‘Best managed reef in the world’ down the drain

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What’s happening around the Park makes a mockery of our ‘best management’ approach

By David Salt

Is it hubris, arrogance or duplicity when the country’s Minister for the Environment can claim, almost in the same breath, that the Great Barrier Reef is ‘the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world’ but that the science-based outlook for the Reef’s ecosystem has slipped from ‘poor’ to ‘very poor’? I’m not joking, read her press release (it came out last Friday). How does ‘best management’ produce this outcome?

Well, it might surprise some of our readers to hear that I don’t actually disagree with the claim that the GBR is one of the world’s better managed reefs. It’s one of the world’s biggest marine parks with a significant portion of it off limits to all forms of development (around a third) thanks to the application of world’s best-practice systematic conservation planning. And the management of this world-heritage listed park is supported by a range of relatively well resourced institutions (GBRMPA, AIMS and the Centre of Excellence for Reef Studies to name three).

We monitor it well and in many areas we have led the world on reef science. And that’s as it should be because Australian’s love the Reef and expect our elected representatives to look after it. Economists tell us it’s worth looking after because it employs 64,000 people, generates $6.4 billion each year and has a total asset value of $56 billion.

The shadow of climate change

The trouble is, the looming threats overshadowing the Reef cannot be addressed by best-practice management within the Park’s boundaries. They originate outside of the Park and the Government claims it has limited power to address them.

In 2012, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) released a major peer-reviewed study that found the GBR was under significant stress and that it had lost half of its hard coral since 1985. The cause of this decline was threefold: storm damage (48%), outbreaks of Crown-of-Thorns starfish (COTS) (42%) and coral bleaching (10%).

All three threats had connections with climate change but the government (in this case the Federal Government and the Queensland Government who together share responsibility for the Reef) claimed climate change is a global issue beyond its capacity to control. (And, it should be noted, since this report came out the GBR has experienced catastrophic bouts of mass coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017).

No, climate change is something the government won’t buy into but what it says it can do is improve water quality.

Dirty water

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 COTS, encourages algae to colonise spaces previously occupied by corals and generally lowers the Reef’s resilience* – it’s ability to recover from disturbance.

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 it (including climate related episodes of bleaching and super-charged cyclones).

Interestingly, the same day the Environment Minister released the appalling Reef Outlook report, she also released the 2017 – 2018 Reef Water Quality Report Card which gave a very gloomy prognosis: “Across all Great Barrier Reef catchments, water quality modelling showed a very poor reduction in dissolved inorganic nitrogen (0.3%) and sediment (0.5%). There was also a poor reduction in particulate nitrogen (0.5%).” What was it, bad news Friday or something; put all the garbage out at the same time (and this following on from the latest carbon emissions data showing Australia’s emissions are still rising over several years even though we say we’ll reduce them!).

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 anything. 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.

Rating the reports

This government prides itself on its managerial approach. However, no matter how well the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is managed, it is a sitting duck facing the coming onslaught of climate-related bleaching events and big storms. The fact that the government can’t even clean up water quality just adds insult to injury.

The science has been saying what we need to do for many years (indeed, see comments by Terry Hughes, one of the world’s foremost experts comments on coral reefs, on the Outlook report) but the government hides behind the notion that because one part of the reef system is managed well (the part inside the Park) then they have met their commitments. But that well managed bit is connected to the land component next door and the greater world surrounding it, and those connections are killing the reef.

So, in light of last week’s horror reports on the Outlook for the Reef and the 2017-2018 Reef Water Quality Report Card, I think it would be fair to rate the Government’s progress as FAIL with the comment: hubristic, arrogant and duplicitous; don’t try to dress up a failure as a good effort because to do so just makes it harder to take the tough decisions that are needed.

*Reef resilience – having co-written two textbooks on resilience science (Resilience Thinking and Resilience Practice) that have played a large role in popularising the concept of resilience, it saddens by enormously to see the idea used by governments as a shield to hide behind when they are unable to engage with the science of climate change.

Image: A reef under stress on multiple fronts (Image ARC Centre of Excellence for Reef Studies)

Calling all economists: don’t let the denialists leave you the blame

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Climate change is both an economic AND a moral issue

By David Salt

“Where climate change is a moral issue we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue, as tonight shows, we do very, very well.”

