Last Tuesday the Prahran Town Hall played host to the grandly titled Sustainable Planet Forum 2006. Okay, so in essence it was a campaign event for the Liberals, but there was a lot more than mere tub-thumping going on. The panel of seven included a few Libs (David Davis, Greg Hunt), but also a few from left field, such as weatherman-cum-environmentalist Rob Gell, public transport guru Paul Mees, spokespeople from Environment Victoria and the Wilderness Society (they even had a table at the back of the room) and everyone's favourite Catholic funnyman, Father Bob Maguire.
As with most public meetings that aren't simply there to whinge about overdevelopment, this one was sparsely attended. The fifty of us who were there, though, we're treated to an excellent overview of the environmental issues that plague us.
Greg Hunt offered an interesting perspective on the water dilemmas that Melbourne is currently facing. He looked at the issue as the challenge that our generation needs to meet, much like previous generations have had challenges of their own to meet and overcome. He compared it to the cholera epidemic that plagued London in the 1860s, or the acid rain that fell upon cities in Europe and North America in the 1980s. Both of these eras had their doomsayers, but both overcame them.
Megan Clinton from the Wilderness Society (!!) gave a presentation on the destruction of old growth forest in eastern Victoria: essentially Gippsland plus a bit more. Paul Mees spoke about the lessons that can be learnt from the Zurich public transport system - including the interesting snippet that their transport bureaucracy has one-tenth the staff of ours, and those guys actually run their system rather than merely overseeing the running of it, like our Department of Infrastructure does.
At first the issues on the table seem like a disparate grab-bag of enviro-concerns. Looking a little deeper, though, and there's a clear common theme.
Each of these issues revolves around how we, as a society, deal with scarce resources. In the case of water, the scarcity is obvious. In the case of logging, the scarcity lies in the pristine old growth forests. In the case of transport, the scarcity of both oil and road space is at play. Though it was a little quiet on the night, we could also add to that list energy generation, in which we have a scarcity of clean sources of fuel.
And the solution to this scarcity? That's where I believes the Liberals could really show leadership, if only they saw it. Each of these issues could be dealt with effectively through a pricing mechanism that both reflected the scarcity of the goods, and the environmental impact of consumption: internalise the externalities. It's absurd that water is both suffering a critical shortage, and is cheap as, well, water. We can have all the water restrictions and public education campaigns in the world, but if we charge a price that reflects the scarcity of the good, we can be sure consumers' behaviour will change pretty quickly. Applying the same logic to the other scarcities will net similar results.
This is an idea that should sit snugly within the values of the Liberal Party. It emphasises the importance of individual consumers in achieving environmental change, and by internalising externalities, it makes individuals responsable for the effects of their own consumption. It would create a myriad of opportunities for environmenal entrepreneurs, who all of a sudden will find their alternative energy sources may be cost effective and that consumers are rushing toward installing water tanks in the backyard.
With the Libs slowly starting to engage in the debate, perhaps we're finally getting somewhere.
(Admittedly, I left before the final speaker, David Davis, and questions. But I doubt he differed greatly from the party line.)