What is ecology’s contribution to sustainability? And why does economics get the Big Chair at the dinner table?

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By Peter Burnett

For most people who take an interest in it, sustainability is the central idea of Our Common Future, a major United Nations report on environment and development. It was published in 1987.

You may know it as the Brundtland Report, after its principal author, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a medical doctor who became the first female Prime Minister of Norway in the early 1980s and, later, Director General of the World Health Organisation.

Whenever I pick up my copy of Our Common Future I’m always drawn to a sentence on the back cover: ‘Our Common Future serves notice that the time has come for a marriage of economy and ecology…’

Due to the efforts of some pioneering economists and ecologists from the late 1980s, there is a marriage of economics and ecology within a new discipline created by those pioneers, that of ecological economics. But this marriage has few progenies beyond academia.

Even within ecological economics, there are some signs that the marriage is not an equal one. Ecology has influenced the approach of economics but not the other way round.

I began to wonder. What is ecology and what is its contribution to sustainability?

Economics comes in from the cold

Let’s start with economics. In the decades following the outbreak of World War II, economics ‘came in from the cold’, completely transforming itself from just another academic discipline, inhabited by retiring academics, to one that some critics attack as ‘imperialist’ or ‘hegemonic’ in its attitudes.

This transformation happened because governments invited economists into the very heart of government.

First, they wanted to win the war, a ‘total war’ requiring that the efforts of every sector of the economy be directed towards victory.

Then, governments wanted economists to assist them to win the peace, initially to find jobs for millions of returning allied soldiers and subsequently to show that capitalism had a better recipe for prosperity than communism in the ideological battles of the emerging Cold War.

The resulting mantra of ‘jobs and growth’ also helped win elections at home and became a fixed feature of the political landscape.

Economists delivered the goods. As a result, they wield an influence that is the envy of most other disciplines.

Oxford economist Kate Raworth encapsulated this influence in her description of economics as the ‘mother tongue of public policy’.

If economics is its ‘mother tongue’ then, unfortunately, ecology remains a foreign language to public policy.

What about ecology?

The term ‘ecology’ was coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), a 28-year-old German marine biologist, although some ecological ideas, like ‘the balance of nature’, go right back to the Greek philosophers.

Ecology is the study of the relationship between living things and their environment.

Ecology didn’t really take off until the mid-twentieth century. Raymond Lindeman’s (1915–1942) work on trophic dynamics (energy flows in particular food-web levels) was seminal for ecosystem ecology, while the brothers Eugene Odum (1913–2002) and Howard Odum (1924–2002)published their influential textbook, Fundamentals of Ecology, in 1953.

Ecology entered the popular lexicon in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Many claim this book triggered what can be described as the modern environmental era.

The influence of ecology on sustainability

Sustainability seeks to identify the human behaviour that will allow the greatest possible level of economic activity consistent with maintaining the ‘ecosystem services’ that Nature provides to humans.

Because ecology is concerned with the natural relationship between plants and animals and their physical environment, ecologists can advise humans on what they may do, or must not do, if they want these ecosystem services to continue (let alone maintain Nature for its inherent value and beauty).

Economics is concerned with the efficient allocation of scarce resources, all of which come, directly or indirectly, from Nature. Economic advice is given routinely in the context of constraints on the supply of resources.

Typically, those constraints have been related to humans factors, such as cost. But there is no reason why economics cannot operate equally well within restraints identified by ecologists, based on Nature’s ability to maintain ecosystem services.

In essence, this is the marriage of economics and ecology.

Economics does not have much to teach ecology in terms of its method, but it can help set ecology’s agenda: from a sustainability perspective, the key questions are ‘what is required to keep Nature operating’ and ‘how can humans restore ecological loss already sustained?’

Married, but not communicating

Both ‘ecology’ and ‘economics’ come for the Greek oikos, meaning household, so it seems the attraction between the two disciplines is a natural one (pardon the pun).

However, they speak different languages and, unfortunately for ecology, the marital home, sustainability, lies in the (economic-speaking) land of government.

The challenges of communicating ecological insights in this foreign land are myriad. Apart from ecologists not being native speakers of economics (and vice-versa) their substantive ideas concerning ecological relationships and processes are not obvious to the ordinary person.

Great communicators wanted

It seems to me that, to put this marriage on a more equal footing, ecology needs more great communicators.

These are rare birds indeed. So rare, that of the first two who spring to my mind, one is of great age and the other passed away nearly 15 years ago.

Internationally, David Attenborough is a master and highly influential.

In Australia, the late Professor Peter Cullen of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists was also a master communicator. His passing in 2008 was a great loss to our country.

These two leaders exemplify the skills we need: they are (were) well-versed in biological science, relate naturally to ordinary people through media, speak fluent public policy and, to ice the cake, have mellifluous voices!

We need to do more to grow these skills.

