Joining the dots (again) on Sustainability Bites

66 bites / 5 sustainability themes / the story continues

By David Salt

In a world staggering from one crisis to the next, stricken with plague and quarreling over solutions, where lies the true path to sustainability? Have we got a story for you, and we present it in 66 compelling chapters.

But can we sustain it

When we began Sustainability Bites I’m not sure how long Peter or I thought we could sustain it. It was a nice idea to write up our reflections on sustainability but how many blogs did we have in us? What would run out first: ideas, enthusiasm or available time?

Well, as it has turned out, we’re still putting them out a year and a half later. Indeed, we’re two thirds of the way to cracking a century!

I attempted to reflect on possible emerging themes arising from our musings back when we had completed 33 blogs (a third of a century; see Have we bitten off more than we can chew?), and I thought I’d repeat the exercise now at 66.

Back at blog #33 I suggested I could see five themes constantly emerging in our commentaries:
1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis);
2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy);
3. The burden of politics and ideology (frustrating the development of good policy);
4. The value of good policy; and
5. The importance of history.

Well I think these five overarching themes still apply to our musings but I’m happy to say I don’t think we’re simply rehashing the same words over and over again.

History in the making

Our first 33 blogs set out what we believed sustainability involved, with commentaries on how governments here and overseas (though mainly Australian) were tackling the goal of sustainability. We reflected a little on the history of sustainability, called out inconsistencies between government rhetoric and action, and delved in to the ideology and culture of science and politics.

I’ve listed those first 33 stories at the end of this blog in the order they appeared (Appendix 1) with links to each piece if you see something that catches your interest that you may have missed first time round (or maybe you only started following us recently).

Our second tranche of 33 essays covered the same basic ground but were developed in a time when sustainability policy seemed to go through enormous upheaval and contention as our nation endured disaster after disaster.

The big stories we commented on in several ways in our second 33 blogs included:
-the review of Australia’s premier environmental law, the EPBC Act
-the growing societal rejection of government inaction (and denialism) on climate change
-a season of unprecedented wildfires (and the politics it provoked)
-the collapse of the Great Barrier Reef
-the consequences of the pandemic on business as usual; and
-the use and abuse of crisis, hyper partisanship and ideology
I’ve listed those second 33 stories at the end of this blog as well (see Appendix 2) if you’d like to jump into any of these pieces.

Here are a few comments on the five themes I see overarching our individual stories:

1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis)

In our first 33 blogs we came to the repeated conclusion that achieving enduring change is hard. Often it’s politically impossible. Vested interests, competing ideologies and weak governance frequently conspire to defeat our best intentions. We concluded on several occasions that enduring change is probably only achieved through crisis. The status quo needs some form of disturbance to weaken its hold to enable a change in rules to occur.

Well, be careful what you wish for. This recent ‘summer of our discontent’ has brought more crisis than anyone thought possible (though all of it is well within predictions made by the scientific community).

Will change result? Almost certainly. Will it be change for a more sustainable future? Maybe. Or maybe it will see a massive decline in environmental protection as the economy ‘snaps back’ to full speed (double speed?) and crushes everything in its path.

2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy)

This theme continued to develop in our second set of 33 blogs. Scientists cried apocalypse, wrote massive public letters, and called governments out time and again on climate denialism. Meanwhile forests burned, coral reefs fried and landscapes withered.

Everything the scientists were warning us about seemed to be coming true and yet our government held fast to its line that everything is okay and Australia should be proud of its performance. While grudgingly acknowledging that there might be a connection between the fires and climate change, it wasn’t something they could deal with till the crisis was passed. Having got passed it, now we only talk about the plague.

So what do I expect scientists to do? I really don’t know. If they become advocates or start manning the barricades then they’re no longer practicing science. And yet the science by itself seems so impotent.

