a revelation to find out that John Maynard Keynes, having seen how the world suffered for the disastrous debts between the two World Wars, devised a financial system that would not consist of debtor and creditor nations. If only the USA, at the end of World War II, has accepted his plan that country may not have suffered the recent tragic terrorism. The whole world would certainly have been less troubled. We do need to achieve a much fairer system if peace is to stand a chance.

As to the decline of the age of oil, we have only to look at the crisis in the airline system at present to realise that we are nowhere near ready to live without oil, yet we will have to do so in a few decades. If the economy cannot function without aeroplanes then we need a new economy.
It is amazing and tragic that people and governments cannot see the connections, that they think each problem is a separate one, that they think each problem is just here and now, rather than part of an ongoing one. We seem to be as far away as ever from understanding what is needed for the wellbeing of society and of the planet.

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Forthcoming NSF meetings

17 October - 7.45 pm, Heysen Street, Weston

Smallpox: from eradication to bioterrorism
Frank Fenner, NSF's patron, whose own role in the eradication of smallpox is famous, will speak on the past and possible future of this disease.

21 November - 7.45 pm, Heysen Street, Weston

How well does the new GreenSmart Display Village score against it own aims? The Biocentre's Buildings Team has been taking a close look at what they hope will be their neighbour. Derek Wrigley reports on their findings.

No meetings in December and January

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People, Planet and Debt

report by Jenny Wanless

In the course of this lecture Michael Rowbotham, the speaker at NSF’s August public meeting, debunked the myth that it is the corruption and incompetence of third world governments and administrators that have caused the current debt crisis. Governments, officials and individuals in the developed world display the same sins and weaknesses. No, it is the very structure of the financial system and of its leading players, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, that have caused the dept. Furthermore, all countries are in debt. The USA has a total debt of three and a half trillion dollars, one and a half times the total debt of the ‘developing’ countries. What message do the international money managers have for the less fortunate countries? Maybe it is ‘work hard, sell off your assets, tighten your belt and you can aspire to the same level of debt as the USA’.

The consequences for the third world have been disastrous and continue to grow. Because the system is weighted against them their commodities fetch rock bottom prices. Their land and their labour are undervalued so corporations move in to make a killing. This is one of the main drivers of globalisation.

Although Rowbotham did not spell it out, implicit throughout was the environmental degradation caused by the situation. Countries where the population is always undernourished have to devote much of their land to growing crops for export. This puts pressure on land and water resources, causes chronic ill health, increases the likelihood of infectious disease and creates misery.

The export of food increases the amount of transport with all its attendant pollution. India exports three million tonnes of wheat each year and imports the same quantity. There is something ludicrous in such a situation. In a sane world local self sufficiency would be recognised as a good way to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

In the developed countries globalisation and the debt-based economy have made the production of junk goods and the demand for ever more consumption and ‘growth’ inevitable. In turn this leads to over consumption of resources and to mountains of waste.

What can be done about third world debt? There are various ways of accounting it out of existence - after all, it was never real money that was lent, just numbers on a piece of paper or a screen. Anyway the poorer countries have exported more that enough to pay off their debt; they owe no one anything. It would be a good thing, in Michael Rowbotham’s view, if they just repudiated the debts. Bankers would quickly find a way to cover their paper loss and not let it impinge on their business.

Incidentally, Michael studied economics because he is an environmentalist. He saw that environmentalists were ignored, but economists were heeded, so he decided to take them on at their own game.

A copy of Michael Rowbotham’s most recent book Goodbye America! Globalisation, debt and the dollar empire and an audiotape of the lecture 'People, planet and debt' are available for members to borrow from our office.

Comment— by Colin Samundsett

Congratulations to Nature and Society for initiating another excellent forum topic, “People, Planet and Debt', as presented by Michael Rowbotham. The people attending got good value for their time.

An hour was all too short a time for Rowbotham to outline his subject. And the post-address question time was frustratingly short; a full-blown conference could have been devoted to the issues raised.

