Fixing the Environment is the right thing to do? Isn’t it?

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Beware the Siren’s call of populism

By Peter Burnett

The Grattan Institute’s latest report, ‘Gridlock: removing barriers to policy reform’, argues that Australia’s governance is going backwards and that, without reform, there is little prospect for many policy reforms that would ‘increase Australian prosperity’.

To which we at Sustainability Bites would add ‘and avoid environmental catastrophe’.

The report identifies a number of barriers to public interest reforms. These include vested interests, a weakened media, increasing tribalism in politics and society, and, ultimately, plain old unpopularity.

Grattan also gather a number of sensible recommendations for reform: increasing the expertise and independence of the public service, reducing the number of political advisers in ministerial offices, a federal anti-corruption commission and so on.

Interestingly, the report also confirms that the 1980s and 1990s were indeed ‘golden years’ of reform (something we too believe here at Sustainability Bites) and that this view is not just a rose-tinted longing for the ‘good old days’.

Why the gridlock?

This is all good stuff. But what’s really going on here? We are an advanced liberal democracy, better off in material terms than any society in history — so why do we find ourselves stuck in reform gridlock?

In some cases, the explanations are obvious. The decline of traditional media for example is largely due to the rise of social media.

But it’s much harder to explain the recent rise of tribalism and populism, and a corresponding decline in the willingness of our leaders to champion unpopular reforms.

Of course, these things are all manifestations of human nature, but why are they so prevalent now?

The rise of neoliberalism, and the decline of Conservatism

I put much of the current prevalence down to the rise of neoliberalism, pushing out ‘capital C’ Conservatism and other ways of thinking now seen by many as old-fashioned.

Let me explain.

Neoliberalism is based on classical liberal ideas of individual choice and the efficiency of free markets. However, unlike classical liberalism, it is much less focused on governance-oriented themes such as equality before the law and democracy.

As a result, the prescriptions of neoliberalism tend to be focused on economic policy, such as deregulation and privatisation.

In common with economics, neoliberalism is utilitarian, a philosophy which is focused on maximising ‘utility’ or happiness. And utilitarianism belongs to the family of moral philosophies that are consequentalist, assessing the morality of actions on the basis of their consequences.

In contrast, various other moral philosophies are deontological (from the greek word for ‘obligation’ or ‘duty’) and thus concerned about ‘doing the right thing’.

‘Capital C’ Conservatism has a strong deontological theme, as it seeks to conserve institutions and values on the basis that they are good in themselves. Most religions also have strong deontological foundations, as does humanism.

Does it really matter?

Why all the philosophy? Isn’t it enough that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, to point out that neoliberalism has made us all much wealthier and indeed lifted millions out of poverty?

These things are true but there’s more to it. Remember, we are looking for an explanation for a loss of reform momentum and decline in standards of governance.

The philosophy is relevant because it does provide an explanation.

In looking for explanations of the changes in our politics over the last 40 years, it is not enough to point to the rise of neoliberalism. There has also been a corresponding decline in deontological thinking such as Conservatism and traditional religion.

In short, while material wealth is up, it’s just as important to note that commitment-driven behaviour, such as church-going, volunteering and even sticking with one football team for life, is down. We are not as ‘rusted on’ as we used to be.

So how does this explain the politics?

Consistent with the neoliberal focus on ends rather than means, good government does not matter as much as it once did. The most recent examples of this come from two very capable and well-respected centre-right politicians, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.

Both were asked to defend pork-barrelling by their respective governments. The Premier said:

“The term pork barrelling is common parlance. And if that’s the accusation … I’m happy to accept that commentary … I think all governments and political parties make promises to the community in order to curry favour … it’s not an illegal practice; unfortunately it does happen from time to time.”

The Finance Minister said (and then promoted it on his own website):

“[T]he Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in at the last election, and we’re determined to get on and deliver those election promises that we made in relation to local infrastructure as we are nation building infrastructure.”

Shocking. Gladys says ‘everyone does it’ and Simon says ‘you had your chance and you chose us, pork and all’.

Yet, other than a few outraged columns from political commentators, these frank admissions of very poor political behaviour seem to have had little impact or generated much backlash.

If that’s our attitude to pork barrelling, is it any wonder that we are in trouble?

Environmental implications

At the most general level, the solution to environmental decline is to keep our consumption of nature’s services to the rate at which nature produces those services. If we fail to do this, we consume nature itself (natural capital), to our own detriment but especially to the detriment of future generations.

This is why ‘intergenerational equity’ is the fundamental principle of environmental sustainability.

Intergenerational equity is a classic example of deontological thinking. It is a moral imperative to do the right thing by future generations, even at the expense of our own consumption.

So if this kind of thinking is out of fashion, what can we do?

A return to moral codes that many have abandoned seems rather unlikely.

The next best thing might be to emulate the pragmatism of the Greek hero, Ulysses. When he knew that the voyage home from Troy would take his ship past the island of the Sirens, he had himself lashed to the mast so that he would be restrained from giving in to their velvet-like and irresistible call.

We too can lash ourselves to the mast of the ship of state, by setting up institutions such as a federal anti-corruption commission, or, for the environment, a legislated ‘net zero’ target and the independent Climate Change Commission (as proposed by independent MP Zali Stegall).

Of course, it would be better just to ‘do the right thing’. Failing that, when we are tempted to give in to the siren call of populism, good institutions can help save us!

Image: To save ourselves from the Siren’s call of populism we need greater institutional integrity — bring on the independent watch dogs! Image by Andy Faeth from Pixabay

Forget charisma, save our insects! Never underestimate the politics swirling around charismatic megafauna

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By David Salt

Three insect scientists* recently spoke on Off Track on Radio National bemoaning the lack of resources going into invertebrate research and conservation.

If invertebrates make up over 90% of animals on earth, why do they receive so little conservation funding the researchers wanted to know? Good question insect scientists.

As the program finished, one of the researchers challenged the host of Off Track, a show devoted to exploring the world of nature, to ensure that future programming better reflected this breakdown of species. In other words, rather than doing most shows on birds, mammals and reptiles, the majority of programs should be on invertebrates, the things that make up most of nature. Everyone laughed at the comment, acknowledging the truth of the mismatch of current programming. However, there was possibly a fatalistic merriment in the laughter because they all knew in their insect hearts** that the media*** is always going to focus on the charismatic megafauna before all else when it comes to talking about nature. Such is life.

Hating koalas

And such was the disappointment of the insect scientists on radio about the plight of invertebrate knowledge and conservation that at one point they agreed that they were totally against koalas, Australias’ most iconic mammal (and so cute and cuddly). Of course, their ‘hatred’ was not aimed at the animal itself, but at the mismatch between the resources allocated to conserving the koala when the rest of nature was facing profound decline and in many cases extinction.

Rational conservation should be looking beyond species to ecosystems, the scientists opined. If we looked beyond saving individual species to the places that sustain all species (ultimately including ourselves) then we’d be achieving better conservation outcomes. We’d be saving the charismatic megafauna and all the unseen (often unknown) invertebrates at the same time.

They make a good point and it’s an argument that has been made many times in the past by many good hearted and wise conservation scientists and conservationists. Hearing it again last week on radio got me thinking about what happened when this approach was suggested at the national level some ten years ago, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

‘Charismatic’ wins every time

Unfortunately, being rational and looking beyond the charismatic threatened megafauna when framing your conservation priorities is an argument that simply doesn’t work. I wish it did. I wish society could be a little more honest with how it stewards biodiversity and do the job a little better, I really do. But with the world as it is at the moment, rational (and compassionate and humane) decision making around biodiversity conservation just doesn’t happen.

I base this belief on years of involvement with a group of environmental decision scientists from all around Australia and across the world (the main network was called the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions or CEED, you can read about the fabulous research it did on its archived website at http://ceed.edu.au/). The prime focus of all of these scientists was how to conserve biodiversity through better decision making. And the key to better conservation outcomes is decision making that is transparent, accountable and adaptable.