3. The burden of politics and ideology

Surely something has got to give? The neo-liberal conservative ideology that sits behind climate denialism cannot be sustained given what our country (and the world) is enduring – surely? And yet it does. Could it be that when everything else has been burnt, withered and wasted, our ideology will still be standing, still declaring its intrinsic rightness – that would be the ideology of whoever is left standing. (It’s been pointed out to me that ‘denialism’ is driven by more than neo-liberal ideology. That might be so but it paves the way by promoting the view that the market will solve all problems and that non-market things do not count. Of course it’s much more complex than I present here, and there’s a strong thread of libertarianism interwoven through this tapestry of deceit. The net effect is continuing poor outcomes in the face of overwhelming evidence that we should be doing something different.)

4. The value of good policy

Whereas I tend to despair and begin to rant (as in point 3) when I consider the rampant environmental decline all around me (largely discounted by government), Peter looks for constructive policy solutions that may or may not be applied but at the very least deserve serious consideration. For example, Peter devoted several blogs to exploring environmental accounts and environmental impact studies and how they relate to effective environmental protection (in both sets of 33 blogs).

It will be interesting to see if good policy takes the fore as we move deeper into this crisis riven year.

5. The importance of history

To understand why a good policy is not implemented in an appropriate way, or why ideology so often trumps rationality, it’s important to understand the historical context and development of an idea or process. Many of the stories we have examined have long histories, and to understand why something works as it does it’s necessary to see from where it came and how it has changed.

The historical antecedents of sustainability policy was a much greater talking point in our first 33 blogs though it still featured in many of the second tranche. Possibly the reason for this is that it seems that history was being made even as we wrote the second set, and it was all we could do to reflect on what was unfolding around us.

Last year’s drought seemed to be a game changer but it was dwarfed by the scale of ensuing fires which in turn has been swallowed by the enormity of the Covid 19 pandemic (and somehow, while all this was happening, no-one seemed to notice that the Great Barrier Reef had been king hit by another mass bleaching event, the most extensive to date).

What will come out the other end of this run of crises is anyone’s guess but it’s a sure bet that what we think is happening now will likely be revised and reinterpreted many times as we move away from these tumultuous times – though possibly towards even more tumult.

Maybe I’ll have the answer by blog #100.

Image by Flo K from Pixabay

Appendix 1: Our first 33 Bites [in order of appearance with themes in brackets]

1. Environmental Sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion[Ideology; history]
2. Sustainability, ‘big government’ and climate denialism [Ideology, science]
3. Why Can’t We Agree on Fixing the Environment? Tribalism & short termism[Politics, crisis]
4. Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’A crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet [Change, crisis, history]
5. How are we going Australia’s OECD decadal Environmental Report Card [Good policy]

6. Throwing pebbles to make change:is it aim or timing?[Crisis and change]
7. The BIG fixWhy is it so hard [Crisis, politics]
8. Duelling scientists: Science, politics and fish kills [science culture, politics]
9. Making a difference without rocking the boat The FDR Gambit [Crisis, good policy, politics]
10. Throwing pebbles and making waves: Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam[Crisis, history]

11. Ending duplication in Environmental Impact Assessments [Policy, history]
12. Is science the answer? Technology is not the solution[Science, ideology]
13. Environmental Impact Assessment and info bureacracy [Policy, politics]
14. Confessions of a cheerleader for science: delaying action because science will save us[Science, ideology]
15. Caldwell and NEPA: the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment[History, policy]

16. This febrile environment: elections, cynicism and crisis[Politics, crisis]
17. 20 Year review of the EPBC – Australia’s national environment law [Policy, politics, history]
18. Saving the world’s biodiversity: the failure of the CBD and the need for transformative change[Policy, history, politics]
19. The value of Environmental Impact Assessment [Policy, history]
20. Retreat from reason – nihilism fundamentalism and activism [Ideology, crisis, politics]

21. Too late for no regrets pathway: a pathway to real sustainability[Politics, policy, history]
22. A short history of sustainability: how sustainable development developed[History, policy, crisis]
23. Kenneth Boulding and the spaceman economy: view from Spaceship Earth[History, policy]
24. A real climate change debate: science vs denialism[Science, politics, ideology]
25. Craik Review on green tape: environmental regulation impact on farmers[Policy, politics]

26. Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene [History, science]
27. An environmental accounting primer [Policy, history]
28. Displacement activityit’s what you do when you don’t have a real environmental policy [Politics, policy]
29. The Productivity Commission and environmental regulation [Policy, politics]
30. Framing climate change: is it a moral or an economic issue [Politics, ideology]

31. The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash [Policy, history]
32. The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain [Science, policy, politics]
33. Doing the Tesla Stretch electric cars to our economic rescue [Policy, politics]

Appendix 2: Our second 33 bites [in order of appearance with main themes in brackets]

34. Joining the dots on Sustainability Bites – looking back on 33 blogs[reflection, history]
35. What’s in the EPBC Box? – Unpacking Australia’s primary environmental law [policy, EPBC Act]
36. I’ll match your crisis and raise you one Armageddon – playing the crisis game [crisis, politics]
37. Federal environmental planning – planning should be strengthened in the EPBC Act [policy, EIA]
38. Shame Greta Shame – the use of ‘shame’ to affect change [politics, shame, denialism]

39. Is Corporate Social Responsibility an environmental ‘Dodge’? – [business, social responsibility]
40. On the taboo of triage – why politicians don’t talk about triage [politics, policy, denialism]
41. 2019 Senate Environment Estimates – [politics, policy, news]
42. I’m so angry I’m going to write a letter!! – the value of the ‘letter’ from experts [politics, science culture, denialism]
43. Supplementary Environmental Estimates – [politics, policy, news]

44. The script that burns us – predicatable responses to wildfire [politics, ideology, denialism]
45. Announcing ‘Australia’s Strategy for Nature’ – what’s in this new policy [politics, policy]
46. But we’re only a tiny part of the problem! – unpacking denialist cant [politics, policy, denialism]
47. Will next year be a big one for biodiversity? – the importance of 2020 [policy, environmental accounts]
48. Positioning ‘The Environment’ – rearranging government departments [policy, politics]

49. Insights on government thinking from 20 years ago – release of parliamentary papers[policy, history]
50. Five lies that stain the nation’s soul – the government’s worst lies [politics, denialism]
51. Now is the summer of our discontent – reflecting on an awful summer [politics, disturbance]
52. On ‘resilience’ as a panacea for disaster – hiding behind notions of resilience [politics, disturbance, resilience]
53. By all accounts, can we manage to save biodiversity? – environmental accounts to the rescue [policy, environmental accounts]

54. Conversations with the devil – false news is amplified by tribalism [polarization, tribalism]
55. A tale of two climate bills – laws proposed by an independent and the Greens [policy, politics]
56. Dawn of the new normal (?) – when will we acknowledge climate change [policy, politics, disturbance]
57. Insensible on coal – why is coal the elephant in the room[policy, politics, disturbance]
58. The zero sum game – from biodiversity to emissions – ‘net’ zero carbon emissions[policy, politics, offsets]

59. ‘Practical Environmental Restoration’– the Government always talks about ‘practical’ [policy, politics, offsets]
60. A good decision in a time of plague – the process is more important than the decision itself [policy, governance]
61. A pathway for the Coalition to improve its climate change act – the 2020 climate policy toolkit [policy, politics, climate change]
62. Entering a no-analogue future – Covid 19 is giving us the world to come [Anthropocene, Covid 19]
63. Who’s the BOS? – Biodiversity offsets – state vs commonwealth [policy, politics, offsets]

64. Three letters on the apocalypse – putting a human frame on disaster [climate change, communication]
65. Washing off the virus – what happens to environmental regulation after the plague [policy, politics]

Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

Joining the dots on Sustainability Bites

By David Salt

“A real engagement with sustainability has bite.” That was our contention when we (Peter and I) began this blog. Well, have we demonstrated that in our efforts so far? And have our reflections generated any useful insights, is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? With 33 ‘bites’ now under our belt, I thought I’d take a look over what we’ve discussed so far and see if any themes are emerging.

