Losing it – the consequences of stepping over the threshold

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By David Salt

In Australia, we called the horrible summer of 2019/20 the Black Summer. Unprecedented heat waves and drought led to the biggest, most ferocious, most extensive wildfires this nation had ever known.

I wonder what the world will call 2022? Once again that word ‘unprecedented’ gets rolled out to describe a series of heatwaves, extreme storms, massive floods and record-breaking droughts. This year these events were happening all over the world (and especially across Europe, Asia and America during the northern hemisphere summer). Will it be the ‘Angry Summer’ or the ‘Season of our Great Discontent’ or maybe just the year of ‘Climate Breakdown’. (At what point do we know it’s broken?)

Or maybe the climate disruption will just continue and even grow worse, as many climate scientists are predicting, and 2022 will be wilfully forgotten as we struggle to deal with each new emerging weather crisis.

The idea of normal

When describing abnormal events, unprecedented episodes or historic happenings, you need to have some idea about what ‘normal’ actually means. In some cases this is relatively straightforward.

We have temperature records, for example, that go back for at least a century so it’s easy to define ‘normal’ with statistical precision. Our temperature has ranged between X and Y, and there is a different average max and minimum value for each month of the year. This August was particularly hot for many regions in the northern hemisphere, so when you hear on the news that temperatures broke records, or were above average, you can appreciate just what is meant.

The more variables you bring in (precipitation, wind speed, humidity, wild storms etc), the harder it is to characterise what is normal. Of course, these variables are what add up to weather, and long-term average weather is what we call climate.

If the weather gets ugly, we normally console ourselves that we just need to survive this rough patch and at some point the weather will ‘return to normal’ – the rains will replenish the dams after the drought or calm will follow the big storm.

‘Return to normal’ is a form of equilibrium thinking. Your world gets rocked by some disturbance, your equilibrium is thrown out, but you do everything you can to bounce back, to return to normal.

Of course, I’m talking about the notion of resilience – the capacity to cope with disturbance and bounce back (the word ‘resilience’ derives from the Latin ‘resilire’, meaning ‘to jump back’ or ‘to recoil’).

What’s normal for a complex system

‘Resilience thinking’ is all about how this idea of ‘recovery’ applies to complex adaptive systems. Complex systems have the capacity to self-organise. Resilience is the amount of disturbance a system can absorb and still retain its identity, still continue to function in much the same kind of way.

In recent blogs I’ve attempted explain what complexity means, and how complex systems change over time, how they go through a pattern known as an adaptive cycle. The concept of adaptive cycles is one important building block of resilience thinking, the other is the idea of ‘thresholds’.

There are limits to how much a complex system can be changed and still recover. Beyond those limits the system functions differently because some critical feedback process has changed. These limits are known as thresholds.

When a complex system crosses a threshold it is said to have crossed into another ‘regime’ of the system (also called a ‘stability domain’ or ‘basin of attraction’). It now behaves in a different way – it has a different identity (or you might say it has lost its original identity).

In coral reefs there’s a threshold on the variable of the level of nutrients in the surrounding water. If nutrients become too high, the coral will be displaced by algae. The coral reef identity is lost, replaced by the identity of an algal reef.

On many rangelands there is a threshold on the amount of grass present. If the grass level falls below a certain level (because of too many grazing animals or a prolonged drought), shrubs begin to take over. The grassy rangeland identity is lost, replaced by a shrubland.

Sometimes it’s easy to cross back over to the identity you want, sometimes it’s difficult and sometimes it’s impossible.

Tipping points

In a recent blog I discussed how fossil fuel corporations are complex systems. The identity of this system is heavily influenced by quarterly profit statements; more so than any concern they might hold for longer term climate disruption. The levels of the profits in those quarterly statements likely has a threshold point, below which the fossil fuel corporation will likely change its business (eg, take on the identity of a renewables company, maybe) or shut down. Either way, crossing this threshold leads to a change of identity in this system. (Of course, what might put downward pressure on their profits is stronger government regulation or broader community rejection of the cost being imposed on society by the fossil fuel company.)

In my last blog I also said you could view the British Monarchy as being a complex system. Its identity hinges on public acceptance and support over time, something the late Queen Elizabeth II understood and worked with like a pro. Again, its likely a threshold point exists on this variable of public support, below which the Monarchy becomes vulnerable. QEII represented integrity, authenticity, stability and certainty. She had very high levels of social approval (social capital) that has ensured that the system of the Monarchy had resilience, even to the disturbance of her own death, and the Crown passed seamlessly to her son, now King Charles III. But imagine what might have happened if the Queen didn’t have that level of social capital. Or what happens if King Charles squanders that social capital? Smooth successions aren’t always the rule in the UK (or elsewhere), and many countries don’t need Queens (or Kings) to function.

Thresholds occur in many complex systems however they are often described as ‘tipping points’ where they occur in the social domain. In addition to the two examples I just discussed (profit levels and levels of public approval), tipping points might manifest as changes in fashion, voting patterns, riot behaviour, or markets.

Defining a safe operating space

So here is useful way of defining a system. Every system can be described in a variety of ways using a number of variables. The identity of the system can be characterised by an average range of those values. While kept in that range, the system will behave as you expect, be it a business, a monarchy, a coral reef or a rangeland. However, when the system passes a certain level on one of a number of key variables (eg, profit, popularity, nutrients, grass cover) – a threshold or tipping point – the system changes its identity and begins to behave differently (often in strange or undesirable ways).

Or, in other words, you can understand a system’s identity by knowing how much change it can take before that identity is lost, replaced by a different identity.

Not only are thresholds critical to understanding the behaviour of complex systems, they are the basic limits to whatever enterprise you’re responsible for or have an interest in. To use the phrase in a prominent analysis of global-scale thresholds (Rockstrom et al 2009), thresholds define the safe operating space of your system.

And how are we going in keeping our society in a safe operating space? Well, considering our experiences with the Black Summer of 2019 or the Angry Summer of 2022, not so well.

Climate and weather systems are complex systems too. Their current behaviour suggests they have been pushed over critical thresholds and their emerging identity is something quite new, quite destructive and terrible. Allowing the Earth system to cross these thresholds comes with an enormous cost to society, and will sorely test our own resilience as we cruise into an increasingly uncertain future.

Banner image: How much disturbance can your ‘system’ take before it loses its identity? It’s not just the intensity of a specific event (a single hurricane for example) that’s important, it’s also the frequency of such disturbances. The Great Barrier Reef can survive mass bleaching events if they only occur once every 20 years but it loses its ‘identity’ if they occur every few years (which is now what’s happening). (Image by David Mark from Pixabay)

Death of the Queen, identity and a sustainable world

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By David Salt

The Queen is dead, long live the King. Okay, we’ve said it, can we now please return to normal transmission*!

On the announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, Australia sunk into a blackhole of mourning (described by some in the twitterverse as ‘mourn porn’). All news bulletins and national programming seemed only to talk about her passing, how good she’d been, and the 1,000 tiny (tedious) steps of what happens now as her son becomes King. We suspended parliamentary business for a staggering 15 days and declared a public holiday that, because of its suddenness, some believe may cost our economy over a billion dollars. All of this in a country on the other side of the planet from where she had lived, with a population whose majority want us to ditch the monarchy completely, and whose government for all intents and purposes is independently elected and run. What gives?

Of course, there are hundreds of stories currently doing the rounds at the moment on how wonderful and enduring Queen Elizabeth had been. However, for my money, the furore over her passing is more about what it means for our own identity – what and who we are.

The Queen has been our monarch for over 70 years. She’s always been there performing her many public duties through thick and thin; with a polished reserve, constancy and perseverance that is almost superhuman. She is universally lauded as a trusted and hard-working soul, a role model of public service, temperance and restraint. Her very existence gave us confidence in the stability and validity of the system of which we are a part, a confidence that this system would endure and be around to sustain ourselves and our children.

