Nuclear discord and the siren’s song of the small modular reactor

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By David Salt

‘Have you heard about these small modular nuclear reactors they’ve got these days? They’re only the size of a shipping container and they can produce enough energy to power a town for decades, if not centuries? We’re talking clean, carbon-free energy that can deliver your power needs come rain or shine; no need for the wind to blow or the sky to be cloud free. Why isn’t the government making this a priority rather than ugly wind turbines (which can’t be recycled and only have short life spans) or mass arrays of photovoltaics that displace valuable farmland and only work when the sun is out?’

Last weekend I visited a couple of farms in the central west of New South Wales (Australia), prime sheep/wheat country, where I heard iterations of the above statement from three separate (unrelated) people – white, 60-something males, all of whom were smart, technically savvy adults. Indeed, in most ways I have a deep respect for these guys and enjoyed chatting with them.

These observations on the potential of nuclear energy weren’t served up to me as a passionate climate-denying manifesto. They simply arose from conversations we were having on the challenges facing farming landscapes in the region. They all had concerns about the proliferation of wind and solar energy over prime farmland, the cost of living (and energy) and the decline of rural Australia. They’d all heard that the nuclear option was technically feasible and a viable option. All it needed was a little government backing, a bit of hard work and maybe a little less attention paid to the concerns of all those woke, inner city greenies who wouldn’t recognise the functioning end of a farm tractor if it was run over them.

And, based on my reaction to their ideas on small modular nuclear energy, I suspect that they began to suspect that I may have been one of those woke, inner city greenies myself.

Because, the truth is, I was pretty sure that what they had each shared with me was basically bullshit!

Unfortunately, while they strongly believed in the validity of their claims, all my memory could dredge up was a few general facts from news commentary pieces I had read on the viability of nuclear energy in Australia. I didn’t have specific facts and figures at hand but I did remember the general conclusions of a recent CSIRO report on nuclear energy. It said that nuclear energy was simply too expensive to be an energy option – full stop! And, I’m pretty sure I read somewhere, that small modular reactors simply don’t exist in any form other than as experimental apparatus that had never been commercialised anywhere.

And that’s what I told these men, to each individually, though possibly not with the certainty they had about their beliefs.

Then I blew it

And then, on each of telling, I blew it. I expressed my doubt about their claims and then proceeded to vent my spleen, with growing loudness, on the misinformation being put out by fossil fuel lobbies (and the climate denialists they sponsor) attempting to muddy the water about different energy options and sucker people into believing that nuclear was as valid as renewable energy options. I had, in effect, accused these men of being suckers while sounding like a ranting conspiracist myself. I might have been wearing an Akubra but it takes more than drover’s hat to conceal the green beating heart of a know-nothing city slicker.

So, while I had never intended to fire up a cultural battle over sustainability and energy, that’s what happened anyway. I just couldn’t believe that these good people who should have known better had accepted technological myths that were being constantly repeated to them by conservative politicians, technocrats and denialists. The fossil fuel lobbies had won by default.

Too slow, too expensive

So I slunk back to my city and I did my desktop searches and found the relevant CSIRO report which turned out to be a dense and technical brief. However, all the commentaries around it, and there were many, said the same thing: ‘The latest version of the CSIRO’s important GenCost report still ranks nuclear as the most expensive of existing technologies, and at least double or up to five times the cost of “firmed” wind and solar, including storage and transmission costs’ (Renew Economy, July 2022).

They go on to say: “It has long been accepted that existing large-scale nuclear is way too expensive and too inflexible to play any role in Australia’s future grid, but the pro-nuclear lobby has been pushing the idea of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), and has been putting intense pressure on the CSIRO to embrace it.”

CSIRO, for its part, won’t even include SMRs in their analysis because they don’t exist in Australia, and none are expected until 2029 at the earliest. CSIRO economist Paul Graham, the lead author of the report, says until the first SMRs are deployed it is not possible to find good evidence about the claims of the industry. SMRs do exist overseas but they are largely experimental and the whole technology is still in development.

None of this has dampened the nuclear appetite of the conservative Coalition party that got thrown out at the 2022 Federal elections, partly for its total lack of action on climate change. It responded to its electoral defeat by appointing a pro-nuclear advocate on energy, and intensifying its campaign against wind and solar.

And, as to the oft heard claim that wind turbines can’t be recycled, I say ‘do your own research’. As far as I can see (from multiple respectable sources I viewed), around 95% of wind turbines can currently be recycled and they’re close to figuring out how to reuse all of them.

A siren’s song

But the whole episode left a foul taste in my mouth.

The debate around nuclear energy in Australia is really just a delaying political tactic by the same vested interests that have stymied effective action on climate change for decades. It appeals to anyone who already has doubts about climate change, who thinks technology will save us, and that renewables are just another form of green virtue signalling.

The campaign for nuclear is fuelled by false information, hyperbolic claims and constant repetition. It has become a bit of a cause célèbre for conservative politicians who serve it up again and again as a reason to stop worrying about the future or to reflect on the consequences of our unbounded economic growth. ‘Technology, not taxes’ is their mantra…

… and in many quarters it’s a siren’s song that works a treat.

Image by Markus Distelrath from Pixabay

Have we learnt nothing? Don’t put all your (biodiversity) ‘eggs’ into a single (market) ‘basket’!

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By David Salt

Our planet’s biodiversity is in big trouble. Some, like the Australian Government, believe the answer to saving Nature lies in market forces via the creation of a market for Nature restoration. Other’s believe this is a fool’s errand. Still others agree the ‘market’ path is fraught but we can’t afford not to give it a go.

Where lies the truth?

I’ll be honest and say I haven’t got a clue where the truth lies, yet I’m hopeful that a little creative thinking and the creation of new Nature markets might lead to more resources for better conservation outcomes.

My heart tells me that it would be a good thing if Nature markets could raise $137 billion for restoration in the coming decades.

But my head tells me the evidence for success down this route is weak (or even negative) and that when consultants like PwC Australia put forward a figure like $137 billion without evidence or credible economic analysis then we’re definitely in the realm of speculative and wishful thinking.

Though this is not just an Australian game. It’s happening all over the world. In the UK, for example, the Government is setting up a scheme that creates ‘habitat banks’, parcels of land where efforts are made to restore and protect Nature. The plan is that these efforts are quantified (by ecologists) and then packaged into tradeable units and sold as credits to housing developers or road builders seeking to offset their environmental impact. The UK has passed a new law that comes into effect later this year that requires developers in England to show they can deliver a 10% net gain in biodiversity in order to get planning permission. Sounds good in principle.

The Government is betting that scores of habitat banks across England can generate credits worth about £300 million per year. The new market also will go some way to meeting the Government’s goal of growing annual private investment in Nature to £1 billion by 2030.

“Biodiversity is about to be one of the most significant asset classes in the world,” said one asset management chief executive officer whose firm plans to trade big in biodiversity credits. Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it? Then I read this firm is based in the Cayman Islands and the spectre of dodgy, tax evading, fly-by-night companies filled my mind.

So, before we commit all our ‘biodiversity eggs’ to the ‘market basket’ and leave saving Nature to the market traders, could we quickly reflect on what’s been done in the past to save biodiversity? How did we attempt to protect Nature before markets were put forward as our road to salvation?

Lock it up

Following the Second World War we were more worried about building a strong economy than anything else. In any case, back then there was so much Nature around it didn’t seem to matter if bits of it were sacrificed for development. Having said that, some places contained such outstanding beauty that there was strong support for placing them in reserves to protect them from human damage.

This was a time of command and control (1950s till now, really). Humans were in command and Nature was to be confined and controlled. Bits of it were locked away behind fences in national parks, and the rest could look after itself. And the bits in parks were prioritized for Nature, humans living in these areas were kicked out, an approach sometimes referred to as the ‘Yellowstone Model’ An example of this was the expulsion of the Maasai people from the Serengeti National Park.

These days most governments are more sensitive to the needs of indigenous peoples and no longer kick them out of national parks if this was their traditional land; however, in general, national parks are run on dwindling, inadequate budgets and are not meeting their purpose of protecting Nature in perpetuity. If you want one example of this consider Kakadu National Park in Australia; it’s one of the jewels of our national park estate and, after many years of neglect, is now regarded by many as being in a state of crisis.

Pass a law or two

Locking up Nature went some way to slowing its degradation inside the parks but outside their boundaries it was a different story. The indiscriminate use of chemicals to maximise our food crops was progressively poisoning our rivers and land, and passing up food chains. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in the early 1960s and sent out a clarion call of alarm; Nature was wilting under unbounded industrial growth and the consequences was an environment unfit to live in.

And so laws began being passed that prevented activities that caused clear and unacceptable harm. Possibly two of the best examples of this came out of the US. In 1969 the US Government passed The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requiring environmental impact studies for all new big developments. Then, in 1973 the US Government passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The degradation didn’t stop but the clearest most egregious forms of environmental vandalism was now illegal in the USA (and many other countries followed suit with similar legislation).

But laws are only good as the support they receive by government because without enforcement and compliance they can be ignored. And governments will always be lobbied by vested interests who don’t like the laws.

Take the US Endangered Species Act. Many consider it to be the most powerful environmental law in the world. It was described as applying the ‘Noah Principle’: all species are fundamentally equal, and everything can and should be saved regardless of its importance to humans.

Sounded great in principle but when the proposed endangered species listing of the northern spotted owl and some salmon varieties in the 1980s threatened the economic interests of powerful timber and fishing industries, attempt were made to weaken the law. There followed a serious and long-term contest between the rights of humans to develop economic resources versus the rights of species to exist. That contest is still in play today.

Sign a convention

As stocks of environmental awareness increased along with improved environmental monitoring, discussions were had between and within countries to better understand how much Nature could be leaned upon before it stopped providing us with our basic needs. The notion of ‘sustainable development’ took form over the 70s to the 80s, and international conventions were developed and signed up to by most nations.

Most notable among these was the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 1971 and the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992. Both are still in force today and both generate a lot of activity, nice words, goodwill and countless meetings. Neither have prevented the accelerating loss of Nature (wetlands or species) but it might be argued that it could be worse without them, and at least they raise awareness and provide a platform for people to discuss things.

Put a dollar on it

Moving into the 21st Century it has become abundantly apparent that national reserves, laws and conventions were not saving nature and that we needed additional strategies. Unsurprisingly, people began discussing the economic value of Nature. The notion of ‘ecosystem services’ arose, given a big boost during the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment; and international studies such as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) were undertaken.

These arguments had strong rationalist foundations, but along with the laws and conventions that preceded them, they achieved little in slowing the decline of nature, which now appears to be more of an avalanche.

Let the market decide

How do we save Nature? Let me count the ways. We’ve set bits of the planet aside in reserves and said in these bits, Nature comes first. It has slowed the decline within the reserves but not arrested it, and provides little protection outside of the reserves.

We passed laws prescribing what people can and can’t do; vested interests worked their way around them.

Then we tried to convince people it was in their own vested interest to look after Nature. We tried to put money values on goods and services that Nature provides us. But we continued to ignore the impacts of our economic growth.

Then we created elaborate mechanisms to enable economic growth without harming biodiversity. We began to think in terms of ‘no net loss’. You can develop here if you offset over there.

And now what are we saying? It’s all too much for governments to fix, let the market decide.

Maybe market forces can do something to help Nature. However, after 70 years of trying to save Nature and failing; maybe we should reflect on lessons already learnt before loading up the next silver bullet. Those lessons would include attention to governance, resourcing, inclusion and justice. Ignore these dimensions and there’s little prospect that a market driven approach is going to achieve anything better.

Banner image: Image by Sönke Ehlers from Pixabay

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

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By David Salt

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

How is David Attenborough an example of this?

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

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

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

Don’t look up

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t speak up

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

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

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

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

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

When a system becomes moribund

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe David Attenborough could do a doco on it.

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

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

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Peter Burnett, Australian National University

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

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

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

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

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

Tough calls ahead

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

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

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

Lack of clarity makes for ineffective law

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to breathe new life into ESD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banner image: Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

Fusion energy, if you look too close… you’ll go blind – miracle technology or miserable mirage?

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By David Salt

Technology to the rescue!

Our profligate use of carbon-intense energy has enabled humanity to soar on an ever-growing wave of economic growth. It has also tipped the Earth system into a different way of behaving (welcome to the Anthropocene).

Climate scientists have been warning us of the consequences of this for roughly 50 years. Unfortunately, by and large, our political leaders have ignored these warnings through a mix of denial, obfuscation and delay. They have done this because the short-term pain society would experience as we transformed our energy systems comes with a high political cost; so high it’s easier just to kick the can down the road. What this has translated to has often been the claim that tomorrow’s technology will solve tomorrow’s problem (brought about by today’s inaction) so let’s keep burning oil like there’s no tomorrow.

Only thing is, tomorrow’s problem came down to roost this year. India had historic heatwaves, Pakistan unprecedented floods, the US was hit by killer wildfires, Europe copped devastating heatwaves, floods and drought (ditto China)… and the list goes on. It wasn’t a bad year, it was a catastrophic one in terms of climate disruption, and it’s only the entrée to what’s ahead – welcome to the Anthropocene.

Carbon emissions, largely associated with the way we use energy, lies at the heart of this disruption. So, it is with great enthusiasm that headlines everywhere in the dying days of this disastrous year have been hailing the recent breakthrough in ‘clean’ fusion energy (eg, Breakthrough in nuclear fusion could mean ‘near-limitless energy’).

The fusion breakthrough

Fusion, as most people know, is the process that powers our sun. It involves fusing together hydrogen atoms to release vast quantities of energy, but it only happens under conditions of extreme heat and pressure, conditions that exist in stars.

Scientists have been working on recreating these conditions by focusing high power lasers on hydrogen atoms held close together within intense magnetic fields. They’ve generated fusion energy on several occasions but, up until recently, it’s taken more energy to produce the fusion reaction than has been produced by that reaction.

The breakthrough that has just been announced was made by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. It produced a fusion reaction that gave out more energy than was required to produce it. The lasers used to create the fusion used around 2 million joules of energy but the reaction emitted some 3 million joules; the first time a controlled fusion reaction has produced a net surplus of energy.

How cool is that? Humans are now capable of fusing atoms in temperatures and pressures 10 times higher than those at the centre of the Sun! Stand aside Prometheus, we’ll take it from here.

The fusion joke

But before you go ordering your own personal stellar power plant, keep in mind this technology has a few hurdles still to jump.

For starters, this ‘breakthrough’ is really a technical ‘proof of concept’ that fusion can be done in a controlled manner. The lasers may have used less energy than the fusion they produced, but the facility surrounding the lasers and the magnetic fields consumed around 300 million joules of energy to do the experiment. So, even in this experimental set up, the fusion reaction needs to generate 100 times more energy just to break even. (As it is, the net energy it generated in this experiment is about enough to boil a kettle, and could only be sustained for 100 trillionths of a second.)

Upscaling fusion to be a commercial reality has so many technical challenges that the running joke in the world of physics is that controlled fusion energy will take 50 years before it’s a reality. What’s more, scientists have been working on fusion for more than 50 years, yet that forecast of ‘it’s still 50 years away’ has never really changed.

Though, following this latest breakthrough, the Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Kim Budil, said on Radio National that she believed that operational fusion power plants might be possible in a mere two decades.

I think she’s dreaming – it’s the willfully naïve dream of the techno-optimist. Maybe the fabulous science being done at her lab will truly provide a guide for how fusion power plants might be built but the staggering – and I mean stupendously enormous – levels of resources (money, highly skilled people, land, infrastructure and, above all, political will) needed to build a fusion plant makes them projects bigger than any space race, and beyond the capacity of any single nation state. And how well have our big multi-state technological adventures gone so far? They exist, think International Space Station, massive radio telescopes and particle research facilities. However, none of these go even close to the resources that would be required by commercial fusion power.

As is often the case, a scientist, often a physicist, will make a breakthrough uncovering new realms of potential and say ‘problem solved’ (in this case, our energy needs will be met); claims which are then amplified and distorted by the media and political leaders to suit whatever ideological barrow they are pushing.

The fusion dream

The thing is, even if fusion power was a reality in 20 years, is it a solution we should be prioritizing?

Climate disruption is with us today and already tearing apart the fabric of our society.

We don’t have 20 years; we need to transition away from carbon-intensive energy now. We’ve literally wasted the last 20 years, and now the wheels are starting to come off project humanity.

To prioritize the ultra-expensive, highly risky idea of fusion energy as our salvation is really just one more form of climate denialism – we don’t need to change our ways because tomorrow’s technology will save us, so keep on consuming and polluting.

The irony here is that the real solution lies in natural fusion energy. That massive fusion reactor in the sky we call the Sun radiates a limitless supply of energy down on us every day. We’re starting to capture a tiny portion of that energy with photovoltaics (and wind turbines, wind is ultimately the result of solar radiation warming the atmosphere) but there needs to a massive switch from fossil fuels to renewables immediately. This is not happening.

Single fusion power plants are expected to cost between $20-65 billion dollars each and current research expenditures in the US alone are well over $500 million pa. Imagine what could be achieved if this level of funding was channeled into upscaling existing, relatively inexpensive and reliable solar technologies available today.

Or we could just continue to stare into the incandescent vision of endless ‘clean’ controlled fusion energy coming to our powerpoints sometime very soon. Just remember what happens when you stare into the Sun for too long.

Banner image: Image by 이룬 from Pixabay

A connection with tomorrow’s citizens – calling for a Ministry for the Future

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By David Salt

In a year of climate disasters, you’ve likely forgotten about what happened in India back in March and April. The country experienced its worst heatwave on record in terms of high temperatures, duration and geographical extent. At the end of April around 70% of India was stricken by the ‘event’, killing hundreds of people (probably a gross underestimate), and reducing crop yields by up to 35% in some regions. Heat waves are common in India but the science is suggesting they are now being supercharged by climate change. And things only promise to get worse.

I remember being appalled by the news reports I was reading at the time. Surely, when one of the world’s most populous nations is literally withering under global warming, right in front of our eyes, surely people start to act? Right?

Wrong! Just consider the hyperbolic rhetoric flowing from the just completed COP27 climate conference and its underwhelming outcomes. (What did António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, say? Oh, that’s right: “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”)

And, as I suggested, if you’d even heard about the Indian heatwaves, you’ve likely forgotten them following the unprecedented Pakistan floods, Europe’s killer summer, the United States devastating hurricanes or China’s record drought. We’re becoming normalized to climate catastrophes!

In any event, back in May, after hearing me ask ‘can you believe what’s happening in India?’ for the twelfth time, a colleague gave me a copy of the book The Ministry for the Future to read. He said it’s full of interesting ideas about how to deal with the growing climate crisis and it begins in India during a heatwave (‘which you keep rabbiting on about’).

Delirium and fever

I thanked him, noted that (according to its cover) Barack Obama had highly commended it (clearly very ‘worthy’), and that it was over 550 pages long in really tiny type. I got home and put it on the reading pile where I expected it to gather dust because deep down I suspected it was just another technobooster effort to get us to believe that while the challenge was big, science would ride in to save us; something I’m very dubious about (and have discussed in the past). I probably wouldn’t read it at all. (I’m so tired of ‘worthy’ being drowned by ‘hypocrisy’.)

Then I came down with Covid, and for three days I suffered my own personal heatwave (high fever). And it was in this somewhat delirious state that I picked up The Ministry for the Future and began to read.

The opening chapter was truly nightmarish. It described a town in India trapped in an unrelenting heatwave in which almost everyone dies; except for a traumatized aid worker, Frank May, who miraculously survives but is scarred for life.

Frank searches for meaning and ends up getting to know Mary Murphy, the head of the Ministry for the Future, a group established under the Paris Agreement to work on policies that take into account the needs of future generations. How will they save the world?

Wait a sec, I asked myself. Is this real? Is there such a thing as a ‘Ministry for the Future’? And why would Mary, a former foreign minister of Ireland, show any interest in a burnt-out husk like Frank (especially when her job is about saving the world)?

Is this for real?

Well, of course, there is no such thing as the Ministry for the Future. The book was written in 2020 by science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR). Indeed, according to its Wiki entry, the book is classified as ‘hard science fiction’; which is to say that the science presented is pretty robust (which, I gotta say, strikes me as valid; the science came over to me as authentic and realistic). And yet it’s like no sci fi I’ve ever read. Indeed, I’d place it in that little known genre, ‘hard policy fiction’.

The plot begins in 2025 with a killer heat wave in India (Kim got that wrong, it actually hit in 2022) and ambles its way into the future up until the 58th COP meeting of the Paris Agreement and a bit beyond.

Despite my initial reluctance, I found myself enthralled by the dazzling spectrum of ideas being presented and the multitude of methods KSR employed to tell his story. Mary and Frank are central characters, and their perspectives helped ground the story, but at the same time they are peripheral to a complex tale that goes off in all directions.

The story consists of 106 relatively short chapters, but the detail in many of these (economic theory, climate science, history and governance for example) often makes the prose difficult to engage with and absorb. It really is a tour de force, but it’s not an easy or page-turning read.

I think the thing that won me over was that while it deployed science as one way of dealing with some of the impacts of climate change, it did so in a low key, realistic manner. None of the solutions he presented were silver bullets; and, more than many writers, I thought he gave a good accounting of the trade offs and gaming that occurred around every effort. He creates a very uncertain and complex future world, but one I found quite plausible.

So, while he engaged with geoengineering in the form of aerosols being dumped in the stratosphere (the dumping was done by the Indian Government in response to the heatwaves), the impact was minor (as our current science suggests it would be) and didn’t really fix the problem of over-heating. In the world of the near future KSR also dyed the Arctic sea yellow to increase its ability to reflect light (humanity having melted all the highly reflective sea ice) and drained the meltwater under glaciers to slow their disintegration (thereby reducing the speed of sea level rise).

Connecting with the future

But possibly the boldest and most fundamental change being proposed in the book was a combination of economics, technology and innovations in governance that, when combined, gave reason for people to invest in their future.

KSR sets out the idea that if today’s generation were paid to capture carbon but the payments weren’t made until well into the future, then maybe we’d take this task seriously. To this end, KSR suggests the creation of a carbon coin. Each coin represents one ton of carbon sequestered but were only paid out at some time in the future. People, companies, governments would only invest in generating carbon coin if they believed they could cash them in down the line, so they needed to trust the institutions that ran the coin (the world’s banks), and they needed to believe there was a future they could get to.

Block chain is proposed as an important technology here. It is rolled out everywhere, again led by banks and governments, because for this investment in the future to work there needed to be full accountability and transparency (not, say, like what’s happening currently with carbon offsets). Gaming the system wasn’t feasible, and with time the climate denying elites, whose power lay entrenched in the past, began to lose influence.

Simultaneously, grass roots ‘terrorism’ by disenfranchised segments of society were beginning to tear apart the status quo, and many societies were experimenting with different forms of governance that distributed power to the people (and refugees even began to be treated in a humane manner and assigned genuine rights).

Investing in the future

I wonder what it would take to get humanity to really begin investing in the future? It seems unprecedented climate disruption, with the certain prospect of greater disruption with every passing year, is not enough.

There’s way too much in The Ministry for the Future to even briefly summarise its many insights in this blog, but I hope I may have said enough to pique your interest. It took a dose of Covid to get me to read it; I hope it takes less for you to consider it.

I’ll leave you with one memorable quote from the book when an American town suddenly runs out of water:

“Remember what Margaret Thatcher said? There is no such thing as society?

…I can take them all to a place where they will eat those words or die of thirst. Because when the taps run dry, society becomes very real.”

Banner image: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

A resilient world is built on humility

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By David Salt

What helps keep a system resilient?

Of course, it depends on context, and everyone brings their own definitions to the party when answering this question. Which means you seldom find two people that will give you the same answer.

Yet, obviously, it’s a pretty important question.

Nine attributes

Towards the end of writing the book Resilience Thinking with Brian Walker, we asked many of the world’s most preeminent resilience scholars (including Buzz Holling) what they thought were the key lessons emerging from resilience science. They responded with a wide variety of answers, both in terms of length of response and areas covered. Even resilience experts vary in what they think is most important about the topic.

We didn’t have room in the book to reprint their responses so instead we attempted to distill their thoughts into a list of nine attributes of a resilient world. In summary, those attributes are:

1. Protect diversity: A resilient world promotes and sustains diversity in all forms (biological, landscape, social and economic).

2. Respect ecological variability: Resilience is about embracing and working with ecological variability, rather than attempting to control and reduce it.

3. Manage with modularity: Resilient systems consist of modular components. Failure in one component doesn’t collapse the system.

4. Acknowledge slow variables: There needs to be a focus on the controlling (often slowly changing) variables associated with thresholds.

5. Govern with appropriate feedbacks: A resilient world possesses tight feedbacks (but not too tight). Are the signals from cost/benefit feedbacks loosening?

6. Cultivate social capital: This is about promoting trust, well developed social networks and effective leadership.

7. Promote innovation: Resilience places an emphasis on learning, experimentation, locally developed rules and embracing change.

8. Govern with overlap: A resilient world would have institutions that include ‘redundancy’ in their governance structures, including a mix of common and private property with overlapping access rights.

9. Incorporate ecosystem services: A resilient world includes all the unpriced ecosystem services in development proposals and assessments.

It’s a good list (I’d even suggest a great list) though, of course, each attribute requires a lot of unpacking, explaining and illustration with examples (though, it did appear at the end of our book so readers who got this far were already in the frame).

But why only nine?

This was Brian’s idea: ‘Let’s set out nine attributes, one short of the biblical ten, and invite readers to suggest what attribute they would add to our list to complete it.’

I thought it was a dumb idea because a. I didn’t think we’d get much response (this was a science textbook after all), b. I suspected every reader would have their own idea (‘a resilient world would have lots of cats…’) and we’d just get a long list of pet thoughts with no emergent consistency; and c. what’s the point, how would we provide feedback to readers? This was a book afterall, not a monthly magazine.

The tenth (and 11th) attribute

As it turned out, I was wrong on all counts (hats off to you, Brian).

We received many hundreds of suggestions; most of them thoughtful, well considered and articulate.

And, while there was an enormous variety in the ideas being put forward (and no suggestion that cats would make for a more resilient world), there were clearly four themes constantly coming to the fore: democratization, fairness, learning and humility.

And, while we hadn’t planned on a follow-up book back when Resilience Thinking came out, it became apparent a few years later that people wanted more information on how resilience thinking can be implemented. Consequently, we wrote Resilience Practice, and included a discussion on the feedback we had received from readers of Resilience Thinking at the end.

Indeed, we added fairness and humility to our list of nine. Actually, we felt that the themes of democratization, fairness, learning and humility were all implicit to varying degrees in our original list of nine attributes. Our readers, however, obviously felt that equity and humility needed to be acknowledged explicitly; so we did. Here are the added two attributes to round off our list:

10. Enshrine fairness & equity: A (desirable) resilient world would acknowledge notions of equality among people, encourage democratization so that everyone has a say, a sense of agency, and promote the notion and practice of ‘fair trade’. These attributes would encourage diversity, innovation, collaboration and effective feedbacks while promoting higher levels of social capital.

11. Exercise humility: A resilient world would acknowledge our dependence on the ecosystems that support us, allow us to appreciate the limits of our mastery, accept we have much to learn, and ensure our people are well educated about resilience and our interconnection with the biosphere.

No panacea

Even if we adopted these 11 attributes as goals (even if we achieved them) there’s no guarantee that we will side step the looming shocks and changes currently facing our planet. However, a resilient world will be better placed come what may.

Which brings me to the end of this series of (relatively) ad hoc reflections on resilience thinking, what it is and why it’s worth knowing about. I’m not suggesting it will save the world; but I am certain it will provide new insights on the nature of the challenges facing us and why the complexity of the world makes these challenges so wicked. And, indeed, if we as a society are not prepared to acknowledge the complexity that lies at the heart of the challenge of sustainability, there is little hope of us meeting that challenge.

If you enjoyed this blog and would like to read any of my earlier pieces on resilience thinking, here’s a list of topics with links:

Why can’t we fix this? Because it’s complex
Introducing the notion that ‘complexity’ lies at the heart of our big challenges

Solving sustainability – It’s complicated AND complex. Do you know the difference?
‘Complexity 101’, complex is different to being complicated but most people mix them up

Thinking resilience – navigating a complex world
Ideas about resilience comes from many areas, most them are about working with complexity

The myth of the optimal state: adaptive cycles and the birth of resilience thinking
Buzz Holling and collapsing spruce forests. More control just made it worse

The perils of command and control and the pathology of Natural Resource Management
How the belief of mastery, blind application of efficiency and vested interests leads to a decline in a system’s resilience

On identity, complexity and a ‘little’ fossil fuel project off the West Australian coast
The identity of a system drives decision making above and beyond rationality

Death of the Queen, identity and a sustainable world
Thinking of ‘the Crown’ as a complex adaptive system (RIP Queen Elizabeth II)

Losing it – the consequences of stepping over the threshold
When a system crosses a threshold, it loses its identity

To be or not to be? It’s really a question about whether we adapt or transform
Adaptation and transformation, two important concepts in resilience thinking that most people use interchangeably without much thought

Resilience – the good, the bad and the ugly
Resilience thinking is almost always inspirational, but it’s also ambiguous and politicians love hiding behind it

Banner image: Maybe if Moses had shown a little more humility, the 10 Commandments might have been a tad more resilient. (Image by Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay)

Resilience – the good, the bad and the ugly

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By David Salt

Some 17 years ago a former boss of mine, Dr Brian Walker, approached me to write a book with him that made the science of resilience more understandable and engaging. That text, Resilience Thinking(Island Press, 2006), would become one of the first widely read, popular science books on the subject of ecological resilience. In my humble opinion, Resilience Thinking played an important role in bringing the ideas around resilience into the mainstream, raising the very notion of ‘resilience’ to the status of being a buzzword (with all the good and bad that comes with this).

At the time that Brian approached me I knew little about resilience science (and I was also ignorant about Brian being one of the world’s leading researchers in this field; I knew him as the ridiculously overworked Chief of CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology, where I had been his Communications Manager). When he asked me to co-author a book with him, a few years after this, I was a freelancer. Indeed, I was an ageing freelance science writer that was growing increasingly cynical about ‘science being the answer’ to the world’s growing sustainability challenge.

When Brian began explaining what resilience thinking was my first thought was ‘it’s just another bit of tricky science that will supposedly boost efficiency and save us all, while we dig the planet into an even deeper hole’, just like many of the other ‘breakthroughs’ I had covered and promoted over the years.

Well, I was quite wrong about this. By the time I had finished writing Resilience Thinking, I looked at the world anew. Things that had befuddled me in the past, now made sense. I looked at the world with different eyes and became a proselytiser for the cause. It really was an epiphany; so much so that I would go on to write a second book with Brian (Resilience Practice, Island Press 2012), numerous articles on the theme, and lecture on the topic.

Though, I should be careful using the world ‘proselytise’ because resilience thinking has been criticised by some as looking like a religion (it’s not, it’s an ever-developing science with all the peer review and validation that comes with that) with adherents that sometimes come across as acolytes (God, I hope I don’t sound like one). Because, for all the value and insight that comes with resilience thinking, it has collected some unfortunate baggage along the way. But let’s begin with the positives.

The good

When I finished writing Resilience Thinking I suddenly realised that while we used the word ‘resilience’, the book was actually a guidebook to ‘complexity’ (and complex adaptative systems). Though I had written about complexity in the past, this was the first time the concepts wrapped up under the cloak of complexity came together and made sense.

The world is a complex system operating at multiple linked scales. I am a complex system, so is my family, my region, my country; all these systems are linked in lesser or greater ways; all are constrained by their histories to some extent; will change over time (adaptive cycles); are capable of self-organisation in the face of disturbance and have the capacity to sustain their identities (resilience), but only up to a certain point (thresholds) beyond which they take on new ways of being.

When these insights are applied to the world around me, I realise, in a very fundamental way, that my big problem with the world is that I always expect that things (events, people, history) to be rational (that people always act rationally, for example) when in fact they are complex (and often irrational). Rationality is just our way of simplifying things, of dealing with the uncertainty that goes hand in hand with complexity. It’s a great approach in the short term but brings wretched results in the longer term as the complex systems around us self-organise around our efforts to optimise, simplify and hold things steady.

Attempting to explain ‘resilience thinking’ to others gave me a framework that explained for me why optimisation is such a flawed model (maybe ‘partial’ or ‘incomplete’ are better adjectives here) to move us towards ‘being sustainable’; why ‘efficiency’, while being important, is never the answer to long term sustainability; why ‘stability’ is a myth and attempts to hold things steady actually reduces a system’s resilience. These and many other epiphanies became clear as I applied the insights from resilience thinking to systems around me.

So, I would say that, for me, ‘resilience thinking’ is jam packed with inspiration and insight about the world around me. Possibly more important, however, I am aware of many readers of Resilience Thinking who came away with their own epiphanies about their own systems of interest.

When people begin considering the complexity of their own system(s) (looking for thresholds, seeing adaptive cycles, reflecting on where their sources of resilience might lie) they too begin to see the world in a different way, and are excited by the insights that pop up.

The bad

Unfortunately, descriptions of ‘complexity’ become very complicated all too quickly (though please don’t confuse these terms). It takes time (and some patience) to absorb ‘resilience thinking’. And, like complexity itself, resilience thinking is not a linear process in which you read ‘the formula’ press a button and the answer is delivered (‘the answer to your question on resilience is 43’).

Resilience thinking is more of a culture in which stakeholders in a system investigate their system, assess different facets of its resilience (where are the thresholds, what is its space of safe operation; where does it sit in the adaptative cycle, what are the system’s levels of adaptability and transformability, and so on), decide on a course of action, monitor and adapt around that decision; and then iteratively go through that process (compile, assess, act) again and again; learning, adapting, experimenting and transforming as you go.

That’s all good and well, and it’s what we should all be doing all the time, but managers, decision makers and policy people need simpler and linear processes to inform their actions and decisions. Resilience thinking is sometimes seen as ‘nice (if time and resources are unlimited) but unhelpful (in the real world)’ when it comes to getting on with things.

Also, many of the insights emerging from the application of resilience thinking are quite dependent on a particular context and may not hold in a different context. On top of this (and maybe because of this), one person’s insights often vary from the insights another person finds when applying resilience thinking.

Some people have accused resilience thinking of being somewhat vague. Others have even suggested that this is deliberate and even important when it comes to framing complexity. One philosopher asked: “Does resilience exhibit conceptual vagueness, and, if so, is that beneficial? Can looseness in concepts and meanings lend itself to shedding light on unsolved problems? While resilience research has established that redundancy is an asset for complex adaptive systems, does a similar finding also hold for conceptual frameworks?”

All of which is to say is that while resilience thinking can be inspirational, it can also be problematic in its implementation.

And the ugly

While acknowledging this, I do believe it’s an important first step in re-evaluating our failing approach to sustainability (an approach largely based on simplistic linear thinking, technology and efficiency).

I’m happy to acknowledge the good with the bad. Where I get extremely frustrated, however, is where political leaders and corporate spin masters see ‘resilience’ as an opportunity to claim action while actually doing nothing (or continuing with their environmentally damaging activity).

Our last national conservative government claimed they were building a ‘resilient’ Great Barrier Reef while subsidising and expanding the country’s fossil fuel sector. (Our new national government appears to be doing much the same.) Carbon emissions are killing our Reef.

In a similar vein, one of Australia’s biggest companies, BHP, co-funded the Australian Coral Reef Resilience initiative to protect the ‘resilience’ of the reef while continuing to expand their fossil fuel pollution.

When climate-charged wildfires tore apart coastal communities along New South Wales (NSW) coastline in 2019/20 (our Black Summer), the NSW Government created a new overarching recovery agency called Resilience NSW (because who can have enough resilience, and the NSW government is there to provide it). Two years later and instead of fires, unprecedented floods devasted NSW coastal communities. A government enquiry found that Resilience NSW (an agency that hadn’t even found its feet) had failed and should be abolished.

These are just a few local examples where the ideas of resilience are inappropriately used (and abused). This happens everywhere. The problem here is that resilience is complex, most people don’t have the opportunity to have a deep engagement with it, and politicians are quick to exploit that ignorance; in the first place to hide behind it, in the next to use it as the scapegoat.

In a rational linear world, they wouldn’t get away with this. But, of course, we don’t live in a rational world, do we?

Banner image: Resilience thinking is about people, landscapes, society, ecosystems and complexity. Depending on how it is applied it can be good, bad or ugly. (Image by David Salt)

To be or not to be? It’s really a question about whether we adapt or transform

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By David Salt

To my mind, the word ‘transform’ is one of the most over used and abused words in the realm of sustainability scholarship and policy. It’s up there with the terms ‘resilience’ and ‘sustainability’, all of which have been rolled out so many times for so many mixed purposes that they have become panchrestrons (a fancy way of saying ‘buzz word’; a panchreston is an explanation that is used in so many different cases that it becomes almost meaningless).

The word itself seems harmless; ‘transform’ simply means to change into something else. In common parlance, however, it’s rolled out whenever someone wants to emphasise that the change we need has to be BIG! We’re not talking minor refinement or incremental reform here, we’re talking TRANSFORMATION! And this is problematic for several reasons. Consider this example.

Transformative change

In 2019, following the most comprehensive assessment of its kind, IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) announced 1,000,000 species have been identified as threatened with extinction and that the rate of species extinction is accelerating. What do you do in the face of such alarming news? IPBES called for ‘transformative change’; and by that they meant a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

At the time I was sceptical anyone would listen because while no-one liked seeing biodiversity collapse, no government was going to introduce the wholesale changes being demanded. “The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” said President George Bush (Snr) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, in a breathtakingly insular and cynical remark that all national leaders parrot in their own way.

This particular IPBES announcement in 2019 followed on decades of similar assessments saying much the same kind of thing (something I discussed here). Each time one of these biodiversity reports came out they were heralded with catchy, headline-seeking stats (‘a million species on the chopping block’), dire warnings (‘we’re heading for the abyss’) and demands for a new and even more ambitious set of policy targets (‘this time we must respond with BIG change’).

However, the IPBES announcement explicitly called for ‘transformation’ and even listed what that meant: “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.” Now, I actually agree with everything IPBES is saying, but I disagree with the manner in which it was communicated. In some ways it’s pushing hyperbole to a new level, ‘the stakes are existential and the only solution is changing everything’. Predictably, the report got lots of media and disappeared without a trace. And biodiversity collapse continues at an accelerating pace.

What are we actually calling for?

Transformation IS big and very challenging. Be careful invoking it if you haven’t got a pathway for how it might be achieved because simply demanding it to happen can be less than useful.

Why is it so challenging? I think the school of resilience thinking has some useful ideas here. Indeed, the ideas of ‘transformation’ and ‘adaptation’ are central concepts in a resilience framing of the world.

The system you are interested in – be it a farm, a region, a forest or some other ecosystem – has its own identity (emerging from its structure, function and feedbacks). This system can absorb disturbance, self-organise, and still continue to sustain its identity up to a point. Push the system beyond this point, this threshold, and system loses its identity, it becomes something else.

Adaptation is about managing your system so that it holds onto its identity. It’s about stopping it from crossing a threshold or, if it does cross one, moving it back across to restore that identity (engineer a crossing to get back into a desired regime). It might even involve moving thresholds to create a larger ‘safe-operating space’.

Transformation is about creating a new and different system, to create a new way of making a living. An example comes from South Eastern Zimbabwe where, in the 1980s, ranchers transformed their cattle ranches to game hunting and safari parks when the livestock industry proved unviable.

Transformation is hard as the existing system has a lot of inertia and sunk investment. Fossil fuel companies have long resisted the growth of renewable energy; neoliberalism will defend itself to the death as will autocratic dictatorships. Or, if you want to look at a smaller scale, a farm or business or even a golf club, will take a lot of persuading to transform their enterprise into something quite different because their identity is central to their very existence (and each system has made long-term investments in staying as they are).

Transformative capacity

For transformation to occur, resilience thinking says there are three important factors needed. The first is to get beyond denial. The ‘rule of holes’ is to stop digging when you realise you’re trapped in one. If your farm, business, golf club or energy sector is not sustainable in a changing climate-ravaged world then you need to acknowledge it and accept your existing ‘identity’ might have to transform.

However, even if you accept the need for transformation, what are you going to ‘transform’ to? The second factor is the ability to explore options for transformation. A resilient society is one that encourages experimentation in order to explore options.

And, if an experiment works (if, for example, the golf club works better as a multi-function community centre producing food), the third factor needed for transformation is a capacity to upscale the successful experiment so it becomes the norm everywhere.

These three factors add up to transformative capacity, and each presents major challenges for the managers of the system. Which is why calls for transformation are often made but rarely result in anything happening at all; it’s just too difficult.

To be or not to be…

What happens instead is resistance and denial (think of 50 years of climate wars), and token efforts at adaptation (think announcements of the latest techno gadget that will improve efficiency by X%). Because, at the end of the day, no national leader is going to suggest that the identity of their country (or the many electorally important sectors that have traditionally been the strength of that country) should be transformed into something else. What they will say, instead, is that by making the existing system work better (grow faster, be more efficient, etc) we can solve the mounting challenges that confront us (thereby breaking the ‘first rule of holes’).

So, when IPBES called for ‘transformative change’ to meet the challenge of collapsing biodiversity, I say ‘good luck to them’. However, without an honest engagement with what it is they are proposing when they invoke ‘transformation’, a systems approach, I can’t see anything changing (and so far I’m right).

Adapt or transform is a pretty big choice*, it’s as fundamental as the Hamlet’s reflection with ‘to be or not to be’; because it’s all about the essence of the system we care about, its identity.

* Should you adapt or transform? Actually, it’s not a binary choice. On the surface, it may appear there’s a tension between adapting and transforming. But the tension is resolved when you consider the system at multiple scales, because making the system resilient at a regional scale, for example, may require transformational changes at lower scales. Adapting and transforming are actually complementary processes, and adaptability and transformability are complementary attributes of a resilient system.

Banner image: “So, what do you reckon, Yorick. Should we adapt or transform?” (Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, with Yorick’s skull; photographer: James Lafayette. Image by WikiImages from Pixabay)

Getting results: the first transformation of our national environmental law starts with ‘standards’

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By Peter Burnett

‘All that’s gold does not glitter’.

So opens the poem that Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit, wrote to his cousin Frodo, the hero of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

In my last blog I argued that, underlying the definitely non-glittering recommendations of the Samuel Review of Australia’s main national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, lay policy gold, a call for five major transformations in law and policy.

The first of these was to shift from a regulatory regime that was prescriptive and focussed on processes, to one built around the setting and pursuing of national environmental outcomes.

In doing so we would get away from our current ‘box-ticking’ approach to regulation, under which decision-makers (typically the environment minister) consider various factors such as biodiversity loss and the precautionary principle but, at the end of the day, decide pretty much anything they want to.

The main driver of this shift in Professor Samuel’s recommended reforms is the creation of statutory ‘national environmental standards.’

Standards both old and new

We are already used to environmental standards in dealing with certain issues. We have, for example, had standards for ambient air quality and contaminated site remediation for decades.

But we have gone down a different track with nature conservation. Early battles focused on saving precious places from development and indeed the environment movement in Australia was built on some of these, such as the (unsuccessful) fight to save Lake Pedder in the 1970s and the (successful) fight to save the Franklin River in the 1980s.

These were more battles of the heart than the head.

Things shifted in the 1990s. Under the banner of ‘sustainable development’, or, in Australia, ‘Ecologically Sustainable Development’ (ESD), we became more focused on conserving entire landscapes and ecosystems.

But we struggled to pin down exactly what we were trying to achieve. Unable to answer the question, ‘how much environment is enough?’, something we could have worked out if we had done enough science and environmental monitoring, we defaulted to a legalistic approach in which we asked decision-makers to ‘consider’ or ‘have regard to’ certain principles such as precaution or intergenerational equity.

The trouble with such principles is that they are too general to serve as standards and instead become ‘mandatory considerations’ in discretionary decision-making (ie, boxes to be ticked).

The only real limit on this discretion-based decision-making is the ability of the courts to strike down a truly egregious decision on grounds of ‘irrationally’.

The first transformation

Discretionary, bottom-up decision-making is no way to achieve a consistent and ecologically sustainable outcome. Professor Samuel therefore recommended flipping the system on its head: spell out what an ecologically sustainable environment looks like, partly through National Environmental Standards and partly through a comprehensive environmental planning regime, and then require that individual development decisions comply with these standards and plans.

Although transformative, this change seems straight-forward enough; why haven’t we been doing this all along?

One reason is ‘path dependency’. Because many conservation problems first emerged as place-based or issue-specific concerns, we started dealing with them on a reactive, case-by-case basis. This is how our system deals with most issues, environmental or otherwise. As such it was as comfortable as a pair of old slippers — and in we slipped.

Another reason is that we haven’t had the comprehensive environmental information or the deep ecological understanding we needed to draw a line between harm that ecosystems can absorb without losing their identity (resilience), and harm that they cannot absorb. We still can’t do that precisely, although technology and good science have brought us a long way.

More significantly, it is only now that most members of the political class, and indeed a majority in society, are coming to understand and accept that if we don’t act soon, it may be too late.

What would these standards look like?

If standards are central to halting environmental decline, what would they look like? Well, the devil is in the detail, but Professor Samuel included some draft standards in his report, so I’ll use elements of the threatened species standard to give you a brief taste.

In part, this draft standard just repeats some existing formulae, for example that approved developments should not be ‘inconsistent with’ relevant recovery plans.

On the other hand, it also introduces new requirements. One of these is that decisions must take cumulative impacts into account. Another is that decisions must avoid adverse impacts to critical habitat and ensure ‘no net reduction’ of critical habitat.

Note the use of the word ‘net’, which implies that environmental offsets could be used.

So, would they work?

My general view is that Samuel’s draft standards would deliver significant marginal gains, but are not worded tightly enough to halt further major environmental decline.

Just looking at the examples above, I think the following changes (and complementary measures) are needed to make the standard strong enough to halt decline:

  • it is not enough that developments ‘not be inconsistent with’ recovery plans — they need to comply with plans; moreover, the plans themselves must spell things out with much greater precision than existing plans, eg by mapping critical habitat to be protected
  • taking cumulative impacts into account is a significant advance, but doing so requires a major national exercise in gathering and maintaining environmental data over time
  • if a species is to recover, decision-makers must not approve impacts to critical habitat, rather than simply ‘avoiding’ them
  • further, if there is to be ‘no net reduction’ in critical habitat, then offset rules would have to be so stringent that I doubt whether they can be met in practice, which probably means that the word ‘net’ should go from this requirement.

And will standards become reality?

Having National Environmental Standards would be truly transformative for environmental decision-making and in my view they could indeed be policy gold, as long as we get the detail right.

By the same token, standards lack lustre for a reason. As you can see from these brief examples, formulating the right words of protection is not that hard. The real challenge is to build political support for the tough decisions that strong standards imply.

Banner image: Good clear environmental standards could provide a pathway to transform our national environmental law into something that makes a real difference. (Image by David Salt)