Peter Singer, 15 July 2011
ANDREW SAYERS: Welcome everybody to the National Museum of Australia, the second in our series of Platform Conversations. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which the Museum stands, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. This Platform Conversation with Peter Singer and Jenny Brockie was booked out, and we will be giving everybody advance notice of future Platform Conversations. So please leave your email details if you would like to get in early later in the year when we have our next Platform Conversation because we don’t want people to miss out. Tonight a select range of Peter’s books is available at the information hub. It’s a good opportunity to get a signed copy of one of Peter’s many books.
I am advising that this event is being photographed and recorded for Museum related web spaces and that the program may be broadcast on Sky TV’s Australian Public Affairs Channel at a later date and also to let you know that, by asking a question during the question and answer session at the end of the program, you will be providing your consent to be recorded. It leaves only one thing to remind everybody now and that is to please switch off your mobile phones. I would now like to hand over to Jenny Brockie. Would you please make Jenny Brockie welcome to the National Museum.
[This program is also available as video http://platform.nma.gov.au/ that includes the data slides.]
JENNY BROCKIE: Thank you very much, Andrew, and welcome everybody. It’s great to be here this evening to revisit a rather huge topic - how ethical is Australia - with one of the world’s best-known ethicist professors, Professor Peter Singer. You will hear from Peter in a moment, but first I want to run through how the evening is going to work. Peter is going to speak for about 30 minutes then I will have a chat with him briefly. I will be putting some questions to him that have been raised online in the run-up to this event, and then I will be taking questions from the floor that you might have for him. So hold those thoughts as you are listening to him speak and, if necessary, make a note for yourself of the thing that you would like to raise because there will be time to have questions after Peter has spoken.
I should just mention the online poll results related to this topic. The Museum on its website did throw out the question: how well is Australia performing as a global citizen? We have a small sample size at this stage, but of the 59 people who have answered that question - and I would encourage you all after tonight to join that poll and have your say about it - these are the way the votes are falling at the moment: five per cent of people say that Australia is performing well as a global citizen; 39 per cent of people think we could try harder; 51 per cent of people think our performance is poor; and five per cent of people don’t know. That’s where the poll is up to. I would urge you all to log on and have your say on that question.
For those of you who don’t know, Peter Singer was born in Melbourne and educated at the University of Melbourne and the University of Oxford. Since 1999 he’s been professor of bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He’s also laureate professor at the University of Melbourne in applied philosophy and public ethics.
Peter burst onto the international scene with the publication of Animal Liberation: a new ethics for our treatment of animals in 1975. He has written, co-authored, edited or co-edited more than 40 other books, including Practical Ethics, How Are We to Live?, Rethinking Life and Death, The Ethics of What We Eat: why our food choices matter with Jim Mason, and most recently The Life You Can Save: acting now to end world poverty, and The Expanding Circle: ethics, evolution and moral progress.
Peter has been variously described as one of the most influential people in the world, one of the leading public intellectuals in the world and the most dangerous man on the planet. In 2004, he scrutinised Australia’s ethical track record as a global citizen under five headings: foreign aid, engagement with the United Nations, trade policy, refugee policy, and action on global environmental issues. His report card then rarely rated Australia above ‘poor’ and he largely blamed what he saw as our political preoccupations with national self-interest. So, what has changed since then, if anything, and where do ethics sit in the national political debate? Please welcome Peter Singer.
PETER SINGER: Thank you very much, Jenny, for that introduction. I want to thank the National Museum for making this event possible and of course thank you all for turning up, which makes it more interesting than it would if you had not. As Jenny said, in 2004, I co-authored a book with Tom Greg called How Ethical is Australia?. It was suggested to me to write this by David Yencken on behalf of something called the Australian Collaboration, which was a group of organisations of various kinds involved with issues, NGOs that might be seen as broadly in the ethical perspective, and it was intended quite explicitly to say something about the direction that Australia was heading in under Prime Minister John Howard. I suppose you could say the idea had suggested itself to David Yencken after reading a book I had published a couple of years earlier called One World, which was about ethics and globalisation.
The focus is specifically on Australia as a global citizen. I say that in advance because some of you might wonder why this selection of issues, why am I not looking, for example, at Australia’s relationships with its Indigenous people and how we deal with that issue, or for that matter social welfare arrangements within Australia. I am looking at Australia in its relations with the world outside, beyond Australia.
This is the selection of issues I am going to talk about tonight [slide shown], not quite the same selection as in the book, partly time is short but partly because I think these are some of the more interesting issues and of course I have looked at things that are current to bring that up to date.
Let’s look at some of these questions and why they are important ethical issues as well as how we are doing in addressing them. I start with climate change not only because it’s currently on the agenda but because I do think it’s one of the great ethical challenges of this century. In fact, Kevin Rudd said early on when campaigning for office that this was the great moral challenge of our generation of the twenty-first century. I think you could well say that, along with global poverty, it is indeed the great moral challenge. Therefore it’s very relevant to how ethical we are as to how we deal with that.
Let’s just go back a little bit first to set the framework for what we are trying to do here. Many of you will already know but just to remind you. We can go back to 1992 as the beginning of international recognition that climate change is something that we need to do something about and that we need to act collectively. There was an agreement that Australia signed on to and indeed pretty well all the nations of the world signed on to, including the United States, that we should stabilise greenhouse gases at a level low enough to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. That’s the important phrase: to prevent something dangerous that we are causing through our activities.
I take it there is no serious doubt that human activities are causing the climate to change. I know there is some debate about that, but it’s very hard to find a scientist working in the relevant field who doesn’t accept that we are contributing to climate change. How much that contribution is, there might be some debate about, but I don’t take the skepticism on the science of it very seriously.
What is the just way of dealing with this? Well, one just way of dealing with it is to look at the atmosphere as if it’s some kind of scarce commodity that everybody wants a bit of. So let’s say it’s a tasty looking apple pie, as you have pictured here [image shown], and there are lots of people who would like a slice of that pie. Let’s say there are 20 people who would like a slice of this pie, but some people are taking really big slices - so big that it’s impossible for 20 people to have slices that big.
That’s really what I think is going on with the atmosphere. The atmosphere has a limited capacity to absorb some of the gases we produce - carbon dioxide and methane in particular. Yet some people are taking bigger slices of that than others can have - and we are one of them. We have about 1/300th of the world’s population and we are taking about 1/60th of a fair share – by ‘a fair share’ I mean the kind of slice that everybody could have without causing dangerous anthropogenic climate change, that formula that we agreed to at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.
We are taking about five times our share, and that obviously raises an ethical issue: can we justify doing this? It seems prima facie that we can’t. Now someone might say, ‘Well, you are assuming that the just way of distributing this is equal per capita shares throughout the world.’ Yes, I am going to assume that. If I was giving a full-length lecture just on this topic, I would look at a variety of other principles of justice and see whether indeed there are some other defensible principles of justice that might make a significant difference to the ethics of what we are doing. I will tell you now that I don’t believe there are. So that’s the shortcut to the longer lecture. But we are going to have time for Q&A so, if you have a favourite principle of justice that you think would make it ethical for us to have the kind of share of the atmosphere that we are using now, I hope you will ask me about it when it comes to question time.
I am not the only person, fortunately, who thinks that equal per capita shares is the right way to go about it. Lots of philosophers think that and at least one heavyweight politician, political leader, thinks that. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has said that. Germany is also - not five times its share, I have a slide that will show it roughly – but Germany also is at least three times over its share. That’s a pretty tough hurdle for Germany to accept as well, but Germany’s leader accepts that that’s the right thing to do. Admittedly she says ‘our long-term measure’ probably thinking ‘I am not going to be chancellor that long,’ but still it’s the kind of thing that we need to aim at.
