Q&A

Thinking Beyond the Bushfires

PhD candidate and Sydney Environment Institute research assistant Eva Perroni talks to PolisPlan directors, Steven Liaros and Nilmini De Silva, about adapting to a changing future by reconnecting with the land and finding our place in our local communities.

Photo by Carnaby Gilany on Unsplash

“Rather than blaming the powerful we should empower each other within our local communities. This starts with rebuilding our local energy system as a renewable energy micro-grid, powering a water micro-grid and irrigating a diverse, regenerative food system. In this way we will be able to reconnect with the land and find our place in our community.”

 

Eva: How can we use the current bushfire/climate crisis unfolding across Australia to prompt a rethink of governance models, business processes and social systems? 

Steven and Nilmini: The current bushfire crisis in Australia has focused our minds on the broader issue of climate change. While we may have previously felt safe in the cities, the smoke and hazardous air quality left us with no doubt that a changing climate would impact us all. It brought rural communities—both their struggles and their resilience—into our living rooms. The communities that are directly affected will soon start the process of rebuilding and so this is an ideal time to ask whether we just rebuild our towns and villages as they were before or examine opportunities to do things differently.

Current governance models are centralised in the capital cities, while business processes are focused on extraction of natural resources for large-scale mass production. This has created a social system in which small rural communities are disempowered both politically and economically. Interestingly, the empowerment of these communities starts with managing their own energy supply. Over the past decade, we at PolisPlan have been exploring how the ability to generate, store and distribute energy around a town could transform not just energy supply but also water and food to create more resilient communities into the future. Taking the development of an energy micro-grid at each township as a starting point, we would then add a significant bushfire buffer zone around each town. A water micro-grid in that buffer zone would include water reservoirs and wetlands, with surplus renewable energy used to pump water as needed. The water-charged landscape would mitigate bushfire risk, provide water to the town and also irrigate a diverse, regenerative agricultural system. Regenerative agriculture has a positive impact on the land. It holds more water by building soil depth and health, therefore also supporting a rich diversity of life.

If communities could collaborate to manage the energy, water and food systems, they could conceivably harvest, store and distribute all their energy and water and a significant proportion of their food needs locally. Importantly, integrating these systems would make them all more efficient. This integrated system would have multiple benefits. The more a community can produce locally, the less money bleeds out of their community making them more economically resilient. Collaborating to provide these basic necessities builds community connections and social capital, while building up the soil and a diverse food system builds natural capital. There are already some good examples we can follow, such as Lochiel Park in Adelaide and The Cape development project in Cape Paterson.

 

As the physical climate impacts intensify, both locally and globally, what model/s of climate action require greater attention?

We believe the most important climate action is re-localisation. That is, building local economies as a pathway to regenerating social and natural capital. In recent decades we have become more individualistic and our relations with others have become increasingly transactional. The above approach requires more engagement, negotiation and collaboration between neighbours and within local communities. This is another important climate action—taking responsibility for our local community and environment.

Rebuilding our towns and villages this way allows us to showcase all the climate actions that are already happening. For example, many recent energy projects are collectively funded by communities so we can also learn from and encourage more ‘Community Renewable Energy’ projects. With respect to the energy transition we tend to focus on the shift from fossil fuels to renewables but equally important is the shift from large-scale power plants to a distributed and networked energy grid. This is the same for water and food. Instead of a few large dams with massive channel and pipe infrastructure, communities everywhere can harvest, store and distribute water. The local management of energy and water makes the shift in food production possible—from large-scale industrial, chemical-dependent, monocultures to local, diverse, regenerative agriculture.

As we manage food and water locally we can connect with and learn from natural systems. One thing we can learn is that there is no waste in nature. Closing the loop, converting all waste into a resource or designing zero-waste systems is another important climate action. This has been conceptualised as the transition from a linear—take, make, use, dispose—economy to a circular economy.

 

Climate change is just one major megatrend predicted to fundamentally change the way we live (alongside technological, geopolitical, demographic, cultural and economic changes). What are some integrated examples of how we can adapt to a changing future? 

In 2012, CSIRO prepared a report called ‘Our Future World: Global Megatrends that will change the way we live’. The trends they identified included resource depletion, collapse of ecosystems, geopolitical changes with the rise of China, an ageing population and the various impacts of the internet. The final megatrend is the change in consumer behaviour whereby experiences and social relationships are prioritised over material goods. The scale and scope of these changes are vast and given we are now so connected globally, no-one can escape the social, economic and political impacts of these megatrends.

We have already indicated that re-localisation in order to build social and natural capital would help us adapt to the impacts of climate change and collapse of ecosystems. A diverse regenerative food system can help regenerate ecosystems from the soil up, while also creating a cooler micro-climate. The local, circular economy addresses the issue of resource depletion as we convert waste to resources and substantially reduce the need to extract new resources. As we build up our local economy, we also reduce our dependence on the broader global economy, at least for our basic natural needs. Geopolitical changes will then have a lesser impact on communities that are more resilient in this way. Such healthy and connected communities will reduce the need for transactional forms of aged care, child care and education.

The internet has already substantially changed the way we live and work and also accelerated technological change. These changes mean that we are less reliant on major cities for work opportunities, for shopping or to participate in public debates.

 

Thomas Berry once wrote, “the deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.” What new narratives do we need to guide us to a viable, flourishing future?

The central narrative of our societies is that ‘jobs and growth’ will lead to a prosperous future. What we are witnessing when we analyse these global megatrends is that many jobs have already disappeared, work is becoming more insecure and a large number of existing jobs will be obsolete in the near future. At the same time, all the human and fossil fuel energy we have put into work and growing the economy has resulted in damaged ecosystems and an exhausted, disenfranchised and a debt-trapped population. For many young people today, the story that if you work hard you will succeed is not achievable. Housing is not affordable, other living costs are high, while any available work is insecure.

The new social narratives need to tell us how to change and what we are changing to. These include the transition from centralised to distributed systems, from an extractive to a regenerative relationship to ecosystems and from a linear to a circular economy.  Importantly these are not narratives we should tell governments or corporations to adopt but rather they are the way we should rebuild our own communities. Rather than blaming the powerful we should empower each other within our local communities. This starts with rebuilding our local energy system as a renewable energy micro-grid, powering a water micro-grid and irrigating a diverse, regenerative food system. In this way we will be able to reconnect with the land and find our place in our community.

 



Steven Liaros and Nilmini De Silva are directors of PolisPlan and are developing Circular Economy Villages as a new approach to regenerative land development. With qualifications in civil engineering, town planning and environmental law, Steven is currently undertaking a PhD research project at the University of Sydney’s Department of Political Economy. With qualifications in civil engineering and project management Nilmini is now using her skills in documentary photography to empower local communities and raise awareness of social issues.

Eva Perroni is a doctoral student at FoodLab Sydney, an interdisciplinary project supported by University of Sydney’s Sydney Environment Institute (SEI) and UNSW Canberra, in partnership with the City of Sydney, and TAFE NSW addressing local food insecurity through participatory social enterprise. As a freelance writer, Eva’s work profiles environmental leaders, grassroots movements and life-enhancing farming methods that are working to nourish the planet and its people.