In 2018 the ABC began awarding media residencies annually to Australia’s ‘Top Five Young Scientist Communicators’, a great initiative.

Who else will nurture our young ‘Attenboroughs’ and ‘Cullens’?

Building a truly sustainable future will require more of these vital bridge builders.

Banner image by geralt @ Pixabay

Insensible on coal

Why climate change policy is such a challenge for Australian politics

By Peter Burnett

As I write this, our national Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is mocking his Opposition counterpart as some sort of guru-seeking hippy for daring to suggest that Australia might adopt New Zealand’s idea of a ‘well-being budget’.

This is just the latest example of our very low level of Australian policy debate: the ‘well-being budget’ is a serious attempt to address the well-known limitations of GDP (basically national income) as a measure of ‘progress’. It is particularly relevant to environmental issues and deserves a considered debate. Perhaps I’ll write about it in another blog.

It’s easy to despair over the shallow debate involving the environment, particularly when the state of our environment has started biting us in ways that are, to deploy once again this summer’s most overused word, unprecedented.

Is political agreement on a rational and proportionate environmental policy even possible? I thought I would look at this question by focusing on the troublesome issue of coal and climate change.

A tough challenge even in an ideal policy world

Our quality of life has been built on fossil fuels. In Australia, one fossil fuel in particular, coal, has supported our lifestyle not only by providing most of the energy needed for electricity production, but also by serving as a ‘top three’ export-earner.

So, phasing out coal presents a double policy challenge.

It is common to reflect on the fact that climate change requires concerted global action. Yet it is uncommon to reflect on the system behind the international approach to orchestrating such action.

The underlying problem is one of too many people consuming too much stuff, most of which generates greenhouse gases, one way or another. This is a problem tailor-made for economics, a discipline often defined as the study of efficient allocation of scarce resources.

If we had asked economists rather than diplomats to come up with a solution, they would have told us that getting consumption down to sustainable levels is all a matter of ‘getting the prices right’ and that if ‘stuff’ produces too much greenhouse gas, the answer is to put up the price of ‘stuff’, in proportion to the amount of gas it generates.

In an ideal world, then, we would have ended up with a uniform global carbon tax, with the rate set at just the right level to disincentivise the production of excessive greenhouse gases. Problem solved.

The realpolitik of the Climate Change Convention

However, the real world is not built around economic theory. It’s based on nation states and their absolute sovereignty. International diplomacy is a parliament of equals, but with no overarching government to enforce the rules.

As a result, when countries agree on international action, they tend to do so by agreeing to regulate only what goes on inside their own borders, relying on other countries to implement their own corresponding regulation but usually without any means of making them do so.

With climate change, this system of each nation focusing on their own back yard leads to a system where by countries regulate domestic emissions not just from consumption, but also from production. Mixed models such as this tend to produce anomalies.

For example, resource-rich countries such as Australia are advantaged in comparison to manufacturing countries such as China. Emissions from manufactured goods such as tools and furniture will be counted mostly in the country in which they are produced, increasing export prices if carbon is priced, while emissions from natural resources such as coal are (mostly) accounted for in the country in which they are consumed, with little effect on export prices under a carbon price.

What’s more, if we did reduce coal exports by restricting new mines, any emission reductions would not count towards our international targets. This leaves us with an unbalanced incentive to promote coal mining, but only for export.

Just make the best of it?

Okay, so the model is less than ideal but it is not likely to change. So, despite its flaws, can we extract policy success (ie climate change mitigation) from the existing system?

If we stay focused on the outcomes rather than the inputs, as any good policy should, the answer is a qualified ‘yes’. Under this approach we’d be targeting greenhouse gas reductions and not coal specifically, even though coal is a major source of greenhouse gases.

In the case of coal we would still need to phase-out domestic use, although we could be technology agnostic and pursue emissions reduction generally rather than reduced coal consumption specifically. We would also want to reduce emissions reductions from coal mining, but again the measures could be industry-blind and not directed at mining specifically.

On the other hand, we would not target emissions reduction from coal exports, because these emissions would count towards the targets of our customers rather than ourselves. Nevertheless, because it is essential for the planet that we get out of coal on a global basis, we would need to work towards the adoption of increasingly ambitious targets and regimes internationally.

Success here would have the incidental effect of reducing demand for coal, including our own exports.

Is this feasible?

Even though we wouldn’t be targeting coal or exports, this approach would remain a hard sell domestically. Despite the double policy virtues of good prospects of climate mitigation success and compliance with the letter and spirit of international agreements, the politics would still be tough.

Domestic environment groups have managed to demonise not just the consumption of coal, but its production. They have done this for their own reasons, in part because domestic place-based campaigns are what they do best: the environment movement was built on them.

On the other hand, coal-producing regions would not be appeased just because we weren’t targeting coal directly. We’d still be taking action internationally that would harm the coal industry. Jobs would still be under threat and transition programs would still be needed.