So, even though the Queen was growing old, her death still hit us like an existential slap. Yes, she was a good person, but suddenly her constant presence had vanished, and we all needed reassurance that the validity and dependability of our system was still there, that we still had good reason to believe in the certainty of tomorrow.

The Queen and the Great Acceleration

So much has happened during the 70 years of her queenship. If you think about it, her reign began in 1952, just as the ‘Great Acceleration’ of humanity was taking off; a time of unprecedented technological change, economic growth, exploding population and accelerating consumption. Beginning in the 1950s, humanity built more dams, converted more land to agriculture, eliminated more species and released more greenhouse gases than at any other time in history.

By the 1970s scientists were beginning to point out how unsustainable this development was, but the warnings did little to change our course over the next half century.

With the new millennium, the warnings started proving true. The ‘spotfires’ of deep droughts, floods and mass coral bleachings are becoming more intense and frequent. 2022 seems to have seen most of the northern hemisphere engulfed in one climate-ramped natural disaster after another. The US is burning, Pakistan is drowning while all our great rivers are withering. A climate crisis is emerging.

And, during this time, our trust in the institutional pillars of society have been eroded by neoliberal drivers and market forces. A recent Australian Prime Minister** observed: “We face the spectre of a transactional world, devoid of principle, accountability and transparency.”

‘False news’ and misinformation cloud all our reflection, as tribal partisanship displaces reasoned debate and good governance.

Throughout all this tumultuous, transformational change, the Queen was always there, always constant. The monarchy no longer had the power and influence of earlier centuries, but the Queen still represented all the symbols (flag, crown and anthem) that lay under everything we have built (and fought for, and in some cases died for).

For King, country and the higher cause

Part of that is what the empire built lies here on the other side of the planet. Almost 250 years ago, Britain deported felons to a remote settlement in New South Wales, and that convict colony grew and flowered to become a vibrant multi-cultural, economic powerhouse that we now call Australia.

For King/Queen, God and flag, we displaced (and oppressed) a pre-existing First Nations culture as if it had never existed (a process codified as Terra nullius). Indeed, Indigenous people were not given recognition in the Australian Constitution till the 1960s, and (against a backdrop of multiple appalling legacies in the areas of health, education and welfare) we’re still fighting over how their voice might be heard in our national parliament.

Australia leads the world when it comes to extinction rates, land degradation and per capita emissions of greenhouse gases. Until very recently, we have been seen as the climate change laggards of the developed world.

The belief in ‘Queen and country’ have been central to our society and how we have justified so much of our development trajectory; ‘yes there have been costs, people and cultures have suffered, but it’s all been done for a higher cause’.

The loss of ‘our Queen’

So, with the sad loss of ‘our Queen’, our very identity has been under siege as we reflect upon what it is we have built, and how much certainty is there that it will be there in the future.

The fact that the Queen was undeniably an honest, hardworking servant of the public only clouds our reflections. She was a ‘good’ person but what is the value of the institution she represents, and is this belief in the Crown really an appropriate justification for how we are developing this world?

I quipped at the beginning: ‘can we please get beyond this and let normal transmission return’. But on reflection, humanity can’t afford ‘normal transmission’. We’re driving off a cliff at the moment and the powers that be are only concerned with the condition of the car they’re driving, not where it’s going.

Actually, what we should be saying is: The Queen is dead, long live the King, and may we use this moment of fragility and uncertainty to honestly reflect on the world we have built in their names.

*Speaking of ‘normal transmission’, my recent blogs on Sustainability Bites have been reflections on resilience thinking. This blog on the Queen has been a bit of a divergence. And yet, thinking of the Monarchy as a complex adaptive system might reveal some interesting insights. For example, how much disturbance (and of what form) can the Monarchy absorb before it loses its identity, and begins to operate as a different system (ie, how resilient is this system)? And does the Monarchy have its own adaptive cycle? And during what periods might reform actually take root?

** Which recent Australian Prime Minister observed: “We face the spectre of a transactional world, devoid of principle, accountability and transparency?” I think this is a smart and incisive observation, so I am totally gobsmacked that it was uttered by PM Scott Morrison, the most unprincipled, unaccountable and secretive Australian Prime Minister in living memory.

Banner image: It’s only common cents – the Queen symbolizes certainty in an increasingly uncertain world. (Image by Alexander Lesnitsky from Pixabay)

On identity, complexity and a ‘little’ fossil fuel project off the West Australian coast

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By David Salt

Earlier this month I spotted a tweet that chilled my soul while neatly summing up the challenge of sustainability for our age.

Here it is:

In a nutshell it shows the CEO of a major fossil fuel company extolling the virtues of a massive new project, the Scarborough development, with a comment from one of the world’s top coral scientists describing it as ‘a crime against humanity’ (while asking the responsible politicians to respond appropriately).

One single development

We’ve discussed aspects of the Scarborough development (the biggest oil and gas development to be built in Australia in a decade, situated off the coast of Western Australia) a few times on Sustainability Bites (see Lies, damned lies and environmental economics). It’s worth repeating that an analysis by the company Climate Analytics found that the total emissions from the proposed Scarborough project will be just under 1.4 billion tonnes, three times Australia’s annual emissions! Think about that. Climate Analytics is under no illusion and points out this single project undermines the Paris Agreement (of which Australia is a signatory).

The Australian Conservation Foundation has calculated these emissions will result in 0.000394 degrees of additional global warming that will, among other things, accelerate the decline of the Great Barrier Reef (which may partly account for the coral scientist’s dismay at Woodside’s promotional tweet).

Is an extra 4 x 10,000ths of a degree significant? Keep in mind this is a single development which, by itself, has the capacity to create a measurable global temperature increase at a time when the world is already overheating. This summer has seen unprecedented droughts, storms, fires and floods across Asia, Europe and North America. At this time no-one has even attempted to calculate the economic impact of the carnage from this northern summer, let alone tally the lives lost. And this situation only promises to get worse as carbon emissions increase.

A boon for the economy

Despite the accelerating impacts from climate change being felt all around the world, Woodside’s CEO tells us (though more likely she’s really wanting her shareholders and politicians to hear this) that Scarborough will “deliver value for Woodside shareholders and significant long-term benefits locally and nationally, including thousands of jobs, taxation revenue and supply of gas to export and domestic markets for decades to come.”

I cynical paraphrase might read: “let this project proceed and shareholders will be richly rewarded by quarterly rises in share price; while the enabling government can claim ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’, regional development and a secure supply of energy well into the future (and definitely beyond your next election).”

The planet? Well, it may endure a little more heating but focus on the profits.

And humanity? Bits of it will do very nicely, thank you very much, from the increased economic activity. And those that don’t? Well, most of them don’t vote in Australia and they definitely aren’t shareholders in Woodside, so there’s nothing to worry about here.

In any event, the planet and humanity are not the focus of the CEO’s missive to the masses; she’s more worried about quarterly returns to shareholders.

The standard model

The standard explanation for this situation goes something like this: some people put the economy before all else and believe the ‘climate alarmists’ are overstating the problem. These people might even acknowledge the climate is becoming increasingly problematic but are confident that as the crisis grows we’ll make more of an effort to fix it, and science and technology will save us. These people think that radical action to reduce carbon emissions will cause deep and unjustifiable pain to the economy and everyone’s standard of living.

The other side (which includes most scientists) believe humanity is changing the Earth System in deep and unpleasant ways that will hurt everyone. We need to do something now. Enabling new fossil fuel developments is mad; some describe them as ‘crimes again humanity’.

Both sides think the other side is crazy, and many have stopped listening to anything coming out of the other side.