This is the slide I mentioned, the most complicated slide I will be showing tonight, you will be pleased know [slide shown]. It comes out of a German government Advisory Council on Climate Change - the WBGU stands for the German words used for that, which I won’t bother you with. It’s saying, ‘OK, if we are going to prevent dangerous anthropogenic climate change, how much greenhouse gases can the world emit by 2050, 40 years on?’ They calculated how much it would take. They made this phrase ‘dangerous anthropogenic climate change’ a bit more precise by saying, ‘How much can we emit and not go above a global temperature rise of two degrees Celsius with a two-thirds probability?’ That is, they are admitting that, even on the figures they have put up which I will go through that moment, there is still a 1:3 chance that we will have a more than two degrees Celsius rise, and that is the level they think would be dangerous in terms of producing feedback loops that make things spiral out of control and make it impossible for us to stay anywhere near two degrees but maybe rise to four or six degrees with enormous changes.
What they did is they calculated what the world can produce - that is 750 billion tonnes of CO2. They then looked at the 2008 emissions levels and said, ‘How many years would each country have to continue with its present business as usual emissions before it exhausts its equal per capita share of that 750 billion [said million] tonnes?’. Australia is not on the list of examples that they gave but we are pretty much up there with the United States. Our per capita level is not that different from the United States. So you can see that things are pretty grim in about six years. In just six years at present rates we are going to have used up our entire budget to 2050. So after 2017, or whatever it’s going to be, we are going to be at zero emissions. Or if we go above zero emissions for a few years, we are going to have to be below zero, we are going to be absorbing more than we are putting out - very difficult to do with present technology - to comply with what would be our fair share.
Just by way of contrast, look at the country at the bottom of this list - Burkina Faso, a very poor African nation. Its emissions are so low at present that it could go on emitting at present rates for another 2,892 years before it used up the budget that it has to 2050. Yet it’s countries like Burkina Faso that will be most affected by climate change. Of course we will be affected too. We are already affected. There is no doubt that we already have been affected by rising temperatures, more extreme weather events, more extreme droughts and so on. And that is probably going to get worse. But even if the rains completely fail, even if, as it looked like it might happen a couple of years ago, there is no irrigation water for the entire Murray-Darling Basin and even if those farmers who rely on irrigation have to leave the land - they are not going to die; they are not going to starve to death. They will come to Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra and they will find work or, if they don’t find work, they will survive on a social welfare scheme that the government will continue to pay. They will still have decent medical care and they will still have safe drinking water. But people in sub-Saharan Africa who rely on rainfall to produce the food that their families eat don’t have those options. They will become refugees but they won’t have anywhere to go where they will find employment or where, if they don’t find employment, they will have some kind of welfare security net to help them. So in taking more than our fair share, we are harming those who are currently using far less than their fair share, and that seems manifestly an unethical thing to do.
Let us look at how we are doing it. One of the things we are doing is we are building bigger and bigger houses, which of course take more energy to heat in winter or to cool in summer, and use more resources simply to build. We have now past the United States in terms of the average size of new homes built, so we are doing it essentially for luxuries that in no way are necessary to our survival. I don’t know about the rest of you but I grew up in a family home that had just one bathroom, and you know what - I survived. It seems that people who build new homes in Australia imagine that you can’t really do that. You need a bathroom for every bedroom, so of course you need more resources to build it. That’s the kind of luxuries that we are giving ourselves and in doing that we are imposing this kind of thing - not just the rainfall is failing, as I mentioned, but rising sea levels are inundating fertile delta regions of some of the world’s poor countries, as here in India [image shown]. You could see similar scenes in Bangladesh, for example, where very rich farmland is densely inhabited because any rich land is needed but it’s very low lying. So as sea levels rise they become more prone to inundation from high tides and storms and their land is then ruined and they have to leave. It clearly can’t be ethical to do that.
That’s why I think this is a real ethical measure of what we are doing. When I wrote the book in 2004 Australia was one of only two industrialised nations that had refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol and we were not doing anything serious about reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, when the Rudd government came to office it did sign Kyoto, so we isolated the United States as the only industrialised nation not to have signed on to it. But still we didn’t do anything and we still haven’t done anything but I am hopeful that we are about to do something anyway. That’s why I welcome the carbon tax proposal, and I think we should all welcome it. It’s an ethical obligation to do something about.
I hope that in time the carbon price will rise beyond the $23 per tonne that we have now, but it will provide a mechanism to do something about it. I also welcome the fact that, as a result of pressure from the Greens, we are investing more in research and development of clean renewable energy. It’s a scandal that Australia is not in the forefront of solar energy production given the sun we get and the land we have available to use it. That is certainly something that could be globally important - not only important for ourselves - and something that we ought to be doing.
I also welcome the fact that we have now at least set, although the target that Julia Gillard talks about of five per cent reduction by 2020 is a modest target, we are at least talking now, as the Europeans are doing, about very serious reductions by 2050. In other words, we have recognised that we need to do the kind of thing that was shown in that German advisory council report. We have set a target of an 80 per cent reduction by 2050, and I hope we do get serious about meeting that target because the world certainly needs something like that. This is one area where I think we are doing significantly better and assuming that the carbon tax goes through, as I hope it will, we will then be able to put a tick here and say that we are now on the side of doing reasonably well on this crucial moral issue, whereas previously we were among the worst offenders on that score.
One other way of looking at what we are doing incidentally has been suggested as a kind of aggression against countries that can’t protect themselves. This is a quote from President [Yoweri] Museveni of Uganda who was seeing this not just as taking more than our fair share but as actually committing a kind of aggression against other nations that are going to be harmed much more by climate change than those nations like us, like the United States and like Europe that are contributing much more to it.
One thing just to register a quick complaint about that the carbon tax scheme does not do is it does not count agriculture, and that’s a pity because agriculture is a very important contributor to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it’s an important contributor to world greenhouse gas emissions, as the Food and Agriculture Organisation said a few years ago livestock emissions is larger than transport, and the chair of the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change asked people to eat less meat because it’s a very carbon intensive commodity. But it’s a big loophole, a big gap, in the scheme proposed. Whether we are talking about feedlot beef or grass-fed beef it doesn’t really matter here. Some people have the illusion that it’s only the American-style feedlot beef that emits a lot of greenhouse gases - not true. When cattle digest grass, they actually emit more methane per kilo of meat that is produced than when they are eating grain. So it doesn’t really help to point out that most of Australia’s cattle are on grass or at least on grass for longer than cattle in some other parts of the world.
I want to move now to the second issue that I talked about: global poverty. This is something on which the world is making progress [slide shown]. This 2010 figure of 8.1 million children under five dying from preventable poverty-related causes is a terrible figure. But if you pick up a copy of my book, The Life You Can Save, you will see that it has come down even since the paperback was published just a couple of years ago when it was 8.8 million; and if you had the hardback you would see it was something like 9.8 million, so we are actually making pretty steady progress on this. But of course we should be when you consider what we are talking about: millions of avoidable, preventable deaths that we know how to prevent, not from mysterious diseases we can’t cure but deaths from things like diarrohoea, pneumonia, malaria and measles that people don’t die from here, that are related to poor sanitation and hygiene, and related to lack of medical care. They are things that we can prevent and with more assistance, more aid, we would prevent more of them.
If this was not happening distributed around the world but if it was happening in one place, imagine 20,000 children in a football stadium and they were going to die unless we gave them some assistance let’s say by the end of the week, that would be the major media story and we would all rush to give assistance. But because it’s happening in a dispersed way that the media doesn’t capture, it continues at a rate that I think is a sign that we are not acting ethically towards people in remote countries elsewhere in the world.