So action on coal, or more accurately, action on emissions including those from coal, is politically feasible, but hardly attractive. The best policy path available barely dents the political risk and pain.

The conundrum with coal is the same as that posed by climate change more generally: would you like a moderate dose of pain now or a much bigger and tougher dose of pain delivered to your children? At this point in time it seems we are happy to pass the burden to our children.

Image: Then Treasurer (now PM) Scott Morrison holds up a chunk of coal in Parliament in 2017. “This is coal,” he said mockingly to the Opposition. “Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you.”

Calling all economists: don’t let the denialists leave you the blame

Climate change is both an economic AND a moral issue

By David Salt

“Where climate change is a moral issue we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue, as tonight shows, we do very, very well.”

These were Tony Abbott’s parting words on the 18 May 2019 as he conceded defeat at the recent federal elections. The voters in his Warringah electorate had finally tired of his denialist cant, and his wrecking and leaking from the side lines.

But in the ashes of his defeat he still found solace in the fact that while he had lost, his party, the Liberals, had won. They took no credible policy on carbon emissions (or the environment in general) to the election, they backed the development of new coal mines, and they scared the nation that the changes the nation would face under the opposition would cost everyone.

Against all poll-based predications, the Liberals won, and from their (close) victory they claim they have a mandate to ramp up the economic development of our fossil fuel reserves and continue with their non-action on the environmental front (with displacement activity on plastic recycling on the side to cover the void of their inaction).

Economics traduced

So, while Abbott has departed the political stage, possibly his parting observation of how the conservatives should be framing climate change held some truth: ‘Where climate change is framed as an economic issue, the Liberals do very, very well.’

If that’s the case then the once noble science of economics has been traduced – revealed as lacking a moral centre. It is merely a tool (a pawn) in a political game used to instil fear and prejudice in a jittery electorate.

Climate change is big – indeed it’s massive – but it’s also amorphous, uncertain and lies in our future (even though its impacts are starting to be felt). With clever economic framing it’s easy to convince people that the deep, transformative change that the world’s scientists say we need comes with ‘unacceptable’ short term costs. This is the exact game the Liberal party has been playing.

Indeed, the Liberals line in the run up to the last election was that their climate policies met their climate commitments “without wrecking the economy” and they released economic modelling suggesting Labor’s 45% target would cost the economy billions. The Liberals climate commitments have been shown time and again to be inadequate and their modelling of Labor’s higher target have been widely debunked.

It was a climate campaign based on fear and deception, and it seems that it worked in that it convinced voters the short term costs outweighed any longer term benefits. And then the government’s biggest denier (in the form of its past leader Tony Abbott) claimed it was simply an economics framing.

Stand up and be counted!

Well, I say to economists everywhere, please don’t accept this. Your science is based on rationality, public welfare and moral outcomes. Don’t allow conservatives to hide behind the economic façade of short term optimisation. Don’t allow them to sell your science as a reason to turn our back on climate change.

Of course, economists are some of the biggest supporters of meaningful action on climate change. And, truth to tell, there are real dangers in raising any issue to the status of a moral crisis.

In 2007 one of the world’s leading economists, Sir Nicholas Stern, told the world that “climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen.”

“The evidence on the seriousness of the risks from inaction or delayed action is now overwhelming. We risk damages on a scale larger than the two world wars of the last century. The problem is global and the response must be a collaboration on a global scale,” said Stern.

Our own Prime Minister at the time, Kevin Rudd, then chimed in on this rising tide of concern by labelling climate change as “the great moral challenge of our generation.” But then he seemed to squib on his commitment as soon as it hit resistance in parliament (resistance led by Tony Abbott). Surely the ‘great moral challenge of our generation’ was worthy of a bit of a fight.

But with major ecosystems failing, mass extinctions on the increase and Pacific nations drowning under rising seas, there can be no doubt that climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation. It’s also the great ecological, economic and social issue of our times, and experts from all areas should be standing up and demanding our political leaders see it as such.

For a past prime minister (Tony Abbott) to claim otherwise is immoral. To claim legitimacy for his party’s denialism by hiding it behind the cloak of economics is deceitful but in that he invoked economics it’s beholden on economists everywhere to set the record straight.

But the last word goes to the Pope

And another little postscript on Abbott’s election night epiphany. He began by pointing out that ‘where climate change is a moral issue the Liberals do it tough’. Where is Abbott’s moral centre in this debate? As a self-professed Catholic of deep faith, what does he make of Pope Francis’ declaration (coincidently also made in May this year). Pope Francis said: “We continue along old paths because we are trapped by our faulty accounting and by the corruption of vested interests. We still reckon as profit what threatens our very survival.” From this perspective, the Liberals economic framing is revealed to be merely faulty accounting and corrupt.