You might have your own variant on this ‘standard model’ of the sustainability challenge but I believe most people subscribe to some version of it: two sides/tribes, two sets of values/priorities, situation gets worse, both sides blame the other and after a while everyone stops listening to anyone outside of their own tribe. It’s simple and neat – my side right, your side wrong.

A more complex model

Now here’s a more nuanced explanation that uses a bit of complexity (resilience) theory. Each of the players/actors/groups in this situation are complex systems, and each has its own identity emerging from the structure, function and feedbacks that make up that system. Understanding the feedbacks is important to understanding the behaviours of these systems.

The politicians are very responsive to voter’s needs and the level of support received from party supporters (including lobbyists and political donations).

The fossil fuel companies are very responsive to changes to the quarterly returns on investment and shareholder sentiment.

The scientists are very responsive to changes in biophysical indicators of the many components that make up the Earth System, the respect of their peers and the papers they can publish.

And the voters just want to be able to pay their bills, have a little certainty in what tomorrow brings, and maybe have the occasional holiday.

These are interacting complex systems and expecting them to behave in simple rational ways doesn’t necessarily help us resolve the differences that emerge between them over time.

Pointing out that the other side is wrong may work well with your own tribe but it usually does nothing to change the behaviour of the other side.

However, understanding what’s central to the identity of the other side and working on the feedbacks that shore up that identity is much more likely to produce change.

If voters don’t believe the future is safe, if shareholders no longer trust their shares will yield dividends in the longer term, if politicians are only allowed to make fully accountable and transparent decisions, then the very identity of their systems change, as does its behaviour. Of course, changing these feedbacks is never easy.

Another thing about complex systems

Another thing about complex systems that’s very relevant to this discussion. They are non-linear. That means you can’t always predict how they’ll change based on how they have changed in the past. Sometimes big disturbances can hit your system and yet it can absorb them and its identity remains intact (the system is ‘resilient’). Other times, it will only take a small disturbance and the system’s identity collapses (unexpectedly and often quickly, does anyone remember the Soviet Empire?).

The Earth System itself is a good example of this non-linearity. The group of scientists who first proposed the idea of ‘planetary boundaries’ (Rockstrom et al, 2009) pointed out that the Earth System itself is a complex system that has considerable capacity to absorb disturbances (changing atmospheric concentrations, declining biodiversity etc) and still retain its identity. For the past 10,000 years, that identity has been one of a relatively stable climate that has enabled the rise of civilisation.

But this capacity to continually absorb disturbance has limits, sometimes referred to as thresholds. They proposed a set of planetary boundaries (possible thresholds) beyond which the stability of the Earth System could well be lost. They proposed nine planetary boundaries, most of which we have now transgressed.

In some ways, the scientists suggest, the complexity of the Earth System has lulled us into a false sense of security. All the change we’ve imposed on it (most of it in the last half century), has been absorbed by the Earth System and it continues to function in a way conducive for humanity. But, having crossed these planetary boundaries, we have exhausted the planet’s capacity to absorb further disturbance. Many now believe further incremental disturbance may change things drastically. Indeed, we may even be seeing this with the savage summer of 2022.

Which all serves to underscore how complex the challenge of sustainability can be. We are all complex units operating in complex groups within a complex Earth System. ‘Simply’ pointing out why the opposite side is wrong may score points with our side but does little to fix the problem. For that to happen we need a deeper engagement with the complexity in which we find ourselves, more reflection on what gives us (our tribe and our planet) our identity, and a greater respect for the things that impact on that identity.

Banner image: Civilisation rose during an epoch of climate stability. Now that stability is possibly breaking down. So far, our response to this possibility has been simplistic and ineffective. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the problem is complex. (Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay)

The perils of command and control and the pathology of Natural Resource Management

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By David Salt

As a younger man I honestly believed that sustainability was a tractable problem; a difficult challenge no doubt but one that was solvable with hard work coupled with science and technology. And, as a confident young thing, I thought I could contribute to this outcome by serving in the area of science communication and education; get more talented young people into science, and increase community acceptance of emerging technological solutions so they can be effectively implemented.

How might science and technology save us? By providing us with insights on the many problems being faced by humanity and the environment, and by helping humanity lighten its footprint on Planet Earth. Well, science has definitely provided ample insights on the plight of our planet, and technology has given us so many ways to be more efficient in how we do things.

For all that, however, we are moving away from being sustainable; indeed, we seem to be accelerating away from it. In the last half century, humanity has pushed the Earth system over several planetary boundaries, unleashed a sixth extinction event, and seems unable as a global community to do anything about greenhouse gas emissions which are remorselessly on the increase (as a by-product of our addiction to economic growth).

Science and technology has underpinned so much of our wealth creation and economic activity, and many techno-boosters are fervent in their belief that science and technology is the solution to the many problems facing our environment (indeed, I heard Australia’s Chief Scientist say this exact thing on the radio this morning, as I write.)

As I grew older and watched the natural world decline around me (on a number of scales; think of weed infestation in your local bush reserve, glacial retreat or the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef), my enthusiasm for (and faith in) science and technology also declined. I could see the potential of all these new discoveries (think renewable energy, nanotech and biotech as examples) but could never see where the outcomes were creating a more sustainable future. For example, for every 10% improvement in efficiency in process X, we seemed to see 100% increase in people using that process resulting in more waste, more consumption and more damage (albeit less impact per capita, see the Rebound Effect for a discussion on this).

The dangers of partial solutions

It’s not that I’m anti science and technology and I do believe increasing efficiency is important. However, by themselves they are not enough.

Then I was asked to write a couple of books on resilience science (Resilience Thinking and Resilience Practice) and my doubts on the belief that ‘science and technology is the solution’ crystallised into a new way of looking at the world. The experience of writing about resilience opened my eyes to ideas of complexity, and the capacity of a complex systems to absorb disturbance and retain their identity (the definition of resilience). The consequences of these ideas are deep and far reaching. In a range of different ways, I’ve been attempting to articulate them in my stories for Sustainability Bites.

One major consequence of acknowledging the complexity around us is to be aware of the cost of partial solutions sold to us as complete answers. Science and technology (and endlessly increasing efficiency) are not only not enough to move us to being sustainable, an exclusive reliance on them (and belief in them, think ‘technology not taxes’) will actually reduce resilience in the systems we depend upon and make us more vulnerable to disturbance.

There are many lines of evidence supporting this contention (see Resilience Thinking and Resilience Practice) but in the space I have here I’d like to discuss how natural resource management agencies decline over time. Improving science and technology (and efficiency) is often touted as the solution but only fuels this decline. This discussion is based on a landmark paper by CS Holling (one of the founding fathers of resilience thinking) and Gary Meffe, written a quarter of a century ago: Command and Control and the Pathology of Natural Resource Management.

The command-and-control pathology

Holling and Meffe point out that when command and control is applied in natural resource management, the initial phase is nearly always quite successful. Insect pests are reduced by pesticide use; fishing and hunting are enhanced by stocking or predator removal; forest fires are suppressed for years; floods are minimized by levees and dams.

But what follows on these initial successes is rarely acknowledged. The agencies responsible for management shift their attention from the original social or economic purpose towards increasing efficiency and a reduction in costs. (Of course, all agencies/companies do this over time not just NRN agencies. It’s a pattern well described in the idea of ‘adaptive cycles’ first proposed by Holling.)

NRM agencies search for better and more efficient ways to kill insects, eliminate wolves, rear hatchery fish, detect and extinguish fires, or control flows. Priorities thus shift from research and monitoring (why ‘waste’ money studying and monitoring apparent success?) to internal agency goals of cost efficiency and institutional survival.

Holling and Meffe contend that as this happens, there is a growing isolation of agency personnel from the systems being managed and insensitivity to public signals of concern. They describe this as institutional myopia and increased rigidity (again, something well described by the theory of adaptive cycles).

