Retreat from reason

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Environmental crisis, existential angst and electoral backlash

By David Salt

The story so far: A climate crisis has been called, the Great Barrier Reef is in the process of collapsing and our great inland waterways are dying. The government doesn’t seem to have a reasonable plan of response and, in any event, a national election is underway and no-one gives them a chance of winning. The opposition party has a more credible emissions target but the government says achieving this target will wreck our economy. The nation votes (18 May 2019) and, against all the polling, the opposition is repudiated and the government is re-elected. What’s the story?

Of course, the election outcome was much more than economics vs environment but I think the widespread anxiety about environmental decline was a major factor. But possibly not in the way many concerned environmentalists may have thought.

Future uncertain

Anyone who is aware of environmental issues is alarmed at the state of the world, be it collapsing biodiversity, wild weather or plastic pollution. Conditions are deteriorating, and in many cases the decline is accelerating. Policy responses so far are inadequate.

But even those people not up on the environment know something is happening. The floods are more brutal, the bushfires more horrendous, the heatwaves more cruel.

And life is increasingly complex. We have a world of information at our fingertips – more info than at any time in history – and more options to choose between. Social media means we’re in contact with everyone 24/7 and there are louder voices shouting at us from all directions. Houses are unaffordable, congestion chokes our cities and anxiety is our biggest growth industry. The future is increasingly uncertain.

What do you do when you have no confidence in the future? Indeed, there are people all around shouting it’s not just an uncertain future we’re facing but an environmental cataclysm (“I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is!” one young climate activist named Greta Thunburg exhorted).

Three pathways from existential angst

I teach and write about environmental science. I am scared of what the future holds, and I’m saddened by the lack action being taken by our elected representatives. I often wonder how people deal with the prospect of a dark future.

A few years ago a colleague of mine (Richard Eckersley) posed a simple typology of responses to fears of the apocalypse. Now, I’m not saying the apocalypse is nigh, but I found his typology a useful model for how we respond to the existential angst associated with an uncertain future.

Richard suggested there were three basic responses: nihilism, fundamentalism or activism.

With nihilism, we basically give up. We’re going to hell in a handbasket and our individual actions don’t seem to make any difference so why care; let’s party till we drop.

But if you don’t want to give up and are prepared to accept the comfort of a simpler model of how the world behaves then maybe fundamentalism is for you. This might be the acceptance of a religious framework setting out what a good life entails (with a guarantee of heaven or paradise when you leave this mortal coil). Or it might be a secular framework of markets solving all our resource issues and creating a rising tide that will eventually lift all the boats.

And then there’s activism. In this response you don’t give up or accept a simpler model; you ‘act’ to make a difference. You think global but act local. You acknowledge the rotten unsustainability of what’s going on around you but you focus on something that you can do, some little bit where you can make a difference; and you hope that everyone else starts doing the same thing.

All roads lead to…

I’ve often wondered about this typology.

Nihilism and fundamentalism, while not saving the world, have a certain rational appeal to them. If the state and trend of the world is making you anxious, depressed and dysfunctional and you feel powerless to do anything then why not look for different ways of engagement. Drop out or sign up.

Activism*, on the other hand, while seemingly a positive response (in Eckersley’s discussion he describes it as ‘hope rules’ and a constructive response), has never seemed as ‘rational’. You can go ahead and make your own backyard a little more sustainable but it’s impossible to ignore that the surrounding neighbourhood is going to the dogs. Activism only salves the angst for so long before the outside reality seeps in and has you reaching for the bottle (nihilism) or the bible (fundamentalism). (Or maybe that’s just me cause I’ve always been a little ‘glass half empty’. I’ve been trying to make my own little difference for decades through engagement with environmental NGOs, and the angst is still rising.)

In truth, I don’t believe anyone goes down one path exclusively. Rather, we all adopt varying degrees of nihilism, fundamentalism and activism simultaneously in all our thought processes. We all want to make a difference through our actions, conform to some normative ideology without too many questions, and sometimes just forget about life and get wasted.

Why do we do this? Because the world is a complex place and that complexity is difficult and painful to deal with. Attempting to reconcile ourselves with that complexity, to fill the gap between our aspirations and what actually happens, creates a cognitive dissonance that wears us down.

To help us cope with this complexity, and the cognitive dissonance it generates, we will often deny that complexity (nihilism), subjugate it with simplistic models (fundamentalism) or just focus on a tiny bit of it to stop from being overwhelmed (activism).

Get real

So what does this have to do with a poor election outcome in Australia for the environment? To my mind a lot.

