Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

Joining the dots on Sustainability Bites

By David Salt

“A real engagement with sustainability has bite.” That was our contention when we (Peter and I) began this blog. Well, have we demonstrated that in our efforts so far? And have our reflections generated any useful insights, is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? With 33 ‘bites’ now under our belt, I thought I’d take a look over what we’ve discussed so far and see if any themes are emerging.

If you read our blog’s ‘about’ page (which we haven’t touched since we began) you’ll see we had our own ideas on what ‘Sustainability Bites’ means. We said: “There are no absolute rights or wrongs in this debate on sustainability, but there are serious trade-offs and important consequences resulting from the decisions we make, and the way we make them.”

Those consequences are, if you like, the ‘bites’ of which we speak.

Governments will always sell their policy formulations as ‘win-win’ propositions but this is simply politically expedient fiction. There will always be ‘losers’ in any policy change and when it comes to sustainability those with most to lose are often big and influential ‘actors’ with considerable power in government decision making. Their vested interest in sustaining the status quo means the interests of future generations are forgotten. The present trumps the future.

33 bites, 5 emerging themes

The other meaning of the title of our blog is that we aim to serve up short, bite-sized stories on sustainability; stories based on emerging news and/or our research on various elements of the policy and science of sustainable development. So far we’ve produced 33 bites, roughly one per week since the beginning of 2019. I’ve listed these stories at the end of this blog in the order they appeared (Appendix 1) with links to each piece if you see something that catches your interest that you may have missed first time round (or maybe you only started following us recently).

Going through that list I see five themes constantly emerging:
1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis);
2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy);
3. The burden of politics and ideology (frustrating the development of good policy);
4. The value of good policy; and
5. The importance of history.

Of course, these themes arise from our interests in the sustainability sector. Peter comes from a policy background whereas I have been communicating conservation science for many years. However, I feel we have discussed enough examples to provide compelling evidence that these emerging themes are important (we would contend central) to any engagement with sustainability.

I have indicated in appendix 1 where a ‘bite’ is predominantly aimed at one of these themes should you want to read further. Many bites, of course, cross several themes.

And here are a few comments on each.

1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis)

Achieving enduring change is hard. Often it’s politically impossible. Vested interests, competing ideologies and weak governance frequently conspire to defeat our best intentions.

The more we (Peter and I) have pondered this point the more it seems the only way enduring change is achieved is through crisis. The status quo needs some form of disturbance to weaken its hold to enable a change in rules to occur.

Of course, there are many things you can do in the absence of a crisis and several of these we discuss. Importantly, when a crisis does occur, make sure there are effective policy solutions available to be deployed. ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’

2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy)

Scientists gather evidence to better understand the world and inform our choices. Politicians gather evidence to maximize their electoral return (power). Often this involves the politician selling an ideology or plan which usually leads to presenting evidence to justify a specific idea or refutes a competing ideology. In other words, science and politics are antithetical in their process (something that both sides rarely acknowledge).

But it’s not just that politicians fail to act on what science is telling us; they simultaneously use science as an excuse for not acting on the clear and growing threat of global change. They hold up the promise and power of technology as something that will save us when things get too bad, thereby enabling them to ignore the risk (and implement appropriate policy) today.

It’s really quite perverse. Our leaders often ignore the science that undermines their (political) position but then hide behind the promise of science in defending the consequences of that position.

3. The burden of politics and ideology

The biggest obstacle to meaningful policy reform for sustainability is the inertia of the status quo, and this inertia is based on the politics of self-interest and short termism. It might be that the politics is driven by ideology or it might be that ideology is used as a weapon of power to shore up the politics. In many ways it doesn’t matter which, as both situations add up to today’s vested interests stopping the consideration of the future.

I would note that Peter and I both used our first blog in this series to talk about Conservative ideology. Peter spoke about sustainability actually being a central tenet of mainstream Conservative philosophy (the notion of the good steward). And I discussed how climate denialism was consistent with a Libertarian hatred of big government and constraints on personal freedoms.

4. The value of good policy

There are many policy tools available to government to tackle issues relating to sustainability. For example, Peter devoted several blogs to exploring environmental accounts and environmental impact studies. He also discussed the role and value of the Productivity Commission and the Sustainability Development Goals (and several other policy institutions as well).