These were Tony Abbott’s parting words on the 18 May 2019 as he conceded defeat at the recent federal elections. The voters in his Warringah electorate had finally tired of his denialist cant, and his wrecking and leaking from the side lines.

But in the ashes of his defeat he still found solace in the fact that while he had lost, his party, the Liberals, had won. They took no credible policy on carbon emissions (or the environment in general) to the election, they backed the development of new coal mines, and they scared the nation that the changes the nation would face under the opposition would cost everyone.

Against all poll-based predications, the Liberals won, and from their (close) victory they claim they have a mandate to ramp up the economic development of our fossil fuel reserves and continue with their non-action on the environmental front (with displacement activity on plastic recycling on the side to cover the void of their inaction).

Economics traduced

So, while Abbott has departed the political stage, possibly his parting observation of how the conservatives should be framing climate change held some truth: ‘Where climate change is framed as an economic issue, the Liberals do very, very well.’

If that’s the case then the once noble science of economics has been traduced – revealed as lacking a moral centre. It is merely a tool (a pawn) in a political game used to instil fear and prejudice in a jittery electorate.

Climate change is big – indeed it’s massive – but it’s also amorphous, uncertain and lies in our future (even though its impacts are starting to be felt). With clever economic framing it’s easy to convince people that the deep, transformative change that the world’s scientists say we need comes with ‘unacceptable’ short term costs. This is the exact game the Liberal party has been playing.

Indeed, the Liberals line in the run up to the last election was that their climate policies met their climate commitments “without wrecking the economy” and they released economic modelling suggesting Labor’s 45% target would cost the economy billions. The Liberals climate commitments have been shown time and again to be inadequate and their modelling of Labor’s higher target have been widely debunked.

It was a climate campaign based on fear and deception, and it seems that it worked in that it convinced voters the short term costs outweighed any longer term benefits. And then the government’s biggest denier (in the form of its past leader Tony Abbott) claimed it was simply an economics framing.

Stand up and be counted!

Well, I say to economists everywhere, please don’t accept this. Your science is based on rationality, public welfare and moral outcomes. Don’t allow conservatives to hide behind the economic façade of short term optimisation. Don’t allow them to sell your science as a reason to turn our back on climate change.

Of course, economists are some of the biggest supporters of meaningful action on climate change. And, truth to tell, there are real dangers in raising any issue to the status of a moral crisis.

In 2007 one of the world’s leading economists, Sir Nicholas Stern, told the world that “climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen.”

“The evidence on the seriousness of the risks from inaction or delayed action is now overwhelming. We risk damages on a scale larger than the two world wars of the last century. The problem is global and the response must be a collaboration on a global scale,” said Stern.

Our own Prime Minister at the time, Kevin Rudd, then chimed in on this rising tide of concern by labelling climate change as “the great moral challenge of our generation.” But then he seemed to squib on his commitment as soon as it hit resistance in parliament (resistance led by Tony Abbott). Surely the ‘great moral challenge of our generation’ was worthy of a bit of a fight.

But with major ecosystems failing, mass extinctions on the increase and Pacific nations drowning under rising seas, there can be no doubt that climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation. It’s also the great ecological, economic and social issue of our times, and experts from all areas should be standing up and demanding our political leaders see it as such.

For a past prime minister (Tony Abbott) to claim otherwise is immoral. To claim legitimacy for his party’s denialism by hiding it behind the cloak of economics is deceitful but in that he invoked economics it’s beholden on economists everywhere to set the record straight.

But the last word goes to the Pope

And another little postscript on Abbott’s election night epiphany. He began by pointing out that ‘where climate change is a moral issue the Liberals do it tough’. Where is Abbott’s moral centre in this debate? As a self-professed Catholic of deep faith, what does he make of Pope Francis’ declaration (coincidently also made in May this year). Pope Francis said: “We continue along old paths because we are trapped by our faulty accounting and by the corruption of vested interests. We still reckon as profit what threatens our very survival.” From this perspective, the Liberals economic framing is revealed to be merely faulty accounting and corrupt.

Not that Abbott has ever shown the moral fortitude of the leader of his Church. At the same time that Abbott was telling the world that climate change was not something to worry about, Pope Francis is on the record as saying: “Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.”

Image byPete Linforth fromPixabay

Nothing to see here

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Displacement is the game when you have nothing really to say (on the environment)

By David Salt

‘How good is the environment?’