At the same time, economic activities exploiting the resource benefit from success (of more fish, or water or whatever) and expand in the short term. We see greater capital investment in activities such as agricultural production, pulp mills, suburban development, and fishing and hunting. There’s nothing wrong with this, they say, within limits.

But the result is increasing dependency on continued success in controlling nature while, unknown to most, nature itself is losing resilience and increasing the likelihood of unexpected events and eventual system failure. When natural systems are ‘controlled’ they invariably lose their natural diversity and processes, which leads to a declining ability to absorb disturbance (while maintaining its identity).

With dependency comes denial and demands by economic interests to keep and expand subsidies, and pressure for further command and control.

So, the initial successes of command and control come with a costs that are usually never acknowledged. Command and control reduces natural variation and erodes resilience, environmental managers aim for efficiency rather than connection with the system they are managing, and economic interests that benefit from original command and control distort the system to maintain it. The composite result is increasingly less resilient and more vulnerable ecosystems, more myopic and rigid institutions, and more dependent and selfish economic interests all attempting to maintain short-term success.

Holling and Meffe point out that solutions to this pathology cannot come from further command and control (for example, stronger regulations) but must come from innovative approaches involving incentives leading to more resilient ecosystems, more flexible agencies, more self-reliant industries, and a more knowledgeable citizenry.

Back in the ‘real world’, you’ll largely hear our political leaders deny the complexity of this and simply say science and technology will save us. Unfortunately, in a complex world, simple solutions have a habit of only making the situation worse.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love science and technology. However, by themselves, they are not the solution. To contribute to a sustainable world, they need to work with complexity, not subjugate it.

Banner image: Dams are an important piece of human infrastructure offering many valuable short-term benefits by controlling our rivers. In the longer term they come with a range of often unacknowledged costs. They reduce the natural variability of the river; they encourage human settlement in areas subject to flooding; and allow food production in areas that normally wouldn’t support agriculture. Over time, the agencies managing the dam become myopic and rigid, the economic sectors depending on the dam become increasingly reliant and selfish, and the river system becomes increasingly vulnerable to disturbances. (Image by David Salt)

The myth of the optimal state: adaptive cycles and the birth of resilience thinking

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By David Salt

Being sustainable, is tough. So far, we (as in humanity) are failing at the task miserably. My contention is that a big part of the problem is our inability to deal with the complexity of the systems around us, that we are a part of. Rather than acknowledging this complexity, we impose framings on these systems treating them as simple. (I discussed these ideas in complicated vs complex.)

Command and control

Simple systems can be managed and controlled, and held in an optimal state for as long as needed. Complex systems, on the other hand, self-organise around our efforts to control them. They can’t be held in an optimal state.

The notion of an ‘optimal sustainable yield’ was a widespread idea in natural resource management last century. The belief was that if you knew a little about what drives a natural resource (say reproductive capacity in fish stocks or forest trees), you could harvest that system removing an optimal amount of that resource forever as it would always replace itself. It’s a command-and-control approach that left countless collapsed fisheries and degraded landscapes in its wake.

‘Command and control’ involves controlling aspects of a system to derive an optimized return. The belief is that it’s possible to hold a system in a ‘sustainable optimal state’.

However, it’s not how the world actually works. Yes, we can regulate portions of the system, and in so doing increase the return from that portion over a short time frame, but we can’t do this in isolation of the rest of the system. If we hold some part of the system constant, the system adapts around our changes, and frequently loses resilience in the process (ie, loses the capacity to recover from a disturbance).

While we can hold parts of the system in a certain condition, the broader system is beyond our command. Indeed, no one is in control; this is a key aspect of complex adaptive systems.

Resilience thinking is an alternate approach to working with these systems, an approach that places their complexity front and centre. And the origins of this approach are entwined with an early realisation that a command-and-control approach to harvesting natural systems will always strike problems eventually. (The following example is based on a discussion that appears in the book Resilience Thinking.)

Of budworms and social-ecological systems

Spruce fir forests grow across large areas of North America, from Manitoba to Nova Scotia and into northern New England. They are the base of a highly valuable forestry industry.

Among the forests’ many inhabitants is the spruce budworm, a moth whose larvae eat the new green needles on coniferous trees. Every 40 to 120 years, populations of spruce budworm explode, killing off up to 80% of the spruce firs.

Following World War II, a campaign to control spruce budworm became one of the first huge efforts to regulate a natural resource using pesticide spraying (thanks in part to new technologies emerging from the war).

Initially, the pest control proved a very effective strategy, but like so many efforts in natural resource management that are based on optimizing production, it soon ran into problems.

In a young forest, leaf/needle density is low, and though budworms are eating leaves and growing in numbers, their predators (birds and other insects) are easily able to find them and keep them in check. As the forest matures and leaf density increases the budworms are harder to find and the predators’ search efficiency drops until it eventually passes a threshold where the budworms break free of predator control, and an outbreak occurs.

While the moderate spraying regime avoided outbreaks of budworms, it allowed the whole forest (as distinct from individual patches) to mature until all of it was in an outbreak mode. Outbreaks over a much greater area were only held in check by constant spraying (which was both expensive and spread the problem).

The early success of this approach increased the industry’s dependence on the spraying program, intensified logging and spawned the growth of more pulp mills.

Now there was a critical mass of tree foliage and budworms. The whole system was primed for a catastrophic explosion in pest numbers. The managers in this system were becoming locked into using ever increasing amounts of pesticide because the industry wouldn’t be able to cope with the shock of a massive pest outbreak. The industry had little resilience, and yet the continued use of chemicals was only making the problem worse. They had created a resource-management pathology.

Adaptive cycles

The industry acknowledged the looming crisis and engaged ecologists (including CS ‘Buzz’ Holling) to see how they might tackle the problem from a systems perspective. In 1973, Holling proposed a new analysis of the dynamics of the fir forests, one based on what he described as ‘adaptive cycles’.

Forest regions exist as a patchwork of various stages of development. The cycle for any one patch begins in the rapid growth phase, when the forest is young. The patch then proceeds through to maturity, and eventually, following some 40 to 120 years of stable and predictable growth (referred to as the ‘conservation phase’), the cycle tips into the release phase. The larvae outstrip the ability of the birds to control them, larvae numbers explode, and the majority of forest trees in that patch are killed. Their rapid demise opens up new opportunities for plants to grow, and during the reorganization phase the forest ecosystem begins to re-establish itself. The cycle then repeats.

With this understanding of the cycle and the key changing variables that drive the system, the forest managers were able to fundamentally modify the manner of their pest control. Rather than continually using low doses of pesticide over wide areas they switched to larger doses applied less frequently at strategic times over smaller areas. They re-established a patchy pattern of forest areas in various stages of growth and development rather than keeping wide areas of forest primed for a pest outbreak.

The forest industry also changed through the process, moving to regional leadership with a greater awareness of the ecological cycles that underpinned the forest’s productivity.

From budworms to resilience thinking

The case study of the spruce budworm and the fir forest is important on many levels as it was in part the genesis of what has become resilience thinking. During his investigations, Holling proposed that the key to sustainability was an ecosystem’s capacity to recover after a disturbance, not the ability to hold it in a notional optimal state.

He also recognized that the ecosystem and the social system had to be viewed together rather than analyzed independently, and that both went through cycles of adaptation to their changing environments. Adaptive cycles don’t just happen in nature, they happen in communities, businesses and nations, it’s feature of complex adaptive systems.

His proposal catalyzed the thinking of ecologists and researchers (with an interest in systems) all over the world because similar patterns were being identified everywhere social-ecological systems were being studied.

