Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

Featured

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

Duelling scientists at 10 paces

When it comes to ecosystem collapse, will ‘my’ scientist say something that overshadows what ‘your’ scientist says? If the game of science is played according to its own rules, probably not. Unlike the game of politics, in science evidence is king.

By David Salt

When the environmental chips are down, who do you turn to? When an environmental crisis can’t be denied or ignored, who do you call?

For many politicians, the call is put out for scientists who can provide some expert advice that might help. At the very least, it gives the pollies something to say, it delays a difficult decision and sometimes pushes the problem far enough down the road till the issue-attention cycle has cooled (or it’s past the next election).

Smells fishy

So it was last month when millions of dead fish began bobbing to the surface along the Darling, one of Australia’s great river systems. The stench was horrid and the pictures graphic. Locals were disgusted and made videos accusing river managers, political leaders and irrigators of incompetence, corruption and malfeasance. Where lay the truth?

Everyone had an excuse – ‘it was the drought’s fault!’ was one of the most common invocations – but the disgust of the local community and the graphic imagery flooding the news media swamped all protestations and the pollies were looking for something to hide behind.

Who do you call? An expert scientific committee, of course. They’ll give us sage, technocratic advice couched in big words and heaps of caveats that will allow the pollies responsible for this area to escape immediate responsibility. So far, so normal.

Two reviews are better than none

But this story, the case of the mass fish kills at Menindee, has a few novel edges to it. For starters, it wasn’t the government who asked for an expert review, it was the opposition party. And they didn’t choose the reviewers. Instead they asked Australia’s scientific brain’s trust – the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) – to select an independent panel and provide feedback in weeks.

The Government’s response? First they disparaged the AAS accusing it of being too close to the opposition party, and then they set up their own scientific enquiry (“a fair dinkum independent panel”) to provide another independent scientific review that would deliver its interim findings days after the AAS review.

So, here we have two ‘duelling’ science reviews studying the same environmental disaster, releasing ‘competing’ reviews in days of each other; one for the government, one for the opposition. Such a ‘contest’ is in many ways farcical and potentially damaging to the brand value of science.

Or is it? Truth to tell, the game of science is not the game of politicians. Politicians play to win elections (to gain power). They’ll promise anything they can get away with, often shirk the hard decisions that upset their biggest donors, and bend the truth as far the system will allow (and often further). They are kept in line by voter awareness and the many checks and balances that the democratic system has built around their power (though the pollies always appear to be watering down these constraints).

The game of science

The game of science is based on the collection of evidence, and the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. Scientists are kept in line by peer review, transparency and accountability.

Which is why I parenthesised ‘duelling’, ‘competing’ and ‘contest’ in the above description. Because while the Government clearly intended its independent review to overshadow the opposition’s independent review, that’s not how the eminent scientists who undertook the review saw it. They saw it as an opportunity to review the facts, to collect the evidence and throw a little light on an epic environmental disaster.

And, because the institution of science is relatively strong in Australia (if poorly resourced in the environment sector), the resulting reports (just released) made strong statements about deficiencies in management that were, for the most part, in agreement and complementary with each other.

The Australian Academy of Science’s report, Investigation of the causes of mass fish kills in the Menindee Region NSW over the summer of 2018-2019, found that: There isn’t enough water in the Darling system to avoid catastrophic outcomes. This is partly due to the ongoing drought. However, analysis of rainfall and river flow data over decades points to excess water extraction upstream.

The second report, commissioned by the Government, Independent Assessment of the 2018-19 Fish Deaths in the Lower Darling, found that the fish death events in the lower Darling were preceded and affected by exceptional climatic conditions… amplified by climate change.

Both reports said there had been inadequate scientific monitoring and a lamentable lack of consultation with the local communities on the Darling River over time. As the AAS report put it: “engagement with local residents, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, has been cursory at best, resulting in insufficient use of their knowledge and engagement around how the system is best managed.”

The evidence is in

In this short space it’s impossible to dissect the full set of causes (and solutions) of the eco catastrophe that the mass fish kills at Menindee has become. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that adverse weather, climate change, mismanagement, poor governance, greed and corruption have all played a role. It’s a complex, richly layered story that spreads out over multiple scales of time and space.

Politics will always look for simple solutions when disaster strikes, and politicians will often claim they have the silver bullet to slay the problem beast that has emerged. But complex environmental problems rarely have simple solutions (and silver bullets are but a myth). Good science usually points this out, though whether that results in better policy depends on many factors.