Well, by any objective measure it’s in serious trouble and getting worse. But what do you say if your policies aren’t prepared to acknowledge this?

As our national government, you’re in charge of protecting the environment. You’re faced with collapsing ecosystems, declining biodiversity and a rising toll from climate extremes. In spite of this, you’ve made cut after cut to your Environment Department, told everyone Australia is going to make our carbon emission targets ‘at a canter’ (despite all the hard evidence that emissions are actually going up) and repeatedly stated when it comes to the environment everything is sweet. It’s getting harder to sustain this line but you have to say (and do) something. So, what will it be?

Based on what our Environment Minister is saying in Parliament in answer to questions from her own side, the game appears to be to focus on the little picture and displace everyone’s attention.

A tiny agenda

‘Questions without notice’ are supposed to be an opportunity for members to raise important issues relating to their electorates. Unfortunately, they have largely become political theatre in which the major parties just try to embarrass each other.

Under Question-Time rules, government members are allowed to ask questions of their own side. These are called ‘Dorothy Dixers’, after a famous syndicated column in womens’ magazines, ‘Dear Dorothy Dix’, in which ‘Dorothy’ played agony aunt to her readers and provided homespun advice on marriage and the other challenges of home life.

When the government gets a Dorothy Dixer (or ‘Dixers’ as the insiders call them) it’s an opportunity for the government to use a rehearsed question from a friendly questioner to spell out its strategy and agenda, often in the context of announcing (or re-announcing) the spending of money. So when the Minister for the Environment is asked by her own side what’s on the environmental agenda we get a good idea on what the Government is setting out to achieve, what its grand vision is, including how it intends to spend our money.

In recent weeks, that vision seems to consist of small community projects – “it’s supporting grassroots organisations working on small projects that make a big difference”; a bit of environmental restoration, a bit more on soil conservation (God bless our farmers) and a big focus on increasing recycling and reducing waste. (Note: the links in this paragraph take you to the Hansard record of Parliament for the day in question – 23, 30 & 31 July in these cases – but not to the specific answers in the Questions-Without-Notice sessions that I’m referring to. Why Hansard can’t provide specific links to specific answers I don’t know. Maybe to make it harder to pin Ministers down to their answers.)

Indeed, recycling and waste reduction seem to be this government’s big ticket item when it comes to the Environment: “We can’t opt out of modern living or the modern world,” says Sussan Ley, our new Environment Minister, “but we can get smarter about the way we live and the pressure we place on our environment, and about doing everything we can to mitigate that—reducing waste, increasing recycling.”

We don’t need to save the reef (?)

They’ve even appointed an ‘envoy for the reef’ in the form of Warren Entsch (Member for Leichhardt in far north Queensland) who has refused to acknowledge the imminent threat of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef instead citing plastics as being the big problem and increased recycling as the solution.

“We don’t need to save the reef,” Entsch said recently in The Guardian. “It’s still going – we need to manage it and manage it well and we’re the best reef managers in the world.”

So what is his (and this Government’s) solution to saving the Reef? Get rid of single-use plastics. Though, when it comes down to it, our political leaders don’t even believe Australia is the cause of this problem: “the bulk of it [plastic] on our seas comes down from our northern neighbours,” says Entsch. “If we can create world’s best practice and get them to clean up their own backyard then we will reduce the volumes that come down to us.”

What about cleaning up our own backyard, Mr Reef Envoy? Have you read any of the voluminous science coming out over recent years telling us our reef is dying (from declining water quality, increased storm activity, increased outbreaks of crown-of-thorn starfish and, multiplying every threat, climate change)?

“Australians care about our environment,” says Environment Minister Ley. “They want to be involved in protecting it now and into the future. The Morrison government will work internationally and with communities, with local organisations and with our scientific experts to address all of the issues that confront us, large and small, including Asia-Pacific rainforest recovery, blue carbon and sequestering carbon in our coastal and marine ecosystems, and we will continue to invest in protecting the Great Barrier Reef.”

Nice words, but it’s such shallow rhetoric. When it comes to our environment, the government only pays lip service to the big issues, and only engages in doing things that are too small to make much difference overall. All the while it ignores and marginalises the scientific expertise it claims to respect.

High opportunity cost

This is displacement activity of the worse type because the opportunity cost of ignoring the bigger picture – trashing the evidence and degrading our environmental capacity – is the horrible cost of environmental failure our society (and children) will bear down the line.

