Sustainability conference makes plans

July 17, 1996

By Alex Bainbridge and Annette Maguire

LISMORE — All sections of the environment movement were represented among the 600 people who gathered here for the annual Students and Sustainability conference between July 1-5.

Students from every campus in the country attended, with several large contingents from universities in Sydney, Newcastle, Melbourne and Perth. Many non-students, including from among the local community, also attended.

Formerly titled "Students, Science, Sustainability", this year's organising collective decided to change the name in an attempt to broaden the participation and subject matter. It seems to have worked; the political themes discussed were very broad ranging.

The conference was opened by the local Bundjalung people and around 20% of the speakers were indigenous people. Lesbian- and gay-affirmative posters were displayed around the conference site and anti-voluntary student unionism information was available. Internationalism was highlighted in the workshops on Bougainville, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Tibet, Burma and Japan, among others. Feminism and affirmative action policy was also discussed.

Some previous conferences have had a tendency to turn into a "talk fest" with a concentration on academic issues, conference organiser Matthew Fagan told Green Left Weekly. "We wanted this conference to be much more practical, to challenge structures head-on and to develop action plans for the student movement around social justice, human rights and environmental issues."

The action plenary on the fourth day adopted many resolutions including self-determination for a nuclear-free Pacific, Aboriginal land rights and campaigns against structural adjustment programs, uranium mining and the arms trade. Boycott campaigns against Shell, Mitsubishi and other multinationals were supported. The NSW cross-campus tour of an Indonesian pro-democracy activist, Nico Wahid, was supported, as were campaigns to reverse the Australian government's legal recognition of Indonesia's annexation of East Timor and a "Visit East Timor Campaign". A resolution supporting the resistance of and right to independence for the people in Bougainville and West Papua was also passed.

Fagan said that the conference was keen to toss some ideas back to the student movement for consideration. "Let's challenge capitalist structures and consumerism. Let's bring back some foundation of sustainability for future generations."

Workshops on permaculture and paper making were held and a large number of local field trips were organised. On the second day, a green activist workshop was replaced by a blockade which successfully stopped an area of local forest from being illegally logged.

Various political ideas were presented at the major plenaries. Dr Harry Recher argued that no single development could be sustainable if the economic system itself was not sustainable. He also said, however, that the only way to achieve sustainability was a massive reduction in both population and consumption. "The best case scenario", he concluded, was "pockets of survival" with 80-90% of the population wiped out!

In the strategy plenary, several speakers spoke in favour of diversity in the environment movement. In some cases, however, "diversity" was put forward as justification for avoiding united campaigns.

NSW NUS state president John Nolan-Neylan spoke in favour of fundamentally challenging the existing power structures. Other speakers focused on more personal issues of sustainability.

Conference organisers thanked NUS for its support. According to Fagan, "NUS is a really important vehicle for the student movement. It can be effective as long as it can get out of the grips of a counter-productive, exploitative Labor Party control. Grassroots people have to have a say in how it is run."

James Cook University in Townsville has been selected as the venue for the S&S conference in 1997.

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