How is Australia doing? Here is a chart from the OECD, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [slide shown]. It’s a bit complicated but there are a couple of things I wanted to point out - don’t worry about the figures at the top for the moment because I have another slide that shows them. Most of our aid goes to the region - the top countries are to Indonesia, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan. They are countries in which we have political interests; they are not necessarily the most impoverished countries in the world. So our aid is skewed politically, and in Iraq and Afghanistan obviously we have political interests. Iraq in particular is not an especially poor country; it’s a lower middle income country but obviously the aid goes there because we think we are helping the war against terrorism by doing that.
Compare that with Sweden which both gives a lot more aid - I will come to that too in a moment - but also gives aid much more to countries in sub-Saharan Africa, countries where actual extreme poverty is the reason why these countries are on this list. Let’s also look at the amounts of aid that’s being given. Here is a comparison of Australian aid and Swedish aid - ODA/GNI, that is official development assistance as a percentage of gross national income, which is a reasonable measure of how generous the countries are - with one qualification that I will come to in a moment.
Australian aid is the line down the bottom. At the time I did the book I think it was 0.2 or something like that and it has risen slightly. It started rising the year before the Rudd government took office and has been rising, fell off in 2009 and rose back again in 2010, where it is currently at 0.32 per cent. In other words, for every $100 this nation earns, we give 32 cents in official development assistance - not very much for one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
Sweden is no wealthier than we are but it gives substantially more. As you can see, it actually went above one per cent, it went to 1.1 per cent, and then has dropped back in the last year to 0.97 per cent but still close to one per cent. So Sweden is doing about three times as well as we are doing, although as I say, it is not really a wealthier nation than we are.
The United Nations many years ago recommended 0.7 per cent as a target for countries to reach. We are well below that.
On the brighter side, there is bipartisan support in Australia now for reaching 0.5 per cent, 50 cents in every $100 we earn. The Gillard government is committed to it; the Rudd government was committed to it; and Tony Abbott has said he supports it as well. So that is encouraging although you do have to ask why 0.5 rather than at least the UN target of 0.7 per cent? Why can’t we get up there with about five or six countries in the world that have met or passed that. Britain has committed to meeting it, and I think it’s something we should commit to at least as well.
I said there is one minor qualification with the gap between us and Sweden, and that is that we give a little more non-government aid than Sweden does. In other words, the non-government sector, the voluntary sector, is larger here. One of the reasons for that is that we can get a tax deduction when we donate to foreign aid; in Sweden you can’t. It may also be that the Swedes have had more of a tradition of expecting their government to do more and doing less on a voluntary basis. But it doesn’t make much difference on that chart. It’s about $800 million a year that is given privately and the figure we are talking about here is some $4.5 billion to $4.8 billion. So you add another 0.8 of a billion, it’s going to put it up a bit but it’s not going to put it anywhere near that of Sweden or even anywhere near the 0.7 per cent. How are we doing on this? We are doing a little better than we were; we are hoping to do better still; but we are not doing nearly well enough, I would say.
Quickly I want to say something asylum seekers, which in a way is an internal issue but obviously relates to the way we deal with people from abroad and with our adherence to international conventions. This is something that I think we were doing very badly when I wrote the other book. The Rudd government was elected on a promise to do better. Has it done better? Well, maybe it’s doing a little bit better but it’s not doing very much better. There are two separate issue here I think. One is: how do we deal with people who come to our shores claiming asylum in terms of accepting them or not, and how do we deal with accepting refugees in general? The second question is: what do we do with them while we decide how we are dealing with them? The second issue is the issue of mandatory detention. That is something that I had hoped we would have finished with by now but unfortunately we haven’t, although certainly there are fewer people in detention now than there were - and that’s welcome – and there is quite recently a move to release more families and unaccompanied minors to community detention. I think that is something we should be doing more of.
The question of how we deal with asylum seekers in general is an issue which, in a sense, while we haven’t got a lot better, the rest of the world has got somewhat worse. I am no longer as confident as I was back in 2004 in saying that there is a clear solution to this problem. I think it’s become clearer now that we have an industry that is trying to help people get into countries that are more desirable, some of whom at least are not genuine asylum seekers. That’s an issue that clearly does have to be dealt with so we need procedures for doing that. To that extent I think the basic idea behind the Malaysian deal that was arranged recently is a sound one. That is, take more refugees who are in the queue, who have been in refugee camps for a long time, rather than admit people to Australia who, if they go to somewhere like Malaysia where they can be processed and if they are genuine refugees, then at least will be safe from persecution in their own country and can wait their turn in the queue until they can get taken somewhere else. It takes away the attractiveness of going to Australia even if you are not a genuine refugee in the hope that you will be able to stay there.
While there are problems about the fact that Malaysia is not a signatory to the International Convention on Refugees, the basic idea that we should take more genuine refugees who have been waiting for years in refugee camps I think is a positive. I think we could raise the number of refugees we are taking quite easily - and that’s a separate matter from how we deal with people who actually land on our shores and claim asylum. Obviously that is far too brief a discussion.
Live export trade
Let me say a little about this issue because there has been so much attention paid to it. I think we do have a responsibility to see that, when we export animals, they are treated in a way similar to how they would be treated in Australia. I think the live export trade is something that we should properly be ashamed of when we learn how the animals were treated. The footage from Indonesia showing the cattle that were killed there was shocking and obviously disturbed a lot of Australians, and the government responded by suspending the live export trade, which I think was the right thing to do. I think the government has now yielded to pressure from the cattle growers and has rescinded the ban with some conditions, but I don’t believe that the conditions are anything like adequate to ensure that these kinds of things are not going to happen once our cattle arrive back in Indonesia again. I think we should be moving to substitute a carcass trade for a live trade. I think that’s probably the only way to ensure that animals are humanely handled.
Incidentally it’s not only the recent revelations of the killing and handling of cattle in Indonesia that should trouble us, for a long time there has been the export of live sheep to the Middle East. Although the footage from there has not caused the same kind of stir at least recently that the cattle trade did, this is a larger trade which is continuing where there is quite inhumane handling and killing of Australian sheep in the Middle East. If we want to consider ourselves an ethical nation, we should not be permitting this to continue either.
I will leave it there. I know that I was very brief on some very big issues, but we are going to have a chance for discussion and Q&A so I look forward to hearing from you then. Thank you.
JENNY BROCKIE: Thank you very much, Peter. A lot of questions I have but I am not going to take up all the time with them. I am sure there are a lot of questions you all have as well.
What I would like to ask you first is a question about realpolitik, which you mentioned at the beginning when you were talking about an equal share of emissions and Angela Merkel’s comment from Germany about how this was a long-term goal, and you said ‘of course she won’t be government or probably won’t be in power at that time’. I just wonder how you see ethics balancing with the reality of the politics of some of these things? We can take each of them apart a little bit but in general it’s easy to say ideally what we would all like. But how does the reality of politics sit with ethics?
PETER SINGER: Clearly politics has an uneasy relationship with ethics because there is a reality of politics and that is, if you are not in power, you can’t do anything. Any government can say, ‘If this policy will lead to us no longer being in power, then it’s not a policy we ought to follow no matter how ethical it might be because we won’t be in power, we won’t be able to carry it out, the other mob will come in and they won’t do it. So we have to make compromises in order to get closer to doing the right thing but still remain in office.’ I think that’s what typically goes on.
The only way we can shift that to make governments able to do the right thing is if we have a sufficiently educated electorate that understands what is the right thing and cares about what’s the right thing and will vote for governments to do the right thing. That’s really what we need: we need an electorate that understands all of these issues, and I think the extent to which that happens varies from country to country. I think Sweden’s high level of aid can be a result of the fact that Sweden is a country where people are highly educated, follow what their government does and it seems to me are concerned about their government doing the right thing. The United States is much less so, and that’s why there isn’t the carbon tax or anything like it even seriously on the political agenda at the moment in the United States. We are probably somewhere in between those two extremes.