The government had been bagged for its abysmal performance on the environment and especially on our pathetic efforts to curb our nation’s greenhouse emissions. It decided it’s best hope for re-election was to keep it simple, make it about the economy vs the environment, play up the uncertain economic conditions coming our way, and damn the opposition for gunning for change (big change, uncertain change, change that will rob you of your accrued wealth).

We’re all suffering from change overload. We’re all carrying a degree of existential angst; angst that is being hypercharged by an environmental movement telling us daily that the end is nigh (climate crisis, extinction catastrophe, pollution apocalypse, blah, blah, blah). And with social media they can send us direct emails telling us this on a daily basis (I know this, I get their emails).

The polls tell us that more and more people are worried about climate change and the future but is it possible that the Opposition and the Greens have got it wrong when it comes to what the voters expect our leaders to do about it?

Fundamentalism: Maybe they don’t want reality and greater connection with the complexity that engulfs us. Maybe they want a simple answer or model of how things should work; take the government’s simplistic solutions on faith. (Maybe our emissions targets will prove to be adequate and we really will reach them in a canter despite all the evidence to the contrary.)

Activism: And maybe the comprehensive prescriptions of the opposition were too much to handle, and a more constrained form of engagement is all the electorate was after, or could cope with. (50% renewable energy sounds like a big change, couldn’t we just do a little more recycling?)

Nihilism: And if simple solutions or constrained actions still won’t help you deal with reality, why not damn the lot of them and vote informal (or worse, cast your vote for those absolute nutters on the far right, a hell of a lot of voters did).

Tell me I’m wrong.

*On activism: All models are wrong but some are useful. The ‘model’ presented here is my interpretation of how we cope with a complex world and growing existential angst. To me this model (in part) explains why a compelling rational case for a change in government, partly based on a better environmental policy, found no favour in the broader electorate. Beyond this explanatory value (and the guide it serves for messaging future campaigns), my model also suggests there’s no point in doing anything as we’ll eventually withdraw from the complexity of the environmental challenges we’re involved in (which is really another form of nihilism). What’s the point of being active? The point is that while acting may sometimes not achieve what we desire (in this case a sustainable future), it is our only realistic pathway to finding hope. Not acting, in contrast, simply leaves us hopeless (which is how I felt after the recent election result, but I’ll get over it).

Image by Maklay62 from Pixabay

All the way with EIA

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There’s still value in persisting with Environmental Impact Assessment

By Peter Burnett

For more than a decade I’ve been working and researching in the field of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). I keep telling myself to move on, that my priorities lie in overarching environmental policy frameworks and that EIA is just one decision-support tool (admittedly one that is very popular), best adapted for dealing with local issues. But I can’t stay away from EIA. Is there new life for this old tool?

Why can’t I stay away from EIA?

It’s partly a ‘boys-and-their-toys’ thing. I’m a lawyer by training and EIA has developed from a simple idea of gathering all the relevant environmental information for decision-making into a complex nested set of processes that can take up hundreds of legislative pages. It’s even more complicated in Australia’s federal system, which has EIA at national and state levels. I admire the sophistication of the EIA process as it has evolved and enjoy nutting out how this complicated system applies to any particular development project.

It’s partly an ‘in-the-club’ thing. Having been responsible for administering EIA under Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and having been accepted by peers as having some knowledge and expertise, I found myself reluctant to let this ‘club membership’ expire when I changed status from senior public servant to PhD candidate in 2013. So I found a way to make EIA one of my case studies in a thesis that was focused on high level policy relating to sustainability.

But the strongest reason was my belief in the potential of this tool. My instinct was that even though EIA didn’t seem to be achieving its original aspirations of leading to decisions that would protect the environment, not just in particular cases but across the board, it still had potential to play a major role in doing so.

But I wasn’t quite sure why it didn’t seem to work or how it might be improved, beyond the consensus view to make more use of strategic approaches to EIA. This would avoid the ‘salami slicing’ or ‘death of a thousand cuts’ involved in project-based EIA decisions such as the approval of individual mines or housing divisions.

Regulating discretion

One of my research findings concerned the way in which discretionary decision-making works in our legal system. EIA decisions need to be at least partly discretionary to allow decision-makers to tailor approval conditions to a multitude of cases and circumstances. Yet if that discretion is to be exercised consistently, it must also be constrained.