One key insight that grew out of an understanding of adaptive cycles is that bringing about change/reform in a social-ecological system is always difficult. However, windows of opportunity do open when a system goes into a release phase, although the window doesn’t open for long. You need to be prepared to seize the opportunity while it’s there.

A basic lesson I draw from the notion of adaptive cycles is that systems get locked into themselves over time and become rigid. There’s no such thing as a sustainable optimal state because even if the system is managed into a condition deemed desirable, it then progressively loses its capacity to learn, innovate or keep its flexibility (often in the name of efficiency). Efficiency is important but is never the complete answer. Efficiency is not the key to sustainability.

Over the decades since Holling first described adaptive cycles, the models and the thinking associated with managing for resilience has gone through much refinement but the two core ideas remain at its heart: the fact that social-ecological systems constantly move through adaptive cycles over many linked scales, and that they can exist in different stable states. I’ll discuss this second building block in my next blog.

Banner image: Spruce fir forests provide valuable timber. However, efforts to optimise these systems last century with the widespread application of pesticide almost destroyed the industry. Uncovering what was going wrong became the origins of resilience thinking. (Image by Reijo Telaranta from Pixabay.)

Thinking resilience – navigating a complex world

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By David Salt

Our world seems to be coming unstuck at the moment. Climate fuelled weather extremes – floods, droughts, heatwaves and fires – are crippling large parts of humanity. Many people are grappling for answers; What do we do? Why haven’t we already done something about this? It’s not like we haven’t been warned (repeatedly and with comprehensive detail by our climate scientists and others).

I believe many of your problems lie in our inability to deal with the complexity of the world around us (my last two blogs discussed this very thing – we can’t fix this because it’s complex and complicated vs complex). One way of better appreciating that complexity and navigating a way through lies in the area of resilience thinking.

The word ‘resilience’

The word ‘resilience’ is now common in many vision and mission statements. But ask the people who use these statements what they think it means and you get a range of different answers, most of which relate to how something or someone copes with a shock or a disturbance.

Concepts of resilience are used in all sorts of disciplines, but it has four main origins – psycho-social, ecological, disaster relief (and military), and engineering.

Psychologists have long recognised marked differences in the resilience of individuals confronted with traumatic and disastrous circumstances. Considerable research has gone into trying to understand how individuals and societies can gain and lose resilience.

Ecologists have tended to describe resilience in two ways; one focused on the speed of return following a disturbance, the other focused on whether or not the ‘system’ can recover. People engaging with resilience from the perspective of disaster relief or in a military arena incorporate both aspects (ie, speed and ability to recover). Indeed, there is a lot of commonality in the understanding of resilience in the three areas of psychology, ecology and disaster relief.

In engineering the take on resilience is somewhat different. Indeed, engineers more commonly use the term ‘robustness’ with a connotation of designed resilience. It differs from the other three uses in that it assumes that the kinds of disturbances and shocks are known and the system being built is designed to be robust in the face of these shocks.

Resilience thinking

The ‘resilience’ that is being invoked in vision and mission statements relating to Australia’s environment is largely based on the idea of ecological resilience, and it’s all about the ability to recover.

The science underpinning our understanding of ecological resilience is often referred to as resilience thinking. The definition of resilience here is: the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize so as to retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks – to have the same identity. Put more simply, resilience is the ability to cope with shocks and keep functioning in much the same kind of way. 

A key word in this definition is ‘identity’. It emerged independently in ecological and psycho-social studies, and it is both important and useful because it imparts the idea that a person, a society, an ecosystem or a social-ecological system can all exhibit quite a lot of variation, be subjected to disturbance and cope, without changing their ‘identity’ – without becoming something else.

The essence of resilience thinking is that the systems we are dealing with are complex adaptive systems. These systems have the capacity to self-organise around change but there are limits to a system’s self-organising capacity. Push a system too much and it changes its identity; it is said to have crossed a threshold.

The systems around us that we depend on (and are embedded in) are linked systems with social, economic and bio-physical domains, operating over multiple scales. To understand what enables these complex systems to retain their identity, what keeps them resilient, we need to appreciate the linkages between these domains and scales. We also need to understand how the system is behaving within each domain and scale, because over time these components go through their own cycles (known as adaptive cycles) in which the capacity for change (and the ability to hang on to their identity) shifts.

Many ideas, many insights

Resilience thinking involves all these ideas. It is the capacity to envisage your system as a self-organising system with thresholds, linked domains and cycles.

Each of these ideas take a bit of explaining, something I’ll attempt in upcoming blogs (for a good guide, see Resilience Practice*). However, when you begin engaging with ideas relating to a system’s resilience, you begin to appreciate the world in a different way.

Some of those insights have been for me that no-one is in control, and you can’t understand a system by understanding the components that make it up – complex systems have emergent properties (for example, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts).

We also need to appreciate that the narrower concept of ‘efficiency’ – ie, holding a part of our system in a state that delivers optimal returns (eg, food or fibre) without considering interactions with other domains or scales – leads to a loss of resilience, making it less likely that these systems will continue to deliver into the future. Efficiency is important but, by itself, it is not the solution to the challenge of sustainability.

We live in a complex world facing enormous challenges. Too much of our efforts so far have been directed to command-and-control approaches, techno solutions and improving efficiency. If the problems we were dealing with were simple and tractable, such approaches would work well. Unfortunately, our current approaches to sustainability are not working at all, and the problem is growing significantly.

Could it be we’re trying to solve the wrong problem? We’re managing a complex world as if it were a simple system.

*Walker B & D Salt (2012). Resilience Practice: Building Capacity to Absorb Disturbance and Maintain Function. Island Press. Washington.

Banner image: Forests begin their recovery after Australia’s Black Summer of 2019/2020. (Image by David Salt)

Solving sustainability – It’s complicated AND complex. Do you know the difference?

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What is it about the challenge of climate change that makes it so difficult to solve?

Clearly, it’s a complicated problem involving many interacting components. These interacting parts include the Earth system (and its billions of components), people (you and me), states and countries; organisations and institutions; unknowns; tradeoffs; winners and losers. We’ve spent decades of effort addressing this issue – including billions of dollars on research – and yet the problem of mounting levels of carbon emissions and accelerating environmental decline only seems to get worse. (Have you seen what’s happening in the northern hemisphere at the moment? And it’s only spring!)

Clearly, climate change is a big and complicated problem but it seems to me, having watched us deal with this challenge (and fail) over many years, what we’re not acknowledging is that it’s also a complex problem, and we’re not dealing with this complexity very well.

‘Complicated’ and ‘complex’ are words often used interchangeably but they are fundamentally different ideas. Do you know the difference? I’ll confess that for most of my life I didn’t.

So, what is complexity?

Complex systems scientists have been attempting to pin down what complexity is for decades. To me, most of their definitions are highly technical and only understandable by other complex systems scientists.

Here’s one commonly used definition set out by the famous evolutionary biologist Simon Levin in 1998 that encapsulates many of the ideas floating around complexity. It’s relatively short and sets out three criteria for defining a complex adaptive system. Complex adaptive systems have:

-components that are independent and interacting;

-there is some selection process at work on those components (and on the results of local interactions); and

-variation and novelty are constantly being added to the system (through components changing over time or new ones coming in).

Sounds straightforward but what does it mean and why is it important? Here’s how I attempted explain it in the book Resilience Thinking*.

Cogworld vs Bugworld

Consider these two situations: Cogworld and Bugworld.

Everything in Cogworld is made of interconnected cogs; big cogs are driven by smaller cogs that are in turn driven by tiny cogs. The size and behavior of the cogs doesn’t change over time, and if you were to change the speed of the cogs of any size there is a proportionate change in speed of other connected cogs.

