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You are here: Home Resources Nature and Society, Journal of the Frank Fenner Foundation 2003 Nature & Society - August/September 2003

Nature & Society - August/September 2003

The Forum's Journal

There are four broad categories of housekeepers: there are those who keep the house clean and won�t let anyone make a mess; those who keep it relatively clean and neat but liveable; those who make a big mess but clean it up on a regular basis; and then there are the ones who live in a mess and don�t care. There are similar categories in the way we care for our environment.

For a start and for most of human evolution it did not matter what humans did in the environment. They could go on leaving their rubbish around, destroying when they felt like it, just as all species do. It did not matter because nature picked up after them. Other species promptly moved in to remove wastes by using them.

Those times went long ago. As humans got �smarter� and more technically advanced they created wastes that nature could not cope with. For a long time humans have simply lived in the mess they have made, not caring about it at all. Belatedly the realisation is dawning that this cannot go on. Nature cannot cope with our wastes so we must do something about it.

Now we have the choice. We can go on making a mess and having an occasional clean up. We can try to keep our wastes down to a minimum by cleaning up as we go along or we can try not to produce the wastes in the first place.

Continued consumption on the scale to which we are accustomed and which is encouraged by the current economic system, is equivalent to living in a mess all the time. Continued use of fossil fuel for electricity generation then trying to force the resultant carbon gases underground (geosequestration) is just making a big mess and trying to clean it up. It seems a poor way to go; far better to try to make less of a mess in the first place.

We can do this. First we must realise that consumption simply cannot increase forever, so we must learn to use less in the first place. To do this we need to implement every energy saving technique available, and develop more of them. We can make choices in our lifestyle, travelling habits and food purchases to reduce the use of fuel. (The distances travelled by food on its way to our plates are often quite incredible and ridiculous.) Along with all that we can phase in more sustainable energy generation in the form of renewables and phase out the carbon based ones. With changes in our lifestyles we could become healthier and happier and this in turn would be good for the environment.

Our use of water is another huge problem, one that probably will have worse effects than energy use in the very near future. At present it seems that our increasing life spans are being bought at the expense of all waterways and aquatic life. We have known about the problems caused by pesticides, herbicides and industrial effluent for quite a long time. The problem of oral contraceptives causing the feminisation of male fish became known relatively recently. Now another problem is surfacing � the flow through our bodies of the pharmaceuticals so many of us use as we grow older. All this needs some major rethinking, so we need to take our housekeeping seriously. This means reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, making energy conservation a priority, eating food from our own locality when possible, reconsidering all our water use and rethinking sewage disposal.

We cannot avoid making a mess, but for earth�s sake, and our own, we must minimise it.


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Forthcoming NSF meetings

17 September

Nature and Society Forum Annual General Meeting

A Nomination form for the AGM is enclosed with this copy of the journal.

Other events of interest

Tuesday 23 September 2003, 9.00am - 5.00 pm, Haydon-Allen Lecture Theatre, ANU

Ian Moore Memorial Synposium on Terrain Analysis (and associated issues in hydro-ecological modelling)

Free but register by 17th September 2003. Contact Jason Sharples on 02 6125 8130 (ph) or (email).

9.00am - 5.15pm, 29th September 2003

Symposium - Climate Change And Health: International And Australian Perspectives

Shine Dome, Gordon Street, Canberra. Symposium $350 (Students $200) Phone Rennie D�Souza on(02) 6125 5622 or

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Crisis strengthens community

The following letter was written during the 1998 gas crisis in Victoria. Frank Fisher sent it in response to the editor�s suggestion that everyone should have personal experience in collecting and sorting recycling etc.

Once again, an opportunity to consider how we deal with breaks in the provision of essential services. While it may seem tedious to learn this way, nothing teaches like real experience.

One of the really lovely things Victorians with gas-fired homes are now discovering is that the people down the street with electric stoves and solar water heaters are willing to share their temporary good fortune. This discovery will do a lot for us all, as communities and personally.