In all cases, these processes and institutions developed valuable ideas and assessments that ultimately failed to deliver real advances in sustainable development, not because they were flawed in themselves but because they weren’t implemented properly or integrated with other policy sectors.

A good policy poorly implemented can, in some ways, be worse than no policy at all because it gives the impression that a problem is being dealt with when it’s not, while the underlying problem just gets worse.

5. The importance of history

To understand why a good policy is not implemented in an appropriate way, or why ideology so often trumps rationality, it’s important to understand the historical context and development of an idea or process. Many of the stories we have examined have long histories, and to understand why something works as it does it’s necessary to see from where it came and how it has changed.

Sustainable development is a complex and dynamic field, hardly surprising given we live in a complex and dynamic world. Many of our reflections have looked back in time to see where something has come from and how it has changed over time. Does this throw any light on the past, present and future of the sustainability project? We think so, and in support of this claim I give you a timeline of what we have discussed so far (Appendix 2).

Of course, this is hardly a comprehensive treatise on the development of sustainability. It’s more a patchwork of ideas, a palimpsest of policy intent. But it’s not a bad start.

And we hope to fill in this patchy tapestry of ideas with greater detail as we chew on more bites in the future.

Image by vegasita from Pixabay

Appendix 1: 33 Bites [in order of appearance with main themes in brackets]

1. Environmental Sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion[Ideology; history]
2. Sustainability, ‘big government’ and climate denialism [Ideology, science]
3. Why Can’t We Agree on Fixing the Environment? Tribalism & short termism[Politics, crisis]
4. Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’A crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet [Change, crisis, history]
5. How are we going Australia’s OECD decadal Environmental Report Card [Good policy]

6. Throwing pebbles to make change:is it aim or timing?[Crisis and change]
7. The BIG fixWhy is it so hard [Crisis, politics]
8. Duelling scientists: Science, politics and fish kills [science culture, politics]
9. Making a difference without rocking the boat The FDR Gambit [Crisis, good policy, politics]
10. Throwing pebbles and making waves: Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam[Crisis, history]

11. Ending duplication in Environmental Impact Assessments [Policy, history]
12. Is science the answer? Technology is not the solution[Science, ideology]
13. Environmental Impact Assessment and info bureacracy [Policy, politics]
14. Confessions of a cheerleader for science: delaying action because science will save us[Science, ideology]
15. Caldwell and NEPA: the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment[History, policy]

16. This febrile environment: elections, cynicism and crisis[Politics, crisis]
17. 20 Year review of the EPBC – Australia’s national environment law [Policy, politics, history]
18. Saving the world’s biodiversity: the failure of the CBD and the need for transformative change[Policy, history, politics]
19. The value of Environmental Impact Assessment [Policy, history]
20. Retreat from reason – nihilism fundamentalism and activism [Ideology, crisis, politics]

21. Too late for no regrets pathway: a pathway to real sustainability[Politics, policy, history]
22. A short history of sustainability: how sustainable development developed[History, policy, crisis]
23. Kenneth Boulding and the spaceman economy: view from Spaceship Earth[History, policy]
24. A real climate change debate: science vs denialism[Science, politics, ideology]
25. Craik Review on green tape: environmental regulation impact on farmers[Policy, politics]

26. Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene [History, science]
27. An environmental accounting primer [Policy, history]
28. Displacement activityit’s what you do when you don’t have a real environmental policy [Politics, policy]
29. The Productivity Commission and environmental regulation [Policy, politics]
30. Framing climate change: is it a moral or an economic issue [Politics, ideology]

31. The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash [Policy, history]
32. The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain [Science, policy, politics]
33. Doing the Tesla Stretch electric cars to our economic rescue [Policy, politics]

Appendix 2: The potted timeline of Sustainability Bites

500 BC: Plato comments on the denuded hills of Attica. Five hundred years later Columella argues the need for the ‘everlasting youth’ of Earth. Also in this blog, are discussions on John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Margie Thatcher.
Environmental Sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion

1940s till now: Following the ‘reboot’ of WW2, the international community has made many concerted steps to develop a workable strategy for sustainable development.
A short history of sustainability: how sustainable development developed.