And, even as I write this, the Government is doing more displacement on the environmentally linked sector of energy – let’s set up an enquiry on nuclear energy to show we mean business.

Nothing to see here.

Image: Tane Sinclair-Taylor, Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene

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Reflecting on the moment the world changed

By David Salt

Seventy four years ago, at 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945, the US military detonated the world’s first atomic bomb. Code named Trinity, the test was run out on a lonely New Mexican desert on an air force bombing range. Small by the standards of later tests, Trinity still managed to light up the surrounding mountains brighter than day, fuse the sand underneath it into radioactive green glass and generate a shock wave felt over 160 km away.

Yet the significance of Trinity extends way beyond that New Mexican desert, and even beyond the end of the Second World War which, with the aid of atomic weapons, was now only weeks away.

By some reckonings, 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945, marks the beginning of a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene, the age of humans. Seventy four years on, the trajectory of the Anthropocene should be at the fore front of all our thinking.

Written in stone

The Anthropocene is not yet an ‘official’ geological time period. Such decisions require a formal review and proclamation by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), a fairly conservative scientific panel not keen on mixing their science with fashion and politics (and the ‘Anthropocene’ is jam packed with political ramifications).

According to the ICS, planet Earth is still officially in what’s known as the Holocene Epoch, which began after the last ice age ended some 12,000 years ago.

But many scientists have been unhappy with the title ‘Holocene’ believing human activity is now dominating the Earth system, and this should be reflected in the stratigraphic nomenclature – the Earth’s geological rock strata reflecting the deep history of our planet. The name ‘Anthropocene’ was proposed by the atmospheric chemist (and Nobel laureate) Paul Crutzen back in the year 2000.

For a new geological epoch to be declared the rock strata above a proposed boundary needs to distinctly different from those below, suggesting some major change in the processes that created them. But this difference also needs to be evident all around the world, indicating that the change is global and not merely regional in character.

Can human activity be seen in the geological record? You betcha! Particles of plastics, concrete and aluminium, all of undeniable human origin are now widespread around the planet and found in today’s emerging strata. But possibly the most undeniable material of human origin being found in the strata are radionuclides from atomic bombs, beginning with Trinity in 1945. Nothing like these substances had existed on Earth prior to 1945, but now they coat the planet.

While the radionuclides serve as an easily detectable marker, they only exist in trace quantities. Other artificial materials are so abundant we’re drowning in them. The total amount of concrete that humanity has produced, most of it in the post-1950 period, amounts to about a kilogram for every square metre across the entire surface of the Earth. The amount of plastic wrap produced since 1950 is enough to cover the entire planet in plastic. And enough aluminium foil has been manufactured to wrap the continent of Australia.

All of these stratigraphic markers begin to appear in significant amounts around the middle of the 20th century. This coincides with a time that is now commonly referred to as the Great Acceleration, a period of unparalleled economic growth and development. And it wasn’t just plastic production that skyrocketed; so too did water use, energy use, fertilizer consumption, international tourism, dam construction and paper production. Underpinning it all was a swelling human population and an insatiable drive to grow the economy.

When did the Anthropocene begin?

When Crutzen first began writing about the Anthropocene with colleagues he proposed that it began with the invention of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution from the second half of the 18th Century. This was because this period coincided with increasing levels of carbon dioxide associated with greater levels of coal consumption.

Other scholars have suggested the Anthropocence began much earlier, back with the Agricultural Revolution some 5-8000 years ago. The spread of agriculture also led to increased greenhouse gas emissions through changes in land management.

Others have suggested even earlier dates with human making their mark through the extinction of mega fauna in areas where they appeared.

Each proposal for the beginning of the Anthropocene has its strengths and weaknesses depending on your frame of reference.

From an Earth systems perspective, however, it is only from 1950s that the cumulative impact of human activity began to distort the Earth system itself. Humanity was changing the very behaviour of our planet. None of the earlier ‘start’ dates can claim this.

And, when you combine this with the crystal clear signal of radionuclides and their sudden appearance, I believe Trinity is the best candidate for the opening of this latest planet-shifting epoch – the Anthropocene. The fact that Trinity also symbolises our ‘mastery’ over matter by unleashing the dangerous power of the atom only reinforces the significance of the 16th of July 1945.

So, 74 years into the Anthropocene, where is it taking us? I don’t think we’ll need another 74 years to find out.