The problem here stems from the way the legal system has evolved to regulate discretion. First there are general principles of administrative law, which are directed to making sure that decision-makers takes fair decisions based on all the relevant information, at the same time preventing them from straying off the reservation by taking irrelevant factors into account or doing someone else’s bidding. These general rules are usually supplemented in EIA by statutory directions to consider specific environmental factors, such as the principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD).

But in either case the courts treat these as rules of due process. Short of the rare instances in which a substantive decision has no apparent rational basis (or in special cases such as the NSW Land and Environment Court) they won’t go into the merits of the decision. They regard merits as the province of governments or their appointed statutory expert decision-makers.

So they won’t tell a decision-maker what to decide. Fair enough. But Parliament can tell the decision-maker what to decide, although this is harder than it seems.

Take the EPBC Act. At first blush, it seems to be steering decision-makers towards a goal of ESD. But on closer examination the Act uses qualified language, saying it wants to ‘promote’ ESD. Then it takes a reductionist approach and breaks (an undefined) ESD into five ‘principles of ESD’ which the decision-maker must simply ‘consider’.

We’re back to due process. If he or she chooses, the decision-maker can pay lip service to these ‘considerations’ and then take any decision at all, short of irrationality.

Even if the Act used the clearest of language to define ESD and direct decision-makers to achieve that goal in all their decisions, this is probably not enforceable, because in such a broad context the courts would regard the question of whether any given decision achieved ESD (or other clearly defined policy goal) was one of merits or expertise, not law.

Can we fix it?

My research conclusion was that there were only two ways to ensure that individual EIA-based decisions deliver environmental policy goals in an enforceable way. Both involve translating the policy goal into limits of acceptable action at any given place and narrowing the scope for discretion, and the two approaches are related.

The first is environmental planning. In an ideal world of environmental plans, if you want to build a mine, the relevant plan will tell you whether this is possible on an unrestricted basis, or on conditions; for example that there were offsets available for certain vegetation losses.

The second, a combination of specific decision rules plus comprehensive environmental information (which often needs to be geospatial, thus bearing some resemblance to planning) will achieve a similar result. If you want to build a mine and there is a rule against clearing critical habitat, the answer depends in part on whether the mine site is listed as critical habitat. And a decision to approve a mine in an area of critical habitat would be challengeable in court, because this is not an instance of discretion but the breach of a rule.

There would still be a role for EIA and discretion under both these approaches, but its task would be more oriented to the detailed conditions under which the proposal should proceed. Of course, these approaches would be expensive and, in our federal system, particularly complex.

They also shift decision-making away from pluralism and trade-offs towards a more constrained application of rules. This is uncomfortable territory for politicians, but a necessary evil if we are to make EIA an instrument of our high-level policy goals.

Sticking with EIA

So I found a way to satisfy my urge to stay involved with EIA, by connecting it to policy and information. To highlight that connection, consider this poetic metaphor inspired by John Masefield’s poem, Sea Fever. We need to shift our attention from the ‘tall ship’ of EIA to the entire voyage of environmental decision-making, which requires both a clear sense of destination (policy) and fulsome environmental information, ‘a star to steer her by’.

EIA is an important tool but unless we have a clear sense of where we want it to take us and ensure the necessary information is available to guide its application, then this venerable tool will not be delivering the environmental outcomes it was established for.

Image by MonikaP from Pixabay

Not in my backyard

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To save the planet we need ‘transformative change’!!! (But not in my backyard.)

By David Salt

Did you hear the sobering news last week? “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history,” says the UN-supported Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Following the most comprehensive assessment of its kind; IPBES announced 1,000,000 species have been identified as threatened with extinction and that the rate of species extinction is accelerating.

Consequently, IPBES says, we need ‘transformative change’; and by that they mean a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Well, having sobered up, my first response to this science-based statement and ‘call to arms’ is to reach for the bottle.

I don’t for a second doubt the evidence or the gravity of the declaration; it’s just that I’ve heard it all before. Pretty much exactly the same thing was said in the Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 released in 2015, the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 released in 2010, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released in 2005, and at the proclamation of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 (and at its renewal in 2002).

The numbers in this 2019 declaration are direr but the underlying message is the same: situation awful and it’s getting worse and the awfulness is accelerating. To address it we need BIG change, transformative change, and we need it immediately.

A line in the sand

I think my pessimism about these declarations really took off in 2010 with the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook. 2010 was supposed to be a line in the sand for biodiversity conservation around the world.

Most of the world’s nations signed up to the Convention of Biological Diversity in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio (though the US, along with Andorra, Iraq and Somalia, never ratified it). In this Convention, signatories promised to do something about declining biodiversity.