Instead of vainly striving to build fault-free infrastructures at massive expense, we could build this special social experience into a new way of organising for emergencies.

National service has gone but not all of us bid good riddance to it. While few may want the return of military training, few would deny that cultivating understanding of what it takes to keep society going in the event of failing infrastructure is a good thing.

Could this be a place for civil defence training � a generalisation to all emergencies and to all people of the volunteer fire brigades, surf-lifesaving clubs, neighbourhood safe-house schemes, first aid organisations and so on? Such training would help us understand our communities, their natural resources and the social and technicalinfrastructures they are built on. It would be able to mobilise anywhere, any time when any part of our increasingly complex infrastructures fails because it would be in our heads and in our social frameworks.

If we were organised to deal with breakdown in this way we�d all know a lot more about what it takes to run a hi-tech society such as ours; social responsibility taking would improve out of sight and our technical infrastructures could be built more flexibly. They would be cheaper and built with much greater openness, enabling simpler repair and simpler transformation as inevitable obsolescence overtakes them. Such a national service could also enable a level of socially critical privatisation of infrastructure hitherto undreamed of � because we would then all be responsibly involved in monitoring and maintaining it. It could even give a new meaning to the honest market economist�s dream: consumers with perfect information about the (infrastructure) market they�re in.

Frank Fisher

The Australian, 1 Oct 98

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The ISOS Conference continues

Some notes from the energy section are included in this journal.

The keynote paper by Andrew Blakers is available on the website for the internet conference.

The conference is located at (click energy). If you want to read the supporting papers you will need to register ($10 for one month or $50 for the nine months of the conference. $35 concession).

Other segments of sustainability which are being addressed are : water; human health and wellbeing; land use and natural ecosystems; equity and peace; economic systems; climate; labour force and work; transportation and urban design.

A one day face to face conference, bringing together the ideas of contributing experts will be held at the Shine Dome of the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra on November 14. Early bird (Sept) registration for this is $50, through the website. It is hoped to publish a small booklet giving an integrated perspective of the sustainability contributions early in 2004.

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Saving Babies

Tetanus killing new borne babies is not something most of us would have thought of, but Dr Tetanus (Francoise Gosse) has been in Australia talking about the problem. When babies are delivered on earthen or cow dung floors by midwives who have been working in the fields, or where custom decrees putting clay or dung on the umbilical cord, tetanus is all too common. The baby goes into terrible convulsions and dies.

UNICEF has launched a campaign to raise money to vaccinate mothers. Vaccination will protect the mothers for fifteen years and their babies for five months after birth.

For information ring 1300 134 071

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Grey water use

Are you considering installing a system to reuse your grey water? If so, you should have heard Peter Szlapinski, our speaker in June. Peter gave a very clear and informative talk on mechanisms, precautions and pros and cons of using grey water. And yes, there are cons. Grey water can be a health hazard; after all the great 19th century public health reforms largely centred around providing clean reticulated water, thereby cutting death rates. Grey water can cause unpleasant local odours. It will add phosphorus and sodium to the soil, and reduced flow in sewers can lead to blockages. It can even increase greenhouse gas emissions by producing methane, using more fuel because small pumps are less efficient than large ones, and necessitating the duplication of many structures. As Peter stressed there is no such thing as a free lunch.

On the other hand the benefits can include reducing water use by up to 35%. Useful nutrients can be added to the soil. Smaller water supply systems may be needed in new suburbs, although this is not a major benefit as the ACT guarantees sufficient water to fight fires. Small quantities of water flowing through large pipes slow down, and lose chlorine thereby becoming less safe to drink.

On the other hand the benefits can include reducing water use by up to 35%. Useful nutrients can be added to the soil. Smaller water supply systems may be needed in new suburbs, although this is not a major benefit as the ACT guarantees sufficient water to fight fires. Small quantities of water flowing through large pipes slow down, and lose chlorine thereby becoming less safe to drink.