Image: The Anthropocene began with a bang. The Trinity explosion is pictured here 16 milliseconds after the detonation. The highest point of the explosion’s dome in this image is about 200 metres high. (Los Alamos National Laboratory)

The real climate change debate

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Beliefs trump evidence while the truth disappears in the babble

By David Salt

A few years ago American comedian John Oliver ran a skit on the way most mainstream media run debates on climate change. He lampooned the way they inaccurately portray the debate as a balanced affair in which a climate expert is pitted against a climate skeptic. The viewer sees one person versus one person – a 50:50 debate. But, as Oliver points out, the scientific consensus supporting climate change is an overwhelming 97%. To portray the debate as a 50:50 divide is inappropriate and dangerously biased.

Oliver demonstrates the ludicrousness of this by staging a ‘statistically representative debate’ in which three climate-change deniers argue their cant against 97 climate scientists who drown out the naysayers with their chorus of facts.

It’s a great skit, much loved by climate researchers and science communicators everywhere. If you haven’t seen it, I commend it to you. Indeed, I regularly screen it in a talk I give on ‘science and policy’. And, I note, it’s been watched by well over eight million people with 77,000 giving it the thumbs up with around 3,000 giving it the thumbs down – fairly close to the 97% scientific consensus.

So, having praised Oliver’s efforts, and lauded the skit’s central conceit, I’m now going to call it out for demonstrating two critical weaknesses in the overall effort to communicate the seriousness of climate change; flaws that are hampering current efforts to bring about enduring policy reform.

Belief vs evidence

The first relates to Oliver’s contention that facts are more important than people’s beliefs. He begins by pointing out that a recent Gallup poll found that 1 in 4 Americans are skeptical about the impacts of climate change and think this issue has been exaggerated. Oliver retorts (to much laughter) “who gives a shit, that doesn’t matter; you don’t need people’s opinions on a fact; you might as well have a poll on which figure is bigger, 15 or 5? Or, do owls exist? Or, are there hats?”

But, as we have seen increasingly over recent elections both here and abroad, beliefs do trump facts. We make fun of people’s beliefs, regardless of their relation to evidence, at our peril.

When I looked for stats on current beliefs in the US on climate change I found results from multiple surveys. Most suggested there was a growing acceptance of the reality of climate change, that young people had higher rates of acceptance and believed that governments should be doing more, and that Republican voters had significantly lower rates of belief.

One recent survey by Yale University of over 1000 adults found that a record 73% of Americans polled agreed that global warming was happening, marking a 10% point increase since 2015. The results were trumpeted in Forbes news under the banner New Survey Finds 3 Out Of 4 Americans Accept The Reality Of Climate Change, which is really pretty much the same as the figure quoted in the Oliver skit, just framed in the reverse way (1 in 4 Americans are skeptical about the impacts of climate change).

Speaking with one voice

And the second issue raised in the Oliver skit relates to the cacophony of scientist cries as the ‘statistically representative debate’ gets underway. The point he was trying to make is that the weight of evidence drowns out the denialism if you line them up along the lines of the 97% scientific consensus (97 scientists vs 3 deniers).

But I couldn’t hear any message; it was drowned out in the babble. Indeed, the only line you actually hear is that of the deniers who get the first line in: “Well I just don’t think all the science is in yet and settled,” says the denier. Oliver then asks for what the scientists think and you can’t hear anything from then on as the 97 voices speak out in unison.

So, Oliver’s point is made with comic impact but I think he also highlighted the problem of what the public hears when confronted by multiple voices spewing out endless facts and figures, impenetrable graphs and numbers loaded with dense techno-speak expositing doom and gloom if we don’t dramatically change our ways.

On the other side* is a tiny minority of players (usually representing unstated vested interests with deep and well-funded ideological roots) putting out simple, well-crafted messages of uncertainty, sowing seeds of doubt that, with time, flower into vigorous weeds of denial that prove ever so hard to pull out. Their seductive message is that this whole climate change thing is big and complicated, we’re still figuring out what it means, but we’d be fools to change the status quo while so much uncertainty is present. Let’s do nothing for now, keep the economy growing as we have for the past 50-70 years and some way down the track we’ll fix up the climate if indeed it turns out to be broken. And, if it does need fixing, our wonderful science and market forces will provide the solution.