Because this system consists of many connected parts some would describe it as being complicated. Indeed it is, but because the components never change and the manner in which the system responds to the external environment is linear and predictable, it is not complex. Really, it is just a more complicated version of a simple system, like a bicycle with multiple gears.

Bugworld is quite different. It’s populated by lots of bugs. The bugs interact with each other and the overall performance of Bugworld depends on these interactions. But some sub-groups of bugs are only loosely connected to other sub-groups of bugs. Bugs can make and break connections with other bugs, and unlike the cogs in Cogworld, the bugs reproduce and each generation of bugs come with subtle variations in size or differences in behavior. Because there is lots of variation, different bugs or subgroups of bugs respond in different ways as conditions change. As the world changes some of the subgroups of bugs ‘perform’ better than other subgroups, and the whole system is modified over time. This system is self-organizing.

Unlike Cogworld, Bugworld is not a simple system but a complex adaptive system in which it’s impossible to predict the emergent behavior of the system by understanding separately its component subgroups. It meets the three criteria outlined by Levin: it has components that are independent and interacting; there is some selection process at work on those components; and variation and novelty are constantly being added to the system.

Complicated vs Complex

In Cogworld there is a direct effect of a change in one cog, but it doesn’t lead to secondary feedbacks. The cogs that make up Cogworld interact but they are not independent, and the system can’t adapt to a changing world. Cogworld might function very ‘efficiently’ over one or even a range of ‘settings’ but it can only respond to change in one way – that is working all together. If the external conditions change so that Cogworld no longer works very well – the relative speeds of the big and little cogs don’t suit its new environment – there’s nothing Cogworld can do.

In Bugworld the system adapts as the world changes. There are secondary feedbacks – secondary effects of an initial direct change. The bugs of Bugworld are independent of each other though they do interact (strongly – though not all bugs interact with all other bugs).

In our Bugworld, if we attempted to manage a few of the subgroups – eg, hold them in some constant state to ‘optimise’ their performance – we need to be mindful that this will cause the surrounding subgroups to adapt around this intervention, possibly changing the performance of the whole system.

Ecosystems, economies, organisms and even our brains are all complex adaptive systems. We often manage parts of them as if they were simple systems (as if they were component cogs from Cogworld) when in fact the greater system will change in response to our management, often producing a raft of secondary feedback effects that sometimes bring with them unwelcome surprises.

The real world is a complex adaptive system. It is more like Bugworld than Cogworld and yet it seems most of our management, policy and leadership is based on a Cogworld metaphor.

The consequences of complexity

Complex adaptative systems are self-organizing systems with emergent properties. No-one is in control and there is no optimal sustainable state that it can be held in. These are just two of the consequences that fall out when you begin to appreciate what complexity is all about, and they are pretty important consequences if you reflect on it.

Our political leaders will tell you they are in control, and that they have a plan, a simple solution that solves the problem of climate change without anyone having to change the way they do things. This is the message that Australians have been hearing for the past decade from our (recently defeated) conservative government. But we grew skeptical of these claims as we saw our coral reefs bleach and our forest biomes burn.

Why is climate change so difficult to solve? Yes, it’s complicated with many interacting components. However, more importantly, it’s complex and complexity is something humans don’t deal with well (let alone understand).

As one piece of evidence on this, consider how we think about thinking. What’s the image that immediately comes to your mind? For most people it’s a set of mechanistic cogs encased in a head (like in our banner image this week). If you thought my ‘Cogworld’ was fanciful, how many times have you seen this representation of human thinking as mechanistic clockwork without questioning it. Because what you’re seeing is a representation of a complex system (you thinking) as a non-complex simple system (a set of cogs). The ‘cogmind’ is a fundamentally disabling metaphor.

And if you scale this up to the systems around us, how many times have you accepted that someone is in control, and that the answer is in just making the world a bit more efficient, a bit more optimal? How is that going for us at the moment?

Different priorities

If, however, we are living in a complex world, then maybe we should stop looking for the illusory optimal solution and start dealing the complexity in which we are all embedded. How is that done?

One set of ideas I have found helpful lies in resilience thinking. Rather than prioritising efficiency, command-and-control, reductionism and optimisation, resilience thinking encourages reflection, humility and co-operation, aspects on which I’ll expand in my next blog on complexity.

*Two decades ago I was asked by a group called the Resilience Alliance to write a book on resilience science. That book, co-authored with Brian Walker, one of the world’s leading authorities on resilience science, became the text Resilience Thinking. As I learnt about resilience science I discovered that it was all about dealing with complexity, an insight that transformed the way I understood the world.

Banner image: If you thought my ‘Cogworld’ was fanciful, how many times have you seen this representation of human thinking as mechanistic clockwork without questioning it. (Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay)

Why can’t we fix this? Because it’s complex

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By David Salt

If you could go back in a time machine some 20 years, what would you tell a younger version of yourself about climate change and how the world has responded to it in the last two decades?

Back from the future

“Well, young David, you know how many people are talking about climate change; and how scientists are forecasting horror weather, ecosystem collapse and mass climate disruption if we do nothing about our carbon emissions? Well, guess what? I’m from your future, from 2022, and you know what we did? We did nothing!

“And the scientists were right. We’re now experiencing horror weather, ecosystem collapse and mass climate disruption.

“Of course, it’s unfair of me to say we did completely nothing. In the past two decades there’s been heaps of talk, research and many agreements signed. And many of us now have photovoltaics on our rooftops.

“The scientific consensus on climate change has only firmed since the year 2000, and there have been efforts in various places on ways of reducing carbon emissions.

“However, by and large, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane have steadily, remorselessly, built up. (In 2000 we were around 370 parts per million CO2, in 2022 we’re over 412 ppm, over a 14% increase.)

“Here are few ‘milestones’ that you might want to reflect on from the past two decades (that’s the next 20 years from where you’re standing).

“As you know, there had been multiple international scientific consensus reports on the biophysical reality of climate change, most notably the IPCC reports of 1990, 1995 and 2001. These set out the very clear case for the scientific basis of the changes happening to the Earth system and what this meant for us, but they were quite ‘sciency’, bloated with technical jargon and largely discounted by the politicians.

“Then, in 2006, the UK released the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. It was significant because it was the largest and most authoritative report of its kind setting out the dire consequences for civil society. It found that climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen, presenting a unique challenge for the world. The Review’s main conclusion was that the benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting.

“I’m telling you this, young David, because at this time (still six years in your future) it looked like all the political ducks were lining up for strong action on climate change.

“In 2007, Australia elected in a new government led by Kevin Rudd who declared that ‘climate change was the great moral challenge of our generation’ and proposed a comprehensive policy called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) that would put a cap on Australia’s carbon emissions. It would have placed Australia at the vanguard of global climate action.

“I have to say, young David, that up until this time I had begun to despair that any of our political leaders were going to do the right thing. And then Rudd stood up and said this was too important not to do something, we couldn’t abrogate our responsibility to future generations. I felt hope.

“But then the opposition conservative party decided to turn climate change into a divisive political battle, and the Greens said the CPRS wasn’t strong enough and voted against it… and the CPRS failed to pass through Parliament.

“And then Rudd said ‘Ah well, it’s too difficult to get through so we’ll park the CPRS and revisit it sometime down the line.’

“This moment is several years in your future, young David, but, mark my words, when you reach it your illusions that climate change is a tractable issue capable of being solved by good science and well-meaning people will be shattered. And it will be a significant moment in which you begin transforming into me, grumpy old David.

“Because you believed Rudd when he said this was the most important issue of our time. And you stopped believing him when he threw it to the side. (I note his party stopped believing in him after this, too.)

“And then I watched in horror as climate denialism started taking centre stage, populism trumped informed debate and the costs of acting were overhyped in order to prevent any meaningful action being taken. Stern’s mantra of ‘early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting’ were completely forgotten in the political shit storms that followed.