Probably the greatest benefit of waste water reuse on our own property is that it gives immediate feedback and responsibility. A grey water system is like having another person in the household, a person who will get sick if fed anti-bacterial cleaners, fats and solids, a person whose health must always be considered.

Moving on to household appliances Peter gave us information on some of the disputes as to which to use, and these apply to everyone, not just the owners of grey water systems. . For washing machines front loaders are definitely better, typically using about 60 litres to toploaders 130 litres of water (In Europe 90% of washing machines are front loaders, but in the USA only 10% are.) Front loaders also use less detergent. But on the topic of detergent Peter�s advice was to always use much less than the manufacturers recommend: their recommendations are based on the heaviest soiling.

IIn washing machines much of the cleaning is just the result of friction, the detergent has nothing to do with it. In a trial, laundry balls were distributed to households. These balls, which come in varied shapes, usually contain zeolites. They are supposed to be a complete replacement for detergent and in the trials many users were satisfied with the balls and continued to use the same one for many months.

Liquid detergent contains a lot less sodium than powdered detergent so is to be preferred whether for washing machines or dishwashing.

Which is better, washing dishes by hand or machine? The volume of water is similar if the dishwasher is only used when fully stacked. Grease from the dishwasher is more emulsified, so is broken down better by bacteria. Make sure no solids go down the sink, always use a sink strainer. Solid wastes should go in the compost and oils and fats on plates etc should be wiped off with paper before washing. Insinkerators should never be used.

Peter provided information and advice, including benefits, drawbacks and costs on home grey water treatment options. He dealt with rain water tanks and water saving devices. He pointed out that many types of grey water treatment plants have been developed in Japan, partly because they don�t have such a well developed sewerage system.

If we wish him to do so, Peter can talk to us some other time on black water treatment. If you are interested let us know.

Jenny Wanless

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Education and Economic Development in Myanmar

Prior to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, it was a commonplace of commentary on the East Asian �tiger� economies that their sustained investment in education and human resource development, coupled with an enthusiastic embracing of communication and information technology, laid the basis for their prosperity. Remarkable growth in GDP over a number of years made them the envy of their less developed neighbours in the ASEAN region.

In 1997, Myanmar joined ASEAN, now numbering all ten of the regional Southeast Asian states. Seeing the prosperity of its neighbours, Myanmar, once the most powerful of the mainland Southeast Asian states, sought to put in place a �catch up� policy which, it was hoped, would deliver it the same prosperity. In 1988, after 26 years of socialism, Myanmar officially abolished the legislative framework which had underpinned its economic autarky; it embraced the �market economy� and put in place a new legislative framework designed to encourage foreign investment; permit development of the financial services sectors, and encourage development of the private sector.

Underpinning these reforms was a somewhat tentative realisation that the social sector lagged far behind; that the educational system also needed far reaching reforms if it was to produce the skilled workforce needed to sustain economic development. Declared a Least Developed Country (LDC) in 1987, Myanmar had a lot of catching up to do. In 1996, following a student demonstration, the universities were again closed by the government. They re-opened in July 2000. In the wake of the recent 30 May 2003 crisis arising from a confrontation in Upper Myanmar (Sagaing province) between supporters of the National League for Democracy and supporters of the government during which a number of people lost their lives, the government again closed the universities, fearing that they would be used to stage civil unrest. This is a tragedy all round; for those who lost their lives; for the young who are again unable to proceed with their education; and for the nation which is denying itself the advantage of the skilled resources it needs to become the peaceful, united, modern nation outlined in the official policies.