Not that Abbott has ever shown the moral fortitude of the leader of his Church. At the same time that Abbott was telling the world that climate change was not something to worry about, Pope Francis is on the record as saying: “Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.”

Image byPete Linforth fromPixabay

The BIG fix

Why can’t we just fix the environment?

By Peter Burnett

Environmental experts tell us that there are big problems with the environment. Increasingly, our own senses are telling us this too (consider this past year and recent summers). Yet, although we talk about it all the time and governments make announcements, things just get worse. Why can’t we just fix it, once and for all?

There are many reasons why we don’t come up with a big fix. Environmental decline is a complex problem operating at different scales and involving many uncertainties and unknowns. Often we are not sure what needs to be done. How do you restore a degraded landscape for example?

Overspending our natural income

But most of the problem is us. We are consuming nature faster than it can renew itself. We are like a family with a large inheritance (ie nature) in the bank, living off the interest. Except that we don’t. We are over-spending our ‘natural income’, using up nature faster than it can renew itself and making up for it by drawing down the inheritance instead, the ‘natural capital’. If we keep doing this, there won’t be enough nature left for future generations: it’s their inheritance too.

But going back to living off our natural income means not just tightening our belts as individuals or countries, but settling all the ‘family squabbles’ between countries about a fair sharing of the belt-tightening. And paying back our environmental debt, replacing the natural capital we shouldn’t have consumed, eg by going beyond reductions in carbon emissions, and actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

So it’s difficult scientifically and it’s difficult socially. The environment is not called a ‘wicked problem’ for nothing! Despite this, there are some things we could do relatively easily. We waste a lot of stuff, eg food. And technology can help us do more with less – eg, renewable energy. But even these ‘low-hanging fruit’ aren’t as easy to pick as it might seem because any change, even positive change, creates winners and losers.

It’s a moving target and we are ‘predictably irrational’

Even if we could pick these low-hanging fruit, by themselves they aren’t enough. New technology and more efficiency will not bring the Earth System back into a safe operating space. The Earth’s population is growing, and so are standards of living, which usually means consuming more. We will still need to take some hard decisions, with far-reaching consequences.

For some on the political Right this raises a spectre of ‘big government’, even ‘world government’. But many others among us are wary too, not because of ideologies about big government but for practical reasons. We don’t like tough decisions. They hit our ‘hip pocket nerve’ and deflate our ingrained expectations of ‘progress’, the sense that our quality of life will always improve.

This is why many of us take the irrational position that we want the environment fixed, but at someone else’s cost. A recent article in The Economist summed this phenomenon up well: ‘Few people like change, even when they have voted for it, and those touched the most like it the least.’ And they weren’t even talking about the environment! Countries think like this too. No-one likes to slip back down the greasy pole.

The environment and the issue-attention cycle

One theorist, Anthony Downs, offered an early explanation as to why we avoid major change as a solution to environmental (and other) problems. He called his article ‘Up and Down with Ecology: the “issue-attention cycle”. He discussed this idea back in the early 1970s and you can probably guess the drift of this argument.

The cycle goes like this: When we first become aware of a major problem like the environment we are alarmed, and then enthusiastically demand action. Sometimes, and the environment is an example of this, we expect a technological solution. Then, as we realise over time how difficult and expensive it is to solve the problem, we lose interest, some because they feel threatened by it, while others become bored or inured.

The reasons may differ, but people are united in not wanting to confront the need for major social change. Other issues emerge (health, immigration, education etc) and the caravan moves on, although even in 1972 Downs thought this would occur more slowly with the environment because of the significance and impact of environmental issues.

Mainstream economics, which underpins most mainstream policy, reinforces our instinctive reactions with its ‘Pareto efficiency’ benchmark. That is based on the idea of making people as well off as possible, without making anyone else worse off (or at least compensating them if they are). It’s a ‘no disadvantage’ test.

Unfortunately, with the environment being a problem of a collective overdrawing of nature’s bank account, there’s no way we could apply such a test. It’s not a matter of compensating a few losers at the margins.

Get real

In fact, we’ve all been winners to varying degrees but between us we’ve consumed the winnings. To fix the problem properly, we’d have to stop increasing our withdrawals of natural capital, pay our ecological debt back to future generations, and work out how to share the belt-tightening, all without sending the current economy into a tailspin.

Given the enormity of this challenge, is it any wonder we either put our heads in the sand, or fall back on weak measures. For example, the best we’ve been able to achieve internationally on climate change is the Paris climate agreement in 2015. This agreement relies on countries taking voluntary action, and (hopefully) then succumbing to peer pressure to push their voluntary commitments up. So far, this has left us a long way short of what’s needed.

Taken together, these arguments suggest, unfortunately, that we won’t demand real action, and governments will not take it, until a crisis makes the problem impossible to ignore. How big a crisis will it take?