: A Voice of Reason: Reflections on Australia

A Voice of Reason: Reflections on Australia

Justine Bell

Voice of_Reason_LC_36_1Ian Lowe; Penguin Books, 2010; 272 pp;
$34.95 (paperback)

A Voice of Reason is the latest book by renowned scientist and conservationist, Professor Ian Lowe. The book is a collection of selected writings from the past 20 years, organised around the key themes of 'Science, technology and the environment', 'Economics and politics', 'Culture and health', and 'Education'.

Lowe notes at the outset that he resisted the urge to substantially edit and change his works, which gives the book a 'time capsule' feel. The pieces included are a mixture of articles, book chapters, opinion pieces and conference presentations. They range from ominous observations about the future of the planet, through to light-hearted pieces about cricket and the inappropriateness of wearing suits in Australian summers. Lowe hand-picked this particular selection of writings to 'tell a consistent story about the human condition in 21st century Australia and the ways we can work to shape a better future' (p 8). Despite the seemingly disparate range of topics canvassed, he manages to do just this.

Clearly, Lowe's strength is writing about the environment, with the first section of the book providing almost half of its content. Reading over 15 of his works in this area in succession has a powerful impact. Although these pieces are repetitive in some places, this only helps to strengthen the messages Lowe is conveying. Through this section, Lowe convinces the reader that we must act now to preserve the planet for future generations. He presents the science in an accessible and understandable way, with statements such as 'talk of "clean coal" is nothing short of chutzpah' (p 103) making his opinions on science very clear to the non-scientist reader.

Lowe presents a convincing argument for urgent action on climate change, and the 'time capsule' effect of this book sadly highlights the lack of progress in this area. Lowe considers the possible consequences of further inaction, predicting a very bleak state of affairs by 2027, involving terminal decline of the Great Barrier Reef, decreased water security for urban areas, degradation of rural land, and a corresponding economic crisis for regional Australia (p 89). However, this dire warning is accompanied by a blueprint for change. Through this series of pieces, Lowe suggests a multi-faceted approach to tackling climate change — involving a price on carbon emissions supported by an overall cap on emissions, investing in renewable energy, and taking a more ecocentric view of urban planning — to facilitate the use of bicycles and public transport (p 102).

Lowe's incisive comments on the state of scientific research in Australia complement his arguments for addressing climate change. He argues for greater funding for research, and the establishment of a system which supports independence of researchers. He criticises the increasing commercialisation of research, and the corresponding suppression of research which does not suit the agenda of the government agency or organisation for which the research is conducted. Lowe emphasises the 'value to the community of having researchers who are not in anyone's pocket but will seek the truth and make it known, whatever discomfort that might produce for powerful interest groups' (p 25). These points are illustrated by examples of scientists being censored from releasing important findings regarding topics such as climate change and renewable energy. Addressing climate change requires governments to make enormous changes, and often researchers are in the best position to develop new technologies and policy responses. Lowe's arguments for reform of the research industry are imperative to his overall call for action on climate change.

The remaining sections of the book strengthen this call for action. In the 'Economics and politics' section, Lowe argues for a fundamentally different view of economics, which integrates economic growth with environmental protection. The sections on 'Culture and health' and 'Education' also emphasise the role of these sectors in developing a more sustainable society. For example, Lowe advocates an overhaul of scientific education, which promotes interdisciplinary approaches, and better reflects the inherently uncertain nature of scientific knowledge. It is suggested that this would equip a new generation to handle the complex nature of environmental problems. These sections also allow Lowe to explore a more diverse range of topics, such as privatisation of services, junk food advertising and male health issues. Although these could be viewed as deviations from the otherwise environmental focus of the book, they all relate to Lowe's underlying theme, which is the future of Australia.

Lowe concludes by reflecting on his experience at the Copenhagen conference in 2009, with emphasis on the positive outcomes of the conference. Despite the fact that a binding agreement was not reached at Copenhagen, Lowe focuses on the willingness of developing countries and big emitters to work towards a consensus. Amid the gloomy predictions, Lowe remains fundamentally optimistic about our chances of changing our current course of action. Lowe's final assertion is that 'there are only two paths forward, one leading to the gradual disintegration of the essential services for a civilised future, and the hopeful alternative of a fundamental change' (p 263). This collection of works certainly presents a compelling argument for choosing the latter path.

This book is an interesting and thought-provoking read, and a useful collection of some of Lowe's best work in a single volume. The blurb makes the bold claim that A Voice of Reason will 'inspire you to make a difference'; fortunately it has this desired impact.

JUSTINE BELL teaches environmental law at the T C Beirne School of Law, University of Queensland.

(2011) 36(1) AltLJ 71
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