“And then the Great Barrier Reef started bleaching (2016), our forest biomes went up in flames (2019) and historic floods devastated the nation (2022). The most common adjective being rolled out in all these disaster stories is ‘unprecedented’ because the past is no longer a guide to what we can expect.

“In 2022 (the year in your future from which I return) the whole world is enduring ongoing climate catastrophes. India and Pakistan have just suffered their longest and most intense heat wave resulting in crop failures. Europe is reeling under the ‘unprecedented’ heat and the fires are expected soon. In the United States an ‘unprecedented’ drought is crippling the water supplies of their western cities. Many of our small island Pacific nations are facing an existential crisis as rising seawaters lap at their doors. And everyone everywhere is going a little bit crazy.

“And, young David, this is not ‘a new normal’. This is only the start of the warming that scientists were describing two decades (and more) ago, with some accuracy I might add. Yet still our political leaders allow today’s ‘sunk investments’ in fossil fuels to delay our actions.

“Oh, and speaking of investments, young David, one last thing before I’m back to the future; buy as much stock as you can in Apple and Facebook. But don’t tell anyone I told you, otherwise I’ll be in big trouble with the mechanic who runs the space-time continuum.”

It’s complex

So, what’s the point of this little thought exercise (above and beyond a reflection on my earlier poor investment choices)?

In recent weeks, Australia has been gripped by an energy crisis – not enough affordable energy to power the system at the beginning of a cold winter. Experts from across the energy spectrum have commented on the causes and solutions to this crisis, always noting they are complex and not quickly solved. In response, many people have accused the experts of obfuscating and hiding behind the idea of ‘complex’. Just tell us how to fix it, they cry.

But it’s true, I thought. It is complex. You can’t solve this energy crisis with simple and easy fixes. You increase energy supply here, and you throw out the system over there. Simple fixes to complex problems inevitably create bigger problems down the line or on the other side of the continent.

And the energy problem is only a small part of the bigger climate change issue, which is complex times complex. Greenhouse gas emissions are embedded in our energy, our food, our transport, in everything.

And yet, again, our political leaders tell us there is a simple solution, just vote for us. Anyone who acknowledges it is a complex problem with complex solution will be torn to shreds by the opposing party when they go for election. The costs to the present status quo (based on fossil fuel dependence) will outweigh calculations on future sustainability.

Stern’s claim that the “benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting” are valid, but completely lost in the complex world in which we live.

In some ways I’m feeling like it’s 2007 again. We have just elected a new government promising action on climate change and hopes are high. But I fear we’re still not engaging with the complexity of this challenge.

If I could turn back time, this is what I would be trying to tell our political leaders. Don’t treat climate change as a simple problem. It’s not. It’s complex. And complexity means you need to acknowledge connectivity between sectors, path dependency, non-linearity and threshold behaviour in key variables. All themes which I will discuss in up-coming blogs.

I titled this essay ‘Why can’t we fix this? Because it’s complex.’ Another way of framing that is encapsulated in the quote: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” (HL Mencken).

I believe climate change is a challenge that can be resolved, but only if we acknowledge that it really is a problem of complexity.

Banner image: Quick Young David, there’s not a moment to lose. The very future is at risk! (Image by Danny Springgay from Pixabay)

Bringing ‘the environment’ in from the cold

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By David Salt

‘The Environment’ is a tricky portfolio for any incoming minister.

The truth is, both major political parties are shy when it comes to campaigning on big environmental reform. Big reforms are very expensive, easily attacked (there are always lots of potential losers), difficult to implement in single terms of government and the implementing party doesn’t get rewarded at subsequent elections as there is rarely a large dividend for individual voters.

Consequently, the majors usually play a small target game when it comes to campaigning on the environment – say enough to suggest you’re concerned about the environment but don’t commit to too much. The aim is to differentiate yourself from the other team without raising the debate to such a level that people might start looking closely at what you’re actually proposing.

Consider how the outgoing conservative government campaigned on the environment when it was seeking to take government 9 years ago, and then how it performed. Back in 2013 the conservative party (the Liberal National Party, then in opposition) placed its focus on saving threatened species because the Labor Government was turning its conservation efforts towards a more holistic landscape focus.

Putting those plans into action

Back then Greg Hunt, the shadow minister for the environment, loudly trumpeted that his party would never turn its back on a threatened species, that his party would take positive action when it came to saving endangered animals. I remember him saying while Labor was happy to leave recovery plans up on the shelf, the conservatives would get those plans down and put them into action.

In many ways this suited the action orientated, anti-bureaucracy, managerial approach of the Abbott conservatives, in which they placed a tight focus on parts of the environmental challenge while ignoring the bigger picture.

As a campaign tactic it played well. It gave the conservatives a respectable fig leaf of environmental credibility; they hadn’t committed to too much; and it was different to Labor’s approach. When coupled with their intention to ‘axe the [carbon] tax’, deploy a green army and plant 20 million trees, the conservatives had an environmental strategy to bat away all probing questions. They went on to win that year’s election.

They didn’t win because of the brilliance of their environmental plan. That wasn’t the point; their plan was to neutralize the environmental debate at no net cost, enabling them to take up the fight to the Labor government on a number of other fronts.

Once in office they threw a few pennies towards threatened species research and management while gutting the environment department as a whole. They did their best to not talk about biodiversity conservation at all (the term literally slipped from view) while attempting to reduce the legal checks and balances surrounding development approvals that harmed biodiversity.

Nine years into their term of office and the pennies spent on threatened species research came to an end. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub was closed down despite the problem of threatened species only growing (in some cases accelerating).

While I’m talking about the last government, which has now left office, this is not ancient history. A couple of months ago, just before the election, the environment minister Sussan Ley scrapped the requirement for recovery plans for 176 threatened species and habitats. The move was quietly published by the environment department after the election was called in April. (Ms Ley made the decisions despite a government call for feedback receiving 6,701 responses, all disagreeing with the proposal.)

Book ends to a sad saga

While possibly a minor note in the symphony of neglect and vandalism that characterized the conservative government’s approach to the environment, the saga of recovery plans for threatened species is significant for two reasons.

First, it provides symbolic bookends to their nine years in office. They began in 2013 by trumpeting their superior management would see recovery plans put into action so real conservation outcomes would be realized. They finished in 2022, having gutted the environment department’s capacity to even produce recovery plans (recovery plans for many species were years overdue), by simply scrapping the requirement for those plans. It’s hard to get more cynical than this.

It’s also an important story because it shows how difficult it can be to campaign on the environment. People care about threatened species and habitats, but they vote on cost of living and perceptions on who is the strongest leader. The conservative’s campaign on threatened species was as cynical as it was hollow. It was cobbled together to provide the impression they were doing something on the environment, but they knew that when their approach was shown to be false the electorate would have moved on to focus on other issues.

In a sense they were right. The electorate still worries about threatened species but its attention has been grabbed by unprecedented wildfires, mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and floods. Accelerating environmental decline has become the new normal and the electorate has lost faith in the government’s ability to deal with it. The fact that Sussan Ley refused to release the latest State of the Environment Report (which was available months before the election) only heightened our concern.

Of course, the conservatives were defeated last month for a raft of reasons, with climate denialism, contempt for women, and a lack of integrity high on the list.

The Labor opposition played a small target campaign on many issues and especially on the environment. As things have turned out, it looks like this was a clever course to take. Having won office, however, what now?

Demoted to the environment

As the ashes begin to settle following their victory, the familiar game of ‘new government’ begins to play out. The broken defeated conservative party turns on itself; the new Labor government discovers the old government have left many nasty undisclosed secrets lurking in the books; and positions of power are divvied out.