1941: Reflecting on how President Roosevelt prepared for war prior to the crisis of Pearl Harbour.
Making a difference without rocking the boat The FDR Gambit

1945: Monday, 16 July, the world’s first atomic bomb is tested, and the Anthropocene begins (the world will never be the same).
Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene

1966: New ways of perceiving the environment came to the fore in the 1960s, Boulding’s evocation of a Spaceship Earth was one of the important ones.
Kenneth Boulding and the spaceman economy: view from Spaceship Earth

1969 (and the 1960s): The US drafts its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), marking the birth of modern environmental policy (ending a decade in which environmental decline was finally triggering legislative responses)
Caldwell and NEPA: the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment

1970s & 80s: The rise of environmental politics in Australia. It really began with the flooding of a beautiful Tasmanian mountain lake.
Throwing pebbles and making waves: Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam

1972: Anthony Downs publishes on the ‘issues-attention cycle’
The BIG fixWhy is it so hard [Crisis, politics]

1972/73: The world confronts resource scarcity while simultaneously reflecting on measures of economic welfare. These were the antecedents of the environmental accounts.
An environmental accounting primer

1990s till today: A short history of attempts to reform Environmental Impact Assessment in Australia
Ending duplication in Environmental Impact Assessments

1998: Australia established the Productivity Commission to enhance the government’s efforts improving our economy, society and environment (and probably in that order).
The Productivity Commission and environmental regulation

1999: Australia’s premier national environmental law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – is passed. Twenty years on, it’s in need of a major overhaul.
20 Year review of the EPBC – Australia’s national environment law

2000: The book ‘The Tipping Point’ is released
Throwing pebbles to make change:is it aim or timing?

2005-2009: The United Kingdom shifts from a bland incremental climate policy to an ambitious goal, enshrined in law. That goal is to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.
Too late for no regrets pathway: a pathway to real sustainability

2015: The Sustainable Development Goals are adopted by the UN (following on from Agenda 21 in 1992 and the Millennium Development Goals in 2000).
The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash

2016/17: The Great Barrier Reef experiences mass bleaching under climate change
Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’A crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet

2017: Ex-Prime Minister Abbott denies climate change to an international forum
Sustainability, ‘big government’ and climate denialism

2017: At the same time that Abbott was denying the existence of climate change, the head of his Church, Pope Francis was saying: “Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.”
Framing climate change: is it a moral or an economic issue

2019: OECD delivers Australia an environmental report card (this is a process that more could be made of)
How are we going Australia’s OECD decadal Environmental Report Card

2019: Mass fish kills signal the latest impact of severe weather events (exacerbated by climate change)
Duelling scientists: Science, politics and fish kills

2019: Geoengineering is being promoted as a silver bullet for climate change
Is science the answer? Technology is not the solution

2019: UN reports unprecedented losses in biodiversity (bit like similar reports in 2015, 2010, 2005; each worse than the one before)
Saving the world’s biodiversity: the failure of the CBD and the need for transformative change

2019: Australia votes and the Conservatives get back in, a repudiation of the growing calls for environmental policy reform.
Retreat from reason – nihilism fundamentalism and activism

2019: Latest outlook reports show the Great Barrier Reef is dying and government efforts to fix water quality are failing.
The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain

2 thoughts on “Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

  1. Hi David and Peter. Enjoyed reading this reflection on your blogs to date and in fact I love the blog posts – even though they are always wrong in part or whole 🙂 A part of me wonders whether the Westminster system of policy-making is not well suited to debating the complexity of sustainable development. It encourages short-termism, devalues the future and puts decision-making in the hands of career politicians who may not have any interest or expertise in sustainability? This could be my concluding statement for my own research 🙂

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    1. Quite possibly you’re right Nadeem. Maybe Westminster democracy isn’t up to tackling the complex issues of sustainability but what system is better (and how do you transition to it). Personally I think the Achilles’ Heel of our form of Western Democracy is private donations (and a lack of transparency around donations). This makes career politicians more beholden to lobbyists and vested corporate interests rather than the public they are supposed to represent. If politicians placed the interests of voters front and centre (and that includes the future of those voters), then maybe democracy might have a better chance accounting for the future.

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