If you read our blog’s ‘about’ page (which we haven’t touched since we began) you’ll see we had our own ideas on what ‘Sustainability Bites’ means. We said: “There are no absolute rights or wrongs in this debate on sustainability, but there are serious trade-offs and important consequences resulting from the decisions we make, and the way we make them.”

Those consequences are, if you like, the ‘bites’ of which we speak.

Governments will always sell their policy formulations as ‘win-win’ propositions but this is simply politically expedient fiction. There will always be ‘losers’ in any policy change and when it comes to sustainability those with most to lose are often big and influential ‘actors’ with considerable power in government decision making. Their vested interest in sustaining the status quo means the interests of future generations are forgotten. The present trumps the future.

33 bites, 5 emerging themes

The other meaning of the title of our blog is that we aim to serve up short, bite-sized stories on sustainability; stories based on emerging news and/or our research on various elements of the policy and science of sustainable development. So far we’ve produced 33 bites, roughly one per week since the beginning of 2019. I’ve listed these stories at the end of this blog in the order they appeared (Appendix 1) with links to each piece if you see something that catches your interest that you may have missed first time round (or maybe you only started following us recently).

Going through that list I see five themes constantly emerging:
1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis);
2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy);
3. The burden of politics and ideology (frustrating the development of good policy);
4. The value of good policy; and
5. The importance of history.

Of course, these themes arise from our interests in the sustainability sector. Peter comes from a policy background whereas I have been communicating conservation science for many years. However, I feel we have discussed enough examples to provide compelling evidence that these emerging themes are important (we would contend central) to any engagement with sustainability.

I have indicated in appendix 1 where a ‘bite’ is predominantly aimed at one of these themes should you want to read further. Many bites, of course, cross several themes.

And here are a few comments on each.

1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis)

Achieving enduring change is hard. Often it’s politically impossible. Vested interests, competing ideologies and weak governance frequently conspire to defeat our best intentions.

The more we (Peter and I) have pondered this point the more it seems the only way enduring change is achieved is through crisis. The status quo needs some form of disturbance to weaken its hold to enable a change in rules to occur.

Of course, there are many things you can do in the absence of a crisis and several of these we discuss. Importantly, when a crisis does occur, make sure there are effective policy solutions available to be deployed. ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’

2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy)

Scientists gather evidence to better understand the world and inform our choices. Politicians gather evidence to maximize their electoral return (power). Often this involves the politician selling an ideology or plan which usually leads to presenting evidence to justify a specific idea or refutes a competing ideology. In other words, science and politics are antithetical in their process (something that both sides rarely acknowledge).

But it’s not just that politicians fail to act on what science is telling us; they simultaneously use science as an excuse for not acting on the clear and growing threat of global change. They hold up the promise and power of technology as something that will save us when things get too bad, thereby enabling them to ignore the risk (and implement appropriate policy) today.

It’s really quite perverse. Our leaders often ignore the science that undermines their (political) position but then hide behind the promise of science in defending the consequences of that position.

3. The burden of politics and ideology

The biggest obstacle to meaningful policy reform for sustainability is the inertia of the status quo, and this inertia is based on the politics of self-interest and short termism. It might be that the politics is driven by ideology or it might be that ideology is used as a weapon of power to shore up the politics. In many ways it doesn’t matter which, as both situations add up to today’s vested interests stopping the consideration of the future.

I would note that Peter and I both used our first blog in this series to talk about Conservative ideology. Peter spoke about sustainability actually being a central tenet of mainstream Conservative philosophy (the notion of the good steward). And I discussed how climate denialism was consistent with a Libertarian hatred of big government and constraints on personal freedoms.

4. The value of good policy

There are many policy tools available to government to tackle issues relating to sustainability. For example, Peter devoted several blogs to exploring environmental accounts and environmental impact studies. He also discussed the role and value of the Productivity Commission and the Sustainability Development Goals (and several other policy institutions as well).