It just isn’t fair

Scientists live and die by the evidence they generate. In their world facts win and beliefs inevitably bend to the weight of evidence, even if it takes a while. It’s a numbers game; over time the evidence builds and a scientific consensus forms (or shifts).

The scientific consensus on (anthropogenic) climate change has grown and solidified over the past 50 years. There is now no doubt in the world of science as to its reality or consequence, even if a small clique of deniers still warps the media debate. But this clique represents powerful vested interests, and their influence may take more than facts to shift.

Scientists believe their consensus will eventually permeate the societal debate; that, in a rational world, ‘facts’ will squash unfounded belief. But the real world isn’t always rational (or fair), and it doesn’t always conform to the rigorous black and white perspective of its scientific citizens.

*Sowing seeds of doubt is just one of several techniques employed by the climate-change denial lobby/collective. They also peddle conspiracy theories, cherry pick data, employ logical fallacies and set up fake debates. If you’d like to learn more about these dark arts and how they can be resisted, check on the University of Queenslands’ online course called Denial 101: Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. Highly commended.

Image: John Oliver stages a statistically representative debate. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjuGCJJUGsg

A (very) short history of sustainability

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A mud map of how sustainable development has grown up

By David Salt

For many, sustainability is a buzz word; a descriptor used and abused by governments (and corporations) all around the world to give the impression their policies of economic growth and development are simultaneously meeting the needs of society and the environment. But it’s more than just a hollow catch cry. Sustainability is a concept with substantive meaning and pedigree.

The growing body of evidence, unfortunately, is that our world is not on a trajectory of sustainability. If anything, we are accelerating away from it. However, there was a time, no so long ago, when there appeared to be a growing international consensus that sustainability was a real and achievable goal. When was that? Here is my (very) short potted mud map of sustainability (with a fist full of caveats at the end for me to hide behind).

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century was the century of human domination in which our species ‘conquered’ the final bits of the planet’s surface. We encircled the world with our communication cables (1902), reached its South Pole (1911), ascended to its highest point (Mt Everest, 1953) and then reached even higher with artificial satellites (Sputnik, 1957). We also made a real effort to annihilate many dimensions of our own culture in two world wars.

If the first half of this century was marked by massive global-scale disruptions (two world wars and a Depression) and empire failures (Britain and Japan especially), then the second half was characterised by population and economic growth of unprecedented scale. Population more than doubled, while the global economy increased by more than 15-fold. And it was in this second half that notions of sustainability were developed.

The 1940s: Reboot

My mud map begins in the aftermath of the Second World War; a time of mass destruction, renewal and new beginnings. The aim of governments was growth, stability and the kindling of hope for a prosperous future.

The tremendous economic growth that followed was in large part enabled by the ‘rebooting’ effect of the wars. These broke down old imperial and feudal institutions, opened up space for new institutions based on liberal-democratic and later neo-liberal economic principles, and empowered us with a new suite of powerful science and technology.

Survival was more the consideration than sustainability, but towards the end of the 1940s there was an international push to set aside bits of landscapes for wildlife and nature with the establishment in 1948 of the International Union for the Protection of Nature (which was to become the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, in 1956). Economic growth was the main focus and the environment was seen as a space separate from human activity.

The 1950s: Lift off

Today’s economy and environment has direct roots in the explosion in economic growth that took place in the 1950s, the beginning of the so called Great Acceleration. Population, GDP, energy generation, fertiliser consumption, water use and international tourism all underwent dramatic (often exponential) increases as the economy powered up.

The ‘sustainability’ of the environment was not really a question back then. The USA, a major driver of growth, was concerned about the ongoing supply of natural resources, but only as it related to feeding the economy rather than sustaining the environment. It set up a commission, the Paley Commission, which led to the establishment of the NGO called ‘Resources for the Future’. Its brief was to look at resource scarcity issues on an ongoing basis. The great environmental economist David Pearce identifies this as the founding of environmental economics.

The 1960s: Cracks in the model

The economy was growing strongly, living standards for many were improving, the rich were getting richer but the poor were getting less poor. Indeed, during these first decades after the war the gap between the richest and the poorest was decreasing (proof that a rising tide can indeed lift all the boats).

But underneath the growth and the technological mastery, cracks were appearing in the form of environmental decline. These concerns were embodied in the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962). It drew attention to the accumulating impacts of pesticides on natural ecosystems, and questioned the costs of industrial scale-agriculture.

