Don’t look up! Don’t talk up! Don’t rock the status quo. Attenborough’s message upsets vested interests.


By David Salt

David Attenborough is experiencing what happens when society is caught in the late ‘K’ phase of the adaptive cycle. It’s an insight from complex systems science that we are all seeing play out around us every day. The insight is this: over time, vested interests and elites distort the system to maximise their wealth while simultaneously playing the system to protect their perceived entitlement. They do this through denial, obfuscation, denigration and applying the levers of power to prevent change and stop any talk about the redistribution of power.

How is David Attenborough an example of this?

Apparently the BBC has decided not to broadcast an episode of his flagship new series on British wildlife, Wild Isles, because of fears its messages on the destruction of nature and the decline of biodiversity would risk a backlash from conservative politicians and the right-wing press.

The episode in question takes a stark look at the losses of nature in the UK and what has caused the declines (loss and degradation of habitat and climate disruption). The BBC claims this episode was only intended for the network’s iPlayer stream, a claim hotly contested, but even on iPlayer the episode is being attacked in the Daily Telegraph for being partly funded by WWF UK and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The Daily Telegraph says these two establishment wildlife groups have a “campaigning agenda”.

When the message being put out by the world’s leading wildlife presenter is being constrained by one of the world’s leading information organisations (an organisation that proudly claims to be independent) for fear of a conservative backlash, then we have a classic ‘don’t look up’ moment.

Don’t look up

Don’t look up’ was the title and central idea of an American apocalyptic political satire film that came out in 2021 in which scientists tried to warn the world of in impending asteroid strike. When there was an opportunity to do something about it, the world ignored the warning as ‘doing something’ would shift the status quo. When it became apparent the threat was real, because the asteroid was growing larger in the night sky, the elites still thought they could escape (together with their privilege) by rocketing to another planet. To keep the masses from realising what was going on, they promoted the slogan ‘Don’t look up’.

The movie was a parable on climate change, and the unwillingness of society to respond to the warnings being put out by scientists because changing the status quo comes with short terms costs that the rich and the powerful don’t want to take on (costs of giving up some of that wealth and losing some of the power).

‘Don’t look up’ became a catch cry for climate denialism, and it had some resonance when it first aired.

But how quickly we forget. The movie came out in the dark days of the covid pandemic, a time before vaccines became available and lockdowns were rigorously enforced (and in some quarters vehemently rejected). Now, with the lifting of restrictions, everyone wants their cake and they want to eat it double fast. There’s even a term for it – revenge tourism – in which everyone is traveling as a way of making up for lost time during the pandemic. Though it might be asked, who are we taking revenge on? Planet Earth? Transport-related greenhouse gas emissions from tourism have been estimated at 5% of all human originated emissions.

So maybe none of us want to ‘look up’ for fear of upsetting our own plans of ever greater consumption and economic growth.

Don’t speak up

David Attenborough has been doing nature docos since Moses was a boy. He’s does a great job, but while he often points out issues of environmental decline, for most of his series he tries to stay as neutral and apolitical as possible. It’s something he’s often criticised for in environmental circles.

In recent years, however, as he has grown older and climate change and environmental disruption has ramped up, his neutral stance has markedly shifted to one of pleas for action. In 2020 he even suggested the coming decade was a make-or-break time for humanity.

And, as with all scientists who get proactive on climate change, he’s finding you face a backlash when you raise your head above the parapet.

Stand up and tell society it needs to change and those that have benefitted from the societal status quo will draw a target on you. Corporate and political interests will apply leverage to groups they can influence, spread misinformation, foment anger. In Attenborough’s case, that means a showcase on environmental decline is closed down by the very organisation that prides itself on its independence (but at the cost of becoming overly sensitive to government sensitivities and attacks by other media organisations).

Attenborough is big enough and strong enough to stand his ground and weather such attacks, but early career researchers pay a heavy price for standing up and being counted.

When a system becomes moribund

So what’s this ‘K’ phase business I opened with, and how does it apply here?

Society is complex system. Over time societies change following a variety of pathways; they develop and grow, weather change (or sometimes are overwhelmed by it), split into sub groups, collapse, reorganize and start again. Resilience scientists have described these patterns of change as adaptive cycles in which systems go through four phases of rapid growth, conservation (also known as the K phase), release and reorganisation. The rapid growth and conservation phases are times of relatively predictable dynamics and in which there is a slow accumulation of capital and potential through stability and conservation.

But this growth cannot continue indefinitely. As the system moves into the late conservation phase the system begins to become locked up as vested interests begin to dominate what can happen. Here are some things you might expect to see in the late K phase:
-Subsidies which were once designed to help set up new industries now prop up old industries (which are good at lobbying and influencing political power).
-More effort is put into protecting existing (sunk) investments rather than exploring new ones (think fossil fuels v renewals).
-Increased command-and-control (less and less flexibility).
-A pre-occupation with process (more and more rules, more time and effort devoted to sticking to procedures).
-Novelty being suppressed, with less support for experimentation (think of the government’s approach to research).
-Rising transaction costs in getting things done.
-Increases in ‘efficiency’ being achieved through the removal of apparent redundancies
(and ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions are increasingly the order of the day).

