Public ideas

Wider systems thinking

Budawang National Park

It shouldn’t be necessary to state that humans live in a complex ecosystem, which means our welfare is dependent on the health of that ecosystem. But it is necessary, because of the way we compartmentalize our thinking.

This week, budget week, policymakers have been concerned with economic indicators – the trifecta of inflation, growth and unemployment – but as my colleague Miriam Lyons reminds us, the economy is a subsidiary of the environment. We cannot consider it as a stand-alone system.

Or as the ABC’s Gareth Hutchens puts the issue in a post – How long can federal budgets keep ignoring a deeper truth? – “without the environment, there’s no economy” he states.

Hutchens’ post has links to papers on environmental accounting, reminding us that “humans are an inseparable part of nature, incapable of surviving without the ecosystem services nature generates.”

In our thinking of public policy we must break from thinking about some trade-off between “the environment” and “the economy” – and for that matter between “society” and “the economy”. That way of thinking is institutionalized in our universities with their separated disciplines and in our governments with their divisions of portfolio responsibilities. But it serves us poorly, because the complex ecosystem of which we are a part has no clear-cut boundaries.

The way we are

It is hard to do justice to Phillip Adams’ 31-minute interview with social psychologist Hugh Mackay on Late Night Live: Hugh Mackay has been watching us for 60 years.


They cover the history of the ways people keep themselves informed and how those changing ways – printing, radio, TV, the Internet, cellphones, social media – influence our private and collective behaviour. They acknowledge the influence of Marshall McLuhan (“The medium is the message”) in the way they see the influence of the media.

They go on to observe the way Australia has changed over the half-century that Mackay has been observing and documenting Australian life. He has observed substantial progress in gender equality, smaller households, more geographical mobility, busier lives, and secularization.

Social media and cellphones have contributed to a situation where more people, particularly young people, feel more connected but lonelier, because their social connections lack the physical presence of other people.

That form of connection does not align with the way we have developed over a long period of social evolution. Also the attraction and ease of electronic media has resulted in our spending less time on reflection and consolidation of our knowledge. Mackay questions the popular view that we are living in an “information age”. Rather, in his informed opinion, we may be living in an “age of opinion”.

Both Adams and Mackay refer to Bertrand Russell’s aphorism:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.

And of course, they give a plug for Mackay’s most recent book The way we are: lessons from a lifetime of listening.

We shall not grow old – or will we?

Out of all high-income “developed” countries, Australia and New Zealand, both countries with high rates of immigration, have the lowest minimum age. In recent years even China has become older than Australia. Median age by country, for high-income “developed” countries, plus China, is shown in the graph below. We’re all aware that ageing is a particular issue in Japan, but it is too in other high-income Asian countries, particularly South Korea.

Probably a graph

High house prices have brought the issue of immigration to the fore. But if we decide to cut immigration, we will need to bring up our domestic rate of reproduction, if we are to avoid heading the way countries like Japan and Italy have gone.

That is, if we want to keep the country young. Certainly our Treasurer has been thinking that way, as he makes the same call as one of his predecessors, Peter Costello, for Australians to have more children.

Perhaps people don’t want to have more children. Lea Ruppanner, of the University of Melbourne, has a Conversation contribution: Women in rich countries are having fewer kids, or none at all. What’s going on?Education plays a part: educated women have few children. And economic incentives count, because as women’s potential to earn income rises, so does the opportunity cost of having children.

It’s not a new discovery. This has been happening in plain sight for many years. But in terms of public policy we haven’t been dealing with the issue: Labor and Coalition governments alike have been responsive to the private sector’s call to sustain a high-growth economy. Governments have been concerned with the impact on public finance of people living longer – a concern that has driven everything from compulsory superannuation through to the regular Intergenerational Report. Those are narrow public finance concerns. But our governments haven’t come to grips with the possibility that some day Australia’s position on that graph will shift some distance to the right.

Thinking regions

Journalists and policymakers have an odd way of looking at Australia. If you live in Bourke or Broken Hill, you live in a “region”, but if you live in Balmain or Brunswick you live in a capital city.

It’s odd, because wherever you live you’re in a region. Our capital cities have big footprints. Melbourne (“Greater Melbourne”) sprawls over 10 000 square kilometres. That’s a quarter the size of the Netherlands. Adelaide stretches 40 km from north to south, the same distance as Cambridge to London.

Whether we like it or not, our big cities have distinct regions, with their own characteristics. Political analysts know this, when they look at the electoral maps: Sydney, for example, has clear Labor, Liberal and independent-voting regions while Melbourne is divided between Green and Labor regions. Ethnic mixes, education attainment, incomes all differ.

Australia outside our capital cities, that area called “regional Australia”, is not some homogenous blob. There are some aggregate figures: it has lower incomes, lower education attainment, a smaller proportion of people born in other countries, and it is more conservative politically than our capital cities. But at a finer-grained level there is huge diversity in non-metropolitan Australia.

SGS Economics and Planning has published its Cities and Regions Wellbeing Index, which captures the socio-economic wellbeing of 518 local government areas (LGAs) in seven dimensions (covering a wide range of economic, health and environmental indicators) and provides some gathering of regions with similar characteristics. It’s an extraordinarily rich source of regional information.

It confirms many general impressions of regional differences, with a great degree of rigour, and with an addition to the range of indicators we may use. One of its seven indicators is “equality, community and work-life balance” compiled from several sub-indicators including gender equality and volunteer rates. Another is “environment”, compiled from risks of environmental hazards and access to national parks, reserves and protected areas.

It reveals that some metropolitan and non-metropolitan LGAs are very alike in their wellbeing indicators, a similarity obscured by the broad “regional”/”capital city” classification. For example, the indicators for the Salisbury LGA, in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, are very similar to the indicators for Cleve, a farming region on the Eyre Peninsula, 500 km away across Gulfe Bonaparte. And more importantly it reveals large disparities within our large conurbations.