It’s time: for a national conversation on the environment

And that conversation should include national goals and environmental measurement

By Peter Burnett

Soon after she became federal environment minister last year, Sussan Ley spoke of a collaborative approach to the environment.

Foreshadowing what is now Professor Graeme Samuel’s Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, Ley said the review was ‘the right time to have a conversation about the best ways we can ensure strong environmental and biodiversity protection measures that encourage people to work together in supporting the environment’.

Professor Samuel has handed his draft report to Ley, who is expected to release it soon.

So it’s about time to start that conversation.

Of course, it would have been better to have the conversation a long time ago, when the environment wasn’t in such dire straits, but as the Chinese proverb puts it, ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’

I’d like to suggest a couple of conversation-starters.

An agreed goal: what kind of environment do we want?

The first is to make sure the conversation leads to an agreed national statement of the kind of environment Australians want.

This is not an easy thing to do. For example, while most might support a goal of a ‘healthy’ environment, translating that vision into policy raises difficult questions like ‘how healthy?’ and ‘at what cost?’

Yet we need to commit to a clear goal. Otherwise we are left with our ongoing focus on the short term, something which has only delivered what Australia’s doyen of environmental policy, Professor Steve Dovers, has described as ‘policy ad hocery and amnesia’.

In colloquial terms this is a constant chopping and changing and it severely undermines our efforts to address environmental problems.

Earlier efforts at defining that national goal

So far, the closest we’ve come to adopting a clear national goal was through the ‘ESD [Ecologically Sustainable Development] process’, an intense dialogue between government, business, unions and environment groups in the early 1990s.

The ESD process produced a massive 12 volume consensus report containing hundreds of substantial recommendations. However, politics, especially Paul Keating’s ousting of Bob Hawke as Prime Minister, got in the way.

In the end, Australia’s governments gave us a vaguely-written and unfunded National Strategy on ESD.

As a conversation, the ESD process had at least two major flaws.

First, hardly anyone really knew what ESD meant. Unlike the ‘sustainability’ of political discourse, which means all things to all people, ESD is a real but complex and often misunderstood concept.

Second, the ESD process was a conversation between elites, which largely passed the rest of us by.

So we signed up to ESD through the National Strategy, without really ‘buying’ it. One consequence was that ESD was then written into many laws and policies, though usually in ways that allow lip service, which is what ESD usually gets.

But every now and again someone takes it seriously, as the Federal Court did recently in finding that VicForests had failed to apply the precautionary principle (one element of ESD) and were thus logging unlawfully.

This kind of outcome, where we set, but then ignore, environmental speed limits, while occasionally dabbing the brakes, is hardly good policy.

If we are going to have a national conversation, it needs to be widely publicised, well-informed, run at ‘town hall’ level and continued for as long as it takes to get a real sense of the aspirations of the Australian people for the future.

We especially need to grapple with the tension underlying ESD, which is how to reconcile our desires for ongoing economic growth with the capacity of the environment to support our ever-growing consumption of environmental goods and services.

If we squib this major challenge, we will likely continue as we have, nibbling away at various parts of the environment with a limited understanding of the cumulative impact of our daily decisions, large and small.

This nibbling away is what a famous American economist, Alfred Kahn, once described as ‘the tyranny of small decisions.’ And as the leading ecologist William Odum recognized, it is particularly pertinent to the environment.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure

My second suggestion concerns the dry but vital topic of environmental information.

One of the shibboleths of modern management is ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’. Managing the environment is doubly difficult because, even if we had unlimited data, we still wouldn’t fully understand nature in its complexity.

However a comprehensive information system, including environmental accounts to help arrange information for decision-making, would be a major advance.

Despite governments actively seeking to manage the environment for nearly 50 years, we still don’t have such a system. There have been many programs and promises over the years, but governments have tended to scale them back or drop them as they change focus.

Maybe that’s because environmental information isn’t politically ‘sexy’; most people neither know nor care.

A good example is the Rudd Government’s 2010 National Plan for Environmental Information (NPEI). This plan grew out of a recommendation from Prime Minister Rudd’s 2020 Summit (held in 2007) that Australia develop national environmental accounts.

But the NPEI was underfunded from the outset and then cut after a change of government.

We still have no national baseline biodiversity monitoring, first promised in 1996.

And although the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has been experimenting with national environmental-economic accounts for decades, these accounts remain experimental, partial or intermittent. They are certainly not developed to the point where they could support specific environmental management decisions.

If we were having a national conversation, I would argue for a national institution to gather and hold environmental information.

We do this for mineral resources, through Geoscience Australia; for health and welfare, through the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; and for water resources, through the Bureau of Meteorology. An institution for environmental information is a logical next step.

And I would expand dramatically the environmental accounts prepared by the ABS, requiring them to be used in real environmental decisions.

The coming national conversation?

So we badly need a national conversation on protecting the environment, but will we get one?

Sussan Ley is hardly paving the way, having spoken of the Samuel Review only in the context of ‘cutting green tape’, a slogan.

Perhaps Ley will surprise us, by making some speeches about biodiversity or convening public forums to discuss the review.

Whether the conversation is led by government or not, we need to rise above slogans for a broad and respectful conversation about our environmental values.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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