In that small window of opportunity between 1997 and 2003, the government had moved to put some considerable resources into educational development, mindful of the linkage between social and economic development. Thus colleges were �upgraded�; considerable resources were put into building new campuses; the library network was expanded; in service training seminars for teachers were run almost continuously; international interactions were encouraged; curricula re-vamped; and senior educationists sent to attend seminars abroad. An important aspect of the new education policy was to separate the undergraduate universities from the graduate universities. Three new undergraduate universities were built outside the capital, Yangon; a fourth was built outside Mandalay in Upper Myanmar, and a fifth planned in Shan State outside Taunggi. Many two-year degree colleges were upgraded to university status. Thus considerable effort and resources were invested in the necessary upgrading of the infrastructure. At present, there are 152 tertiary institutions in Myanmar serving the population of 51.12 million people. These institutions are spread across thirteen ministries. The Ministry of Education has responsibility for 63 institutions. The Ministry of Health for 17.

Despite all these efforts, the quality of Myanmar education needs to be considerably uplifted. Senior administrators and community leaders are only too conscious of this. Literacy is high in Myanmar and education is greatly valued. It is often said that teachers are one of the �gems� of society and are deeply respected. However, these traditional values cannot hide the fact that education and human resource development needs a lot of support from the international community in the form of scholarships; academic exchanges; books; opportunities to upgrade qualifications. Trying to do everything at once, senior administrators have sought to increase access to basic education, with some success, since the primary school enrollment rate is very high. But the attrition rate between primary, middle school and secondary is also very high, approaching 50%, a reflection of economic indigence, particularly in the rural areas where parents cannot afford to keep their children in school.

There is a classic catch-22 situation in Myanmar. A country with scant resources, castigated by the international community for its lack of civil political institutions, needing economic development in order to alleviate the poverty which undermines its social sector development, does not receive the international assistance it needs to strengthen the very social sector which in turn would enhance both its economic development and, ultimately its civil institutions. If the international community were serious about wanting to see multi-party democracy evolve in Myanmar, by peaceful means, it seems to me it would embrace strategies which assisted both the country�s economic and educational development, with the objective of eventually growing a critical mass of skilled, educated, experienced individuals from which viable civilian leadership might emerge.

Helen James

Asia Pacific School of Economics and Government and Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies ANU

19 July 2003.

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Fisher Parkland

Fisher Parkland is Canberra Urban Parks and Places managed land south of Fisher. Following the January 2003 fire, large areas have been cleared of the former plantation trees and ground cover on safety grounds. With the significant reduction in canopy cover in a number of areas within the Parkland, there are severe reservations about the potential for weed spread and soil erosion.

Fisher Parkland is Canberra Urban Parks and Places managed land south of Fisher. Following the January 2003 fire, large areas have been cleared of the former plantation trees and ground cover on safety grounds. With the significant reduction in canopy cover in a number of areas within the Parkland, there are severe reservations about the potential for weed spread and soil erosion.

One major disaster has been the partial destruction of the Broad-leaved Peppermint (Eucalyptus dives) remnant in the midst of the Parkland on safety grounds. This remnant had around 60 native plant species within its boundary. As there were few who wandered into this area it is hard to see how this act of wanton ecological vandalism can be justified.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has commented that the �stark reality of the need for action on the extinction crisis facing Australia�s environment has been dramatically outlined in the Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment�. This action does not appear to be consistent with any consideration of that document.

It is clear that the whole process has been fundamentally flawed with no general community consultation on the fate of the Parkland, much less the remnant, limited meaningful consultation with a community group, no environmental asessment of the condition of the remnant and damage during the destruction of timber within the remnant.

What makes it worse is that the Parkland began to be effectively managed under the local Liberal government and the Dives remnant looked after and preserved. The Stanhope Labor government has effectively trashed the Dives remnant, making a mockery of Action Plan 27 �Woodlands for Wildlife�.

Alan Ford


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Notes on Sustainable Energy

From the �In Search of Sustainability� (ISOS) Internet Conference

Australians, like other wealthy humans, use huge quantities of fossil fuel to produce and transport our requirements all over the nation and the world. We have become oblivious to our dependence on energy and assume our �modern� lifestyle is sustainable. Production of oil will soon peak and the transition to renewable energy will involve a substantial reduction in energy use.