As a man of compassion his concentration on third-world debt was understandable, above globalisation and other problems, to which he said the debt was inextricably linked. And as his theme developed, the quote he attributed to Father Brian Gore: “The current third-world debt is a crime against humanity” became readily believeable.

While his introductory remark on the nature of money, that only about 4 percent is held in hard currency, seemed reasonable I did have some difficulty with his statement on the creation of it: The devolution of money creation (or the bulk of it) from governments to private enterprise in the guise of banks was straight forward, but do those institutions create money in the process of making loans? It had been my understanding that money was created by the charging of interest on such loans. Perhaps I did not hear him properly.
A key point, for me, of the talk was his discourse on the setting-up of the world trading framework for post-world war two at Bretton Woods in the U.S.A.. It was a revelation to find that John Maynard Keynes had already developed a trading structure in which there would be a balance of trade, not debtors and creditors; and that this structure found no favour with the U.S.A., which decreed the setting up of a quite different one. This created the inevitability of the current humanitarian disaster which is the shackles of third-world debt.

It was uncomfortable to listen to the details, the litany, of impositions placed upon developing nations by the developed ones, via the two institutions - the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund: The imposition of impossible conditions on loans given; the inappropriate schemes decreed by the lenders; the wrong advice for development enterprises; the fixed dollar value of loans against the declining value of products exported to attempt repayment; the decree of lowering all trade barriers by the loan recipients while allowing such barriers to remain in place against them. And many more, all readily verifiable. The World Bank and the IMF came to be viewed in all of this as vehicles for the destructive aspects of the loans which gave rise to the present debt, which will never be repayable, and which can be argued from a more realistic economic viewpoint to not be a genuine debt.

Although it might have been outside the scope of the topic advertised, I consider it unfortunate that time did not permit development of the part played by environmental degradation in ensuring deeper entrapment of desperately poor societies. Rowbotham's initial tertiary qualifications were in science — as a zoologist, and he was aware of it. I was surprised at this year’s Crawford Conference, when keynote speaker Johnson of the World Bank recognised the deficiency of accounting systems which valued environmental assets at zero; and that World Trade protestors should not be ignored, for they had valid points to express.

A fundamental matter impinging upon the third world is the gross deficiency of assistance from the developed nations towards minimising unwanted pregnancies in desperately poor nations such as sub-saharan Africa. Africa was mentioned by Rowbotham as being of special concern to himself, with its woeful poverty. It happens to be also the part of the world which is under the most pressure from increasing numbers of people. The desperate poverty, the environmental decline, and the population numbers and rate of increase are not just coincidence. It is a pity that the developed nations are not contributing adequate assistance regarding reproductive health rather than further exacerbating the matters of debt.

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Nature and Society Forum Annual Report (September 19, 2001)

The present year has been a busy one for the Nature and Society Forum (NSF). As last year, a great deal of time and effort has been given up to the Australian National Biocentre proposal. However, other important projects, including the Metabolism project and the People and Nature (PAN) Program have made good progress, and many interesting discussion meetings have been held.


This year has seen the usual five issues of the Forum’s Journal Nature and Society. Jenny Wanless has continued as editor, with invaluable help from Gösta Lyngå. Sue Gilbert took over the task, formerly carried out by Peter Farrelly, of laying out the Journal and preparing it for the printer.

Two Occasional Papers have been published:

  • Inequality, sustainability and revolution by Colin Butler
  • Salt and vinegar: education for sustainability in the Murray Darling Basin, 1983-1998 by David Eastburn.

The first booklet in the Panperspectives series has been published:

  • Bad Bugs – People and Infectious Diseases - edited by Bryan Furnass and Stephanie Haygarth (see PAN Program below).

The Australian National Biocentre

A great deal of time and effort has been devoted during the year to the ANB proposal. The Kingston Foreshore is still the preferred site for the Biocentre. A meeting was held with the Chief Minister in February on this issue, but a written response from him is still awaited.

The ANB Interim Planning Board appointed the following committees: Buildings and Technology (Derek Wrigley, Convenor), the LINK Group (Alice Thompson, Convenor), Displays and Exhibitions (Bryan Furnass, Convenor), Education (Val Brown/John Harris, Convenors). The Landscape Committee (Eugene Herbert, Convenor) is dormant until the ANB site is finalized.

The ANB Board is still seeking funding from the Commonwealth Government for a comprehensive feasibility study, which would include a Business Plan and Prospectus.

The People and Nature (PAN) Program (Convener: Stephen Boyden)

This Program involves bringing together essential information on important ecological and health themes, and making this information available in plain English to interested members of the public, in Panperspectives booklets, and information sheets. During this year work on the Program has included the following activities

Bad Bugs–People and Infectious Diseases (edited by Bryan Furnass and Stephanie Haygarth)
In 1998, as part of the PAN program, Stephen Boyden convened a multidisciplinary conference on infectious disease in humans. The proceedings of this conference have been condensed into a 68 page booklet, written in plain English to make it accessible to non-professionals, including students. In keeping with the Panperspectives guidelines, the publication summarises the evolution of microbial infection and the body’s defence mechanisms, their impact on human societies from our hunter-gatherer ancestors onwards and the cultural adaptive changes made to combat them.

Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet (Convener: Bryan Furnass)
Another PAN initiative has been an internet conference on this theme held on the NSF website from 9-15 September. The conference has provided a perspective on the impact of food consumption on the health of humans and the impact of food production on the health of the environment. While lacking the benefits of personal interaction, the idea of an internet conference makes information available to a wide audience at a lower cost and with little intervention of fossil fuel combustion. It is planned to make the edited proceedings available on our website and in hard copy as a Panperspectives booklet early next year.

NSF acknowledges the key role played by our Office Manager, Sue Gilbert, in the organisation of this project and the coordination of the website design and various documents.

Ecological issues in a nutshell
Alice Thompson has continued her work in bringing together information on key ecological issues and preparing summaries on each issue for a Panperspectives booklet. This material is also being used in the PAN Workshops (see below).

People and nature papersStephen Boyden has prepared a series of information papers on ecological and health themes for use in the PAN Workshops. It is hoped that one of these, People and nature – the big picture, will be published as a Panperspectives booklet.

People and nature workshops
The first series of PAN Workshops commenced in August 2001. They are organised jointly by the Centre for Continuing Education at the ANU and NSF, and involve 8 or more two-hourly meetings. They are attended by interested members of the public, and facilitated by members of NSF. The workshops involve three phases: (1) a Learning phase (2) a Practical evaluation phase - appraisal of the practical meaning of information learned for individuals, families, or society (3) a Follow-up phase in which participants are encouraged to follow up their course with one of various forms of action.

It is planned to organise a series of PAN workshops annually in the future.

The Earth Charter (Australian Convener: Brendan Mackey)

After the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, an Earth Charter Commission was established, chaired by Maurice Strong and Mikhail Gorbachev. This Commission has led to the creation of a new international document, the Earth Charter, which articulates an ethical framework for a more sustainable way of living. It 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.

NSF has become the host organisation for the Australian National Committee for the Earth Charter.

Scientists and engineers network for a sustainable environment (SENSE) (Convener: Moss Cass)

Two papers have been written and are currently being circulated for members of the network for comment: one dealing with Salinity and the other with the concept of Eco-effectiveness. The Convener of SENSE has been overseas recently and a strategy for launching these papers is being developed.

The Metabolism Project (Conveners: Janis Birkeland and John Schoonenvelt)

NSF has been trying to interest funding bodies in a proposal for a study on the metabolism of Canberra for many years, but it seems both the concept and the terminology did not work for them. This year we have used alternative descriptors such as “materials flow analysis” and “sustainability auditing” and we immediately attracted two small grants, one with the University of Canberra and the other with Land and Water Australia. We were also awarded a consultancy with the ACT Government’s “Planning and Land Management” unit (PALM). All three projects are linked insofar as they use the same methodology, but they apply to different areas and involve the mapping of stocks and flows of different materials.

Staff for the project are being drawn from different areas: post graduate students who are able to link their own research with our work and some of our members.

Sustainability Science

Encouraged by these developments, a proposal has been put forward for a new NSF project. This project would bring these activities together to provide a research capability that reflects our members’ interests, and that would link with existing research establishments that do not have our flexibility and low overheads.

We have decided to call this Sustainability Science, which is seen as a process of using science to bring about reconciliation between human activities and the natural world.


The Office Manager, Sue Gilbert, has been responsible for major improvements in NSF’s Website ( in recent weeks.

Administration and finance highlights

There are 97 current financial members. This figure was around 120 this time last year. In the meantime we report that, during the last financial year, our turnover exceeded $70,000 the highest on record.

As a result of a generous donation from one of our members, we have been able to employ an Office Manager for the first time and this has made an enormous difference to our operations, particularly in the area of marketing activities (see new web site and food program) and publishing generally.

During the year we moved offices from one end of the Weston Laboratories to the other. We lost our air conditioning but gained more space and after a bit of furniture juggling, we now have a very comfortable office arrangement. We have also purchased two new computers and, with the assistance of a new volunteer, Paul Wallace, we have been able to network all our computers and configure them in a more ‘user-friendly’ way.

Stephen Boyden

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Ape Man: the story of human evolution

Author: Robin McKie
Publisher: BBC 2000

Reviewed by Keith Thomas

I have been reading Ape Man: the story of human evolution published in the UK last year by the BBC. The author is Robin McKie, science editor of the Observer, so it should be good. And it is.

In this review I will share with you some of McKie’s information because he brings out some useful evidence relevant to current debates, including the perennial ones of whether our “natural” diet is vegetarian or omnivorous, whether the same physical fitness criteria apply to women as to men and what sort of physical exercise we can do which captures the essence of our evolutionary heritage. McKie also touches on the sort of mental and emotional qualities which led to survival through the rigours of the evolutionary period. (Devise your own mental exercises to complement your physical exercises!)

The page references below are to McKie’s book which I urge you to read if you are at all interested in human evolution but not already a graduate in this area. Needless to say, I take full responsibility for the following interpretation. I am not a scientist and a more expert reader of McKie’s book and the numerous sources he cites might lead to a different, more sophisticated interpretation than that which follows. I add the caution that I have ignored the usual conventions concerning quotations and ellipses where they would impede the flow of my text. Please check McKie’s book for the precise words and the context.

In terms of diet, the story is that our pre-Homo ancestors were herbivorous and our digestive system is basically unchanged since that time. However, there were immense advantages in our ancestors also consuming meat - indeed, without consuming meat we might still be the australopithecine species which preceded Homo and flourished up to 2m years ago.

The jumping-off point is that climate change gave our ancestors the stark alternative: adapt or perish. Some of our ancestors adapted, becoming tool makers and omnivores rather than herbivores. They also survived.

McKie quotes Richard Potts: “About 2.5m years ago, hominids encountered great fluctuations in the climate. At the same time we see the appearance of stone tools. That is no coincidence. They indicate that at least one species of hominid was responding to these changes by becoming even more adaptable, rather than becoming specialized in the way that robustus and bosei did. By making tools, dietary choices became even greater. Not only could people skin the large dead and doubtless smelly carcasses they occasionally found, they could crack open their bones for marrow. In addition tools would have helped pound and break down vegetables and nuts that could otherwise only have been eaten by animals with specialized dentures, and also helped dig up tubers which are rich in protein and calories. Just as australopithecines responded to oscillating climates by walking, by becoming more versatile movers, so did the first members of the Homo line 2 million years later. They made tools and became more versatile eaters” [66f]. The richer diet led to bigger brains, bigger brains led to intellectual growth and intellectual growth led to: (1) improved memory (including mental resource maps of the terrain and the seasons), (2) the ability to co-operate and take advantage of social complexity, (3) the ability to solve problems which led to the ability to create and use tools. These benefits in turn led to a more reliable diet which was also richer [114]. “We became less tethered to our habitats... Our ancestors’ behaviour was becoming increasingly diverse, our menus more adventurous. Mankind was on the move.” [67] Meat eaters were more free to migrate so they could flourish and survive, herbivores being more limited to the spread of their familiar staple plants [96]. The complexity of societies, the importance of memory and skills led to adults having a benefit beyond their reproductive age - they had knowledge and culture (wisdom) to pass on, not just physical genes[115].