JENNY BROCKIE: But aside from doing the right thing, there are also real human considerations in the ethics of some of this - there are people’s jobs and people’s livelihoods that are at stake with implementing some of the ethical principles that you are talking about. How does the government balance that? How does politics find a way through that to achieve the things sometimes that politicians might want to achieve on both sides, but they are looking at people who are going to be put out of work as a result of a decision or industries that are going to shut down or export income that is going to disappear?
PETER SINGER: It’s difficult for them, but if the electorate understands that let’s say some jobs in the coal industry or at coal-driven power generators have to go and if they don’t go we are going to be causing hundreds of millions of people or perhaps billions of people to lose the way they produce food and to become refugees, then obviously we have to do the best we can to find these people other jobs and to help ease the adjustment from their loss of employment. But if you weigh the loss of jobs in the power industry in Australia as against vastly larger numbers of people perhaps starving or certainly losing their land or, for that matter, entire nations going under the waves, as we know will happen with some of the small Pacific nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati - not so many people there but still entire nations disappearing - I think you have to accept there are going to have to be some sacrifices made by Australians. What we need to do is try to make sure they are made across the community as a whole and not just on some small number of people.
JENNY BROCKIE: When you were talking about refugees and asylum seekers and the idea of an offshore solution to that and Malaysia, I wonder where you think our ethical responsibility to those people begins and ends in that scenario?
PETER SINGER: Our ethical responsibility to the asylum seekers?
JENNY BROCKIE: Yes.
PETER SINGER: I think our ethical responsibility to the asylum seekers is firstly not to return them to a place where they may be in danger of being killed or persecuted. But it’s also not necessarily to accept them into Australia; it’s to see that they can be somewhere safe while claims are being considered. It’s good to step back a little bit and ask: why do we have a specific law about asylum seekers? Why does the fact that you can actually set foot in Australia give you a claim that’s any better than the claim that you have if you are a refugee in a refugee camp anywhere in the world? I think that’s a kind of historical tradition that we don’t turn away people who claim asylum. But I think really the only responsibility is not to return them to where they are going to be persecuted - I say this by the way as somebody who is the son of people who came to Australia as refugees. Obviously the worst thing to do to my parents would have been to send them back to Nazi Germany. But I don’t think they could have really complained if Australia had said, ‘We are not going to send you back but we are going to make sure that you are safe and there is somewhere you can safe and it’s not necessarily Australia.’ They would have been vastly better off there than had they had to stay in Nazi Germany.
I think that’s the world responsibility. In my view, the ethical question we are not raising enough is: how many refugees can we take? What contribution can we make to the refugee problem? I think we should be taking larger numbers of refugees but not necessarily every asylum seeker who sets foot on our shores.
JENNY BROCKIE: If we send them to a place which might have different standards to our standards in terms of housing them and keeping them, do we still have an ethical responsibility to them when they are in another country waiting for a decision?
PETER SINGER: Well, as I said, my doubts are that Malaysia is not a signatory to the international convention and I am not sufficiently expert on what the conditions actually are to know, but if the conditions are that they will be safe and they will be provided with the necessities of life, although the housing conditions may be poor and not what they would have got if they got to Australia, I think that meets our responsibilities as long as we are taking a sufficient number of refugees to help deal with the global refugee problem, which as we know is many millions of people.
JENNY BROCKIE: Is that more important, the taking of extra numbers in the global refugee problem?
PETER SINGER: Yes, I see that as making more of a contribution to the overall problem of refugees and asylum seekers combined.
JENNY BROCKIE: Where do you see ethics in the Australian political scene?
PETER SINGER: I think it plays a role. As I said, I think Australians are concerned about the nation being one that can hold its head up and doing the right thing and therefore it does play a role. I think the bipartisan nature of increasing our foreign aid reflects the idea that that is something that Australians want to do. We want to be on a par with other nations of comparable wealth in terms of playing a role there. I think it does play some role but, unfortunately, I don’t think it plays enough of a role because it does not have the weight that I would like it to have.
JENNY BROCKIE: I would like to ask you some of the questions that were received online by the Museum, because a few of them are relevant to some of the issues you raised in your talk. There is one question from ‘confused’ the name of the person who asks the question:
In the last few weeks the ABC’s Four Corners has shown two programs on horrific brutality against cattle and against Tamils. From the public outcry, Australians seem to be far more concerned about the cattle. What’s your understanding of the ethics at work behind this stark difference?
The questioner says ‘It’s very disturbing.’
PETER SINGER: For those who are not familiar with it, the brutality that is referred to against the Tamils was the brutality shown by the Sri Lankan army as they retook the area that was being held by the Tamil Tigers. I think both what’s been done to Australian cattle in Indonesia and what’s been done to Tamils are shocking things that ought not to happen and we ought to do whatever we can to stop those things happening. But in the case of the cattle, because these cattle were coming from Australia, it’s very easy to say what Australia should do to stop that: we should not allow our cattle to be exported to countries that do not use the same humane standards of treatment and slaughter that we do.
If you say what should Australia have done - let alone what would Australia now do because the brutality to the Tamils is not now continuing; it was a program that looked at something that had happened - so I would say one reason there was less outrage was not that viewers do not regard this as a terrible thing, but rather this was an atrocity that has occurred and that we can’t do anything about now. And even if we had known of it occurring when it was occurring, there would have been relatively little that we could have done as compared to the live export things. So I think the underlying ethics here are quite realistic ethics in saying we ought to be concerned about things where we as a nation through our government or as individuals can make a difference. Other things are terrible, but there is not much point in getting all that outraged about them if we are powerless to make any difference.
JENNY BROCKIE: So you see it in terms of power rather than humans versus animals?
PETER SINGER: I do not see it in terms of us being more concerned about animals than about humans, no. I am sure that if there had been a Four Corners program about Australian troops somewhere, let us say in Afghanistan, carrying out those kinds of atrocities that the Sri Lankan army was shown as carrying out, there would have been much more outrage than there was about the live export of cattle.
JENNY BROCKIE: Is that an issue ethically that we relate more strongly to our own people than we do to people from another land in terms of human rights?
PETER SINGER: I think we should be concerned about brutality and suffering wherever it occurs, but the point is that it’s not just that it’s people or cattle from our land, can we do something about this? We are in control of the cattle that are exported, until they are exported; we are in control of what the Australian troops do wherever they are in the world, so rightly we pay more attention to that because that is where we can make a difference.
JENNY BROCKIE: I would like to put another question to you from Angus who asks:
Australia is a democratic plural society formed by many different cultures and people. Each of these cultures and people has their own belief systems with specific ethical standards and often what is judged right for one section of society can be judged wrong for another. How can we come to a single ethical judgment on an issue such as abortion, for example, and place that into law without excluding many different belief systems? Does public policy always need to be made in a secular manner that excludes citizens’ spiritual beliefs?
PETER SINGER: Yes, that is a good question that raises a large issue, obviously. I think that when we have ethical debates about what the laws should be or what our governments should do, we have to have those debates in ways whereby we can communicate across the political spectrum or across the public debate – it is sometimes called the public square. That is, when we are speaking in the arena of discourse where we want to influence government policies and laws, we have to be able to say things from a position that others can accept.
If I say abortion is wrong, you ask me why, and I say ‘because here in scripture it says that it’s wrong,’ and that is not a scripture that you regard as an authority, then clearly I am not going to be able to convince you. So I think that is not an argument that really ought to be given weight in terms of deciding government policy. On the other hand, of course, you can argue - as in fact most people irrespective of their religious persuasion do try to argue - that abortion is the killing of a human being and that the killing of a human being is wrong. I think you can have a debate about that claim - and I have had that debate on many occasions and I have written about it in a couple of my works, Practical Ethics and Rethinking Life and Death and I think you can show that abortion is not ethically wrong. I think you can show that on the basis of rational argument and examination.
