Game of Sustainability – Episode One: A New Hope


By Peter Burnett

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

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

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

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

The second wave

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

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

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

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

Environmental revival in politics

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

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

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

Let the games begin …

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, back home …

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

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

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

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

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

eleventh hour ad hoc responses to proposals … (both within and outside Governments), minimal recognition of the multiple objectives involved in resource allocation decisions and a propensity for parties to seek ‘winner take all outcomes’ without understanding economic, social or environmental consequences.*

Round one to rationality … sort of

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

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

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

All this would change the following year, 1989.

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

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

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

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


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

‘The Big Shift’ begins – sustainable development comes to Australia


Environmental policy changes under the third Hawke government (1987-1990)

By Peter Burnett

This is another in our series on the environmental policies of previous Australian Governments.

The story so far: In the previous instalment in this series on environmental policy in Australia, we saw how the Hawke Government was elected in 1983 on the back of a wave of environmental concern surrounding the proposed Franklin Dam in Tasmania. Unfortunately, having stopped the dam, the Government lost its enthusiasm for the environment. But the wheel was turning …

In the lead-up to the 1987 election Hawke swung back to a fairly strong pro-environment stance. Environmental concerns were on the rise and, in return for Labor’s campaign commitments in relation to environmentally-significant areas such as Kakadu Stage II, the environment movement had advocated a vote for Labor.

Graham Richardson, a backbencher but nevertheless an influential party fixer, was instrumental in negotiating these commitments. After Labor won the election, Richardson’s reward was not just promotion to the ministry as Environment Minister, but the elevation of the environment portfolio to cabinet.

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

What Now?

Labor implemented the promises it made about expanding Kakadu; it also protected some other very special places including the Wet Tropics forests and Shelburne Bay in North Queensland.

But this wasn’t where the action lay for policy nerds. The most interesting action was to be found inside the Cabinet.

The ‘environmental turn’ had been driven much more by politics than policy. Flushed with success and now a cabinet minister, Graeme Richardson pressed for more of what some insiders deprecatingly called ‘one-off forays’, or ‘icons’, interventions to protect prominent bits of the environment with high public appeal, without a larger vision or plan about how to care for the environment.

While this approach held the prospect of more political success, it also caused deep frustration on the part of ministers with economic portfolios.

Events intervened. While the Hawke Cabinet didn’t know it at the time, 1987 was the year in which (what I would call) ‘The Big Shift’ in environmental policy began.

Sustainable development: will it sink or swim?

In mid-1987 the United Nations published a report, Our Common Future, or Brundtland Report as it was known.

This was no ordinary report. On the back of a several environmental disasters including the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the Brundtland Report was grabbing headlines.

Brundtland put a new concept on the table, ‘sustainable development’, which it defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

The Environment Department advised Richardson to raise the Brundtland Report in Cabinet, but he rejected this idea.

The archives don’t reveal why, but my guess is that Richardson wanted to continue his ‘icons’ approach.

Politically, the ‘icons’ approach was simple and successful. ‘Sustainable Development’, on the other hand, was a nebulous policy idea. Why risk it?

Policy fights back

But if Richardson thought he could apply a little of Sir Humphrey’s ‘masterly inaction’, he’d underestimated the Clark Kent-like Primary Industries Minister John Kerin.

At the suggestion of the head of the mining lobby, Kerin read the Brundtland Report. He writes in his autobiography that he saw in Sustainable Development a possible way to reconcile competing arguments on environmental management and began promoting the idea.

But Kerin had also built up a head of steam. In his submission to Cabinet, he was highly critical of:

“eleventh hour ad hoc responses to proposals … minimal recognition of the multiple objectives involved in resource allocation decisions and a propensity for parties to seek “winner take all outcomes” without understanding economic, social or environmental consequences.”

Kerin persuaded Hawke and other ministers to send Richardson and himself away to develop options for rationalising and improving the policy framework for decisions on what was blandly described as ‘competing land uses’.

Surprisingly, Kerin didn’t actually suggest that the government endorse Sustainable Development per se. Instead, perhaps hoping to hoist Richardson on his own policy petard, he made sure that Cabinet directed that the two ministers take into account the policy principles embodied in the dormant Nature Conservation Strategy from 1984.

While this strategy pre-dated the Brundtland report, it took a Brundtland-like approach of pursuing both conservation and development as essential.

Working the policy through

The work was delegated to officials. It must have been hard going, because it took officials from the environment and economic departments 11 months to prepare a report for Cabinet, during which they identified no less than 47 objectives and principles to be applied in resolving conflicting land-use claims! (Admittedly the principles were divided into categories; eg, economic principles, conflict resolution principles.)

And it seems that 11 months of dialogue had exhausted everyone, because, rather than telling the public servants to whittle the 47 principles down to a manageable few, Cabinet endorsed the lot!

Things weren’t as bad as they looked though, because the three principles at the head of the list of 47 were given primacy by being endorsed as ‘notable’.

More than this, Cabinet agreed to establish the Resource Assessment Commission (RAC), an independent body which was to assess and report on major environment and development issues (but only if the government gave them a reference). And the three ‘notable’ principles were written into the RAC legislation.

So, round one in the fight for good policy went to Kerin and the economic ministers.

We now had a set of environmental policy principles and a body, headed by a judge, to report on major environment and development issues. (I’ll tell you what happened to the RAC another day.)

The principles

But what about the principles, I hear you say?

The first dealt with policy integration. Common sense really: consider conservation and development together, as early as possible.

The remaining two principles reflect the downsides of compromise.

The second principle was that there should be ‘benefit optimisation’, which seems like an attempt to graft environmental and equity considerations onto economic efficiency. But it takes the easy way out: while saying that decision-makers should look at all three factors (environment, society, economy), the principle gives no guidance as to how they can be reconciled to produce a single outcome.