In this particular case, both sides of politics sought to use science as a political weapon. And both resulting reviews have concluded it was a lack of science in the first place that led to such a horrific environmental outcome.

Environmental sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion

In the face of a worsening global crisis, can’t we find some common ground?

By Peter Burnett

‘The Environment’ has been a major public concern for more than fifty years now. Surveys consistently place the environment among the issues of greatest social concern, while numerous scientific reports continue to document a general and ongoing environmental decline. What’s more, the effects of environmental decline are becoming increasingly obvious, not only through intense heat, drought and cyclones, but also as previously unknown phenomena such as multiple coral bleaching events and arctic wildfires.

With all this concern and things getting worse, you’d expect action, but paradoxically, having gained considerable momentum in earlier years, environmental policy seems to be moving more slowly as the problem worsens, like an icebreaker that slows and eventually becomes stuck as it moves further into the pack ice. Even the Paris climate agreement of 2015, which looked at the time like a significant breakthrough into more navigable policy waters, now looks to have been no more than a patch of thinner ice. Optimists can retain some hope because of growing indications that renewable energy technologies might mitigate climate change, despite policy efforts. Yet technology is much less likely to solve other dimensions of environmental decline, especially biodiversity loss. We still need good policy.

The greatest obstacle to progress on policy is the polarisation of political views on the environment. In modern discourse, we have become so used to associating environmental concern with the political Left that we’ve lost sight of the fact that caring for the environment, especially when seen through a sustainability lens, is actually a fundamentally conservative idea. Perhaps navigable policy waters can be found in the roots of environmental concern, among older notions of what we would now describe as environmental sustainability.

Good husbandry

Concerns about human impacts on the environment go back to antiquity. Some 2,500 years ago, Plato compared the denuded hills of Attica to bleached skeletons, while just over 2,000 years ago the Roman writer Columella lamented the depletion of agricultural land on the Italian peninsula.

Searching for a solution, he argued the need to maintain the ‘everlasting youth’ of the Earth through good husbandry. This is as clear a definition of sustainability as any you’ll find today.

In the early modern era, the roots of sustainability can be traced to the great Enlightenment philosopher John Locke and his theories of private property. Locke argued that by investing their labour in harvesting goods from nature, individuals gained the right to regard them as private property. But he attached a proviso to this. The right to convert natural goods into private property would apply only where there was enough left in common for others, in good condition. This provides another good framing for sustainability.

In usufruct to the living

In the eighteenth century, the French Revolution prompted Thomas Jefferson to reflect on the rights of the present generation to bind those coming after, leading him to argue that ‘the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’. This was a reference to the Roman civil law concept of ususfructus, which was the right to use the land and take produce, without impairing its capacity to produce. (This is not old hat. Margaret Thatcher made much the same argument in her famous statement to the 1998 British Conservative Party conference that no generation has a ‘freehold’ on the earth: ‘All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full.’ )

Early sustainability concerns were not just philosophical reflections. Wood shortages affected a number of European countries in the early modern era. In 18th century this prompted discussion in German forestry circles on how to use natural resources in the interests of present and future generations, leading Von Carlowitz to propose a principle of nachhaltende Nutzung (sustainable use). This implied the need to keep the harvesting of trees within rates of regrowth.

Two centuries later, in 1908, US President Theodore Roosevelt, riding the Progressive Era tide of public interest in conservation, established a National Conservation Commission, which then made the first survey of the natural resources of the United States. Even into the early years of the ‘Great Acceleration’ of economic growth after World War II, the economist Ciriacy-Wantrup was arguing that we shouldn’t run nature down because the cost of restoring it would be unacceptably high.

Society is a contract…

None of these arguments is even slightly suggestive of what might be described today as a ‘Green Left agenda’. In fact, you could argue that conservatives were all over this issue more than a century ago. What is common to the arguments is an express or implied concern for the future, especially a social obligation to future generations. This is entirely consistent with the argument of another conservative, British philosopher and MP Edmund Burke, that ‘Society is a contract… between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are to be born’. This concern is also the essence of ‘intergenerational equity’, the principle underlying the modern ideal of environmental sustainability.

With broad support for environmental causes on the Left, and with the strong conservative pedigree of sustainability, why isn’t there bipartisan support for policies to keep the environment in good condition for future generations?