Therefore it’s not just a matter of saying, ‘Here is my community of belief and they think that, and here’s your community of belief and they think that, and there is no way they can communicate with each other.’ I think once you are prepared to look at arguments that do not presuppose some specific set of religious beliefs, then you can have a good discussion and you can hope to persuade some people.
JENNY BROCKIE: Do you think that applies to broader culture as well, if you take religion away and just look at cultural difference, because that is a very interesting question around different culture beliefs and how you come to an ethical position across a range of different cultural approaches to an issue.
PETER SINGER: But I think the ethical issues may be a little bit different because we need to make laws about them and we can’t just say ‘everybody do their own thing’. I suppose you might say, ‘You have a law on abortion where those who think that abortion is OK can have abortions and those who think that abortion is wrong will not have abortions,’ but you could not have that on everybody possible kind of thing. If some people think, for example, that it’s OK to treat some people in ways that other people think is wrong, there are certain things we do not accept. We do not accept, for example, female genital mutilation, even if some cultures think that is an acceptable practice. I think the question when you talk about different cultures is: is it something that is having an impact where we think we need to rightly make this a matter of public policy? If it’s a matter of what kind of traditions or celebrations do you have, obviously we can allow people to do their own thing there.
JENNY BROCKIE: Your report card from 2004, how would you summarise the way that you view Australia now in terms of that question compared to the way you viewed it in 2004?
PETER SINGER: At the moment I think we are certainly better than 2004. You read out those categories of the poll that people have taken part in. I certainly do not think we are in the ‘doing well’ category yet. I suppose I am a little undecided as to whether we are in the ‘poor’ or ‘could try harder’ category. If the carbon tax goes through, I might be inclined to put us in the ‘could try harder’ category which I see as the better category than the ‘poor’ category. At the moment still not effectively doing anything about carbon I think we are still in the ‘poor’ category, but we are about to do something and we are also increasing our aid and I hope that will continue. So we have certainly moved up a few notches. If we had a more sensitive kind of scale out of 10, I would say we have moved from three or four in the 2004 scale to something like maybe five or six now.
JENNY BROCKIE: Interestingly, one of the things that comes up about the carbon tax again and again is the question of a promise being made that there would be no carbon tax before an election and then a decision to introduce a carbon tax after that election. Is that ethical?
PETER SINGER: No, it’s a pity that Julia Gillard felt obliged to make that promise. As I have said, I welcome the fact that that there is going to be, I hope, a carbon tax. I regret that she has debased the currency of political promises once again. She’s certainly not the first politician to have done that. It would have been better if she had been more prepared to be tough and say, as she’s now saying, that we need and should have a carbon tax.
JENNY BROCKIE: So it’s unethical to have made that promise?
PETER SINGER: I think it’s unethical to have made the promise but I am not saying it’s unethical now to go ahead with the tax because I think it’s sometimes justifiable to break a promise where you are going to do much more good by breaking it than you would do by keeping it. And I think that is one of those cases.
JENNY BROCKIE: That is interesting. So you think that is?
PETER SINGER: I don’t think there is any absolute obligation to keep promises, clearly. I think we all accept that really. I promise to meet you for lunch but on my way I come across an accident and I happen to be medically trained, I can save the life of someone there but I am going to have to break my promise that I made that I will not be late for our 1 o’clock appointment. Obviously everybody thinks that I should break the promise. So there is a kind of an unspoken condition on promises. And I guess in this case I think we ought to excuse Julia Gillard for breaking the promise and be thankful that she has seen the light about the importance of doing something about Australia’s emissions.
JENNY BROCKIE: I would like to take questions.
QUESTION: Good evening, Professor Singer. My name is Janette Condon. I would like to ask you about your views on Australia’s population growth. When you said we should take more refugees, do you mean we should take a lot more? Should we take a greater percentage of our existing intake of immigration? How do we balance this with concerns that a lot of people raise about the impact on Australia’s fragile environment and our lack of fertile land? There seem to be a number of ethical issues in that proposal.
PETER SINGER: Thank you, Janette, for raising that important question. To answer first your point about refugees, I think refugees should be a larger share of our existing intake of immigrants. It’s a separate question whether we ought to increase the intake of immigrants. I also think that we should not be encouraging Australians to have large families because not only Australia but also the world as a whole has a population problem and increasingly will have one on current projections which now take us to 10 billion by 2050. So we shouldn’t be contributing to that issue any more. But I think we can have a sustainable population in Australia, which might still edge up somewhat but I hope would stabilise sometime in the not too distant future and still take significantly more refugees than we are presently taking.
QUESTION: Hi Professor Singer, my name is Adriana and thank you so much for all you have had to say. Given what you have said about the disproportionate effects of climate change on poorer nations and also our poor efforts in giving foreign aid to poorer nations that really deserve it, do you think there is an obligation to try to extend the refugee convention and our laws to encompass economic and environmental refugees?
PETER SINGER: If you do broaden the situation to that extent, then the numbers of refugees worldwide are going to get much larger than they are, and I don’t really think it’s going to help. Given that already we have maybe around 10 million refugees in refugee camps, I don’t think it’s really going to help because what you need is for countries to take refugees. Just changing the convention is not going to make the difference. And I think incidentally, as I said, we are going to get a lot more refugees when climate change kicks in in some places. You could argue we have a greater obligation to take them in because we have actually caused their flight; we have caused the fact that they have become refugees. I think the refugee problem is going to grow and we need to look at ways of trying to resettle refugees. It’s a really difficult issue, but I don’t think broadening the category of refugees under the convention is really going to be what will solve that problem.
QUESTION: Hello Professor Singer, I am William Mutford. My question gets to the nub of what I think other people are asking: how do you ethically decide who gets to come to a particular place in the world - this being Australia?
PETER SINGER: Ideally you would ethically decide by how long they have been waiting in a refugee camp. I think it’s ethical to say, ‘You have been in a refugee camp, there is no question that you are a bona fide refugee, you have been waiting there for a long time and you’re the next one who ought to be taken.’ That seems to me the fairest system. If you take people out of the refugee camps who have been there for a long time, then the camps will have more room for other people who become refugees. I don’t really think it’s relevant that people have managed to set foot on Australia or even get into Australian territorial waters. That’s an historical understanding that is now becoming something of an anachronism. But, as I say, our obligations to those people are to ensure they are safe and that they are not sent back to their countries where they will be persecuted. But just the fact they have managed to get into our territorial waters I don’t see gives them a moral claim that is any greater, or indeed I would say is less, than the moral claims of families who have been in a refugee camp elsewhere in the world for several years.
JENNY BROCKIE: Does that answer your question or were you thinking more about relative suffering in relative situations? (inaudible).
PETER SINGER: I will repeat that question: William said he was thinking more about the general question of who comes to Australia and not just refugees.
We have had immigration policies that are in part humanitarian like the refugee programs for asylum seekers who we judge to be bona fide and we have had family reunion policy and we have had people who come with needed skills that can contribute to the country. I think the family reunion policy has been important and you could justify as having humane purposes, particularly when there was a large flow of immigrants wanting to unite families. I think it’s less significant now.
If we are concerned about Australia’s population growth, then we shouldn’t really be focusing that much on the people with useful skills. If there are opportunities in the country for employment, then we ought to be training people here, and that will include refugees who we bring here out of refugee camps who can fill those opportunities. We have a different issue about to what extent do we think we can sustainably allow our population to grow, and I agree there are problems with doing too much growth. But within whatever limit we decide, I think we ought to be taking more refugees and training them to develop the skills we need rather than taking people who are doing perfectly fine in the countries where they are living but would like to come to Australia and can get in because they have these skills.
QUESTION: My name is Richard Arcualis (?). The globe does pretty well with some issues like the eradication of smallpox and we had a major success with getting rid of CFCs and destruction of the ozone layer. What do you think is so difficult about carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases that the large proportion of the globe, including a percentage of the population of this country, fail to understand what the issue is and won’t take the ethical approach that you are advocating?