In all cases, these processes and institutions developed valuable ideas and assessments that ultimately failed to deliver real advances in sustainable development, not because they were flawed in themselves but because they weren’t implemented properly or integrated with other policy sectors.

A good policy poorly implemented can, in some ways, be worse than no policy at all because it gives the impression that a problem is being dealt with when it’s not, while the underlying problem just gets worse.

5. The importance of history

To understand why a good policy is not implemented in an appropriate way, or why ideology so often trumps rationality, it’s important to understand the historical context and development of an idea or process. Many of the stories we have examined have long histories, and to understand why something works as it does it’s necessary to see from where it came and how it has changed.

Sustainable development is a complex and dynamic field, hardly surprising given we live in a complex and dynamic world. Many of our reflections have looked back in time to see where something has come from and how it has changed over time. Does this throw any light on the past, present and future of the sustainability project? We think so, and in support of this claim I give you a timeline of what we have discussed so far (Appendix 2).

Of course, this is hardly a comprehensive treatise on the development of sustainability. It’s more a patchwork of ideas, a palimpsest of policy intent. But it’s not a bad start.

And we hope to fill in this patchy tapestry of ideas with greater detail as we chew on more bites in the future.

Image by vegasita from Pixabay

Appendix 1: 33 Bites [in order of appearance with main themes in brackets]

1. Environmental Sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion[Ideology; history]
2. Sustainability, ‘big government’ and climate denialism [Ideology, science]
3. Why Can’t We Agree on Fixing the Environment? Tribalism & short termism[Politics, crisis]
4. Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’A crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet [Change, crisis, history]
5. How are we going Australia’s OECD decadal Environmental Report Card [Good policy]

6. Throwing pebbles to make change:is it aim or timing?[Crisis and change]
7. The BIG fixWhy is it so hard [Crisis, politics]
8. Duelling scientists: Science, politics and fish kills [science culture, politics]
9. Making a difference without rocking the boat The FDR Gambit [Crisis, good policy, politics]
10. Throwing pebbles and making waves: Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam[Crisis, history]

11. Ending duplication in Environmental Impact Assessments [Policy, history]
12. Is science the answer? Technology is not the solution[Science, ideology]
13. Environmental Impact Assessment and info bureacracy [Policy, politics]
14. Confessions of a cheerleader for science: delaying action because science will save us[Science, ideology]
15. Caldwell and NEPA: the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment[History, policy]

16. This febrile environment: elections, cynicism and crisis[Politics, crisis]
17. 20 Year review of the EPBC – Australia’s national environment law [Policy, politics, history]
18. Saving the world’s biodiversity: the failure of the CBD and the need for transformative change[Policy, history, politics]
19. The value of Environmental Impact Assessment [Policy, history]
20. Retreat from reason – nihilism fundamentalism and activism [Ideology, crisis, politics]

21. Too late for no regrets pathway: a pathway to real sustainability[Politics, policy, history]
22. A short history of sustainability: how sustainable development developed[History, policy, crisis]
23. Kenneth Boulding and the spaceman economy: view from Spaceship Earth[History, policy]
24. A real climate change debate: science vs denialism[Science, politics, ideology]
25. Craik Review on green tape: environmental regulation impact on farmers[Policy, politics]

26. Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene [History, science]
27. An environmental accounting primer [Policy, history]
28. Displacement activityit’s what you do when you don’t have a real environmental policy [Politics, policy]
29. The Productivity Commission and environmental regulation [Policy, politics]
30. Framing climate change: is it a moral or an economic issue [Politics, ideology]

31. The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash [Policy, history]
32. The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain [Science, policy, politics]
33. Doing the Tesla Stretch electric cars to our economic rescue [Policy, politics]

Appendix 2: The potted timeline of Sustainability Bites

500 BC: Plato comments on the denuded hills of Attica. Five hundred years later Columella argues the need for the ‘everlasting youth’ of Earth. Also in this blog, are discussions on John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Margie Thatcher.
Environmental Sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion

1940s till now: Following the ‘reboot’ of WW2, the international community has made many concerted steps to develop a workable strategy for sustainable development.
A short history of sustainability: how sustainable development developed.

