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)

Death of the Queen, identity and a sustainable world

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By David Salt

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

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

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

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

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

The Queen and the Great Acceleration

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

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

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

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

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

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

For King, country and the higher cause

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

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

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

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

The loss of ‘our Queen’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By David Salt

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

Here it is:

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

One single development

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

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

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

A boon for the economy

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

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

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

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

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

The standard model

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

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

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

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

A more complex model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another thing about complex systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game of Sustainability – Episode One: A New Hope

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By Peter Burnett

This is another in our series on the environmental policies of previous Australian Governments. This time, the policy story is too long for a single blog …

In my last blog in this series I told the story of how the Hawke government started with an environmental bang in 1983 by blocking Tasmania’s Franklin Dam project. It did this by passing laws to protect the World Heritage status of the surrounding wilderness.

By taking this unprecedented action, Hawke dramatically expanded federal environmental power through the High Court decision in the Tasmanian Dam Case. After that, Hawke pretty much lost interest in the environment.

Until, that is, the 1987 election was in the offing.

The second wave

There was a second global wave of environmental concern in the mid 1980s (the first wave was in the late 1960s and early 1970s).

In 1984, the worst industrial disaster in world history, a chemical accident at Union Carbide’s Bhopal factory in India killed more than 22,000 people.

Then in 1986 there was a nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Soviet Union (now in modern-day Ukraine). The casualties were much lower than Bhopal (the death toll will eventually reach around 4,000 when long-term injuries are included) but the accident forced the resettlement of some 350,000 people and released a radioactive cloud that gave the world, and Europeans in particular, enormous concern.

The resulting wave of environmental concern swept around the world. And it affected Australia as well, although the issues here played out more through a revival in anti-development sentiment, again played out in several instances through World Heritage nominations.

Environmental revival in politics

All this led the Hawke Government to run hard on environmental issues in the lead up to the 1987 election. Labor made campaign commitments about environmentally-significant areas such as Kakadu Stage II; in return the environment movement had advocated a vote for Labor.

Graham Richardson, an influential party fixer, was instrumental in this political deal-making. His reward after Labor won the election was not just promotion to the ministry as Environment Minister, but the elevation of the environment portfolio to cabinet.

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

Let the games begin …

Yet there was more to this second wave than a return to prominence of environmental issues. The whole debate was about to shift from a case-by-case approach (revolving around ‘places of the heart’) to one based on joined up, but complex and contested, policy principles.

Just after the election, the United Nations released a major report, Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report. This is the report that put Sustainable Development on the map.

Brundtland argued that countries should pursue Sustainable Development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

This deceptively simple idea captured imaginations around the world. Within five years, at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, Sustainable Development would become the phrase on everyone’s lips and the foundation stone for Agenda 21, an action plan endorsed by almost every country and major stakeholder group in the world.

Meanwhile, back home …

Even though Australia was part of this global phenomenon, things played out differently at home during the five years between the publication of Our Common Future through to the Rio Earth Summit.

Richardson rejected early advice from his department to take the Brundtland Report to Cabinet for a discussion of its policy implications. He was a political hardhead and hardly a policy nerd — presumably he wanted to stick with the simple ‘case-by-case’ political appeal of World Heritage listings, rather than explore the rabbit warrens of a policy concept like Sustainable Development.

However, ministers with economic portfolios were deeply frustrated by Richardson’s ‘one-off forays’, or ‘icons’ approach as they called it (an icons approach only worries about the iconic bits of nature, the special rainforests and coral reefs, for example).

Richardson had the reputation of stitching up deals on popular environmental causes with Prime Minister Hawke in advance of Cabinet meetings, with the result (as they saw it) that well-developed proposals for economic development would be torpedoed by the latest popular environmental cause. Economic ministers wanted some rules to play by.

Primary Industries Minister John Kerin led a Cabinet revolt. He first took his frustrations to Cabinet at the end of 1987, arguing that existing processes for considering conservation and development proposals were characterised by a lack of consistency and frequent requirements for:

eleventh hour ad hoc responses to proposals … (both within and outside Governments), 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.*

Round one to rationality … sort of

Round one went to Kerin and the economic ministers. Sort of. The government announced in late 1988 that it would establish a Resource Assessment Commission (RAC) to assess major environment and development issues. However, while the advice of the RAC was to be based on three legislated principles, dealing with policy integration, optimising benefits and sequential use of land, this was not ‘Sustainable Development’ as was being discussed elsewhere around the world.

In fact, in a process later described by Richardson as ‘long and difficult’, officials had come up with no less than forty five principles related to environment and development, covering everything from ‘maintaining essential ecological processes and life support systems’ (spot-on) through ‘development and environmental considerations should be taken into account … early’ (relevant) to ‘rights of interested parties … in the decision-making process should be made clear and adequately publicised’ (marginal)!

In other words, although Sustainable Development had been on the table for more than a year, the Australian government had yet to engage with it properly.

All this would change the following year, 1989.

Watch this space for the next exciting episode in this ‘Game of Sustainability!’

*John C Kerin (2017). The Way I Saw It; the Way It Was: The Making of National Agricultural and Natural Resource Management Policy (Analysis and Policy Observatory)

Banner image: What is ‘sustainable development’? Is it protecting the best bits of nature? Is it the right to clean water and safe food for everyone? Or is it living in a way that doesn’t limit the choices of future generations? The debate on what sustainable development meant was raging towards the end of the 1980s; and in Australia it took on its own unique direction. (Image by David Salt)

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

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By David Salt

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

Command and control

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of budworms and social-ecological systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adaptive cycles

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

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

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

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

From budworms to resilience thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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