PETER SINGER: What’s different about the climate change issue is that it does require much more dramatic changes to our lives than either of the other two cases that you mentioned. Smallpox eradication required quite a modest amount of aid to do it once we had the understanding of how to do it and no dislocation to our lives. The CFCs problem, the chlorofluoro carbons which was agreed to in the Montreal protocol to phase out, we had good alternatives to them. There were very minor dislocations to some industries that produced them, but we had other ways of doing the various functions that CFCs did.
Carbon is a much bigger problem. At the moment, generally speaking, we don’t have other ways of producing energy that are as cheap as the dirty ways of producing energy that we use now, particularly coal. So our energy is going to have to become more expensive. That’s the debate we have been having - are we are going to have higher bills to heat our house and to do a variety of other things? Obviously the Gillard government feels it can only do that if it compensates people at significant cost to particularly the poorer sections of the community in order to do that.
The other problem that is even harder to deal with, and as I said the Gillard government isn’t even proposing to deal with, is emissions from agriculture and particularly those methane emissions from livestock. I won’t go into the details but, by some ways of calculating the methane, you could reach a figure where Australia’s cattle and sheep produce as much damaging greenhouse gases as all of our coal-fired power plants. It’s a bit controversial how you do those calculations but it is a very significant contributor - and there is no alternative there. CSIRO are working on some kind of feed supplement that if you give to cattle it will produce less methane or breeding cattle that produce less methane, but so far they don’t seem to have come up with anything. If we are really going to stop that, we are going to have to dramatically reduce one of our major industries with no real alternative employment obvious for those people and we are going to have to change our diet as well insofar as people are eating beef and lamb. So those factors also make it clear why this is a more difficult task for people to face up to. You said: why don’t they understand the ethics of it? I think it’s because self-interest is a powerful distorter of the way we view ethics. That’s why there is more denial and obfuscation about what’s really happening than on those other issues.
JENNY BROCKIE: In those terms, how do you deal with a public debate about it?
PETER SINGER: It’s tough, but you have to get people to see that life can go on, that we don’t really need to be consuming nearly as much energy as we are, that we can insulate our houses better, that we can build more sustainable homes and that we can drive less and cycle or walk more - there is a whole range of different things we can do and I believe should be doing. They are not really going to make us miserable. But it’s going to take time to get people to adjust. The beef and lamb issue is a whole another question which I think it is going to take a long time to get people to adjust to that.
QUESTION: Professor, you have made the comment that the Australian public needs to be better educated and be better educated ethically, but the biggest issue is that our main form of education is the media. Going on the issues we have had recently with ethics in the media, how do we resolve that issue and provide ethical education?
PETER SINGER: Very difficult. Let me first say I am thankful that we have some non-commercial media, particularly SBS and the ABC, that do provide some balance and are not swayed to the extent that others are by either the need to grab as much audience share as possible or by the commercial interests that are sponsoring them.
JENNY BROCKIE: And don’t do phone hacking.
PETER SINGER: And don’t do phone hacking. I have your assurance, is that right, SBS does no phone hacking?
JENNY BROCKIE: Absolutely.
PETER SINGER: Very good, I am delighted to hear it. So that’s important.
Otherwise it is really difficult to cope with the media that we have. We should be supporting those media that are more responsible. Perhaps the Internet is making some difference, but I am a bit ambivalent about that. It’s gives us more alternative sources but maybe it also puts us all in our silos. We look at what we want to look at on the Internet and we are not forced to confront the whole spectrum of news and stories that are going on. I don’t really know. I can’t say that I have a better answer to this, except let’s try to do more to bolster non-commercial media in this country.
QUESTION: Professor Singer, my name is Ibi Lochance (?) and my question is regarding refugees, asylum seekers and concept of a queue. As you mentioned before, the number of UNHCR mandated refugees in the world is currently 14 million. Less than a couple of per cent of them actually will get resettlement, somewhat larger will repatriate and the rest of them just live in refugee camps for 20 or 30 years. Given these numbers, can we really honestly talk of the concept of a queue? And also is it ethical for us to use this so-called concept of a queue as the focal point of the policy discourse that we are having in this country with the policy decision?
PETER SINGER: Thank you for the question and for the figures. You are obviously more expert in the area than I am. But can I ask you how you would see an ethical allocation if not in terms of the length of time that people have spent in camps, what would you see as a more ethical way? Assuming we are talking about the same number of people we are going to accept, what would you see as a more ethical way of deciding who should get in and who should not get in?
QUESTION: If I would know the answer I would have finished my PhD by now. But maybe we just have to move out from this concept that the only thing we can do for these people is resettlement because given that only a couple of per cent of them will resettle, we may need to think -
PETER SINGER: No, I don’t accept that way of thinking. That’s a bit like people saying, when I suggest that they could increase their personal contribution to Oxfam or Save the Children or one of those organisations that are helping people, they say, ‘What can I do? You have just told me there are eight million children dying every year, I am not Bill Gates. I could maybe save five, 10 or 20 but that’s a drop in the ocean.’ I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. You could save five, 10 or 20 human lives. For 10, 20 or 40 parents, you could save the life of their child. That’s a huge difference to what you can do. It doesn’t matter - of course it matters - but it’s not a reason for not doing it that there are those eight million that you can’t help. Similarly, it’s not a reason for us not to take 10,000 or 20,000 or 50,000 - whatever we decide we can do - refugees from refugee camps that there is still going to be 14 million there. I think the good that we do to those individuals and to those families is what’s important.
QUESTION: Good evening, Mr Singer, my name is Isabel Mudford and I have a question about the live export trade. There has been a little bit of talk about religious practices over slaughtering and what happens in Indonesia with the live export trade. I think it is sure mostly halal but I am not exactly sure of the exact practices. Do you believe that we should take into consideration humans’ religious beliefs as much as we may do if an animal’s welfare is at stake?
PETER SINGER: Firstly let me say that I don’t think what people saw on Four Corners is only the result of the fact that these animals were being slaughtered by the halal method. I think ritual slaughter can take place in a way that is far less inhumane than what was shown on Four Corners.
JENNY BROCKIE: With stunning and things like that. Would you consider that more ethical to stun an animal?
PETER SINGER: With halal, because there is no pope of Islam so there is no single doctrine, some Islamic authority says that you cannot stun while some Islamic authority says you can stun simultaneously with the cutting of the throat. If you stun simultaneously with the cutting throat, it’s effectively equivalent I think to stunning, although there are some questions about the positioning of the animal that maybe not quite so good. That is one issue.
The other issue if you do have ideal halal or kosher slaughter - because kosher slaughter also requires that the animal be conscious - is that acceptable? In a way that is what your question was asking: is that acceptable because that is some people’s religious beliefs? My answer to that is no. There was a measure put to the Dutch parliament recently, which I believe has passed the lower House of the Dutch parliament but has not passed the upper House as yet, to prohibit ritual slaughter or prohibit slaughter without stunning in the Netherlands. And I support that measure. Obviously it gets a lot of opposition from both Muslim and Jewish communities. But after all, it’s not that it’s religiously required for them to eat meat so nobody is forcing them to violate their religious beliefs. All it says is: if you are going to eat meat it has to be from an animal that is humanely killed by the most humane methods available. Kosher and halal slaughter may have been more humane than other methods thousands of years ago, but they are certainly not now. I think it’s reasonable to say that animals should not suffer more than necessary because of someone’s religious beliefs.
JENNY BROCKIE: What do you regard as the most humane method?
PETER SINGER: The most humane method is for stunning to occur before the animal is killed, which is required in this country and in most other developed countries for slaughter that is not in accordance with a religious ritual.