There is now a scientific consensus that since the nineteenth century, combustion of fossil fuels, together with extensive land clearing, has resulted in a steady rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which through an enhanced �greenhouse effect� has led to global warming and consequent climate instability. This has profound implications for sustainability of both the environment and human health and wellbeing. Industrial agriculture, itself heavily dependent on fossil fuels, has also resulted in devastating land and water degradation, dry land salinity and loss of biodiversity.

Some of these issues were debated in the sustainable energy segment of ISOS conference. The keynote contribution was written by Professor Andrew Blakers, Director, Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian National University, with seven supporting papers. The following outlines some of the points which were raised.

Energy supply options

There are five available energy sources. These are solar, nuclear, fossil, tidal and geothermal energy. Of these, only solar energy can provide really large-scale energy in a sustainable and environmentally acceptable manner. Solar energy includes both direct radiation and indirect forms such as biomass, wind, hydro, ocean thermal, ocean currents and waves. Most of these forms will be part of the energy mix when solar energy becomes the dominant traded-energy form.

Tidal energy (from the moon�s gravitation) can be collected using what amounts to a coastal hydroelectric system. It is sustainable in the sense that it will not run out. However, the coastline is a scarce resource and the collection of large amounts of tidal energy will have a major environmental impact.

Geothermal energy has its origins in the decay of radioactive elements within the Earth. Heat associated with volcanic regions can be used to generate steam for district heating or to drive a steam turbine to produce electricity. Another form is �hot rocks�, which refers to hot masses of slightly radioactive rock buried several kilometres below the surface of the Earth. Cold water can be forced down to this rock, which is then fractured. Steam can be extracted from another borehole nearby. Geothermal energy is restricted to particular geographical locations. It is sustainable in that it can be harvested with limited environmental damage, although the heat stored in a particular place can certainly be depleted.

Nuclear energy from fission has severe problems relating to waste disposal, reactor accidents, nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Nuclear fusion, with the potential of less radioactive waste is still many decades away from commercial utilisation, and is unlikely to be free of negative implications for nuclear weapons proliferation.

Fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) are the principle cause of the enhanced greenhouse effect and are subject to resource depletion. Other problems include oil spills, coal mine accidents, oil-related warfare and pollution from acid rain, particulates and photochemical smog.

Geosequestration of carbon dioxide

In Australia coal burning is by far the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Almost all of these coal emissions come from coal-fired power stations, with the remainder coming from steelworks, alumina plants and cement works. Australia�s coal dependence is perhaps the main reason why the Federal Government refuses to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on preventing global warming.

Substantial government funding and policy support has been and continues to be towards trying to clean up coal, rather than committing resources to renewable energy production. One proposal, supported by the government and its chief scientific advisor is to collect CO2 during the combustion process in power stations, compress it and transport it in high pressure pipelines to long-term storage or �sequestration� points in underground geological formations, such as depleted oil and gas wells, saline aquifers, and deep unmineable coal seams. This proposal carries a number of uncertainties:

  • It is not known whether large volumes of CO2 can be safely stored indefinitely underground, although assessment is currently being carried out by the GEODISC group of the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies. One study has found that the largest storage potential is in West Australia, while the biggest point source emitters are in eastern Australia. There is no suitable store near the huge emission spot spanning the Hunter Valley � Lithgow � Port Kembla region, although there may be a store near the Latrobe Valley in Victoria. The study concluded that Australia has the potential to store about 100-115 Mt CO2 per year near large emitting sites. This is 19-20% of Australia�s total annual CO2-equivalent emissions or 26-30% of coal CO2 emissions.
  • The permeability of storage sites to CO2 is not yet known. The main potential danger of underground storage is the risk of escapes of large volumes of CO2, leading to both global climatic and local environmental and health impacts. Since CO2 is heavier than air, the sudden arrival of a large volume of CO2 at a point on the Earth�s surface could result in low-lying areas near the breach filling with CO2 and people and animals becoming asphyxiated. This kind of event could occur from breaching either an underground store or an above-ground pipeline as a result of lack of knowledge of the store�s capacity, mistakes in operations, earth tremors or sabotage.
  • The International Energy Agency (IEA) has calculated that the total costs of partially cleaned up electricity from a new coal-fired power station is 10.7c/kWh and 6.7c/kWh for a new natural gas combined-cycle power station (the cost of cleaning up CO2 waste from existing power stations would be higher). This compares with 8-10 c/kWh for electricity generated from large wind farms, which is expected to decline to 6-8c/kWh by 2010.

Lifestyle choices

  • Political decisions and industrial applications can make a big difference in the move towards energy sustainability in Australia. Ultimately, the direction of changes will be determined by the community (as consumers and voters). The most important cultural adaptation, which is anathema to many economists, is that we must learn to consume less energy and energy-related products. Although this will slow economic growth (as measured by GDP) and reduce the market for material goods it may actually increase social capital and quality of life. Many sustainable behavioural changes could also improve health and wellbeing and reduce costs of medical treatment in the long term.
  • One example of the excess personal energy intake over expenditure has been the doubling of the incidence of the so-called metabolic syndrome of obesity and Type 2 diabetes over the past 20 years. The metabolic syndrome is associated with more than half the cases of vascular disorders affecting the heart, eyes, kidneys brain and peripheral arteries, which account for considerable medical expenditure and loss of quality of life. Studies in children suggest that reduced energy expenditure, from increasing use of television and computers may be more important than excessive food intake in causing weight gain.
  • Transport accounts for a major proportion of fossil fuel consumption, the most unsustainable practice being from single private cars being used for commuting, thereby causing increasing congestion, pollution and slowing of traffic flow through cities. Establishment of more public transport and bicycle lanes and the location of dwellings closer to workplace and public transport would encourage the building of regular exercise into the working day. A seldom recognised spin off from regular exercise is that apart from its role in promoting cardiovascular fitness it also enhances a feeling of mental wellbeing.

Bryan Furnass

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Renewable energy & the ecology of energy transformations

At the rate industrialised peoples have grown used to using energy, no energy form can be used, and no energy transformation to electricity can occur, without environmental problems. On the whole all societies are profoundly ignorant of energy as engineers mderstand it and even less aware of energy as ecologists understand it. Hence the title of this article and the impetus behind it.

I should say at the outset that as the instigator of a large [75MW] wind energy project in Victoria, I can hardly be said to be opposed to the use of renewable energies. Nevertheless, I am seriously concerned with the cavalier approach to renewable energies apparent in even our most responsible media.

The very idea of renewables fosters the illusion that our present ignorant ways with energy can continue. The more viable renewables become and the more they are able to compete with fossil fuels - most of whose costs are simply ignored - the more they suppress energy conservation.

Renewables, not conservation, are sold as a panacea. Renewables are marketed on the basis that they will permit us to continue to live in the ways we have grown accustomed to but with �zero emissions�. This is a mischievous and dangerous illusion.

On average each Australian demands some 2kW (three horsepower) of electricity generating capacity and much more than that from our other energy systems (heating, transport etc.). Most of these systems are based on fossil fuels, which are of course not renewable and place a tremendous burden on the environment in transformation to electricity.