If we wanted better conservation we would be putting more resources into monitoring and managing our biodiversity. We wouldn’t only be worried about the cute and cuddlies (which always get the lion share of the resources), we’d be monitoring and improving our efforts over time, and we’d be considering our biodiversity on a number of scales (genes, species and ecosystems), not just charismatic species. (We’d be doing everything the insect scientists were pleading for last week on radio.)

The decision scientists in these networks published thousands of peer reviewed papers (in high impact journals) demonstrating why this is the way to go. They delivered hundreds of briefings to governments, business and industry groups; and produced stories and briefings for newspapers, magazines and social media.

We made a difference (?)

And there was a time, a bit over a decade ago, that I thought all this work, research and energy was making a real difference at the national policy level. We were being listened to and it felt like we were influencing national policy.

Possibly this was best expressed when the then Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, announced a change in focus in tackling conservation and threatened species. He said there needed to be a greater emphasis on ecosystems and how they function. We needed to be more holistic rather than adopting a band-aid approach of simply working on the most threatened species (all of which were mammals, birds or reptiles; insects hardly got a look in).

This would have been a major shift in conservation policy and reflected the science of the conservation scientists I was working with. Could it be that our political leaders were actually being influenced by what we were doing?

The political reflex

Possibly we were being listened to, but before the new approach could be enacted the opposition conservative party, led by Tony Abbott, cynically declared the new approach as ‘giving up on species’, something they would never do.

For this is always the problem with anyone proposing a shift away from a tight focus on only worrying about (and resourcing) charismatic megafauna. The first political response is always: ‘look, they’re giving up the koala (or mallee fowl or Tasmanian Devil or ‘insert favourite threatened species here’).’ And I do mean ‘always’, it’s a political reflex action. Voters care about koalas, they’ve never even heard of the Lord Howe Island Phasmid (a threatened giant stick insect).

Abbott’s (climate-change denialist-dominated) Liberal party threw out many bland and empty slogans in the run up to the next federal election like ‘We’ will: ‘kill 2-million feral cats’, ‘plant 20-million trees’ and ‘deploy a Green Army’ (and, most famously, ‘axe the carbon tax’). And, against a shambolically disorganised Labor Party, the conservatives won. The environmental decision networks got no more funding but the government instead funded a Threatened Species Recovery Hub while at the same time drastically slashing the budget of the environment department. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub did some great research, including a study on what resources would be needed to improve our failing track record on saving threatened species, but found there are no quick fixes for solving the problem of threatened species. The Hub was defunded earlier this year.

Better conservation policy

I don’t want to suggest that better policy on threatened species is impossible, just that it’s very difficult to achieve and no-one should kid themselves that it’s rational, accountable or transparent. Science is important but a hell a lot of science has been done in this area and politicians rarely use it to guide reform in this area.

What is needed is greater community awareness on the need for better decision making and the state of our country’s biodiversity. Citizen science and greater engagement with the public (and the education system) by environmental scientists play an important role here (eg, like the insect scientists on Off Track).

Just as important is the need for a process that feeds environmental values into our political and policy decision-making. Environmental accounts are possibly our best bet here but for it to flourish we need society to demand that it happens, and that requires a greater community awareness (which would be achieved if environmental accounts were more prominent). It’s a bit chicken-and-egg; one gives you the other but you need both.

I don’t know-what pathway will deliver us better environmental decision making (ie, transparent, accountable and adaptable). However, when people start demanding more of our political candidates than simply: ‘Save the koala!’ (kakapo/Tassie devil whatever) I’ll be satisfied that we’re making progress. What we should be demanding is: ‘Prove to us you’re investing our money in a way that’s making a difference when it comes to protecting biodiversity!’

Unfortunately, we’re a long way from that at the moment.

*Scientists who study insects, not scientists who are insects.