QUESTION: Thank you, my name is Caroline. My question, Professor Singer, is about the right to privacy particularly given the Internet, phone hacking and new means of communications. Do we have an ethical right to privacy?
JENNY BROCKIE: Good question.
PETER SINGER: It is a good question and it’s one that has become vastly more complicated in many ways as you say because of those things and because of the Internet in part. I have to say that I don’t regard privacy as a somehow basic right. I think it’s something we like to have and that it gives us some security. We don’t want our personal affairs too public for all the world. There are things we want to do that are private.
But as we were talking about with breaking promises there are also occasions where it’s justified to violate privacy in the same of some greater good. Some of the cases that people are troubled about are cases where actually we are giving our consent by using devices. For example, if you use Google to do your searches, Google keeps information on what searches you have made and actually links them to your IP address and stores that information I think currently for six months. So if you are searching for porn, Google knows you are searching for porn and it’s trackable back to you for six months anyway. After that …
JENNY BROCKIE: But what if you don’t know that?
JENNY BROCKIE: I am really interested that you don’t know that we have some sort of right to privacy from an ethical stance. Where does that leave us if we don’t have -
PETER SINGER: All I am saying is I think we waive these rights. You could argue that this ought to be better known and that the mobile phone companies ought to make it more public that these records exist. But I think most of us would choose to waive those rights even if we did know about it. I know about it and I still use Google. I find it a better search engine than others that may not store that data. I haven’t actually bothered to investigate whether there are others that don’t store that data.
JENNY BROCKIE: If you don’t value a right to privacy though, does it not open the door on a whole lot of other awful things?
PETER SINGER: Such as?
JENNY BROCKIE: Not being able to have privacy in your own home. Not having the right to privacy in a whole range of personal situations. Is there not a case for valuing privacy?
PETER SINGER: I think we do value privacy and there is a case for valuing it. But to say that it’s a right is to suggest that it’s something more basic and in a way more impregnable, that it should not be overridden for the sake of great interest. Yes, we have a right to privacy in our homes but if the police have good reason to believe that in our homes we are conspiring to murder people or smuggle drugs or something of that sort, they can get a bug put in our home and they can listen to our conversations. And I think that’s perfectly reasonable.
JENNY BROCKIE: Does that answer your question or do you want to follow it up? No, you are happy with that.
QUESTION: Hi Peter, my name is James. We have been talking a lot about asylum seekers, the environment and that kind of stuff - these are all truly global issues – and we have talked about Australia’s response to that. I wonder what you think into the future in the coming decades and centuries whether humanity as a whole can effectively deal with these sorts of issues on a state-by-state basis or whether global organisations like the EU and the UN are really what’s needed to deal with these sort of global issues effectively. Can individual states acting in isolation deal with sort of thing effectively or is the future of politics some sort of stateless world?
PETER SINGER: I discussed this in the book that I mentioned earlier One World. I think we need to move towards more global governance. That means more institutions that have authority that do some governing and that are global. Climate change is a classic example where we really need some kind of authority that has some powers to sanction countries that are exceeding their global share and not doing anything about it. One of the reasons why I think it’s important for Australia to have some sort of carbon tax is that it will help to isolate the United States. The real problem at the moment is the United States that they are not doing anything significant to reduce their emissions and are not talking about a carbon tax or cap on trade scheme. What Ideally you would want is to have some body that’s a bit like the World Trade Organisation that is entitled to put trade sanctions on the United States because they say, ‘You are externalising one of the costs of production, the goods that you produce with energy produced in your country are imposing costs on other countries and you therefore get an unfair trade advantage against countries like Australia or the European Union,’ which is the other big area that is doing something about this issue with high levels of emissions. What we need is a global body that has the power to do that and therefore so that other countries will put duties on your products to overcome that balance.
We are still some way from getting that, unfortunately, because the United States is so powerful globally and because of the way the UN is set up it has a right of veto over that. I am not optimistic we are going to get there any time soon but I think we need something more like that. I think ultimately see the European Union as a model which I hope the entire world would evolve. But I am sure I am not going to live to see the day when we have a global equivalent of the European Union.
QUESTION: Hi Peter, thanks very much for your talk. I wanted to go back to the Sri Lanka Tamil question when you were talking about how we have an ethical responsibility to do something when we can do something. I personally couldn’t do something about the live export trade but being part of the public outcry I feel like the government listened to that and then acted on it. I feel that, being a global citizen, don’t we have an ethical responsibility when we know that atrocities, such as what happened in Sri Lanka to the Tamil community happen, that we have an ethical responsibility to do something about it?
PETER SINGER: I sort of agree with that. I think that you do have more direct power over the export trade because the government is going to listen to you if you act in concert with millions of other Australians. It’s going to respond to that. By voicing your concerns, contacting the media, contacting your members of parliament or whatever you can have a fairly direct effect. What you can do about the Sri Lankan Tamil atrocities? I suppose you can also contact your government and say, ‘Please make representations to the International Criminal Court that they should launch an investigation with a view to prosecuting those responsible for these atrocities,’ or you can directly connect the International Criminal Court of the UN and ask them to refer to it. There are things you can do. So it’s not that we are powerless. Maybe if I said that we are powerless, I spoke in rather too absolute terms. It would be good to do those things but we do feel a lot more remote from it because of that. That’s why I think it didn’t provoke the same sort of outrage.
QUESTION: Most dangerous man, my name is Len la Flam. It’s been a situation recently where the mythology that floats around in mad dog radio is that it’s impossible for us to move to a carbon free situation. However, large numbers of us know that folks at the University of Melbourne sat down and costed what was currently possible and said by a certain date and time, providing you can get the equipment here, you could have zero free emissions in Australia - I think the time line estimate was from 2015 to 2020 - for a cost about the same as introducing fibre cable around the place. I think $37 billion is the comment.
The question is: given the kind of contributions and alliances that the two major political parties have, are we likely to see that happen? Just as an aside, there has been this interesting little bit of deviation recently where our Prime Minister sat down with the Greens party and some Independents and talked turkey until they got a deal. Is that kind of dangerous precedent likely to spread; and do you see any impasse for having two parties that look like they are the same flavour?
PETER SINGER: I certainly think that the Greens have played a very positive role on this issue - and the Independents - and I hope that continues. As I said in my remarks, my understanding is it was the Greens who were responsible for getting this large commitment to developing clean energy, and that’s in a way the most hopeful thing and relating to the kind of thing you are talking about. It’s not actually saying looking at that University of Melbourne plan and saying, ‘We will do it,’ but it’s saying, ‘Let’s do a lot more to develop this.’ There were doubts raised about that costing, of course, because you are talking about what are basically relatively untried techniques for solar thermal energy generation, for example, which Spain is working on too. There is a lot more that could be done there but at the moment it’s still significantly more costly per unit of energy produced than coal. I think we need to do more to get that cost down and to produce more of that.
I hope that the electorate will continue to put Greens in positions where they can influence the policy of whatever government is in power in Australia. I hope the Independents, who have done the right thing on this occasion, will not be punished by their electorates for doing that. If so, there is some prospect this could continue. But I am no political pundit. I am not able to tell you how likely that is to continue.
QUESTION: Hi Peter, how are you going? Thanks for being here tonight. My question is about living in a liberal democracy and individuals’ freedoms. This was sparked from the discussion about how big the houses are now in Australia relatively to everywhere else in the world. Obviously we are here to allow our public to have as much freedoms as they can in their personal lives, to have reproductive freedom and to have freedom to own possessions and to trade properties. What kind of role can a government in a liberal democracy have when it’s clear that having a five-bedroom house with two bedrooms is not good in the interests of the global community, yet there is a sense of entitlement in a free market system to say, ‘I have worked all my life, I want my children to have a bathroom of their own’? What does the government do? Can you step in and say to people, ‘No, that’s not good for the rest of the world for you to have the freedom to have that’? Or do you have to say, ‘The onus is on the individual and family members to say, “Maybe it’s not in people’s best interests in countries that we will never meet to do that.”’? What can a government do? Can they step in and say, ‘No, we are going to say you can’t build a house with more than four bedrooms,’ or do you put it back on the people to make those decisions?