One ‘surprising’ ministerial appointment was making Tania Plibersek the Minister for The Environment. Regarded by many as one of the new government’s star performers, Ms Plibersek had been the Shadow Minister for Education and was expected to keep this responsibility moving into government; indeed, it was her stated preference. Many media commentators suggested the switch to environment was a ‘demotion’.

As a ministerial posting, why would education be seen to be more important than the environment? To put it crudely, because the department of education commands more money as a policy area, and education probably influences more direct votes than the environment; and money and votes equals more power.

Personally, I’m delighted someone as talented and capable as Ms Plibersek has been given the responsibility for the environment, but the very framing of the position as ‘a demotion’ says a lot about how ‘the environment’ plays in politics. To coin an economic idea, the environment is too often seen as an externality to political life, it’s not part of the core business.

In from the cold

As an externality, the major parties will always be keen to downplay big environmental reform ideas because rocking the boat is simply unacceptable in a political campaign. (Witness the blowback from a price on carbon for the Gillard government.)

The solution is to bring the environment in from the cold, to connect it to the numbers that politicians see as central to what voters think is important.

One way of doing this is by developing environmental accounts that are incorporated into the economic national accounts that sit at the heart of so much political debate; to capture the environmental externality and bring it inside the tent.

Another way this might happen would be to have a trusted, transparent and independent office overseeing all development applications where there is an environmental impact.

How will we know that the environment has been brought in from the cold? We’ll know when the next ‘surprise ministerial posting’ to the environment is described as a promotion.

Banner image: Image by Eduardo Ruiz from Pixabay

In the war of the colour chart, where lies the colour of resilience?

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By David Salt

If you were trying to explain Australian politics to an outsider (an alien or an American, for example), you could do worse than falling back on a colour chart synthesis.

Australia has two major political sides, a red team and a blue team.

The red team is called Labor and supposedly places priority on workers and organisations that represent workers. Red might represent the colour of the blood that flows through the veins of the good honest wage earner.

The owners of the businesses that benefits from the toil of these honest workers believe the blood that flows in their veins is blue. Their political allegiance is to the idea of freedom and letting businesses and markets decide on priorities and that government should be kept small. They call themselves Liberals and their colour is blue.

But there are a couple of other teams we need to mention up front.

There’s also a party that claims its mandate is based on standing up for the people of regional Australia – farmers and miners on the whole – these are honest hard-working folk with strong roots in the soil. They’re a little red because they expect government to support them in the regions but more blue because they don’t like being told what to do. They call themselves the National Party, and I’m naming them ‘team brown’ after the dirt they toil over (even though their official colours are green and yellow).

Then there are the greens. No prizes for guessing what they stand for – it’s the environment. They want strong government regulation (or, as the blues and browns say, ‘pesky government interference’) on climate change, pollution and conservation. They are more aligned with the reds than the blues, and the browns largely hate them because they represent ‘government telling them what to do’.

Every three years Australians vote for someone in their region to represent them in our national government. These candidates largely come from the red or the blue team (though the blues have been in coalition with the browns for as long as anyone can remember) and Australia has always been ruled by the red team or the blue/brown team.

What else do you need to know? Well, you should be aware that all adult Australians have to vote (no discretion there) and that we have an independent organization that oversees the electoral process (the Australian Electoral Commission). This is important because Australians trust our electoral process and always accept the people’s verdict (I’m looking at you Mr Trump). Whenever the people choose the other side to govern, there is always a smooth transition of power. This is something the nation is very proud of.

Business as usual

Why am I telling you all this? Well, if you’re from another planet (or the US) you might be a little confused at how we’re responding to multiple environmental crises engulfing Australia (and the world).

Our coral reefs are bleaching, forest biomes are burning and low land communities are flooding. Climate change is exacting a horrible and growing toll on our nation (and the poor are copping it the worst), we have a very strong scientific consensus on what we need to do to address the problem (ie, reduce greenhouse emissions) yet our national government (which until last week was blue/brown) has been steadfast in its opposition to do anything about climate change. Many of its members are in strong denial that climate change is even real.

Whenever a proposal comes up to make a change to our economy to reduce greenhouse emissions, the government scares people about the cost of that change (without reflecting on the larger cost of not changing). This is exactly what happened at our last national election (in 2019, the same year of the Black Summer that scorched Australia’s eastern seaboard).

Over the last three years since then, our blue/brown government has done little about climate change while at the same time ignoring growing calls for an independent commission on integrity, turning its back on the pleas of our First Nations people for voice in our constitution, and largely ignoring cries from women everywhere for respect and agency.

Over the past six weeks the country has been dragged through an election campaign in which the blue/brown party claimed they should be re elected because the world was becoming too dangerous to trust anyone but them to lead us forward. It’s a powerful message that always favours the incumbent. They said they had a plan though few people knew what it was beyond keeping things the same.

The red party also they said they had a plan – a plan for change. But because they got beaten up at the last election over the cost of change, at this election the change they detailed was very small (a small-target campaign).

This left many people very depressed because both parties were saying the world was increasingly dangerous and that they had a plan, but both plans didn’t involve much change.

A new colour?

In many cities around Australia there were many people who normally voted blue who no longer trusted the blue party because they seemed to be ignoring growing calls for action on climate change and greater integrity in government. It seemed the blues were hostage to the demands of the right-wing conservative browns (the junior partners in government).

These disenchanted blue voters were reluctant to vote red but even more loathe to support the greens (often portrayed as fanatical and uncompromising in their zeal for environmental reform). However, they were damned if they were going to support the blues anymore.

Independent candidates (people with no specific colour preference) have long been a component of Australia’s political scene but they appear spasmodically and normally campaign on a limited range of issues in specific regions. They occasionally exert considerable influence when they hold the balance of power but they usually disappear after one or two terms. They normally get in because they have good grass-root connections with the communities they seek to represent.

In the lead up to our most recent election, however, something unprecedented occurred. High profile community-based independents stood for office in a range of blue seats in cities across Australia. They were almost all women with strong professional backgrounds, and would likely have been blue supporters in the past.

They became known as the teal independents, teal* being a shade lying between blue and green. And they proved phenomenally successful at the weekend’s elections knocking off some of the blue’s most high-profile candidates including the former treasurer (who had been touted as the next blue leader).

The colour of resilience is teal

Indeed, the ‘teal revolution’, as some have dubbed it, may go down in Australian political history as the day our political leaders finally heard the message resonating through the broader community: we want real action on climate change, and we want integrity in our political leadership. No more lies, denial and corruption; no more kow-towing to the fossil-fuel industry (listening to political donors rather than electors).

Though the counting still continues, it looks like Labor (the reds) will have a workable majority and can form government in its own right. However, they know they can’t ignore the broader community’s wishes on environmental reform and integrity. If they do they risk a similar revolt as with the teals (maybe a rufous rebellion). The Australian electorate now knows it can’t be ignored.

The blues, being overly influenced by the browns, thought they could ignore the wishes of electorate. They thought they could trounce the reds while laughing at the greens because they believed a sufficiently frightened public would shy away from change, stick with a status quo no matter how inadequate. The teals appeared as if from nowhere and proved them dead wrong.

Our now defeated former Prime Minister, a man without a moral compass and a prolific liar (according to his own party colleagues), often spoke about making Australia more resilient. By bowing to the browns he prevented meaningful change, and actually helped make the country less resilient. Perversely in terms of what he intended, his actions directly contributed to the rise of the teals and the destruction of his own party.

Resilience is all about changing as the world changes.

If resilience has a colour then it has to be teal.

*Teal is a cyan-green color. Its name comes from that of a bird — the Eurasian teal (Anas crecca) — which presents a similarly colored stripe on its head.

Banner image: The Eurasian teal (Anas crecca) from Mangaon, Raigad, Maharashtra, India. (Photograph by Shantanu Kuveskar. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)