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)

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)

The IPCC has left me hanging on the line – more detail is not making a difference

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After six goes you’d think they’d try something different

By David Salt

The way we communicate climate change is not working. This is not a new situation but it’s about time we acknowledged it.

The IPCC has just released its sixth report on climate change. Did you miss it? Probably not if you’re a scientist or you worry about the environment. For the rest of humanity, it sunk without a ripple; which is pretty amazing when most of the world seems to be dealing with unprecedented supercharged weather, floods and droughts.

The story in detail

Thirty years ago I was a science writer working at CSIRO Education. I was doing a story on the ‘greenhouse effect’, something associated with global warming, a phenomenon scientists were talking about but governments were largely ignoring.

I was speaking by phone with the Information Officer at CSIRO Atmospheric Research, a former climate scientist himself.

“So, this greenhouse effect describes what’s happening on our planet?” I put to Dr Smith [not his real name]. “The Earth’s atmosphere is trapping heat like a greenhouse, is that the story?”

“No, no, no!” Exclaimed Dr Smith. “The ‘greenhouse’ analogy is completely misapplied because it doesn’t capture what’s really happening. The Earth’s atmosphere is not like a greenhouse holding in warm air. What really happens is the Sun’s energy passes through the atmosphere, over two thirds of it, anyway, and is absorbed by the land and the oceans. It then gets re radiated in the form of invisible infrared light and…”

But I didn’t hear anymore. Unfortunately, our phone connection had cut out. I rang Dr Smith straight back but I couldn’t get through to him because his phone was engaged. I tried again five minutes later but it was still engaged. I kept trying again and again.

Thirty minutes later I got through. The reason his phone had been engaged was because he hadn’t noticed the line had dropped out. He’d kept on talking to me – for 30 minutes without interruption, never pausing for breath or checking to see if I was keeping up with him.

This is a true story but it’s also emblematic of the problem of scientists communicating complicated stories to non-scientists. They include all the details, they lecture rather than listen, and they don’t have much awareness of their audience or how the audience hears the information. They are frequently unaware that their message is even getting through.

Well, that was 30 years ago. Things have changed, right?

We know a hell of a lot more now, that’s for sure. But we’re still not doing anything about it.

Summer of the Greenhouse

The science of global warming was well understood by the 1970s. Data collected since the 1950s was showing that carbon dioxide levels were steadily on the increase. By the mid 70s, it was well established that the rising carbon dioxide was due to anthropogenic emissions (ie, humans were producing them).

The consequences of this were even being observed by the late 1980s. 1988 was the hottest and driest summer in history (at that point), and NASA’s Jim Hansen declared that the signal from climate change had emerged. He wrote: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

Indeed, the hot northern summer of 1988 has sometimes been called the ‘greenhouse summer’. It’s very appropriate then that this was the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came into being. Jointly established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the IPCC was created to review all aspects of climate change and its impacts, with a view to formulating realistic international responses to this global concern. The IPCC does not undertake scientific work itself but rather reports a consensus position.

In 1990 the IPCC published its first assessment report. It noted that greenhouse warming could result in ‘several degrees’ of warming by the middle of the following century.

More and more certain

In 1995 the IPCC released its second assessment report. Considerable progress had been made since the 1990 report in distinguishing between natural and anthropogenic influences on climate. The balance of evidence, it said, suggested a discernible human influence on global climate.

By the time of its third report, in 2001, the possibility had become a strong probability, and the rate of change was ‘without precedent for at least the last 10,000 years’. The ‘several degrees’ had become a precise band (somewhere between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius). This band of possible future warming became the basis for a mechanism to implement the Kyoto Protocol, ratified by 178 governments (though not the United States and initially not Australia either, though we came around in 2007 after a change of government).

The fourth assessment report, released in 2007, reported that anthropogenic harm was ‘already evident’ (though, as I already indicated, prominent climate scientists were actually claiming this back in the 80s).

2015 saw the fifth assessment report released. It basically said everything previous reports had said but with greater certainty and urgency. The IPCC pointed out that the longer we wait to reduce our emissions, the more expensive it will become. And it spelt all this out in a report coming in at over 2,000 pages long and citing 9,200 scientific publications.

The most detailed ever

Which brings us to the sixth and current assessment. It has 278 authors from 65 countries, cites over 18,000 references and is almost 3,000 pages long!! What does it say? I’m not sure. I haven’t had time even to read the 64 page summary for policymakers. I am interested, it’s just I’m not too fussed by the details. I accepted the basic story of ‘need for change’ over 20 years ago.

(Also, I got the gist of the assessment through comments I read on twitter, where brevity is the rule. And that gist is that climate change is real and now; the evidence is now overwhelming and unequivocal; cost of inaction is much bigger than doing something; everyone will suffer if we continue down the current path; and the window of opportunity is closing quickly.)

I’m more interested in the fact that such a detailed report can be so comprehensively ignored by pretty much most of the developed world, the section of humanity that has created this problem. News instead has been dominated by an actor slapping the face of comedian at the Oscars. (And in Australia, there’s also been much attention to historic floods destroying whole communities up and down the eastern seaboard. These reports often note the likely link to climate change and then revert to reporting efforts to put everything back just the way it was!)

The IPCC is like my Dr Smith. It’s feeding loads of climate detail down the phone to an audience that may not be there.

We don’t need more detail.

We do need more effective communication, greater engagement with more of the community, real policy integration and better leadership.

The next assessment report might want to consider that.

(I tried ringing them but their phone was engaged.)

Banner image: Monikas_Wunderwelt @ Pixabay

‘The Big Shift’ begins – sustainable development comes to Australia

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Environmental policy changes under the third Hawke government (1987-1990)

By Peter Burnett

This is another in our series on the environmental policies of previous Australian Governments.

The story so far: In the previous instalment in this series on environmental policy in Australia, we saw how the Hawke Government was elected in 1983 on the back of a wave of environmental concern surrounding the proposed Franklin Dam in Tasmania. Unfortunately, having stopped the dam, the Government lost its enthusiasm for the environment. But the wheel was turning …

In the lead-up to the 1987 election Hawke swung back to a fairly strong pro-environment stance. Environmental concerns were on the rise and, in return for Labor’s campaign commitments in relation to environmentally-significant areas such as Kakadu Stage II, the environment movement had advocated a vote for Labor.

Graham Richardson, a backbencher but nevertheless an influential party fixer, was instrumental in negotiating these commitments. After Labor won the election, Richardson’s reward was not just promotion to the ministry as Environment Minister, but the elevation of the environment portfolio to cabinet.

Suddenly the environment was back at the centre of policy-making.

What Now?

Labor implemented the promises it made about expanding Kakadu; it also protected some other very special places including the Wet Tropics forests and Shelburne Bay in North Queensland.

But this wasn’t where the action lay for policy nerds. The most interesting action was to be found inside the Cabinet.

The ‘environmental turn’ had been driven much more by politics than policy. Flushed with success and now a cabinet minister, Graeme Richardson pressed for more of what some insiders deprecatingly called ‘one-off forays’, or ‘icons’, interventions to protect prominent bits of the environment with high public appeal, without a larger vision or plan about how to care for the environment.

While this approach held the prospect of more political success, it also caused deep frustration on the part of ministers with economic portfolios.

Events intervened. While the Hawke Cabinet didn’t know it at the time, 1987 was the year in which (what I would call) ‘The Big Shift’ in environmental policy began.

Sustainable development: will it sink or swim?

In mid-1987 the United Nations published a report, Our Common Future, or Brundtland Report as it was known.

This was no ordinary report. On the back of a several environmental disasters including the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the Brundtland Report was grabbing headlines.

Brundtland put a new concept on the table, ‘sustainable development’, which it defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

The Environment Department advised Richardson to raise the Brundtland Report in Cabinet, but he rejected this idea.

The archives don’t reveal why, but my guess is that Richardson wanted to continue his ‘icons’ approach.

Politically, the ‘icons’ approach was simple and successful. ‘Sustainable Development’, on the other hand, was a nebulous policy idea. Why risk it?

Policy fights back

But if Richardson thought he could apply a little of Sir Humphrey’s ‘masterly inaction’, he’d underestimated the Clark Kent-like Primary Industries Minister John Kerin.

At the suggestion of the head of the mining lobby, Kerin read the Brundtland Report. He writes in his autobiography that he saw in Sustainable Development a possible way to reconcile competing arguments on environmental management and began promoting the idea.

But Kerin had also built up a head of steam. In his submission to Cabinet, he was highly critical of:

“eleventh hour ad hoc responses to proposals … minimal recognition of the multiple objectives involved in resource allocation decisions and a propensity for parties to seek “winner take all outcomes” without understanding economic, social or environmental consequences.”

Kerin persuaded Hawke and other ministers to send Richardson and himself away to develop options for rationalising and improving the policy framework for decisions on what was blandly described as ‘competing land uses’.

Surprisingly, Kerin didn’t actually suggest that the government endorse Sustainable Development per se. Instead, perhaps hoping to hoist Richardson on his own policy petard, he made sure that Cabinet directed that the two ministers take into account the policy principles embodied in the dormant Nature Conservation Strategy from 1984.

While this strategy pre-dated the Brundtland report, it took a Brundtland-like approach of pursuing both conservation and development as essential.

Working the policy through

The work was delegated to officials. It must have been hard going, because it took officials from the environment and economic departments 11 months to prepare a report for Cabinet, during which they identified no less than 47 objectives and principles to be applied in resolving conflicting land-use claims! (Admittedly the principles were divided into categories; eg, economic principles, conflict resolution principles.)

And it seems that 11 months of dialogue had exhausted everyone, because, rather than telling the public servants to whittle the 47 principles down to a manageable few, Cabinet endorsed the lot!

Things weren’t as bad as they looked though, because the three principles at the head of the list of 47 were given primacy by being endorsed as ‘notable’.

More than this, Cabinet agreed to establish the Resource Assessment Commission (RAC), an independent body which was to assess and report on major environment and development issues (but only if the government gave them a reference). And the three ‘notable’ principles were written into the RAC legislation.

So, round one in the fight for good policy went to Kerin and the economic ministers.

We now had a set of environmental policy principles and a body, headed by a judge, to report on major environment and development issues. (I’ll tell you what happened to the RAC another day.)

The principles

But what about the principles, I hear you say?

The first dealt with policy integration. Common sense really: consider conservation and development together, as early as possible.

The remaining two principles reflect the downsides of compromise.

The second principle was that there should be ‘benefit optimisation’, which seems like an attempt to graft environmental and equity considerations onto economic efficiency. But it takes the easy way out: while saying that decision-makers should look at all three factors (environment, society, economy), the principle gives no guidance as to how they can be reconciled to produce a single outcome.

The third principle, that in some cases both conservation and development can be accommodated concurrently or sequentially, and, in other cases, choices must be made between alternative uses, seems like weasel words to me, to play down the need to make hard decisions.

For example, the idea that a mine-site could be cleared of critical habitat and later returned to its previous condition without enduring loss, is wishful thinking. (Yet we can see that thinking in recent decisions that count site restoration as environmental offsets!)

The remaining 44 principles, never announced, included a number of existing principles, such as ‘polluter pays’ and some prosaic statements, for example that the costs of environmental consultation should be kept down.

The Big Shift begins

Despite all the hard work put into them, at the end of the day, this was a flawed set of principles. But they did mark a start, the start of ‘The Big Shift’ from an ad hoc protection of special places, to a systematic and integrated approach to environmental policy.

It’s ironic that this move was championed by the Minister for Agriculture, John Kerin, head of a ministry that has traditionally been focussed on production and not seen as a good friend to the environment, while at the same time the Environment Minister seemed disinterested in wider or deeper policy reform.

Top marks to John Kerin for a big effort.

Unfortunately, one attempt would not be enough. In fact, 35 years later, The Big Shift is by no means complete.

In many ways our environmental policy settings are just as ad hoc, opaque and reactive as they were in the late 1980s.

Banner image: Mossman Gorge, part of the Daintree National Park in Tropical North Queensland. The area was given World Heritage Status in the 1980s, a time in which there was considerable political reward for protecting iconic bits of nature. It was during these years that environmental policy began its big shift, moving towards a bigger picture on sustainable development. (Image by David Salt)

50 shades of green – what shade of sustainability do you practice?

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By David Salt

What does the idea of ‘sustainability’ mean to you?

Most people, including me, would like to believe they are being sustainable, that they are passing on a meaningful future to their children; and you can only do this if you’re being sustainable.

At the same time, most people are a bit cynical about the use and abuse of the term ‘sustainable’ as it seems to appear in the sales pitch for every good and service we use. Governments claim it’s a criterion for every policy they develop; businesses build it into every mission statement they produce and every NGO currently operating cites it as one of their goals.

It’s a buzzword; it’s greenwash; it’s ubiquitous, amorphous and infinitely malleable. Depending on your political persuasion, cultural background, religion or socio-economic status, sustainability is ‘one person’s meat or another person’s poison’.

And yet, for all its ubiquity, the idea of sustainability is one that most people only have a hazy notion about. For most people, it relates to being kind to the environment, responsible for our behavior, and maybe fair with the choices we make.

The truth is, there is no universally agreed objective definition of what the idea means; and that’s despite whole journals, libraries and uni departments being devoted to it. However, if you’re involved in any area of policy, management or science relating to sustainability – or if you claim to be living a sustainable life – then you owe it to yourself to at least have given the idea some thought and be prepared to defend your own notion of what it means.

The emergence of ‘sustainability’

The idea of ‘sustainability’ was first given international prominence at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (also known as the Stockholm Conference) in 1972. It’s 50 years old.

Over the following decade the idea was refined and developed into a process that governments might work with. This process was called sustainable development, and its principles were set out in report, commissioned by the UN, called Our Common Future. This was released 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”.

Over the quarter of a century that has followed the publication of Our Common Future, ideas on what ‘sustainability’ means have been explored, dissected, contested, deconstructed, rebuilt, trashed and/or reified. (For more detail on the major milestones along this road, see A (very) short history of sustainability.)

Broad or narrow? Weak or strong?

Some scholars, particularly in the early days, insisted that discussions on sustainability needed a tight focus on long-term ecological sustainability. What was it about the Earth system that sustains us? What is it that we can’t afford to ignore? Birds and bees, water and nutrient cycling, and photosynthesising plants are all essential for humans to exist. Should these things lie at the centre of any plan for sustainability? This narrower focus might be termed ‘environmental sustainability’.

Our Common Future coupled sustainability with the notion of development – sustainable development. The publication identified a much broader spectrum of issues to be covered by the concept, including political, social, economic, and cultural issues. This approach is sometimes referred to as ‘broad sustainability’.

And if the cloak of sustainability enfolds more than just the natural world, is it okay to substitute nature (natural capital) with human and social capital? Does it matter if natural vegetation cover is lost if we can replace it with a water treatment plant (which would replace the water filtering properties of natural vegetation)? Those that subscribed to this view, including ‘techno-optimists’, are described as supporting ‘weak’ sustainability.

Those that didn’t, including ‘deep ecologists’, believe that natural capital and other types of capital are complementary, but not interchangeable. You don’t replace a species lost with a machine that does the same function; these are not acceptable trade offs.

Let’s get personal

All this merely touches the surface of the ongoing debate on sustainability. What I hope to provoke here is a little introspection: What does sustainability mean to you? And What does sustainability mean for you?

For example, speaking for me:

I believe that ‘sustainability’ is a good thing. We should all be sustainable. It’d be a better world if we all were.

And what is it that I think ‘sustainability’ is? I believe it has something to do with meeting the needs of today without trashing the needs of tomorrow; pretty much the ‘standard’ take on it.

Am I sustainable?

I recycle plastic, have solar panels and solar hot water, have long been involved in environmental education, use rainwater in the garden where I can, minimise the use of chemicals in the garden, drive on old car, compost, encourage my family to minimise our resource use, have been active in habitat restoration, grow food, work with recycled building materials, support worthy causes and, where possible, try to be a responsible consumer.

I’m not the best or the worst when it comes to ‘being sustainable’. But am I being sustainable?

While I haven’t done embodied energy and water accounting on my household and lifestyle, I am confident I am using way more than I am generating. At the scale of ‘me’, I am not sustainable.

And I know that my country, Australia, has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any nation, and the world is rushing towards a climate apocalypse and that my government is in total denial about this (we also lead the world in species extinctions). So, at the scale of my country, I am not sustainable.

And the world is currently suffering climate event after climate event. Australia is seeing its coral reefs, forests and mangrove systems wither under climate extremes, while the planet is careering past multiple planetary thresholds. On top of this, the world’s richest people are getting obscenely rich while the world’s poorest are drowning as the seas rise. At the scale of my planet, I am not sustainable.

Am I kidding myself?

Given this, do I really think I’m moving towards sustainability?

If I do, it must be a form of broad and weak sustainability? I must think that the natural capital being remorselessly lost at an accelerating rate around me today will be replaced by human capital (smart technology) and social capital (smart human organisation) at some time in the future. And I must believe it will happen before irreversible ecological decline makes our planet unliveable (for humans).

And, if I truly believe this, I must be an extremely optimistic techno-idealogue (who doesn’t read the news and is unaware of the negative environmental trends around me). Unfortunately, I am not these things but I still believe ‘sustainability’ is an important idea that we all should subscribe to. There’s more than a little cognitive dissonance here.

Of course, I’m not completely responsible for my country’s failings on sustainability. I didn’t vote for the bastards currently in office. And how responsible am I for the world’s efforts? Which introduces two other shades of sustainability – bottom up and top down; think global, act local; look after my own backyard but try and influence the backyards around me; while trying to get our political representatives to implement sustainable policy (at national and international scales).

All of which only hints at the incredible complexity embodied in the idea of sustainability.

So, what’s your idea of sustainability?

How’s it going for you so far?

Banner image: geralt @ Pixabay

Blind faith in the future – the booming billionaire’s club

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The new space race is as unsustainable as it is unfair

By David Salt

Anthropologists in the 23rd Century struggled to make sense of the The Big Fall that had occurred some two hundred years earlier. So much of the human record had been lost. Clearly, as written in the physical record (tree rings, sediments, ice cores), there had been some form of climate catastrophe but the humans back then would have been aware of this, and their technology was strong, more powerful in many ways than the technology available to people after The Fall. Why then, didn’t they do something about it before it was too late?

Most peculiar, the anthropologists had found a series of massive rockets sitting silently on launch pads across a country once known as the United States. These weren’t weapons. They were launch vehicles but with minimal payloads. All they could do was carry a handful of people up into space for a short time before dropping back to Earth. In doing so, they emitted vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate crisis, but to what end? Was it simply to give a few people a higher view of what was already obvious – that the planet was at breaking point? It really was a mystery.

Coming back down to Earth

Who could blame future generations from wondering what the hell we were thinking in allowing a small group of the super rich to spend billions of dollars on the quest to get into space at a time that our planet was slipping towards serious and irreversible environmental decline.

Our coral reefs are bleaching, the forest biome is burning, the sea is rising, and biodiversity is crashing. Human suffering is growing and the young are starting to give up hope.

So, in these dire times, what do the planet’s richest men think is the most important thing to do with their amassed wealth – fire up a race for space, and develop their own private rocket companies.

The shameless super rich

And, maybe to underline the sheer perversity of their priorities, they are going about this contest in a completely shameless manner.

Richard Branson (billionaire no. 1) turns up to the launch pad on the day of lift off (of the his Virgin Galactic) on a push bike, underscoring the enormity of the feat he is about to undertake, and shining a nice light on his dependence on a mode of transport that doesn’t use fossil fuel. Except it was all a marketing exercise to promote a bike company doing a cross promotional deal with Virgin, something they confessed to several days later.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (billionaire no. 2), returns to Earth on his spacecraft the Blue Origin and immediately expressed his gratitude: “I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this,” he said. At first it was taken as a joke but everyone quickly realised he meant it; and he was then roundly criticised for the unsafe work conditions and low pay his Amazon employees have to endure.

Elon Musk (billionaire no. 3) set up a company SpaceX to develop his commercial space program. He purchased a large tract of land just off the Gulf of Mexico, close to the Texas border with Mexico, to build a launch pad and declared: “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool.” That proved fortunate as several test rockets blew themselves to smithereens. But it wasn’t ‘cool’ because that land ‘with nobody around’ was a mosaic of nature reserves and home to a plethora of vulnerable species. Many conservationists are appalled that these ‘protected’ areas are now being showered in broken rocket bits.

Are they just toying with us

Or, if you want to be completely cynical, you might see these acts of lying, worker exploitation and environmental destruction as deliberate acts of misdirection – be my guest, get angry at these lesser crimes of self-centred narcissism; just don’t start examining the bigger issues behind this private space race. Those bigger issues include the misuse of precious resources, resource use that exacerbates dangerous global change, and the appropriate governance of the mega rich.

According to Eloise Marais, a physical geographer at University College London, each rocket launch releases 200-300 tonnes of carbon dioxide (split between 4 or so passengers). For one long-haul plane flight it’s one to three tons of carbon dioxide per passenger.

Of course, there are many more plane flights than rocket launches but these early investments by the billionaire club are predicated on the belief that space tourism (and space industry in general) are about to take off big time so this mass release of carbon is only set to dramatically increase.

And it’s not just carbon that’s the problem. Space scientists in Australia recently identified stratospheric ozone depletion as a key environmental concern for space launches.

Of course, the billionaires claim this all about saving Earth, not burning it. Bezos, for example, said he hoped the flight would be the first step in a process that would eventually see environmentally-damaging industries relocated to other planets in order to protect Earth. He acknowledged it might take decades but you gotta start somewhere! I’m not sure we have decades, Jeff, so maybe we need another strategy to deal with those environmentally-damaging industries.

Maybe the biggest moral issue with billionaire’s space club is the sheer unfairness of it. The rich get richer on the benefits of ‘unbounded’ economic growth, and the poor get hit with the impacts generated by that growth. According to the UN, the world’s wealthiest 1% produce double the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50%! The wealthiest 5% alone – the so-called ‘polluter elite’ – contributed 37% of emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.

Well, the billionaire’s space club is the latest manifestation of the disconnection between the wealthy elite and the planet that supports them. Do they really think their wealth will insulate them from mass ecosystem collapse?

Back to the future

Our 23rd Century anthropologists have made an important discovery in their quest to understand the mystery of the ‘rockets of the billionaire club’. The answer, they say, lies in an earlier anthropological work by a scientist of that time named Jared Diamond. A book of his called Collapse has been recovered. This book examined the fall of earlier civilisations, and detailed the end days of the civilisation that once existed on remote Easter Island.

According to Diamond, the people of Easter Island built great stone god heads to ensure their ongoing prosperity. The construction of these god heads consumed enormous resources but their faith in them was strong, and they kept producing them.

As the Easter Islander civilisation grew they chopped down all the trees and, in so doing, lost the capacity to build canoes to fish for food. Society was at risk so what did they do, they started carving more stone god heads, even bigger ones. Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t work. Society collapsed, people starved, and their biggest stone god heads can still be found half carved from the cliffs from where they originated.

Of course, said the 23rd Century anthropologists. The rockets of the 21st Century are the same thing – acts of blind faith in the face of environmental collapse. My faith is strong, my God will protect me, and here is my technological monument to prove it.

In light of what they must have known about the planet at that time, what can we say from this, the anthropologists asked themselves? They were blinded by their mastery and their technology, they weren’t very reflective, and possibly they were idiots, they concluded.

Banner image: Stone god heads in the quarry on Easter Island. Some scholars believe these were being excavated at the time of societal collapse on the island. Are our billionaire’s rockets possible filling the same function? (Image by SoniaJane from Pixabay)

Administrative law: like the Curate’s egg, boring in parts, but environmentally useful nonetheless

By Peter Burnett

“Off with her head”, said the Queen of Hearts to Alice in Wonderland, when Alice couldn’t read the values of some face-down playing cards. The word of the Queen of Hearts was law. Not a good law, actually.

In the real world, ‘Bad King John’ of England (1166-1216) wanted his word to be law as well. While he might not have been quite so capricious as the Queen of Hearts, he was arbitrary and unjust enough to drive his barons to rebellion.

And that rebellion was settled by a set of rules called the Magna Carta in 1215.

While the Magna Carta is best known for establishing the mother of Parliaments and guaranteeing trial by jury (at least for ‘free men’), it also contained a number of guarantees against arbitrary action by the King and his officials — in other words, by government.

For example, King John guaranteed not to take anyone’s corn or chattels without payment and not to appoint incompetent or corrupt judges and officials.

As a result, the Magna Carta is also known for establishing the principle that government is not above the law and thus cannot behave in arbitrary and unjust ways.

This is the foundational principle of administrative law.

Now some believe ‘law’ is dry and boring, with the very mention of administrative law enough to send you to sleep.

I’m here to convince you that administrative law is far too important to be boring, though I will concede that it can be dry and tedious in the detail. In his book The Rule of Law, one of the great modern British judges, (Lord) Tom Bingham, gives the example par excellence of a tedious regulation:

    Any reference in these regulations to a regulation is a reference to a regulation contained in these regulations. (!!)

And administrative law certainly has failings, as we shall see.

What has this got to do with the environment?

How is this relevant to the environment?

Anyone who has followed environmental issues through the courts will know that many court cases concerning the environment turn not on environment-specific principles (such as precaution or intergenerational equity), but on general principles of administrative law.

One such principle is that decision-makers should not be biased, or even appear biased.

A recent, if extreme, example of an environmental case involving that principle concerned the proposed extension to New Acland Coal’s mine near Oakey, Queensland.

This case has a history of appeals and re-hearings too long to recount, but in brief, an environmental assessment was done and a draft approval issued. However, because there were objections raised, the case was referred to the Land Court of Queensland, which had the role of making non-binding recommendations to the Minister for Natural Resources.

The key point for our purposes is that when the case eventually reached the High Court, they sent it back to the Queensland Land Court for a third hearing. This unusual outcome was required because the first and second hearings were affected by the appearance of bias, rendering both hearings invalid.

In the first hearing, the judge had apparently been deeply offended by a newspaper article on the mine extension, raising the possibility that his subsequent decision to recommend against approving the development might have been biased by his taking offence, while the reasoning of the judge in the second hearing became ‘infected’ by the apprehended bias of the first because she adopted some of his findings (at the direction of one of the intermediate appeal courts).

The High Court’s decision was hailed by the Environmental Defender’s Office as a major victory, and in one sense it is. High standards of decision-making have been upheld.

Yet the case also highlights the process-heavy downside of administrative law. Even if the third hearing is finalised without further appeal, there will have been a total of seven court hearings and a decisional timeframe spanning nine years and counting.

And we still don’t know whether the mine will be approved!

Of course, this is grist to the mill to industry and politicians running a campaign against ‘lawfare and green tape’, but the delays are more due to poor regulatory design than to administrative law itself.

A new line of attack

One feature of administrative law is that although its substantive principles are relatively constant, governments provide new ways to apply those principles by passing a constant stream of new laws.

Take for example the current challenge by the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory (ECNT) to the $21 million grant by Minister for Resources Keith Pitt to Imperial Oil and Gas, to expedite gas exploration activities in the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory.

In the past, it has not been easy to bring legal challenges to government decisions to give money away. Some recent High Court decisions and federal legislation have changed this.

For example, since 2013, federal government grants must comply with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, which requires, among other things, that the minister making the grant be ‘satisfied, after making reasonable inquiries, that the expenditure would be a proper use of [public] money’.

A ‘proper’ use of money is defined in the Act as one that is ‘efficient, effective, economical and ethical’.

ECNT’s argument is that Minister Pitt committed an (administrative) error of law by failing to make enquiries about the climate risks associated with the development of the Beetaloo Basin, as well as the economic risks of that development as the world transitions to a zero carbon economy.

As far as I can tell this is the first time this line of attack has been used, although the Beechworth Lawn Tennis Club, which is challenging the ‘Sports Rorts’ grants made by the Australian Sports Commission, may well be using similar arguments. (Did I hear you mention ‘car parks’ as well?)

Boring in parts, but definitely useful

So, there you have it. While aspects of administrative law can be boring, overall it is far too useful in securing good environmental decisions to be ignored.

It does however have its problems, as the tortured and scandalously expensive chain of decisions in the New Acland Coal case show.

As a result, one of the challenges of environmental reform, beyond saving the environment of course, is to design decision-making processes that are not only fair and effective, but efficient as well.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The Fraser Government 1975-1982, greener than you might think

By Peter Burnett

Another in our series on environmental policy under Australian governments of the past.

I lived through the Fraser years. Because he was controversial, I have strong memories of how he was regarded, but on matters environmental my only immediate memory was that one of the reasons Fraser lost government was because he would not match Labor’s promise to stop the Franklin Dam in Tasmania. And yet, if you actually dig into his record, his government did get things done for the environment.

Dogged at the outset

Malcom Fraser was Prime Minister from 1975 till 1982. He was dogged by the controversy of how he came to the Prime Ministership, having collaborated with Governor-General Sir John Kerr in the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975.

This was especially true during his early years. People used to turn up wherever Fraser was, yelling ‘Shame, Fraser, Shame!’ After all, Whitlam had urged his followers to ‘Maintain Your Rage!’

Yet everything mellowed with time. Whitlam and Fraser even became firm friends, something that would have appeared inconceivable during the ‘maintain-your-rage’ period.

Fraser went on to develop a strong personal record on human rights, especially on Apartheid, and late in his life, he even endorsed Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for re-election, with the comment that she had been a ‘reasonable and fair-minded voice’!

And when I started researching Fraser’s environmental policies, I was more impressed than I expected to be.

Growing federal power on the environment

The Fraser Government came to power on a relatively bland platform of striking a balance between conservation and economic growth. It also made the specific commitment, which it did not deliver, to develop national pollution standards with the States. (These eventually came under the Keating government in the early 1990s.)

Its most prominent decisions were connected with major developments: the banning of sand mining on Fraser Island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef; allowing the Ranger uranium mine while establishing Kakadu National Park to surround it; and failing to stop the proposed Franklin dam in Tasmania.

Yet Fraser was also active in ratifying and implementing international conventions, including the Ramsar Convention on internationally significant wetlands, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; and the Japan Australia Migratory Bird Agreement.

On World Heritage, Fraser secured the listing of Australia’s first five properties: Wilandra Lakes in western NSW, Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef, Lord Howe Island and the Tasmanian Wilderness.

Fraser also carried through on several major Whitlam Government reforms, despite the rancour of the Dismissal. He developed the Register of the National Estate and signed the Emerald Agreement with Queensland to provide for cooperative management of the Great Barrier Reef.

But back to development projects. In 1976, following an Inquiry, the Government decided to block sand mining on Fraser Island and to list the island on the Register of the National Estate. Lacking the constitutional power to block mining directly, it did so by refusing to grant an export permit, a decision which it then defended successfully in the High Court.

Constitutionally, this was a very significant decision, as it would confirm the Commonwealth’s ability to insert itself into many areas of traditional state responsibility, including the environment.

In 1977, this time following two Inquiries, the Fraser Government decided to allow uranium mining in the Northern Territory, but subject to extensive safeguards, including a dedicated statutory monitoring regime, due to the sensitive location of the Ranger mine within an area subsequently established as the Kakadu National Park. (Despite being located in the middle of the area concerned, the mine and its access road were excised from the area declared as national park. Over 40 years later, the Ranger uranium mine is only now closing.)

This might be regarded as an example of the ‘striking a balance’ platform on which the government was elected; mining was permitted but the National Park was created and the potential impacts of the mine on the park were regulated by special regime.

A dam in Tasmania

In the dying days of the Fraser Government, one environmental issue, the Tasmanian Government’s decision to build the Gordon below Franklin dam, would come to dominate the political discourse.

The Federal Government opposed the dam, but, despite the precedent of Fraser Island, regarded legislative intervention as a bridge too far. So, instead, Fraser offered Tasmania $500 million not to proceed with the dam, but the offer was rejected.

Despite acknowledging that it may have the legal power to stop the dam, the government argued that its World Heritage obligations did not require it to override responsibilities that it thought properly resided with the States. It would thus fall to the new Hawke government to stop the dam (something I’ll discuss in a future instalment).

The World Conservation Strategy

The Fraser Government also deserves to be remembered for its work on conservation policy.

The United Nations had adopted the World Conservation Strategy (WCS) in 1980. Fraser later announced that all Australian governments had adopted one of its principal recommendations, that every country should prepare its own National Conservation Strategy.

This was a significant initiative, not only because it initiated Australia’s first national statement on environmental policy objectives, but also because the government’s intention was that the national policy conform to the principal objectives of the WCS, which were visionary: maintaining essential ecological processes and life support systems; preserving genetic diversity, and ensuring ‘sustainable utilisation’ of species and ecosystems.

In fact, this concept of sustainable utilisation anticipated the concept of ‘sustainable development’ by seven years.

With the Fraser government losing office before the strategy, the strategy passed to the incoming Hawke government as unfinished business (again, more on this in my next instalment).

How green was the Fraser Government?

Although they couldn’t bring themselves to stop the Franklin Dam by legislation, the Fraser government presided over an active environment agenda and a significant expansion of the federal environmental role. They were particularly strong on World Heritage and got the ball rolling on a coherent national conservation policy.

And the ban on sand mining on Fraser Island is a landmark in our constitutional and environmental history.

Fraser would later write in his memoirs that if he had his time again he would have used the federal power to stop the Franklin Dam.

I once heard Fraser say of his exit from the Liberal Party, ‘I didn’t leave the Liberal Party, they left me.’ I’m not entirely sure that’s right.

Image: Malcolm Fraser emerges from Parliament House on 11 November 1975, after announcing that Governor-General Sir John Kerr had appointed him caretaker Prime Minister. Fraser’s pathway to the prime ministership now dominates our memory of his time. (NAA: A6180, 13/11/75/31; Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence, Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2019).

Environment as Quality of Life: The Whitlam Government 1972-1975

By Peter Burnett

Author’s Note: This is another in our series covering the environmental policies of past Australian Governments

Most Australians have heard of ‘the Dismissal’, but to actually remember it you’d have to be at least into your 50s. The government headed by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was perhaps Australia’s most controversial, and certainly the only one to have be sacked by the Governor General.

This was a bold and sometimes reckless government, with a ‘crash through or crash’ reputation.

But it was also a visionary government. Even now, many Australians would know of Whitlam’s 1972 ‘It’s time’ election slogan and policy speech, though few would recall anyone else’s election policy speech, including those of our current leaders.

Whitlam and Environment

Environment had become a ‘thing’ by 1972, and Whitlam was all for it. However, the relevant parts of his policy speech were cast in terms of quality of life rather than environment per se. He did however make specific environmental commitments relating to urban tree-planting, national parks, water conservation and heritage.

Once Whitlam came to power, and consistent with his ‘crash through or crash’ reputation, he focused on passing legislation. His Government did not waste much time developing policy statements; they were a government of action.

To the extent that it articulated an environmental vision, it is best captured in the Governor-General’s Speech on the opening of the Parliament in 1973:

“[My Government] is, however, deeply conscious that economic growth and material well-being no longer reflect the whole aspirations and expectation of the Australian community, and that prosperity alone is no longer exactly equated with true progress. The Department of the Environment and Conservation proposes to develop a ‘human progress’ index to reflect the new and emerging human and social values in a modern society.

“In planning for this generation, my Government intends to protect the rights and national inheritance of future generations of Australians. The Government will institute a program requiring environment impact statements for all major projects involving national funds and national constitutional powers.

From vision to action

This sense of an enduring quality of life, which echoed campaign policy speeches, flowed through to three of the four laws that constitute the bulk of the environmental record of the Whitlam Government. (The promised human progress index never saw the light of day.)

The Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 (EPIP Act) delivered on the commitment in the Governor General’s speech to require environmental impact statements.

The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 provided for the establishment of federal parks and reserves, while the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 established the GBR Marine Park and the GBR Marine Park Authority to look after it.

From the 1960s, the Queensland Government had advocated oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest structure made of living organisms, and one of the most complex known ecosystems. The Wallace Royal Commission into drilling on the Reef, called by the Gorton Government in 1970, reported in 1974 but Whitlam immediately announced an intention to pass what became the Marine Park Act, to protect the reef from oil drilling.

The Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 which established the Australian Heritage Commission and the Register of the National Estate, which would eventually list more 13,000 natural, Indigenous and historic places around the country.

While the EPIP Act was directed to the utilitarian purpose of improved environmental decision making, the remaining three laws concerned either the protection of natural places of significance to the nation and the conservation of its heritage. As Minister for Urban and Regional Development Tom Uren put it when introducing the Heritage Commission Act, the Government’s philosophy was to “beat the bulldozer mentality”.

The Whitlam government also made an early federal foray into water policy. In a ministerial statement entitled A National Approach to Water Resources Management, environment minister Moss Cass articulated the need for an integrated and planning-based approach to water resource management, applying social as well as economic objectives and the polluter-pays principle, supported by an extensive program of data-gathering and analysis.

Mainstream to the modern eye

All of this seems fairly mainstream stuff now, but it was radical at the time.

EIA was still cutting edge, having made its first appearance only five years before in the US National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). And heritage had only recently entered the popular consciousness with the imposition of ‘Green Bans’, by the radical Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, on demolition sites in The Rocks and other inner-Sydney locations in the early 1970s.

All of these laws took the Federal Government into the States’ backyards, not only Constitutionally but literally. And, as anyone who’s watched our State governments over time would expect, the States opposed such intrusions vigorously. The Feds, after all, were tromping all over traditional State responsibilities.

And yet, the statements about water resource management would not raise a policy eyebrow these days.

We’ve come such a long way since then … or have we?

Image: Whitlam’s Ministry in 1974. (National Archives of Australia, the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

A toe in the water: Australia gets its first Federal environment minister (1971) and the world comes together in Stockholm (1972)

How do you deal with this thing called ‘the Environment’?

By Peter Burnett

Author’s Note: This is the second in an occasional series reflecting on the history of Australian environmental policy.

Nineteen Sixty Nine was a year of great environmental concern in the West. These concerns had been growing for some time, and were coming to a head. In America, there was a huge oil spill from a drilling platform off Santa Barbara, California, while in Ohio the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie, caught fire!

Nineteen Sixty Nine was also the year in which the Gorton Coalition Government was elected in Australia. (If you’ve seen David Williamson’s play Don’s Party, it’s that election.)

In 1970 Gorton called a half-senate election — ie, a general election, but only for half of the members of the Senate. We’ve only had four of these, of which 1970 was the last, so they are something of a Constitutional curiosity. But I digress.

