Students, science and sustainability

Issue 

By Emma Webb ADELAIDE The annual Students, Science and Sustainability (SS&S) conference was held at Flinders University on September 27-30 with the theme, "Think Globally, Act Locally, Start Tertiary". Around 150 tertiary students attended, with 50 secondary students participating in a high school activities day. Workshops covered issues and campaigns including Tasmania's Tarkine wilderness, international forest campaigns, "green" capitalism, the population debate, campaigning for a nuclear-free and independent Pacific, hemp, deep ecology, action on transport, and environmentalism activism in Papua New Guinea. The workshops reflected the wide variety of campaigns against business and governments that are being waged by environmental activists in Australia and around the world. Despite this, many participants expressed concern at the conservative politics dominating the main plenaries at the conference. Speakers were primarily corporate or government representatives or academics, a departure from previous conferences. The lack of time for discussion in the plenaries meant they were more like lectures from "experts" than a discussion of environmental issues and strategies for stopping the ecological crisis. On the last day of the conference, as more participants were challenging the plenary speakers, the facilitator discouraged and ignored activists asking controversial questions. Unlike previous conferences, the agenda did not allow time for detailed discussion of the organisation of the 1996 conference, or of actions and campaigns that could be initiated from the conference. David Wotton, state Liberal minister for the environment, opened the conference. This surprised many given that the South Australian government, among other things, is building freeways, slashing public transport and privatising water. Student activists also questioned how Wotton could congratulate students for organising the conference when his party supported voluntary student unionism. Others pointed out the environmental vandalism of the Kennett Liberal government in Victoria. Other speakers included Dr John Wamsley, owner of a native wildlife sanctuary in SA, who told the audience that if you want to save the world he doesn't want to know you — however he does want to know you if you want to save the world and be a millionaire. The key point of Wamsley's speech was that capitalism is not the problem, but simply the current accounting system. He argued that by privatising the environment we can make it profitable for business to save it. A representative of the Body Shop spoke about that corporation's Third World aid program. He explained that the Body Shop wanted to make money (it made $1 billion last year), but not at the expense of the Third World. He mentioned that the company buys goods from people in developing countries, as well as employing Aboriginal people in Australia. In discussion it was pointed out that the Body Shop's profit is still based on exploitation and, through the sale of cosmetics, is exploitative of women. Kathy Fielden of A SEED commented that,"one problem of the conference was that there wasn't a democratic decision-making process about its content. So, for instance, gender balance of speakers and feminist content were missing. The question time allowed no room for women or people of non-English speaking backgrounds — it was those with the loudest voices who spoke." She added that it was unfortunate that the conference organisers did not understand that corporate speakers and politicians were not appropriate for SS&S, which has always been a place for activists to debate and build campaigns. Attempts by conference organisers this year to be apolitical and neutral resulted in a conservative political agenda, she said. " It was disappointing to see the conference focusing too much on corporatist strategies and shallow environmentalism", agreed Dave Taylor, of the National Union Of Students in Victoria. " However, the conference has once again proved valuable as a forum for networking student activists across the country", he added. Amanda Allen, a conference organiser, told Green Left Weekly, "I felt that everything we had aspired to achieve at this conference was achieved. The workshops offered a wealth of information and the plenaries also offered worthy information, although they could have come from more of a grassroots perspective. Ideally there would have been more of a balance between corporate and grassroots environmentalism, however you can't always achieve that ideal and from year to year SS&S is going to change." Asked about David Wotton opening the conference, Allen said, "he was invited to speak because he is the minister for the environment in this state. It wasn't about him being a Liberal, it wasn't about political parties." The conference ended with a rally and fair day that was well attended and addressed some pressing environmental campaigns, including ending nuclear testing and saving the Tarkine wilderness. SS&S '96 will be held at the Southern Cross University in Lismore.

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