Category Archives: Environment

Beware the sanctions stick

This piece first appeared in The Courier Mail in September 2006

Sanctions are very high on the USA’s agenda lately. Not only are they pushing the United Nations to support sanctions against Iran for their pursuit of a nuclear program, they have just recently announced sanctions against Thailand because their military did what nearly every Thai citizen wanted them to do. As Australia debates whether to go along for the Iran sanctions ride, it’s perhaps time to examine this whole sanction issue more closely.

It would be true to say that the entire idea of sanctions against Iran is losing favour. Russia, China, France and now Norway have stated they would vote against sanctions due to the right of any country to access peaceful nuclear technology. This right to a nuclear future seems even more sensible and indeed necessary when we consider the global warming crisis we inarguably face. With coal-fired power stations being a major contributor to global warming, it’s far more responsible to support a country’s drive towards peaceful nuclear power, than insist the coal-fired status quo be maintained.

The USA’s insistence on a coal fired future for Iran comes from a country that is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases in the world, with its yearly share equalling 24.3% of the total. Iran has long stated that its drive towards nuclear technology is solely for power generating, while the USA (of course) has argued that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Naturally, the USA would be right here. They were right about Iraq’s ‘Weapons of mass destruction’ stash weren’t they? Who could honestly doubt their intelligence now!

Yet just imagine, that just before the UN were to vote on sanctions against Iran, some scallywag country…let’s say France because they’re always taking a contrarian view, proposed sanctions against the USA for their failure to join the Kyoto Protocol and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Can you imagine the quiet on the floor of the UN? Can you imagine the deathly silence as Switzerland or Germany moved to second the proposal?

The average thinking UN Rep, after taking a few deep breaths and a stiff gin from the closest bar, would vote against the proposal. Any country imposing formal trade sanctions against the USA would effectively be shooting themselves in the foot, as the USA would swiftly retaliate with sanctions against them. Anyway, Australia has a free trade agreement with the USA, which means we can’t possibly impose trade sanctions. Trust the French to come up with silly ideas. Sacré bleu!

Yet informal public action, action taken by the populace without government endorsement is not so silly. This type of action against the USA could simply stop at mild first tier boycotts, or extend to the more ugly second tier model. First tier boycotts could involve US origin products like, shoes, software (yep, that includes you Mr Gates), Ipods, sports equipment and even holiday travel. Disneyland beware! These first tier actions wouldn’t negatively affect non-American enterprises to any great extent. Businesses selling USA origin products would simply redirect customers onto other brands. There are alternatives to the Ipod you know!

It’s not like we Australians haven’t done this sort of thing before. I clearly remember a dinner party in 1995, at the height of the Mururoa French nuclear testing crisis, where the host enthusiastically declared that there was nothing French at all on the menu. He even resisted French ingredients and French dressing. Restaurants at the time were advertising proudly on blackboards that there was “No French cheese served here.”

Second tier sanctions would be more painful yet potentially more influential. These would involve the boycotting of local companies with USA ownership including McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Oracle, Caterpillar and Dell. Certainly not the preferred option, this form of boycott would hurt local workers; yet create greater discontent, greater publicity and greater potential for change.

Yet hold on, what if those trickster French included Australia on the sanctions list because of our refusal to sign the Kyoto agreement. After all, we did reject their cheese for a while AND we beat them at rugby. Sacré bleu again!

Before we rush to join the USA in the sanctions push, Australian politicians must consider the repercussions of our own environmental inaction. Sanctions are usually only imposed by the very sure or the very arrogant, and for both American and Australian governments in the lead-up to elections, surety is not something they can easily claim.

 

Time to put-up or shut-up on fuel prices

On holidays with my daughter in California recently, we caught the Amtrak train from Merced to San Francisco. During one of the all-too frequent stoppages we struck up a conversation with Brian and Jean, a couple who were on their yearly holidays and who were two of the few Americans who take a train at holiday time. Brian was an executive for Amtrak, which meant he only paid a fraction of the fare anywhere in the States; a good reason to travel by train in anyone’s language.

 Now besides the obvious topics like ‘Why does the train stop for long periods for no apparent reason” and “will the Democrats win the election”, we spent quite a while talking about the nature of wealth in America. The bottom line according to this couple was that if Americans could buy a mid-range four-wheel drive plus afford the gas to run it, they felt wealthy. It didn’t really matter about education, health or real estate. The main criteria, the one that mattered in the hearts and minds of Middle America, was the good old gas-guzzler.

 The recent local outcry on the price of fuel indicates that we also see cars and the ability to run them as more than just a transport imperative. Yet there’s a major difference between our American friends and us here in the luckiest country. We have a public transport system and they don’t. Simple. We have a car alternative, whereas they are largely car-dependent due to necessity.

 Catching a bus between suburbs in LA is harder than buying a good coffee anywhere in the States. Sure, there’s the New York subway and the San Francisco trams, but other than the few icon systems in the major cities, America’s public transport system is old fashioned and predominantly used by school children. It’s pretty crook.

 So why is there suddenly a public outcry about fuel prices when we could actually save many dollars and a great deal of stress by jumping on a bus, train or tram. The answer is that for us, like for our US buddies, the motorcar has become less a functional tool and more a symbol not only of our wealth, but of our personal freedom and sense of control.

 Our obsession with individual freedom means that we choose the splendid isolation of our motorcar rather than having to share a seat with someone on public transport. How yucky! Taking public transport means succumbing to the often unpredictable hiccups that impact on the smooth running of any system. All systems at times catch a cold. There’s always the possibility of breakdowns, vandalism, buckled lines, flat tires and those terribly thoughtless people who fall onto railway tracks.

 Rather than place ourselves in an imperfect system where our hard fought sense of control is threatened, we choose the car…the perfect icon of air-conditioned, GPS assisted freedom.

 Yet this control comes at a price, and as we’re experiencing lately, this price is the ever-increasing cost of a litre of fuel. Americans are discovering as their fuel costs bite, that the price of freedom is never stable. As they begin to lose the sense of control that filling up the V8 provides, some may realise that any sense of freedom based on a piece of metal or a market commodity is a fragile sense of freedom indeed.

 The strange thing is that the theory of supply and demand states that the less fuel we buy, the more likely it is that the price will go down. Yep, that’s right, the classic price model tells us that should we somehow manage to leave our symbols of independence in the garage more often in order to brave the imperfections of public transport, the price of fuel would plummet. What’s more, due to public transport largely being government controlled, the same model won’t apply in reverse. Ticket prices won’t rise with demand…or so the theory goes.

 So the answer really is very simple. Either we shut up and happily pay the escalating price of fuel in order to maintain our fragile sense of control, or we shut up and embrace our public transport system…a system that like all of us catches a cold sometimes. Unlike our US cousins, at least we have a choice.