PETER SINGER: I think there is something that can be done that’s in between the government telling people how big a house they can have exactly and the government simply saying that it’s everybody’s right or entitlement to build whatever size house they like. One thing the government can do is to have building codes for sustainability, and in fact that is what governments have done. I think it’s not actually a uniform federal law but it’s coming in in different states at different times. We have recently moved to a standard of six-star housing for new homes in Australia, which is a significant improvement in terms of sustainability, in terms of how much energy they use. You are going to see it reflected in changing designs. Houses which have a lot of glass without some kind of big overhanging eve or something of that sort you are not going to be able to build as new homes because at least at the moment you can’t make them meet six-star standards. So we are going to have differently designed homes, and nobody has an entitlement to build a home that is not reasonably energy efficient.
The other side of it is we can say, ‘If you are going to use a lot of energy, you are going to have to pay the community for it reflecting the costs you are imposing on others,’ and that’s exactly what a carbon tax or a cap in trade scheme does. I hope eventually the level of a cost per tonne of carbon will reach a point where people, even quite wealthy people, start to think seriously about how much energy they are using. If they do use a lot of energy it will provide the government with more revenue or provide others with more revenue to invest in renewable energy alternatives so that eventually the energy will be clean energy going into those homes.
QUESTION: Hi, I am wondering whether you think as individuals we should all be vegetarian, and do you manage it?
PETER SINGER: Good question. The straight answer to that is yes, unless you have some really rare health condition that makes it difficult for you to do that. There are such people, I believe, but they are quite small in number. But otherwise I don’t think eating meat - I guess I could make some other exceptions. If you like to eat road kill, for example, I have no real problem with that. And maybe there are some people who live sustainably on the land rearing their own animals in their own way, making sure they are free to graze and have good lives and then painlessly kill them on their land without transporting them to a slaughterhouse or anything like that. I suppose I could accept that although, as I said, if you are having cattle or sheep it’s going to be contributing to greenhouse emissions however sustainably in another sense, however ecologically friendly it might be. But otherwise it’s very hard to find animal meat that has been commercially raised and where animals have not suffered unnecessarily, and also a lot of it is making a significant greenhouse gas contribution. So yes, I think you should do that.
As for me personally, I have been a vegetarian for 38 years now or something. I am not strictly vegan. I think ideally we would be vegan, but that’s more complicated, harder to do and more of a dramatic change. I am mostly vegan but somewhat flexible about that, particularly when I am travelling, eating out or whatever. But again, that’s the direction I would like to see us eventually heading.
JENNY BROCKIE: You don’t eat fish?
PETER SINGER: I don’t eat fish.
JENNY BROCKIE: Just checking. There is a question here from Jim Dunn which was posted online related to this and Jim says:
Given the symbiotic relationship of everything within nature, why is it acceptable to eat vegetables and not animals? Where do we strike the balance?
PETER SINGER: I don’t know if Jim is in the audience tonight but I would like to ask him what he means by the symbiotic relationship.
JENNY BROCKIE: Jim is here. What do you mean by the symbiotic relationship?
PETER SINGER: Can we ask you to elaborate on the symbiotic relationship. I am thinking here about agriculturally produced tomatoes, let’s say, what’s their symbiotic relationship with everything and animals?
QUESTION BY JIM: What I meant in the question was something that has troubled me. I was not a vegan but a vegetarian for 30-odd years and the relationship that I saw - maybe it wasn’t the right word - that the whole of our ecosystem is related to itself. So how did you ethically draw the line at the tomato as opposed to the fish as opposed to the chicken - where in that spectrum - and what drove you to draw the line where you drove it?
PETER SINGER: The line for me is whether the being can suffer, whether it’s a conscious being capable of feeling pain or suffering. I don’t believe that tomatoes or cabbages suffer. I do think that fish can suffer and I think that chicken can suffer. So that’s why I don’t eat fish or chicken.
JENNY BROCKIE: There’s a gentleman in the front row who is making the case for a suffering tomato, I can tell.
PETER SINGER: You can tell because of the redness of his jacket, that tomato red.
QUESTION BY JIM: [inaudible] George argued that trees - and they are plants - actually send messages when a forest was being attacked through the smells and the senses, chemical messages as they went through. I have a feeling they do have some feeling. I remember years ago one of my officer cadets gave a speech on vegetarianism and I said, ‘How do you know than plants don’t feel?’ And that was before I met George. He’s a botanist. I don’t know whether that’s generally accepted, but it’s there to think about.
PETER SINGER: I can tell you that amongst scientists it’s not generally accepted. I don’t know George and I haven’t seen his work, unfortunately.
JENNY BROCKIE: We are getting into Prince Charles territory here, I think.
PETER SINGER: There was a dramatic claim made some years ago in a book called The Secret Life of Plants that was a bit similar. It was claimed that if you hooked up a lie detector machine which in a sense is nervous transmissions to one plant and you destroyed another plant the first plant responded in a certain way. I used to get a question at that time for years people quoting this research. But when other scientists tried to replicate those results they could never do it. So if George can get his results replicated
PETER SINGER: Okay. Of course when you talk about messages, it’s possible some chemicals are transmitted, but that doesn’t necessarily mean consciousness.
JENNY BROCKIE: We are going to have to wrap up, I am afraid. I am interested to ask you, just to close this off, the question of how ethical you think Australia is now. You have changed your categories from 2004, the things that you assess us by when you asked that question. I just wonder how you think that could shift in another five years. What do you think you might be looking at in another five years? So how ethical are we now; and what do you think we will be looking at down the track?
PETER SINGER: In another five years I am hoping that we will have a price on carbon that has made a difference to our emissions profile and that we are seen as one of the nations that is doing something positive about that. I am hoping that we have reached at least 0.5 per cent of gross national income in foreign aid, because the 2015-16 financial year is the target for reaching that. That’s not great, but it’s better than where we are now.
I am hoping, as I said, that we are dealing with asylum seekers in a humane way but also taking more refugees generally because I think we can do that. I am hoping, but probably this is rather optimistic, that we are not engaged in the live export trade any more. Those are some of the standards that I have been talking about today and I hope we are in a better position. I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t say we will be or won’t be, just that we have made some positive steps in those directions and I hope we keep going.
JENNY BROCKIE: Do you think you will be measuring other things down the track as well? Can you see things that are likely to be things you will be looking more closely at in the future?
PETER SINGER: Yes, possibly. The two things I didn’t talk about today that I dropped from the book were the involvement in the United Nations where I thought we were quite negative under [John] Howard, because we supported the Iraq invasion which was really contrary to United Nations principles and was not supported by the UN and contrary to the charter as I read it and the Howard government was pulling back from the UN; and, secondly, on the trade issues on which we weren’t really too bad because it’s in our economic interests to have open trade policies. We don’t have the kind of protection or subsidies for Australian agriculture that the European Union and the United States have for it.
There may be other issues. I think opening up global trade is an important issue. I didn’t talk about it today but I hope we have a fairer global trade regime that enables the poorest countries in the world to sell more to the rich countries and thereby help to get them out of poverty too.
JENNY BROCKIE: I would like to encourage all of you to go onto the website and have your say on what you think of Australia as a global citizen and for the people watching this to engage in that poll. I think it will be very interesting to see how many people do and what the results are. Peter Singer, thank you very much for your time this evening. It’s been fascinating talking to you. And thank you very much for your questions. We covered a lot of ground. We could have kept going a lot longer but we are out of time. Thank you very much indeed and thank you, Peter Singer. [applause]
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Date published: 22 September 2011