1941: Reflecting on how President Roosevelt prepared for war prior to the crisis of Pearl Harbour.
Making a difference without rocking the boat The FDR Gambit

1945: Monday, 16 July, the world’s first atomic bomb is tested, and the Anthropocene begins (the world will never be the same).
Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene

1966: New ways of perceiving the environment came to the fore in the 1960s, Boulding’s evocation of a Spaceship Earth was one of the important ones.
Kenneth Boulding and the spaceman economy: view from Spaceship Earth

1969 (and the 1960s): The US drafts its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), marking the birth of modern environmental policy (ending a decade in which environmental decline was finally triggering legislative responses)
Caldwell and NEPA: the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment

1970s & 80s: The rise of environmental politics in Australia. It really began with the flooding of a beautiful Tasmanian mountain lake.
Throwing pebbles and making waves: Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam

1972: Anthony Downs publishes on the ‘issues-attention cycle’
The BIG fixWhy is it so hard [Crisis, politics]

1972/73: The world confronts resource scarcity while simultaneously reflecting on measures of economic welfare. These were the antecedents of the environmental accounts.
An environmental accounting primer

1990s till today: A short history of attempts to reform Environmental Impact Assessment in Australia
Ending duplication in Environmental Impact Assessments

1998: Australia established the Productivity Commission to enhance the government’s efforts improving our economy, society and environment (and probably in that order).
The Productivity Commission and environmental regulation

1999: Australia’s premier national environmental law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – is passed. Twenty years on, it’s in need of a major overhaul.
20 Year review of the EPBC – Australia’s national environment law

2000: The book ‘The Tipping Point’ is released
Throwing pebbles to make change:is it aim or timing?

2005-2009: The United Kingdom shifts from a bland incremental climate policy to an ambitious goal, enshrined in law. That goal is to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.
Too late for no regrets pathway: a pathway to real sustainability

2015: The Sustainable Development Goals are adopted by the UN (following on from Agenda 21 in 1992 and the Millennium Development Goals in 2000).
The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash

2016/17: The Great Barrier Reef experiences mass bleaching under climate change
Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’A crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet

2017: Ex-Prime Minister Abbott denies climate change to an international forum
Sustainability, ‘big government’ and climate denialism

2017: At the same time that Abbott was denying the existence of climate change, the head of his Church, Pope Francis was saying: “Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.”
Framing climate change: is it a moral or an economic issue

2019: OECD delivers Australia an environmental report card (this is a process that more could be made of)
How are we going Australia’s OECD decadal Environmental Report Card

2019: Mass fish kills signal the latest impact of severe weather events (exacerbated by climate change)
Duelling scientists: Science, politics and fish kills

2019: Geoengineering is being promoted as a silver bullet for climate change
Is science the answer? Technology is not the solution

2019: UN reports unprecedented losses in biodiversity (bit like similar reports in 2015, 2010, 2005; each worse than the one before)
Saving the world’s biodiversity: the failure of the CBD and the need for transformative change

2019: Australia votes and the Conservatives get back in, a repudiation of the growing calls for environmental policy reform.
Retreat from reason – nihilism fundamentalism and activism

2019: Latest outlook reports show the Great Barrier Reef is dying and government efforts to fix water quality are failing.
The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain

Throwing pebbles to make change

Is it aim or timing that makes for the biggest impact?

By David Salt

“What do we want!”

“We want action on climate change!”

“When do we want it it!”

“We want it now!!”

And what are you going to do make it happen? Sign a petition? Throw a few bucks at some climate action group? Maybe even march in a protest rally (if you’re not off on holiday and the weather is pleasant).

