Hong Kong is a city that I fell in love with five years ago when I worked there with Oxfam Hong Kong and one I visited recently.

Hong Kong promotes and rewards efficiency, cleanliness and creativity. This is evident in the integrated design of the public transport system that is regular, clean, safe, and on time. I missed a bus and I was informed the next one was ‘four minutes’ away.

There are downsides to Hong Kong. One of these has become the increasing reliance on air conditioning set at a temperature of about 21 degrees.

Historically, buildings in Hong Kong have been designed to keep naturally cool but over the last 20 years this has changed and increasing reliance on aircon means residents switch on the units soon as they walk through the door.

This creates noise and heat for immediate neighbours who respond by shutting windows and switching on the air con. Today, up to 60 percent of Hong Kong’s electricity is used on air conditioning.

Just how much the city relies on this technology was highlighted in an attempt to have a ‘no air con night’. The idea was to encourage residents to turn off the air conditioning to promote alternative ways to cool down and limit the noise pollution.

The night was not quite successful with only 50,000 households taking part in a city of seven million residents.

The problem is that the air conditioning units are actually made the city hotter as heat that comes out of them gets trapped between buildings. The response is that more people get air conditioning and the spiral continues.

There are now about 20 hotspots that do not get below 28 degrees either during the day or night all year round.

This is a classic ‘progress trap’ – a term coined by historian Ronald Wright in his book The Short History of Progress.

A progress trap refers to aspects of our civilisation that have made us successful but can ultimately lead to our downfall.

We become so reliant on such technologies or processes that we cannot see a way around them: they seem natural and so we get stuck along this path even when the consequences become obvious.

This creates tunnel vision for policy-making and changes to this path seem too politically risky and radical – so they are best avoided.

Australia is confronting a number of its own progress traps with water allocations along the Murray-Darling Basin one example.

Whole communities have come to rely on the over-allocation of water rights that has made many (though not all) successful. As it has become increasingly obvious that the river is dying, any policy to reverse this has never been successfully implemented.

There is a need to remember that water is an important input to almost every industry: from agricultural production to mining exploration and site rehabilitation.

The history of industrial and agricultural water rights in Australia is complicated with details varying across states.

In general allocations are provided directly to users. While water agencies technically have the power to alter or cancel licences, this has rarely occurred and, water rights have come to be viewed by holders as rights in perpetuity.

By the 1970s it was evident that many water systems had been over-allocated. For example, in NSW water allocations were estimated to equal 120 percent of total available resources. Though reforms have been attempted at different times, these fail any sustainability requirements.

In 2009, The National Water Commission’s biennial report on water reform that was described as one of the “most dispiriting government reports ever compiled”.

Amongst other things, the Commission criticised the provision of assistance for irrigation infrastructure that if felt distorts the decision-making process for investors and irrigators.

I am not some inner city greenie demanding water cuts but trying to highlight the need to confront this issue.

There is a need for serious structural adjustment and despite promises made to irrigators as late as the 1960s that water supply would be continuous, this must change.

Important, however, is that these communities not be abandoned but have serious transition strategies implemented.

Alternatives are possible – and we need to find them or the Murray Darling will wither – and progress will cease altogether.

Excerpt of an article that fi9rst was publisghed in the Australian edition of Punh.

Dr James Arvanitakis is a lecturer in the Humanities at the University of Western Sydney and is a member of the University’s Centre for Cultural Research. His research areas include hope, trust, political theatre, comic books and citizenship and is currently working with the Whitlam Institute looking at issues confronting Australia’s democracy.