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Byron Shire
April 14, 2024

Struggling with the growth dream

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A pelican at Belongil estuary. Photo Mary Gardner
A pelican at Tallow Beach. Photo Mary Gardner

Mary Gardner

This waterway on Tallow Beach is still open to the sea. Nearly in tears, I stare at the pelican strutting in the cross currents. The lump of knowledge chokes in my throat and I am lost for words. The camera with its telephoto lens holds the image better than memory. I stutter, rewriting these first words again and again. After a painful hour, only three words remain: less is more.

If I flew with you as the pelican does over to the Belongil waterway, we could both see the strange busyness of people. They cut roads through the swamp for their noisy vehicles. The exhaust fumes sicken their lungs and hearts. Accidents also happen. All of this hurts and kills people.

Some of the exhaust settles onto the roads until rain washes the pollution into channels, all joined with waterways and beaches. The chemistry of the sea around us absorbs other pollution in the air. The ocean water receives everything. It becomes acidic. It is dirty with rubber from tyres, particulates from fossil fuel and more chemicals. Marine life suffers.

Soaring over the traffic jams, I point out routes for new roads, for parking lots and even buildings dedicated to storing more cars. We glide over hectares to be done over with more housing developments as thick as a city. Wetlands to be dug till their soils produce fresh acid sulfates. Food trees and shelters for koalas and all the other creatures will disappear. Hard surfaces will armour more of the soft ground. The effluent from the sewage treatment plant, already overwhelming the Belongil, will increase. That coastal edge there at Belongil is being prepped for more rock walls, well known to hurry erosion of beaches.

We do understand how building more roads, burning more fossil fuels and paving more coastal wetlands is not progress but excess. Of the entire far north coast, here is one of the last coastal places not quite cemented.

We are in the curious stage of living at the very limits of what we once labelled ‘growth’. What has it amounted to? In Australia, the Australian Council of Social Services explains that what measures as ‘average wealth’ is deeply inequitable: the upper group has 70 times the financial value of the lowest one. WWF describes another type of inequity: the known loss of over fifty per cent of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. The unknown losses of other lives from molluscs to insects. Global warming is racing ahead off the charts.

Trends are mental tsunamis. They flood our imaginary sense of the future. The experience is so vivid that our vision is shattered. It’s a waking nightmare.

Every culture, even our western one, respects bad dreams. Sometimes, personal counselling suggests that we each meet such terrors in an imaginary dialogue. Listen, respond and imagine new actions. Collective terrors require the same. As we keep listening, small details light up. Little turning points appear. Once again, we spot other potential. Our sense of shattered futures regroups itself but differently.

Here in Byron Bay, we struggle to accept limits to ‘growth’. Nightmare trends for more cars, bigger buildings, more roads and even more rock walls seem well underway. But just as we dreamed them up, we can re-imagine them. What about alternative growth trends? Backing off from pollution? Resolving inequities among ourselves and other species? Returning plants lost to beaches, wetlands, neighbourhoods and rural places? Less is more.

The great bird I watch watches me. Its kind survived trends over millennia to get here. I hang onto a phrase from an Aboriginal Australian language. Tangara minnarka. Brought from far away by a pelican.

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  1. The great housing Ponzi scheme swallows everything in it’s way, clearing biodiversity, ecosystems, native vegetation and clearing land for housing! Do we really want our Eastern coastline to be wall to wall housing, roads and infrastructure?
    The “big Australia” lobbyists would have Australia absorb a population of 70 million or more, for “economic growth”, but the costs are usually dismissed. What makes Australia unique is being eradicated for short-term profit grabs at the cost of our natural heritage, and native species.
    We already have one of the highest rates of extinction in the world, and the growth machine isn’t about to halt. It’s assumed that when it comes to humans, the Cornucopia myth of endless fruits and benefits from Nature is alive and well, and we can grow our own numbers without limits.

  2. How about World OVERPOPULATION?!Greater awareness of our relationship with this planet.Living more resourcefully.Consume less in everyway.Quality over quantity.Allow some Wisdom to prevail.The current trend is fast tracking big development all the way to the Gulf along our east coast.What was once a green belt is becoming black and grey.Concrete and bitumen and a constant stream of 4×4’s.

  3. I sympathise with the writers and commenters’ concerns about “growth” and also worry that the whole thing is a giant Ponzi scheme. But oh, the irony of whinging for conservative values via electrons propagating around the globe. It’s not dissimilar to yearning for a stone age theocracy via youtube videos.
    Big Australia is not an aspiration I hold either, but a little research will tell you that most humans of the planet are now reproducing at or below the natural replacement rate. Population growth is being driven by improved health. That is, nutrition, sanitation, reduced maternal and infant mortality, and longer life expectancy. Feeding and healing sick and starving children is working.

    Big Australia will only be driven by migration and improved life expectancy. Where do you stand on these?

  4. @sluggoes: “Big Australia will only be driven by migration and improved life expectancy”. We don’t have to be condemned to the Stone Age, if we don’t have the Capitalistic growth you clearly support, as synonymous to “progress”. Population growth now is stealing wealth and resources from future generations. We don’t have to have continual profits, and the worship of “growth” to improve – or maintain- our lifestyles. Actually, we are now hitting the brick wall of limits to growth, and per capita GDP is slowing down along with national economic growth. The more of us there are, the more of our finite resources must be shared between more people. We need a transition to a steady-state economic model, to maintain our amenities, living standards and our good life for future generations. With bipartisan support for “big Australia”, there are alternative political parties with sensible population policies to vote for!


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