In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg (famously boycotted by US President George W Bush), signatories agreed to work to specific targets – these being to halt or reverse declines in biodiversity by the year 2010. To celebrate what signatories hoped would be achieved, 2010 was declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

However, rather than demonstrate the success of the CBD, the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook revealed that biodiversity declines were accelerating (at all scales), that the drivers of decline (land clearing, invasive species, over exploitation, pollution and climate change) were growing and that the future was looking bleak.

‘We need transformative change’ was also the call at the time, but rather than exploring what that meant, a more comprehensive and nuanced set of targets (the Aichi Targets) was drawn up on what needed to be achieved by 2020.

Business as usual

Well, rather than witnessing a transformative change from this wakeup call in 2010, the world trundled along, business as usual.

The fight over greenhouse emissions seems to have stolen most of the available oxygen in the environmental debate, and rates of biodiversity decline have skyrocketed.

The IPBES report last week suggests we have a snowflake’s chance in hell of meeting the Aichi Targets (by next year); but even that shock announcement will quickly be forgotten in the relentless 24/7 media overload that is life in the 21st Century.

I’m not saying that the IPBES announcement last week was ‘wrong’, just that its framing reveals an inherent ‘disconnect’ with reality. The numbers presented (and the underlying trends they reflect) are horrifying, but the call for transformation just seems naïve (particularly so when that same plea is oft repeated).

In this instance, the IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, observed: “by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”

Taking on the status quo

Too tepid by half Bob. Those ‘interests vested in the status quo’ have been running the show since the beginning of the Great Acceleration back in the 1950s. That status quo is founded on unbounded economic growth and held together by neoliberal ideology. What’s more, the elites in all the developed world are the main beneficiaries of this status quo and are unlikely to seriously engage with the transformation that might change it.

And that’s the nub of the problem. It’s all well and good to say that environmental degradation is unacceptable (unsustainable) but transforming the status quo simply won’t happen of its own accord. The ‘broader public good’ is usually trumped by the ‘sweet self-interest of the successful man’*.

Which is why I included earlier a couple of references to the US not participating in the international agreements on biodiversity conservation. The US Government is very divided when it comes to international conventions that might constrain their business interests. As a general rule they don’t sign them.

“The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” said President George Bush (Snr) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the event where the Convention of Biological Diversity was signed. Sustainability is all well and good, but not if it requires us to change the status quo.

The Australian backyard

Back in Australia the government response to the IPBES announcement was so poor it was comical. We are in election mode at the moment so the shelf life of any important news story is lamentably short. Our political leaders know that so when our Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about the extinction report he claimed his government had already taken action on that, hoping no-one would follow up his statement. But, as it turned out, the PM was referring to a recent bill on the testing of cosmetics on animals, an animal welfare issue that has absolutely nothing to do with biodiversity conservation. All the while our Environment Minister said nothing.

Possibly more germane to this editorial on the difficulty of transforming the status quo, our Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the IPBES report “scared him”. We assume he was ‘scared’ because he knows the scientific consensus tells us that declining biodiversity has breached a planetary boundary with dire consequences for the Earth System and all who depend on it.

But possibly he’s really scared because if we do respond appropriately to the IPBES report then he could suffer a direct electoral backlash. That’s because one of the main drivers of extinction is land clearing and guess which electorate in Australia has the worst record for clearing of threatened species habitat? It’s the electorate of Maranoa where two million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed since 2000 – and it’s represented by David Littleproud, our Minister for Agriculture.

*Borrowed from the song “Girl, Make your own mind up” by Seven World’s Collide.
The verse it comes from reads:
“They’ll try to make you believe in the invisible hand
The sweet self-interest of the successful man
To believe in the chance however remote
The rising tide lifts all the boats”

Image: Stumps on the valley caused by deforestation and slash and burn type of agriculture in Madagascar (Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock.com)

Twenty Years of the EPBC Act – looking back, looking forward

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Reviewing our national environmental law as if it mattered

By Peter Burnett

It’s hard to believe but Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), is twenty years old. Given that it lies at the centre of so many important and controversial debates, how is this 20-year old piece of legislation tracking? In a time of climate change, extinction and growing uncertainty, is the EPBC Act still fit for purpose?

As is appropriate for such a critical piece of law, the EPBC Act gets a statutory review every 10 years. That means the EPBC Act is up for its second review later this year. Does it need a little tinkering or a major overhaul?

Because I had been responsible for the administration of the EPBC Act during the first review in 2009, I was asked recently* to share my reflections on how we should frame the review of the EPBC Act.