Technology also gave us new frames for considering humanity’s role and place, with the race for the Moon providing new perspectives, metaphorical and literal, on our planet. Kenneth Boulding coined the term ‘Spaceship Earth’ in a famous essay in 1966 (and in 1968 we saw our fragile home in perspective for the first time in the famous ‘Earth Rising’ photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon).

Concern was growing as case study (eg, acid rain) after case study (eg, contaminated waterways) caused people to question the costs and benefits of economic development. Laws for environmental protection started taking shape and the idea of Environmental Impact Assessment took off (enshrined in US environmental law, NEPA, in 1969); yet the approach that evolved was more a ‘bottom up’ one of minimising impacts on a case by case basis rather than the holistic bigger picture approach that Boulding had advocated and NEPA, read as prose rather than law, clearly embodies.

The 1970s: Hopes are high

1972 saw the publication of landmark report titled Limits to Growth, one of the first formal efforts to understand what the consequences of unbounded economic development might be. Its conclusion was that our species was likely heading for some form of collapse in the mid to latter part of the 21st Century. (While widely dismissed by economists, a review in 2014 of the Limits-to-Growth analysis found its forecasts are still on track.)

The 70s saw many efforts by governments and community groups around the world to address the swelling list of environmental problems falling out of our rapacious growth. Key among these was UN Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference, in 1972. It catalysed many activities that were to prove pivotal to the manner in which we dealt with the environment, including many nations setting up their own environment ministries. It also saw the creation of UNEP (the UN Environmental Programme), and it put a greater focus on the connection between society and the environment. The Stockholm Conference was one of the first events where there was a strong acknowledgement of the need for poverty alleviation and its connection with access to environmental resources.

And it was during this decade that the term sustainable development began to see common usage. Indeed, the term was first used officially in the World Conservation Strategy launched in 1980, though at this stage the focus was on the environment alone.

The 1980s: Negotiations are had

‘Sustainable development’ took real form with the release of the report titled Our Common Future by The World Commission on Environment and Development (let by the indefatigable Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female Prime Minister) in 1987. The report defined a sustainable society as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It made sustainability an idea that involved acknowledging the linkages between the economy, the environment and society.

The mid 80s also saw the emergence of a massive ozone hole over the south pole (resulting from humans pumping ozone depleting substances into our atmosphere). This went some way to puncturing our complacency about environmental decline. Countries met and negotiated what they would do about the ozone problem, treaties were signed and these days ozone depleting emissions are on the decline.

Not so easily addressed, unfortunately, was the greenhouse gas problem in which a by-product of economic activity (energy, transport and agriculture in particular) was carbon-based emissions that distorted the Earth’s climate systems. Though the science of greenhouse warming was well understood and discussed in scientific circles in the 70s, it actually became visible in the late 80s. (In 1988 Jim Hansen, a leading atmospheric scientist at NASA, declared: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”)

The 1990s: Plans are drawn

In 1992 the world came together in Rio for the great Earth Summit in which nations would pledge how they were going to meet the great challenge of sustainability. A plan for sustainable development in the rapidly approaching 21st Century was adopted (Agenda 21) and an international agreement on biodiversity conservation was opened for signing.

Through the 90s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (formed by UNEP and the WMO in the 80s) began compiling an enormous brief of evidence that greenhouse gas levels were growing remorselessly and creating a raft of problems from shifting climate to sea level rise and extreme weather. But as the fear rose about the need to do something about carbon emissions, vested interests increased their efforts to discredit the science, and obfuscate the emerging picture.

And governments everywhere were discovering that policy positions developed to meet sustainability pledges came with real short term electoral pain, and that the prospect of deep change, transformational change, was simply too much to push through. Sustainable development is a moral imperative but the reality is that sustainability bites. Or, as President Bush said in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit: “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.”

The 2000s (the Naughties): Sustainability bites

As you’d expect, the beginning of a new millennium saw a lot of reflection, discussion and planning for a better world (a bit like my New Year’s resolutions to be a better person). There was the Millennium Summit in 2000 (and ensuing Ecosystem Assessment in 2005), a Rio+10 Earth Summit (held in Johannesburg in 2002) and a World Summit held in 2005. Millennium Development Goals were drawn up and agreed to, and almost all nations (with the US a notable exception) committed to reversing declines in biodiversity (the Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD).