**These scientists are super passionate about the things they study, but they have human hearts. One of the insect scientists is Manu Saunders (based at the Uni of New England). She produces an excellent blog on conservation and insects at Ecology is not a dirty word.

***Off Track, IMHO, is an excellent nature program that does much better than most media in providing balanced coverage on biodiversity conservation and science. It does more than pay lip service to covering issues relating to invertebrates and its last four programs (at the time of writing) were devoted to insects. Having said that, most of its programs are devoted to charismatic megafauna.

Image: Who could hate a koala? But is it fair that it gets most of the funding when so many other species are on the lip of extinction? (Image by Image by Welcome to all and thank you for your visit ! ツ from Pixabay)

The wicked problem of complexity on the Great Barrier Reef

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The inconvenient truth of an ‘in danger’ listing isn’t going to save this precious Reef

By David Salt

The Great Barrier Reef looks like being moved onto the ‘in danger’ list of World Heritage estates and the Australian Government is not happy about the change one little bit. Why? Because they don’t think the listing process is fair and they still reckon the Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world. They also suspect China is out to get us.

The saga of the listing of the Great Barrier Reef has now been covered every which way by various media commentators. The science is crystal clear; the Reef is in serious and growing trouble. It’s hard to see how the Australian Government can escape the claim of gross negligence and mismanagement yet in this post-truth, hyper-partisan age it seems anything goes. The Government’s gripes with UNESCO of the in-danger list are not based on biophysical reality but on perceptions of procedural unfairness (and China has absolutely nothing to do with the UNESCO World Heritage committee’s decision).

Rather than focus at the minutiae of this ‘in danger’ listing, I’d like to reflect on the bigger lessons provided by how we’re dealing with the decline of the Great Barrier Reef, and what this means for all our precious ecosystems.

1. It’s not about how well the marine park itself is managed

Part of the Government’s defence this week has been that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world. Maybe that’s true in terms of resources committed to running the marine park. But it ignores that the biggest threat facing the reef comes from outside of this ‘well managed’ park.

The scientific consensus is clear, rising temperatures mean the Great Barrier Reef will not exist in the future. It doesn’t matter what band aids and grants are applied to the park itself. Unless we as a species reduce our carbon emissions (that lie behind climate warming) all coral reefs will be lost as they exist today.

Claiming that you are caring for a patch of nature while ignoring how that patch is connected and impacted by what happens beyond the patch is simply dishonest.

2. It’s also about water quality

The Government’s line on climate change is that this is a global problem. Australia by itself can’t solve global warming so therefore it’s not an issue that should be tied to the condition of the Reef itself.

Ignoring the fact that Australia is trailing the world on climate action (in many ways slowing an effective global response), what is it that Australia does take responsibility for? The answer is water quality on the reef.

Water quality refers to the levels of chemicals, nutrients and sediments ending up in Reef waters along the coast of Queensland. These ‘contaminants’ largely originate from land-based activities such as sugar cane, bananas and pastoralism. Declining water quality has been an issue for the Reef for much of the last three decades.

Poor water quality is a problem because it alters the balance of the Reef ecosystem – promotes outbreaks of coral eating Crown of Thorn Starfish (which eat coral), encourages algae to colonise spaces previously occupied by corals and generally lowers the Reef’s resilience.

Given the government’s impotence in the face of climate change, the strategy it has elected to follow is to focus on aspects it claims it can influence. In other words, clean up water quality by changing land management. We can’t force other countries to behave differently (in respect to climate change) but we do, in theory, have power over how we manage our own landscapes.

The belief is that if water quality can be improved, this will contribute to overall reef health which, in turn, means the reef should recover faster whatever disturbance hits (including climate-related episodes of bleaching and super-charged cyclones).

The Government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on improving water quality. While water quality has slightly improved on some measures it’s unlikely any of the ambitious targets set will be met and overall marine condition remains poor.