To my mind, this is a valuable opportunity for environmental policy reform and the thing we need to resist is the notion that it’s simply a matter of looking inside the Act to see how we can make it work better. The way forward lies on the outside of the Act, and I’d like to pose five big ‘outside’ questions.

But before I talk about these, I should tell you briefly what happened to the first review, led by Dr Allan Hawke, a former federal department head, and completed in 2009. Because what happened back then may help us make the most of this second review.

A potted history of the Hawke Review

The Hawke Review was comprehensive in approach and well-packaged in its recommendations.

Hawke was assisted by an expert panel and engaged extensively with stakeholders. He laid the ground well by packaging his recommendations in an integrated nine-point plan, which had something for everyone: new environmental protection for environmentalists; streamlining of regulation for business; stronger institutions for administrators; and a fresh name and look for maximum political effect.

Unfortunately these outcomes never materialised.

It was 2010 by the time government was able to act on the review and (as some will remember) there was significant political turmoil following a leadership ‘coup’ against Prime Minister Rudd, precipitated in part by a proposed mining tax. That culminated in the watering down of the tax, an election, a change of environment minister and a minority government. Of course, minority government in turn increased the ‘transaction costs’ of reform.

New environment minister Tony Burke announced a detailed government response to the Hawke Review in 2011, but in the ensuing period the minority government was giving high priority to pleasing business generally (and mining companies in particular). The Government thus focused its attention on a ‘one-stop-shop’ initiative to reduce regulatory duplication by using an existing mechanism in the EPBC Act, under which States could be accredited to approve development projects on the Federal Government’s behalf. 

As a result, progress on the EPBC reforms slowed to the point where, late in its term, the Gillard Government decided that there wasn’t enough time to get them through and deferred them to the next Parliament. But the next Parliament brought a change of government and the incoming Abbott Government returned to pursuing the ‘one stop shop’.

So, except for some administrative changes, including a policy on biodiversity offsets, the response to the Hawke Review was never implemented. Good policy reform foundered on the rocks of difficult politics.

Back to my questions for the forthcoming review.

The big ‘outside’ questions

1.‘What are we trying to achieve?’

A goal well defined is a goal half achieved. Neither the EPBC Act itself, nor the policy or explanatory documents that surrounded it, answer this question. The Act does include goals such as ecologically sustainable development, but expresses them in qualified language and leaves it open to decision-makers to simply pay lip service to them, so this fundamental question remains largely unanswered.

2. How do we allocate roles & responsibilities between federal and state governments?

Australia’s Constitution operates to share these roles and responsibilities between the two levels of government, but not in any clear or obvious way. However, there is considerable scope for the two levels to agree on a sensible division. In fact there are some agreements of this type, but they date back to the 1990s and were less than ideal even at the time. The EPBC Act is built in part on these agreements and so they need to be renegotiated before major legislative reform.

3. Given that roles are shared, how should the two levels of government cooperate, especially on areas in which overlap in unavoidable, such as environmental information?

Again, the 1990s agreements addressed this but implementation has been desultory. Governments should have tried harder.

4. How do we regulate discretion to ensure conformity with goals?

The freedom that decision-makers have under the current Act is too great: even if the goals of the Act were clear, there is no guarantee that discretionary decisions will implement them. Discretion is necessary in regulatory schemes, but my research suggests there are only two ways to ensure that such discretion is confined to implementing the goals of the Act. The first is to make environmental plans and require that decisions conform to the plans. The second is to have a series of specific decision rules (for example, not to approve development in listed critical habitat). Because characteristics such as critical habitat are usually geospatial, the two approaches are related.

5. How do we ensure that the Act is funded so that it is commensurate with its goals?

The EPBC Act has never been properly funded, going right back to the time when it’s principal architect, Environment Minister Robert Hill, was unable to secure additional funding for his new law. This is one reason why several major mechanisms under the existing Act, including provision for bioregional planning and grants for information-gathering, have been little used. In the absence of election commitments or an environmental crisis, in the current culture there is a high risk that Budget offset rules would strangle reforms.

The bottom line

I leave you with this thought. Unless the government elected later this month addresses the big ‘outside’ questions, the second statutory review of the EPBC Act can only deliver incremental change. That would be a wasted opportunity.

*The National Environmental Law Association (NELA) recently held a short conference to promote discussion of the upcoming review, under the theme of ‘Twenty Years of the EPBC Act – looking back, looking forward’. NELA asked me to reflect on the conference theme.

Image by Zesty from Pixabay