Hopes for 2012

Here’s a bit of everything for the new year — some hopes for what we could and should be doing as a nation, in no particular order.

We must address the asylum seeker debate with decency, maturity and humility. We should accept many more refugees, and at the same time encourage other countries to do so too. There’s really very little downside to this, save for the political ramifications of xenophobia. The world collectively might not be interested in finding a safe home for all its refugees, and so if we let refugees come to us, they will certainly continue to do so. We might prefer that their lives were not further jeopardised by the journey, but, having arrived, it’s an utter perversion of human decency for us to turn them away, no matter how much we’d like to discourage further risky voyages. We must not create disincentives that rely on penalising innocent people; we have no right to play chess with human beings.

We must get some perspective on the economy; it is not a blanket reason for putting aside all other problems. Yes, it’s important. No, we are not teetering on the edge of starvation. Panic is precisely the thing that causes economic problems in the first place. Basically, let the disinterested economic experts make rational, progressive decisions based on careful, objective modelling, and ensure there is a safety net for the poor. Everyone else, suck it up.

We must continue to insist that our politicians get off their conservative arses and legalise same-sex marriage. This is truly a no-brainer. The arguments against it are utterly, unequivocally spurious, and will dissipate like so much hot air once the requisite legislation is passed. Nobody opposes same-sex marrige for any substantive reason, but basically just “because”. Once legalised, the whole “debate” will be relegated to the inane murmurings of ineffectual dinosaurs. (Do politicians fear a backlash from voters angry that their marriages are suddenly devoid of meaning following the gender requirements being dropped?)

For the love of humanity can we please redouble efforts to improve the health and living standards of those living in remote Aboriginal communities? Of course it won’t be done in a year. It’s not just about grand rhetorical gestures — though these have their place — and it’s certainly not about sending in the army. We have a lot of smart, dedicated people who have been on the case for some time, and surely by now we’ve learnt a thing or two about what can usefully be done, given sufficient government funding.

The climate change debate is not over, and won’t be for decades. We must not lose sight of the fact that the goal, in the end, is zero (or even negative) carbon emissions. The purpose of a carbon price is not simply to reduce emissions, but ultimately to price them out of existence. To make this work, alternatives must exist. Australia should, by all rights, be a world-leader in solar energy. We could be a world-leader in all kinds of renewable energy. Surely there is much more scope for public and private funding of renewable energy research. We might only contribute 1.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but renewable energy research could help reduce everyone’s emissions, not just our own.

Recycled drinking water — get used to the idea, people. Water efficiency is vastly more important than your squeamishness; there’s really no rational objection. Even now, the water you drink has already passed through the digestive tracts of a trillion different organisms, without any technological assistance. Water recycling is the lowest-hanging fruit for securing our water supplies (especially in places like Perth that are drying out). Why would we ignore it in favour of energy-intensive desalination  or enormous engineering works to transport water from thousands of kilometres away? Yes, we can build wind farms, tidal generators, etc. to power desalination plants, but we could be using that power to replace coal, not just to replace water.

The location of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) — the world’s largest telescope, and one of the world’s largest scientific projects — will be decided in 2012: either Australia or South Africa. Let’s step back from the parochial contest. Australia might not get it, but would this be such a terrible outcome, all things considered? Maybe Africa would benefit more from this project than Australia. Besides the raw economics, the presence of such visible, cutting edge science must have some inspirational effect. Scientists can travel, but for young Africans trying to discern their opportunities in life, a local SKA would surely leave an impression.1

Finally, in an Olympic year, let’s not lose sight of our non-sporting heroes. A nation defined by sport is a nation not defined by its doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers and other professionals. Sport is exciting, and important in its own way, but not really on the same scale as curing illness, defending human rights, exploring the universe and creating things that have never existed before.

Now, you lot, get started on that while I take a holiday.

  1. The same would be true of young Australians, but we are relatively spoiled for choice. []

Recycled drinking water

The recycled water issue has arisen here in WA, where our state water minister Graham Jacobs has come out as a proponent.

There is nothing wrong with recycled drinking water. Surely all the water we drink has been through the digestive systems of a hundred million organisms over the history of the Earth anyway. Hence, the “yuck factor” is an astonishingly inane reason to reject water that we’ve recycled ourselves. It’s entirely psychological – nobody has shown reason to believe that there are any actual safety issues (except insofar as dihydrogen monoxide is inherently unsafe, of course, but if you’re worried about that then you’re truly a sucker).

There are plenty of other things one might find cringeworthy about the food and drink we consume, from the component parts of a chicken nugget to sugar content of so-called  “flavoured water”. These are far more legitimate points of concern than either the imaginary dangers or “yuck factor” of recycled water.

The shadow water minister seems to be hedging his bets, though:

The Opposition’s spokesman for water, Fran Logan, supports the strategy, but says he is concerned about the public response to the longer-term recommendation to source water directly from waste water treatment plants.

“With respect to taking waste water directly from a sewerage works and then putting them through a recycling plant and turning it into straight drinking water, I think the Minister is going to have a big job on his hands convincing West Australians that’s fine and that’s ok to drink,” he said.

One would have hoped that Mr Logan, being someone who purports to support the idea, might actually do something to help reassure the public of the safety of recycled water, rather than promoting the fears of its opponents.