Large scale renewable systems involve mining sunshine via plants and the heat and movement the sun gives to the atmosphere and the oceans; hence hydro and wind power. Attempting to fill the current demand with renewables creates a raft of environmental, social and even moral concerns. Take e.g. �energy cropping� for electricity and automotive fuels. Energy cropping means �growing fuels� and burning them directly to generate electricity, distilling alcohol from sugar cane or squeezing oils from other plant materials and then burning these liquids in internal combustion engines to drive vehicles or again, in boilers to generate electricity. In the case of electricity it means wasting 60-80% of the crop because burning it to generate electricity is at best only 40% efficient. As auto fuel however, it means wasting 99%+ because most of it then goes to drive the auto-system and not the motorist. Only twenty percent is turned into motion by the car�s engine then 90%+ of that is used to push the car which is at least ten times heavier than its driver-passenger. Beside all the environmental damage implied here, there is a real case to ask whether it is moral to use potential food-bearing cropland that wastefully? It might be noted that I could ask what all this energy use and travelling is for!? But in this article I shall �restrain� myself to questions of technical efficiency.

For all their relative benignity, solar energies mined through hydroelectric plants (solar energy lifts the water), wind generators and natural draft towers such as the 1km high towers proposed for Mildura, generate a broad range of ecological implications. Just consider the implications of the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric installations for the Snowy River and for the social and ecological systems that lived along and in it. If all humans were to demand the same 2kW from the wind say, as we in Australia currently expect from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), the energetics of the atmosphere will change as surely as through burning fossil fuels. For the record, it needs to be said that solar cell electricity or photovoltaics is not an answer to the kind of bulk electricity demands we have today. Even here in Australia that�s the case because the quantities available per square metre per day are small, especially after deducting the energy costs of making and installing them.

In addition to ecological effects, all energy infrastructure costs energy to create, transport, install, maintain, dismantle when its life is done and to defend. If more kilowatthours of energy are used to set up, maintain, dismantle and repair damages associated with an energy form than it actually delivers, one can be excused for asking questions about it. That is almost certainly the case with nuclear power and therefore the sanity of its use has to be questioned even before we concern ourselves with issues of radiation and the potential of nuclear terrorism. The reason that this general view is not taken is, again, that virtually no-one sees it and then that we have not yet created the necessarily international structures that would enable us to act upon it.

Wind generators and natural draft towers will unequivocally deliver more electricity than their energy costs. However, they are patently not zero emission generators. Even in service, they suck energy from meteorological and ecological processes with various, as yet largely unknown, effects. In construction, monitoring, maintaining and dismantling, they have the usual multifarious energy and ecological implications.

There simply are no such things as energy and environmental cost-free energy forms. Even conservation requires its techniques to be set in place, monitored, maintained and ultimately, dismantled.

Driver-only automotive commuting is a category of energy use so wasteful that it deserves special mention. It is in a class of inefficiency all its own. The transport energy system pays a 10,000%+ premium for moving each of us. While virtually all of us are engaged in this activity, the scale of inefficiency is such that one is surely entitled to ask whether it is reasonable, let alone moral, to throw 100 units of renewable energy at an urban commuter, to get just one unit of kinetic energy? A task that a bicycle coupled with trains could do faster, more healthily and more ecologically sustainably for a tiny fraction of the energy cost.

Issues such as these however, simply do not figure on the public�s radar because there are no publicly recognised energy indicators, let alone efficiency indicators. Which is not to say that there are no indicators, only that they are not publicly recognised! Few of us actually read our electricity bills, let alone graph the efficiency of our cars. Most of us would not know where to start. Perhaps an energy efficiency meter could be given prominence as a new dashboard indicator!? The problem would be working out with manufacturers what to include in the calculation.

The price of energy is too low, joules and kWh are still too obscure as measures, and most of the really large scale pollutants associated with energy transformations such as water, carbon dioxide and heat are all invisible and, in any case, seem not even to be pollutants. The ecological costs such as the irretrievable destruction of habitats and species� extinctions are, if it�s conceivable, even less visible.

It is theoretically possible to calculate the energies that would have to be found to make good some of this damage, to suck the excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequester it safely, as in deep geological sequestration. If we were to add these energy-for-ecological-repair costs to the other energy costs of our renewables, let alone of our fossil fuels, few of our current energy sources would make much sense, ie. few would qualify as sources!