At the end of the day, most of us wishing for action on climate change (and more broadly, sustainability) will happily talk about it and vote for a political representative that promises they will deliver on it (but seemingly never do). And that’s pretty much it. We’re all busy, and most of us in Australia do pretty well by global standards so why rock the boat too much.

And yet the status quo is increasingly letting us down, and climate change is becoming more real and present every year (and particularly every summer and particularly this summer). We want change, we need change; but the pathway that might deliver it is never clear and the status quo is stubbornly resistant.

Breaking the status quo

Crises often break a status quo but are normally very messy coming with mass destruction and suffering. In any case, individual citizens rarely have the capacity or opportunity to ‘engineer’ a crisis.

But citizens in many parts of the world (including Australia) do have the power to speak out and be heard. And sometimes a message resonates and is amplified. And sometimes, what starts as a single pebble of discontent being thrown against the edifice of orthodoxy, goes on to change the world. #Me Too and the Arab Spring are two examples where a few voices raised against inequality led to a massive shift in social norms and order.

Sudden shifts in the social order are sometimes referred to as tipping points, and they are one of the characteristics of complex systems. That is, a hallmark of complexity is that small changes (pebbles) can sometimes produce unexpectedly large and enduring shifts in the structure and function of the broader system.

Tipping points

Back in 2000, the pop psych author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a best-selling book titled The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference in which he suggested it was possible to create a tipping point if you could identify and harness the three groups of people (connectors, mavens and salesmen) that enable social trends to take off. “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts,” explained Gladwell. (Connectors are people who know lots of people, mavens are helpful information specialists and salesman are persuaders.)

Gladwell is a gifted writer and he did a lot to popularise the notion of tipping points but the idea that you can create your own tipping point seems a bit ridiculous to me. Indeed, some of Gladwell’s detractors suggest that if it was possible to do easily then marketeers and politicians would be creating tipping points all the time. The reason they don’t is because complex systems are unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Yes, tipping points exist but they usually only recognised after we’ve crossed one. Yes, highly connected people (Gladwells’ ‘connectors’ and ‘mavens’) can play important role is precipitating a tipping point, but their part in making it happen is usually serendipitous and unplanned. (And, I would note, there are potentially millions more of these people around now with the rise of social media like Twitter and YouTube – neither of which existed when ‘The Tipping Point’ came out).

It’s all in the timing

My belief on tipping points is that there are times when they are more easily triggered (like when the whole community is sick of the status quo and is demanding change) and times when they are less likely (such as when strong economic growth means most in the community are enjoying a degree of prosperity and stability). You throw a pebble in one time and it might foment a revolution. In another, it raises barely a ripple.

So what might this mean to someone wanting to throw pebbles to cause change? I think it means that both your aim and timing is important. You want your message/concern/demand to be acknowledged by people who will make a difference (this relates to the aim of your throw) but you also want to make sure the timing of your throw is in a period that, should you hit your target, the message will be acted upon.

But here’s the thing. While it might be obvious after the event (eg, #Me Too and the Arab Spring) that ‘change’ was in the wind, nobody spotted it beforehand; and nobody predicted where the first seed would take off from.

If you want change then start throwing pebbles at the status quo. Sign those petitions, march in those protests, support those groups advocating for change. But don’t kid yourself you’re achieved anything with a single pebble. What it takes is many pebbles thrown at many targets over a sustained period. And if others in the community start throwing pebbles too then you never know, that tipping point might be closer than you think.

And in this summer of extremes and at the end of four of the hottest years on record during which Australia has witnessed unprecedented mass coral bleaching and mass river death, the time might be right.

Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’

Would a crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet make a difference?

By David Salt

How do we break the current gridlock on sustainability? What would it take to get our political leaders to commit to meaningful long-term change?

If we could break the hold of vested interests by full public funding of elections it’d be a great start. Blunting tribalism by mobilising public opinion and ending short-termism through longer parliamentary terms might also help. Such solutions (very sensibly proposed by Peter) are easy to argue but diabolically difficult to implement.