And the manner in which many governments sought to deliver on their sustainability commitments increasingly invoked utilitarian values, a move supported by an emerging line of conservation science that demonstrated that nature provided benefits to humans that save us money (like native vegetation providing water purification). So, why don’t we start paying for the things that nature gives us, ecosystem services, and let the market optimise the delivery of these services? Some saw this as a dangerous move away from acknowledging nature’s intrinsic value.

But, just like my News Year’s resolutions, it didn’t take long for most governments to begin making excuses for why aspirations (for sustainable development) needed to take second place to the realities of day-to-day life: “as soon as we’ve secured a strong economy we can begin worrying about fixing up the environment.”

Targets adopted under the CBD meant that 2010 was supposed to be the line in the sand for biodiversity conservation but all countries failed to deliver on their commitments with extinction rates climbing and the drivers of extinction only accelerating.

The 2010s: Cracks in the ice cap

Sustainability, however you want to define it (and heaven knows it comes in many flavours), was proving a stubbornly elusive goal. But the negotiations continued.

The world’s nations continued to get together (Rio+20 in 2012, this time in Rio) but failed to agree on any major outcomes other than replacing a failed international body, the Commission on Sustainable Development, with a new one, the UN Environment Assembly); the failed Biodiversity Convention targets were replaced with a more nuanced set of goals (the Aichi Targets); the Millennium Development Goals (which some believed were quite effective while others said were unmeasurable) were replaced with a more nuanced set of sustainability targets (the Sustainable Development Goals); and the stalled climate change discussions actually reached half a consensus with the Paris Agreement (in 2015; though President Trump has since withdrawn from it).

In many ways, it’s the same old, same old; endless meetings, discussions, agreements and targets; one step forward, two steps back, another step forward; but, at the end of the day Bill Clinton’s 1992 election mantra ‘it’s the economy stupid’ sums up the approach of virtually every country. Which sometimes has me wondering that Rachel Carson, Kenneth Boulding and the doomsayers behind ‘Limits to Growth’ were simply wrong. The environment is undoubtedly in decline but we’re still standing, talking and aspiring to better things (most of us are wealthier, but at the expense of future generations). Clearly governments are almost unanimous in believing that the economy is what counts and if things get scarce then markets and technology will always find a solution; they have so far.

But those people calling for reflection and change were not wrong; and the 2010s and the emerging science are emphatically backing their calls for a new way of stewarding Spaceship Earth. We’re losing species and ecosystems that we depend upon. We are seeing changes to our climate and Earth system that are already stressing many parts of our planet (including our food and water systems); and the science tells us these changes are just beginning, promising an increasingly uncertain future. We are losing the challenge of sustainability and it’s not a challenge we can afford to lose.

Caveats and endnotes

This ridiculously short history only touched on a few of the elements that have contributed to the evolution of sustainable development (and only mentioned a couple of the thousands of identities – people and institutions – who have made important contributions to its story). And, clearly, dividing this history into decadal phases doesn’t reflect the real inflection points of its evolution, it is merely my effort to subjugate a complex, non-linear, multi-faceted topic into something that looks like time line with a simple narrative.

However, even the limited set of events described here tells us that the history of sustainable development has gone through life stages with different dynamics. It began as our faith in the economic growth model began to erode and it’s early days kept a tight focus on the environment; as it developed there grew a better appreciation of the connections between society, economy and environment; and as it reached maturity and asked for real commitment from its sponsoring actors, the reality of shifting the status quo has proven that much of its rhetoric is impotent.

In its youth sustainable development was driven by natural science. In its young adulthood, it began to take on it legitimacy from ideas founded in social values, rights and laws. And as it matured it cloaked itself in the robes of economics and markets.

Is it any wonder then that sustainable development is no longer a force for change (if it ever was)? Rather than challenge the paradigm of unbounded economic growth, it has been forced to work within the normative structures that put economic growth before all other goals.

So, if you were a doctor asked to prescribe a change to an ageing man whose life style is clearly leading to a miserable old age, what might you suggest? Because maybe this is the lens we need to look through when considering where to from here for sustainable development. And, maybe, just like our ageing patient, we need to be confronted with some hard truths about what the future holds (unless we sign up for some demanding therapies)?

Image: Earthrise, 25 December 1968. Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders. Earth is peeking out from beyond the lunar surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon. (NASA)

Retreat from reason

Featured

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