With all this in mind, our richest energy lode is unequivocally conservation techniques. So, change that favours the economics and fun associated with conservation and with reuse/recycling generally can be combined with the advent of economic and other incentives that favour low energy productions and pursuits such as in health, sport, communication, the arts, the knowledge industries and so on.

A conservation focus means that while definitely the way to go for new electricity generation, renewables should not be permitted to eclipse conservation. Many of these activities can be pursued by individuals with no help from government but government does have two important roles. The first is to reverse the many perverse incentives that continue to make nonsense of so many energy conserving activities. The second is to educate the whole community about energy matters not just enhanced greenhouse effects. The effects could be transformative both socially and ecologically.

A/Prof Frank Fisher, Monash University

Published in Energy News, J.A.I.E.Sept 2002

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Medicated Waterways

A study of pharmaceutical products in a western Sydney sewerage works found that many medications are getting through the system. The contraceptive pill is a major one: it is resistant to breakdown and can have a severe effect on fish. Antibiotics in sewage correlate with concentrations of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Anti-depressants are also present and can have varied and unexpected effects in snails and fish. Other compounds of concern are the lipid-lowering drugs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and common analgesics such as aspirin and paracetamol.

If sewage receives only primary treatment significant concentrations of all these drugs will be discharged. Secondary treatment removes variable amounts but still lets a lot through. Reverse osmosis can remove 99% of the contaminants but it is expensive and uses a lot of energy; it is not widely used. Activated carbon would also provide effective treatment.

Earthbeat, Radio National 5 July 03

Bullock Power

Osmosis is a process in which water molecules diffuse through a semipermeable membrane from a region of low salt to one of high salt concentration, equalising concentrations on both sides. In reverse osmosis the opposite is achieved: saltwater is forced in at high pressure, and the salt concentrates on one side of the membrane and pure water on the other.

Electric pumps are normally used to achieve the pressure needed, but in areas without electricity what else could do the job? Researchers in India have developed a strong gear box to convert the movement of bullocks walking in a circle to drive a pump. At twenty times atmospheric pressure the pump can force about 500 litres of salty groundwater through the membrane each hour.

The cost of the bullock powered system will be less than half of an electric one. It will be able to utilise the labour of India�s plough animals in summer, when they do not normally have any work, and pairs of animals would work in two hour shifts so they are not overworked.

New Scientist, 10 May 03

Overweight Fliers

Regional airlines in the USA, worried by a plane crash, surveyed the weight of passengers and luggage carried on planes with ten to nineteen seat capacity. They had been loading on the assumption that the average passenger weighed 80 kg and took 11 kg of baggage. The reality turned out to be an average passenger of 88 kg with baggage weighing 14 kg.

Airlines have had to do something to reduce their load. One airline now carries a maximum of 17 passengers, not 19. Another service, which used to take enough fuel to fly the return trip between Florida and the Bahamas, now takes less fuel and refuels in the Bahamas. And sometimes airlines do not take all the luggage and make alternative arrangements for its transport.

Flight International 13-19 May 03

Mother�s Milk

Research by Dani-Louise Bryan at Flinders Medical Centre, Adelaide has shown that human milk may be able to change its composition to help boost the immune system of a sick infant. The study compared the milk from women who were nursing healthy babies with that from mothers whose babies were infected by respiratory syncytial virus.

Milk samples from sick infants contained more protective cells although the mothers themselves were not sick. In particular there was a large increase in the number of white blood cells that are active in fighting infection. This breast milk would help to prime the infants� immune systems.

The Canberra Times, 3 July 03

Ornithocoprophile - a plant, usually growing on an island that thrives on guano. Seabird guano is a very concentrated fertiliser, rich in phosphates and nitrates, too rich for most plants to grow in.

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