Or, if you want another take on this, consider political economist Mancur Olson’s pathbreaking book, The Rise and Decline of Nations, published in 1982. He argued that a country’s economic stability ultimately leads to decline as it becomes increasingly dominated by organised interest groups, each seeking to advance their interests at the expense of others. It’s a very similar perspective to the complex systems framing.

So, next time you see something that appears to be a ‘don’t look up’ situation, ask yourself if this isn’t just another example of a complex system (eg, society) locking up because vested interests are seeking to perpetuate a status quo in which they benefit.

Maybe David Attenborough could do a doco on it.

Banner image: Don’t look up, don’t speak up, you might upset the status quo.
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

Get the basics right for National Environmental Standards to ensure truly sustainable development


Peter Burnett, Australian National University

Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers has attracted controversy by proposing to update 30-year-old superannuation laws with a definition of the purpose of superannuation as being to fund a dignified retirement. There is a clear lesson here for other reforms to make policy objectives clear, even when they seem obvious. One important example is Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek’s Nature Positive Plan.

Plibersek’s department began consulting last week on new National Environmental Standards. She will table these later in the year, along with a bill to replace Australia’s most significant environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

The standards will be the “beating heart” of the reforms. They will set out in some detail just what has to be protected and the circumstances in which development can be approved. It is essential these standards rest on solid foundations, including a clear statement of purpose.

You may be surprised to hear mandatory standards are new territory for environmental laws regulating development. Existing federal and state laws are mostly built around regulatory process and ministerial discretion. Typically, they tell ministers to consider ill-defined principles like “ecologically sustainable development”, but lack any real “bottom line”.

This leads to “black box” decision-making, in which decisions are unpredictable beforehand and opaque afterwards. This lack of transparency does little for the environment, which continues to deteriorate due to increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction.

Tough calls ahead

Plibersek faces some tough calls in developing the standards. If strong and clear, they will protect nature and make it harder to get developments approved. But if the standards lack a clear statement of purpose and carry over rubbery phrases and weak offset requirements, then it will be business as usual, freshly wrapped.

For these new standards, we must get the basics right. One basic is to gather enough environmental information to make properly informed decisions.

The government is acting on this need with its plan to set up an independent environment protection agency (EPA), including a dedicated data division. However, it has yet to put serious money on the table. Making up for lost decades of patchy data gathering will be expensive and time-consuming.

Lack of clarity makes for ineffective law

Another one of the basics is to properly define ecologically sustainable development (ESD) as the foundation of environmental policy. The existing words on ESD in the EPBC Act are hard to divine. They trace their roots to the early 1990s and reflect the state of knowledge, and the compromises, of that era.

In fact, the EPBC Act does not even attempt to define “ecologically sustainable development”. Instead, it requires the environment minister to take into account five “principles of ecologically sustainable development”.

This disaggregation is part of the problem. Among other things, it forces the minister, in deciding whether to approve the clearing of koala habitat, for example, to consider an obscure principle that “improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms should be promoted”.

This is a high-level policy principle advocating “market-based instruments”, such as a carbon price. It does not belong in a decision about clearing native vegetation.

I am now a researcher but in a former life (2007-12) was responsible for the administration of the EPBC Act. I have gone back over several hundred statutory EPBC Act “recommendation reports”. In these reports, environment officials provide formal advice to the minister about whether to approve a development.

I found very few instances where ESD principles made a substantive difference to the advice. It’s not surprising, given the obtuse approach of the legislation to ecologically sustainable development.

How to breathe new life into ESD

That is not to say we should abandon ecologically sustainable development. Properly defined, it can provide an overarching statement as to what environmental laws are designed to achieve and what development can be approved.

In the broad, ecologically sustainable development should mean keeping the environment healthy, so future generations can enjoy the same quality of life as we do. It would follow that development should not harm anything essential to a healthy environment.

It is important that we not simply roll the current principles into the National Environmental Standards without reflection.

One of the principles, the precautionary principle, can stand alone. It’s about risk management, to be applied when environmental knowledge is limited, which is often. It means, in context, that if a development risks serious or irreversible environmental damage, don’t approve it.

With that done, the central intent of ecologically sustainable development can be met by having the standards require that each decision maintain the diversity of life and the integrity of ecosystems affected by development. Ecological advice would be needed on how to do this in each case.

The gist of such a rule is to keep nature in good working order. That means maintaining viable populations of species and the essentials of ecosystems – their composition, structure and function.

The other three ESD principles deal with policy integration, intergenerational equity and market-based instruments. These principles are important but do not belong in the standards. They should be rehoused in a major policy statement, such as an environmental white paper.

It is often said with regulatory reforms such as the Nature Positive Plan that the devil is in the detail. That can be true, but in this case the devil is more in the basics. Get the basics right, and the rest is just detail.

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Banner image: Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay