Friday, October 10, 2008

Forum on Fuel, Finance & the Future of South Gippsland October 14th Foster War Memorial Arts Centre

The fundamentals underpinning our economy and way of life for fifty years are changing, and we're about to enter a different world. It's a world offering both threats and opportunities in equal measure. To look at the changes we are facing and how we need to take them into account when planning our individual lives, our businesses and our community, a forum will be held at the Foster War memorial Arts Centre on Tuesday October the 14th at 7:30 PM. After a brief lecture to explain Australia's current and growing oil supply vulnerabilities, the forum will explore what this will mean for us as individuals and as a community. What are the threats? What are the opportunities? What does the current crisis in the World financial markets mean for us and how is it linked to our energy dependence?

The last fifty years, the era of cheap and abundant energy, have seen extraordinary changes in how we live and work. The cost of consumer goods and food has fallen dramatically, while the cost of housing and the number of hours we work in paid employment and devote to education and training have increased equally dramatically. The kinds of work we do now would have been difficult to imagine fifty years ago. Who would have thought a large part of the population would spend at least fifteen years in the education system, and then spend most of their working lives looking at screens and tapping on keyboards, no matter what their chosen career path?

For several generations there have been great increases in productivity in the agricultural sector, and a corresponding steep decline in the number of jobs. This has led in turn to a simplification of our local community as many trades and auxiliary occupations have disappeared. The low cost of distribution has meant the end of small-scale local manufacture. Could an increase in distribution costs because of the end of cheap oil coupled with the costs of greenhouse gas abatement policies reopen opportunities for small-scale manufacturing businesses servicing local populations? Will public transport need to grow to compensate for a shift away from increasingly expensive car dependency? What will this mean for patterns of settlement and municipal planning in country areas? How will our transport and distribution of goods change with the end of cheap oil, when at the moment our community is crucially dependant on reliable and timely deliveries in an era of low inventories and with an enormous range of key components needed to keep our complex systems functioning? How will education need to change to better equip young people for this very different world?

In tandem with the end of cheap oil we seem to be coming the end of cheap and easily available finance. How will we fund our future business and community enterprises? Can community based banking step into the gap left by the crash of the giants of international finance? Are other, older ways of financing business, such as simple partnerships and long-term family enterprises likely to re-emerge?

All societies depend on a certain level of trust. At the moment our level of trust in politics and the large-scale enterprises, and corporations controlling much of our lives, is eroding. A good example has been the recent milk contamination scare in China, which has spread globally to goods on supermarket shelves everywhere. The controversy over GM foods is another, which has seriously damaged public confidence in the benign intentions of large, faceless corporations. We are likely to see this malaise spread even wider as superannuation funds suffer big losses in the current share market decline and people who trusted a complex system beyond their control and their understanding to take care of them in old age are left feeling betrayed and bitter. Politics has undergone a similar public disenchantment, where a weary public turn away from engagement in a process which produces governments promising popular policies, but which are quickly captured by powerful special interests and work only for their benefit. Again the complexity of the international economy means no-one understands it or can control it, so that the legitimacy of leaders is further undermined by their seeming incompetence when faced with crises like the one we are currently seeing. This disenchantment and disengagement can cause a power vacuum to be produced, hollowing out the state and allowing alternative centres of power to arise. These power centres can be cults, criminal gangs or religious or tribally based alternative governments. To respond to this threat pro-actively should we re-energise local politics and take back responsibility for areas of our lives, which we have formerly been happy to surrender to anonymous and distant organizations? Can local government grow to fill this gap in political trust? Can local businesses run by members of the local community grow through capitalising on a perception that they are more likely to act in an ethical manner?

In five, ten, fifty and one hundred years time there will be people living and working in South Gippsland. By coming along to this community forum, you can help shape your future and the futures of generations succeeding us. There is no one answer to all the questions already mentioned, and many more questions needing to be asked. No one person can do this alone, but if we can tap the wisdom of the whole community (because each one of us, no matter how humble, has something to contribute) we can be far stronger and more effective discussing and acting together than if we remain isolated individuals. See you there!

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