So, even if we ignore climate change (exposing the moral void of our environmental stewardship), the strategy nominated by the government to protect the reef – improve water quality – is also failing to achieve much. And this is not an isolated statement, there have been many reports in recent years showing government action is not working in improving water quality.

Why is it so hard to fix water quality? Because it’s very expensive (though a lot less expensive than taking on climate change). The government’s own costing on what is required is $8.2 billion over 10 years, and so far it hasn’t even stumped up a tenth of this.

But it’s more than just money. Fixing water quality requires massive change to land management over a big area. A former NRM Chief said “We’re trying to get transformational change to an area twice the size of Germany with 10,000 farms on it. This is no small undertaking.”

Big and very complex.

3. Scale is the GBR’s Achilles heel

The size of the Great Barrier Reef makes it hard to comprehend; it’s over 2000 km long. But the time frames we’re dealing with also problematic when it comes to the politics.

One of the arguments the Government used when faced with an impending ‘in danger’ listing last week was that UNESCO hadn’t done its due diligence. UNESCO’s conclusions were based on a ‘desk top review’. They need to come out to the reef and see it for themselves, said the Australian Government, see the great work being done to fix it being undertaken by Indigenous people, school kids, tour operators and other worthy stakeholders. They need to take into consideration the ‘gee whiz’ science being done on finding heat-tolerant corals and efforts to shade the reef, thereby creating possible pathways of restoration (actions most reef scientists simply cannot work at scale).

Of course, whenever someone cries ‘the Reef is dying’, you’ll also find a ratbag politician prepared to point (and sometimes rip out) a piece of coral and say: ‘looks healthy to me, what’s the problem?’

The problem is a lack of science; the problem the politicians capacity to cherry pick the evidence that suits their claim (by focussing on part of the Reef that’s looks good while ignoring the overall trend of decline). The problem is a failure to acknowledge a healthy reef now is irrelevant against the prospect of intermittent catastrophic bleaching events in the future.

It’s great that bits of the reef are recovering from the last bleaching event in 2020 (and the events in 2016 and 2017) but it takes many years for full recovery and with forecasts for bleachings every second year within the next decade, the GBR’s days are numbered.

So, while the Australian Government says ‘look at this bit of healthy reef’ or ‘the reef is recovering this year’, it entirely ignores the scales of time and space over which this massive ecosystem functions.

4. An inconvenient truth

Science often refers to climate change as an ‘inconvenient truth’. But when dealing with complexity it’s easy to worm your way around the issue. Politicians can easily slide around biophysical reality because the ecosystems we are dealing with are big, complicated and complex. The scales of time and space these systems are operating at are not aligned with the 3-5 year political cycles in which inflation rates and the cost of housing dominate debates.

It’s too easy for the (Australian) politicians to claim “we’re the best reef managers in the world” while all the evidence says otherwise.

Big ecosystems (think the GBR, the MDB and our east coast forests) are complex and difficult to understand. They are connected to other systems and influenced by what’s happening at other scales. And climate change is only part of the problem.

Our politicians will encourage you to only look at the bits that are in accord with their ideology (eg, the park is well managed, don’t look beyond the park), and to only think about the problem in the scale of their political cycle (eg, the good work being done by well-meaning volunteers gives them hope that their efforts make a difference, which makes them feel good; don’t think about the next bleaching event beyond the political horizon).

So the inconvenient truth for me is that our complex ecosystems are in trouble but our systems of governance don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

The challenge then is not to better define the biophysical truth and expect politicians to change but to reform our governance such that it responds appropriately to ecosystem decline and collapse. For this to happen we need demonstrate to voters why that biophysical truth is important to the values they help dear and why they must hold our politicians to account.

The evidence is that our current management of the Reef, the Murray Darling Basin and our forests is unsustainable. If we wait for this ‘truth’ to become real then our ‘victory’ will be empty as the loss of these ecosystems will be irreversible. That’s an inconvenient truth we all need to acknowledge.

Image: Coming up for air on the Great Barrier Reef (Photo by David Salt)