Or are they? Maybe what we need is a good crisis, a catalyst to dissolve all those pesky impediments standing in the way of real policy reform; a call to arms to the broader population that we need to get serious about sustainability.

A ‘good’ crisis

A student of mine recently opined that to break the gridlock on climate change we needed a new ‘Pearl Harbour’ moment. He was referring to the day Pearl Harbour was bombed by the Japanese Imperial Forces during the Second World War, thrusting the US into that global conflagration. Over 2,400 Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbour but the event transformed the nation overnight into a war machine that would go on to become the world’s leading superpower.

We need another transformative moment for the environment, something that would lead to deep and enduring engagement with the challenge of sustainability. So what might it take?

Several years ago I covered an environmental futures conference in Canberra where the mood was decidedly glum (It was titled ‘Can Homo sapiens survive?’ and included luminaries such as Frank Fenner and Stephen Boyden). The general consensus was that prospects for the future of our planet were not looking good. Many said we needed a wakeup call. One scientist commented that he felt nothing short of a massive crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet would be enough.

Is there anything in the history of environmental science (and policy) that gives us hope that a shock might make a difference to our seeming deep indifference to declining environmental health?

Some point to the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in the mid 1980s, a phenomenon caused by stratospheric ozone depletion caused by human created gases (chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs). The existence of a massive and growing hole in our upper atmosphere came as a complete shock – some even claimed it was an existential threat to human life on Earth.

And, as an international community, we did something about it. We agreed via the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to phase out ozone depleting substances and it seems our actions are reducing concentrations of ozone depleting substances in the atmosphere, and the hole is shrinking. Though, when it comes to big environmental challenges, this success seems more the exception than the rule.

Another crack

Another ‘crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet’ (if we use that as a metaphor for an environmental wakeup call) appeared in Australia in 2016. This time in the form of a mass bleaching event of the Great Barrier Reef. Unprecedented in size and intensity, this bleaching event led to the death of up to a third of the reef; and it was followed up by a similar sized event in 2017.

The cause was crystal clear: climate change and overheating. The scientific consensus on what we need to do about it is overwhelming: reduce carbon emissions and, specifically, stop burning coal. And what was the political response at the national level? The response was one of denial and withdrawal from any engagement with the topic of climate change (though millions of dollars was thrown at a Great Barrier Reef restoration fund to give the impression the government was doing something, but that’s a topic for another day).

Of course, there are crises and crises. Each is unique in terms of magnitude, longevity, frequency and impact. And each has a different legacy; some good, some bad and some of no consequence.

So how big does a crisis need to be to create meaningful change? Some observers reckon that Australia’s Millennial Drought, reckoned to be Australia’s worst drought since European settlement, enabled some progress in water reform but that it might have been better had it lasted just that bit longer for the reform to have had real enduring bite. (Not that any suffering farmer would agree that a historic drought might have achieved more had it been longer).

It’s hard to conceive that the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017 could have been any worse, and yet it failed to achieve any meaningful action on climate change policy at all.

What we need is a Goldilocks’ crisis: not so small that it fails to break the policy gridlock; but not so large that it brings down the whole system and it can’t rebuild.

The flip side of crisis

Complex systems science has a bit to say about disturbance and crisis, and their capacity to produce change. Whether a disturbance will cause deep and long lasting change to a system depends a lot on the system’s resilience at the time of disturbance. A disturbance in one circumstance (say the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the event that precipitated World War I) might change the world whereas in another situation, no-one might notice. This is something to discuss in future blogs.

No-one actually wishes for a crisis. Drought, fire and flooding rain bring destruction, death, suffering and uncertainty. But, as any politician will tell you, the flip side of a crisis is that it’s also a window of opportunity to change things (“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” said Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emmanuel).

And today’s status quo is propelling us towards an increasingly uncertain and impoverished future. We need deep change. A Goldilocks crisis now might be better than a mama or papa of a crisis later.