One of Gorton’s policy commitments in the half-Senate campaign was to establish an Office of the Environment within the Prime Minister’s Department. In his campaign opening Gorton acknowledged ‘mounting, and justified, concern’ about the risks of pollution which ‘represent[ed] a failure to take fully into account the environmental consequences of our actions …’

The first Minister for the Environment

Gorton fulfilled his commitment and set up an Office of the Environment in the Prime Minister’s Department. However, he was soon replaced as Prime Minister by William (Bill) McMahon. McMahon made environment a portfolio and appointed Peter Howson as the first federal environment minister in May 1971.

There was a big international environment meeting scheduled for 1972. In fact, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, to be held at Stockholm, was the first of what would become regular decadal international meetings between governments on the environment.

In the lead up to the Stockholm Conference, Howson made a Ministerial Statement to Parliament under the bland title ‘Australian Environment: Commonwealth Policy and Achievements’. The statement was pretty much intended to put a political toe in the water.

The key factor stressed in the statement was that the Commonwealth saw itself as having limited powers in an area. It saw the environment as being primarily a State responsibility. This was certainly true historically and the Commonwealth would not test its constitutional powers on the environment until the Tasmanian Dam case, a decade later.

Howson’s Ministerial Statement told of the recent establishment of a council of federal and state environment ministers, the Australian Environment Council, and announced a new requirement for “impact statements” to inform Cabinet decisions with environmental implications.

This was the first Australian requirement for environmental impact assessment. The idea was copied from the United States National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) although, unlike in the USA, there was no legislative backing.

Environmental principles

The Statement was also significant in its early domestic articulation of a number major principles of environmental policy. Two of the most important were the ‘polluter pays’ principle and the principle of harmonising international environmental standards to avoid trade distortions.

Both principles came from the OECD, which had recently moved into environmental issues, establishing a high level Environment Policy Committee, known as ‘EPOC’, in 1971. EPOC still exists today.

Although both the ‘polluter pays’ and ‘harmonised standards’ principles were really just applications of mainstream economics, their articulation as environmental policy broke significant new ground.

Despite regarding environment as mostly a State matter, Howson’s statement recognised that environmental concerns were a national problem requiring Commonwealth leadership, including public advocacy where necessary. This would obviously apply in international affairs but could also apply domestically because environmental problems were not confined to State boundaries.

The statement also recognised that environmental issues are not just a set of problems with common themes, but manifestations of an overarching challenge:

"So far as the Commonwealth is concerned the question is one of devising a pattern of national development in which environmental objectives go hand in hand with economic, social and cultural goals. Our philosophy is directed to this end—to devising and developing such a pattern in co-operation with the States, with local government, with business and industry and the community as a whole." [Emphasis added]

Indeed,

"The threat to man's environment is world-wide. It makes no distinctions. There is much to be gained, therefore, by Australia sharing its problems and the search for solutions with others."

And as a result:

"We are prepared to use all the international machinery at our disposal to achieve the sort of co-operation required for global action and to protect our own interests in problems with environmental implications."

On paper at least, Australia was recognising environment as an issue at all scales from local to global, and was reaching for some sort of overarching goal that would integrate environmental and other objectives – in other words, some form of sustainability.

This anticipated the soon-to-be-made Stockholm Declaration but doesn’t mean that the Australian government was prescient — the Government would have had fore-knowledge of the likely content of the Declaration through the circulation of official drafts.

The first major international environment meeting

In his later statement to the Stockholm Conference, Howson emphasised the need for better decision-making, firstly in terms of the need for environmental data to measure the full impact of human actions on the environment, and secondly in terms of improving the way in which economics addresses environmental issues, ‘though a spurious mathematical precision has to be avoided’.

As it turned out, excessive precision has never been the problem with environmental decision-making! Quite the opposite in fact: environmental decisions plagued by a lack of basic information, underdone policy guidance and in many cases a high degree of opacity.

Of course, Australia was not a major player at Stockholm and when we look at the Conference more broadly, the big story is that developing countries of the global South quickly forced a dramatic broadening of the original pollution-based agenda of rich Western countries, which, confusingly, also form the bulk of the global North.

Most members of the South were prepared to talk about fixing pollution, essentially a side-effect of the ever-increasing rate at which the North was consuming the Earth’s resources, as long as this didn’t constrain their right to a fair share of Earth’s resources. India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s intervention was pivotal. Her statement that ‘poverty is the worst form of pollution’ must rank as one of the most powerful short sentences ever spoken in diplomacy.

More like a foot than a toe

Back home, it seems that the significance of Stockholm didn’t sink in at the time. Records in the National Archives show that officials briefed the government that ‘in substance, the Stockholm Declaration is a miscellany of injunctions to which individual objection would be difficult to carry in a Stockholm forum. The whole is not greater than the sum of the parts …’

With the benefit of hindsight, the officials were wrong. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts. The pattern of North-South relations and the institutions spawned by the Stockholm Conference, especially UNEP (the United Nations Environment Program), still very much influence international environmental policy today.

The same is true of Howsen’s Ministerial Statement. Reflecting on it in his autobiography, Howson said that the Statement was more significant than he thought at the time, and I think he was right. Rather than a toe in the water, it was more like a foot (no pun intended).

Yet, these days, Howson and the Stockholm Declaration are largely forgotten. Such are the vicissitudes of history.

Fast forward fifty years to today and it seems that while the players have changed, too much of the script remains the same!

Image: The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) meets at Folkets Hus, Stockholm, in 1972. This became known as the Stockholm Conference, and was the first time governments met globally to talk about ‘the environment’. (Image by Yutaka Nagata, UN).