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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1998  
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Contents >> People & the Environment >> Attitudes & Actions: People and the environment

Attitudes & Actions: People and the environment

The high rates of energy consumption in the more affluent industrially developed countries of the world, including Australia, are responsible for the highest rates of greenhouse gas.

It is now widely recognised in Australia and throughout the world that the environment, economy and social well being are inextricably linked - that all spheres of human activity impact on the natural environment and are affected or limited by the environment. For example, human settlements and economic activities may deplete natural resources, pollute air and water, and modify or destroy natural ecosystems. In turn, the extent and quality of remaining natural assets (e.g. forests, oil reserves and arable land) limit current and future economic development and consumption levels. Also, pollution and degradation of the natural environment affect human health and quality of life.

People interact with the natural environment in various ways. At the most basic level, we all draw directly on air and water for our survival. While some hunting and gathering societies of the world still depend largely on indigenous plant and animal sources for food, medicine, clothing and shelter, most Australians rely primarily on modified land use practices, such as agriculture and mining, and on highly developed technologies to convert natural resources into the vast array of goods and services characteristic of our relatively affluent lifestyle. People also have a scientific interest in ecological systems and the natural environment, as well as spiritual and cultural connections to nature - ranging from formal religious connections to the land (among many of the world's indigenous populations) to enjoyment of recreational amenities and appreciation of natural beauty.

The population environment process model, developed by Statistics Canada, provides 'a conceptual representation of how modern society interacts with the natural environment'.1 It shows the flow of resources and services/amenities from the environment to the population, both directly and through the economy. It also shows that the population and economy have direct restructuring effects on natural assets and natural processes - and indirect effects on the environment through the flow of wastes.

The impacts of human activity on the environment can be far reaching, and sometimes the environmental and social costs of economic development are not shared in the same proportion as the benefits. For example, the high living standards of people in the world's more affluent countries are based on disproportionate consumption of global resources, and may contribute to environmental degradation and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources both within and beyond their borders. In particular, they may contribute to environmental damage and increasing poverty in some of the world's poorer resource-dependent nations.2

Environmental problems such as air and water pollution, while generally more concentrated at the source, can nevertheless spread considerable distances, crossing State and national borders, extending into international waters and even into the earth's stratosphere. For example, the enhanced greenhouse effect (global warming) has the potential to affect climate, sea levels, and agriculture on a global scale.3 The high rates of energy consumption in the more affluent industrially developed countries of the world, including Australia, are responsible for the highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions.3

Rapid economic growth, rising living standards and continued strong population growth in the world's developing countries are expected to greatly increase the pressure on world resources and the natural environment over the next few decades. At the present time, however, the wealthier countries within the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) block still dominate the rest of the world in energy use and associated environmental impacts.

THE POPULATION ENVIRONMENT PROCESS MODEL

Source: Statistics Canada, Human Activity and the Environment, 1994.


Sustainable development
The principles of ecologically sustainable development underpin much of the thinking and policy relating to environmental protection and economic development in the world today. Sustainable development may be defined as 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.4 In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit, agreed on a comprehensive action plan for global sustainable development (Agenda 21).5

Agenda 21 is notable for its emphasis on the need to integrate economic, social and environmental issues. It is also notable for its strong endorsement of the participation of non-government organisations, local community groups, and ordinary individuals in decision making and implementation of sustainable development strategies, particularly those which can affect their communities.5

Australia's Landcare movement is a good example of such an approach, taken in relation to landscape restoration and sustainable land use. While the majority of all Landcare groups receive government assistance (e.g. funding, materials and information), the planning and implementation of projects is carried out by volunteers in local Landcare groups. Since its inception in 1990, Landcare has received very strong community support. By March 1994 more than 2,000 registered groups were active in environments as diverse as urban bushland and arid rangeland in central Australia. 2

In addition to farmers and community groups, Landcare includes school groups which are active in monitoring programs designed to collect information about various aspects of their local environments including water quality in streams, soil salinity and earthworm populations.2

The Clean Up Sydney Campaign, which became Clean Up Australia, is another example of a grassroots movement which has captured the public imagination and attracts strong community support throughout Australia.2 In 1995, on Clean Up Australia Day, half a million volunteers removed about 10,000 tonnes of rubbish from waterways, parklands and roadsides throughout Australia.7


International comparison
While energy use is only one aspect of consumption, it is the best single indicator of a nation's overall intensity of extraction, production, consumption and pollution.6

In 1995, OECD countries, which accounted for 19% of the world's population, were responsible for more than half of the world's energy use. Average per capita energy use by OECD countries was six times the average for the rest of the world. Among OECD countries, Australia ranked third behind Canada and the USA in per capita energy consumption. Those countries with the highest rates of energy use also had the highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions.3
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, 1995