The second point concerns the evolution of human society and the biological basis of differentiation of male and female roles.

Humans had a small pelvic gap for the birth canal, yet a more intelligent species would have a large head to accommodate the large brain. A larger head could not fit through the small pelvic gap. The evolutionary response was twofold: (a) for humans to be born while their brain was still relatively small. This means that mothers need to provide intensive care (suckling, comfort, nurturing, warmth) while the brain develops. If mothers are devoting themselves to this nurturing, they need the reliable and sustained support of others - the “family” or “tribe” [88]. The second response was (b) for women to evolve wider hips. This development survives today: women are less efficient bipedalists than men. Men were, therefore, comparatively better shaped than women for many of the activities of being the provider [89]. Because human brains take years to develop, there is a need for sustained social bonds to support the maturing human for the duration of its immaturity (i.e., its childhood).

The third point concerns the physical activities of our ancestors. “As well as the caring nature of Neanderthal society, the numerous injuries on their skeletons pointed to a dangerous, perhaps violent, side to their lives. Trinkaus ... analyzed the bones of 17 Neanderthals - individuals who had a staggering total of 27 traumatic wounds. They were mostly injured to the head and upper body, almost no lower limb injuries. I got a statistical fit with rodeo riders; they get thrown off their animals a lot. In other words, it looked like Neanderthals were being flung around and badly hurt by the creatures that they hunted. Not for them the low- risk, careful business of stalking and spearing. They went in for the kill and paid the consequences... These were people who had evolved a robust response to the rigours of survival, creatures with physical prowess beyond the aspirations of even the best Olympic athletes [157f].”

The fourth point concerns the use of fire. This is important for us as the historical timing of its regular use can guide us to decide whether our paleo diet can - for scientific rather than aesthetic reasons - validly include cooked meat. Although there is some evidence of the use of fire as a defence against predators 1.3 - 1.4m years ago, this is contentious. Some hearths and the remains of burnt bones have been found in China from 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. Other sites 500,000 years old have no signs of fire. Fireplaces do not appear regularly until about 40,000 years ago [160], just 1700 generations, not long in evolutionary terms.

The fifth point concerns mental and emotional skills, apart from the animal-like quick reactions and coordination. McKie’s account indicates that people who were tenacious and innovative were survivors. More than that, it was those who had social skills - who trusted others and were trusted in return, who showed compassion [90, 154, 156-7], who sustained long-term relationships of trust [80f] (and love?), who contributed to the group who survived best of all. People with good memories and who organized their thoughts in a way that could be communicated effectively (a) for immediate practical purposes [124] and (b) down the generations, were also at a premium. Remember, the oral tradition was the only tradition. One could, on the evidence of McKie’s book, make an argument for monogamy. I won’t do that but will go so far as to say that the qualities I have just listed appear to be those that both sustained people in periods of negligible change and enabled them to adapt and survive when change was forced upon them.

There is much more in McKie’s book to fascinate and inform. For me the underlying message is that our modern pre-occupations with weight loss and body sculpting trivialize the most wonderful story in the world. We can get far more out of this story than a reduction in cellulite. Our challenge is to apply evolutionary theory to the scientific evidence and so map out the essential features of paleo life. We can then decide whether our 21st century, Western prejudices, predilections and constraints rule out for us certain features of the full paleo repertoire and how we apply to our lives those features that we do not rule out.

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