Total energy consumption
Population

Selected OECD countries
TOE(a)/capita
%
%

Canada
6.0
3.1
0.5
USA
5.3
24.2
4.6
Australia
3.6
1.1
0.3
New Zealand
3.4
0.2
0.1
Germany
3.0
4.2
1.4
Japan
2.8
6.0
2.2
France
2.7
2.7
1.0
United Kingdom
2.7
2.7
1.0
Italy
2.2
2.2
1.0
Other OECD
1.8
12.3
6.8
Total OECD
3.1
58.6
19.1
Rest of world
0.5
41.4
80.9
World
1.0
100.0
100.0

(a) Tonnes in oil equivalent.

Source: OECD, Environmental Data, Compendium 1997.

Consumption, lifestyle and the environment
While much of the environmental protection and sustainable development policy in Australia (and other industrialised countries) has an industry focus, there is also a growing recognition of the need to modify consumer demand.6 It is individual consumers who decide what type of products they want to buy and how much they are willing to pay; what they are prepared to do without; and to what extent they are willing to change their current lifestyles in order to achieve sustainable consumption levels.

There are various environmental programs (both government and non-government) aimed at influencing the attitudes and consumption patterns of individuals and households in Australia. These include promotion of environmental education in schools and higher education curriculums; community education/awareness programs; pricing incentives to encourage energy and water conservation in the home; promotion of the 'reduce, re-use, recycle' philosophy regarding household waste; and a range of measures aimed at reducing use of private cars, particularly in major cities.

Recent surveys indicate that the majority of Australians are concerned about environmental problems, and rank the importance of environmental protection as equal to or greater than economic growth. (See Australian Social Trends 1998, People's concerns about environmental problems). However, cost savings appear to be a much more powerful motivation than environmental protection among households which take action (e.g. insulating their houses or installing solar hot water systems) to conserve energy, while initial costs are an important factor preventing people from taking action. (See Australian Social Trends 1998, Household energy use).

It would appear that people are prepared to modify their consumption patterns and behaviour in favour of the environment when this is economical and does not have a serious impact on their lifestyles. For example, while the proportion of Australian households involved in recycling their waste has increased remarkably in recent years, mainly due to increased availability of kerbside recycling facilities (see Australian Social Trends 1998, Household waste management), there is no evidence to indicate that they are consuming less or generating less waste.

Australians also appear reluctant to reduce their use of private motor vehicles in favour of public transport. To some extent this is associated with the predominance of low density housing in Australia, and the consequent urban sprawl, which can make provision of attractive public transport options uneconomical.

In 1996, 87% of Australian households had at least one registered motor vehicle while 46% had two or more. The vast majority of people drove to work or study alone. For those who engaged in car pooling, and those who used public transport, convenience and cost savings were the main motivations. (See Australian Social Trends 1998, Transport choices and the environment).


International comparison
With its heavy dependence on oil, the transport sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and to the depletion of a non-renewable natural resource. Transport fuel consumption also plays a major role in local and regional air pollution which affects human health and the environment.3

The use of passenger cars, the least efficient form of road transport, is increasing throughout the world, and is particularly high in the more industrially developed countries. In 1995, the average rate of passenger cars in use in OECD countries was 27 times the rate for the rest of the world. Australia ranked third among OECD countries (with 499 passenger cars in use per 1,000 population) behind the USA and Italy.

PASSENGER CARS IN USE PER 1,000 POPULATION

1985
1995
Selected countries
rate
rate

United States of America
553
564
Italy
397
524
Australia
433
499
Germany
na
495
Canada
429
465
New Zealand
458
458
France
381
432
United Kingdom
334
415
Japan
231
356
Other OECD
180
196
Total OECD
318
381
Rest of world
15
14
World
77
84

Source: OECD, Environmental Data, Compendium 1997.

Endnotes
1 Statistics Canada, 1994, Human Activity and the Environment.

2 Aplin, G. Mitchell, P. Cleugh, H. Pitman, A. Rich, D. 1995, Global Environmental Crises - an Australian Perspective, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

3 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 1997, Environmental Data, Compendium 1997, OECD, Paris.

4 World Commission on Environment and Development, 1990, Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

5 Keating, M. 1993, The Earth Summit's Agenda for Change - A plain language version of Agenda 21 and the other Rio Agreements, Centre for Our Common Future, Geneva.

6 Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1996, Environmental Economics Seminar Series - Consumption and the Environment, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

7 Clean Up Australia, 1995, Annual Report incorporating the Rubbish Report, Cleaning Up Australia, Pyrmont.


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