The third principle, that in some cases both conservation and development can be accommodated concurrently or sequentially, and, in other cases, choices must be made between alternative uses, seems like weasel words to me, to play down the need to make hard decisions.

For example, the idea that a mine-site could be cleared of critical habitat and later returned to its previous condition without enduring loss, is wishful thinking. (Yet we can see that thinking in recent decisions that count site restoration as environmental offsets!)

The remaining 44 principles, never announced, included a number of existing principles, such as ‘polluter pays’ and some prosaic statements, for example that the costs of environmental consultation should be kept down.

The Big Shift begins

Despite all the hard work put into them, at the end of the day, this was a flawed set of principles. But they did mark a start, the start of ‘The Big Shift’ from an ad hoc protection of special places, to a systematic and integrated approach to environmental policy.

It’s ironic that this move was championed by the Minister for Agriculture, John Kerin, head of a ministry that has traditionally been focussed on production and not seen as a good friend to the environment, while at the same time the Environment Minister seemed disinterested in wider or deeper policy reform.

Top marks to John Kerin for a big effort.

Unfortunately, one attempt would not be enough. In fact, 35 years later, The Big Shift is by no means complete.

In many ways our environmental policy settings are just as ad hoc, opaque and reactive as they were in the late 1980s.

Banner image: Mossman Gorge, part of the Daintree National Park in Tropical North Queensland. The area was given World Heritage Status in the 1980s, a time in which there was considerable political reward for protecting iconic bits of nature. It was during these years that environmental policy began its big shift, moving towards a bigger picture on sustainable development. (Image by David Salt)

50 shades of green – what shade of sustainability do you practice?


By David Salt

What does the idea of ‘sustainability’ mean to you?

Most people, including me, would like to believe they are being sustainable, that they are passing on a meaningful future to their children; and you can only do this if you’re being sustainable.

At the same time, most people are a bit cynical about the use and abuse of the term ‘sustainable’ as it seems to appear in the sales pitch for every good and service we use. Governments claim it’s a criterion for every policy they develop; businesses build it into every mission statement they produce and every NGO currently operating cites it as one of their goals.

It’s a buzzword; it’s greenwash; it’s ubiquitous, amorphous and infinitely malleable. Depending on your political persuasion, cultural background, religion or socio-economic status, sustainability is ‘one person’s meat or another person’s poison’.

And yet, for all its ubiquity, the idea of sustainability is one that most people only have a hazy notion about. For most people, it relates to being kind to the environment, responsible for our behavior, and maybe fair with the choices we make.

The truth is, there is no universally agreed objective definition of what the idea means; and that’s despite whole journals, libraries and uni departments being devoted to it. However, if you’re involved in any area of policy, management or science relating to sustainability – or if you claim to be living a sustainable life – then you owe it to yourself to at least have given the idea some thought and be prepared to defend your own notion of what it means.

The emergence of ‘sustainability’

The idea of ‘sustainability’ was first given international prominence at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (also known as the Stockholm Conference) in 1972. It’s 50 years old.

Over the following decade the idea was refined and developed into a process that governments might work with. This process was called sustainable development, and its principles were set out in report, commissioned by the UN, called Our Common Future. This was released in 1987.

The report defined a sustainable society as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Over the quarter of a century that has followed the publication of Our Common Future, ideas on what ‘sustainability’ means have been explored, dissected, contested, deconstructed, rebuilt, trashed and/or reified. (For more detail on the major milestones along this road, see A (very) short history of sustainability.)

Broad or narrow? Weak or strong?

Some scholars, particularly in the early days, insisted that discussions on sustainability needed a tight focus on long-term ecological sustainability. What was it about the Earth system that sustains us? What is it that we can’t afford to ignore? Birds and bees, water and nutrient cycling, and photosynthesising plants are all essential for humans to exist. Should these things lie at the centre of any plan for sustainability? This narrower focus might be termed ‘environmental sustainability’.

Our Common Future coupled sustainability with the notion of development – sustainable development. The publication identified a much broader spectrum of issues to be covered by the concept, including political, social, economic, and cultural issues. This approach is sometimes referred to as ‘broad sustainability’.

And if the cloak of sustainability enfolds more than just the natural world, is it okay to substitute nature (natural capital) with human and social capital? Does it matter if natural vegetation cover is lost if we can replace it with a water treatment plant (which would replace the water filtering properties of natural vegetation)? Those that subscribed to this view, including ‘techno-optimists’, are described as supporting ‘weak’ sustainability.

Those that didn’t, including ‘deep ecologists’, believe that natural capital and other types of capital are complementary, but not interchangeable. You don’t replace a species lost with a machine that does the same function; these are not acceptable trade offs.

Let’s get personal

All this merely touches the surface of the ongoing debate on sustainability. What I hope to provoke here is a little introspection: What does sustainability mean to you? And What does sustainability mean for you?

For example, speaking for me:

I believe that ‘sustainability’ is a good thing. We should all be sustainable. It’d be a better world if we all were.

And what is it that I think ‘sustainability’ is? I believe it has something to do with meeting the needs of today without trashing the needs of tomorrow; pretty much the ‘standard’ take on it.

Am I sustainable?

I recycle plastic, have solar panels and solar hot water, have long been involved in environmental education, use rainwater in the garden where I can, minimise the use of chemicals in the garden, drive on old car, compost, encourage my family to minimise our resource use, have been active in habitat restoration, grow food, work with recycled building materials, support worthy causes and, where possible, try to be a responsible consumer.

I’m not the best or the worst when it comes to ‘being sustainable’. But am I being sustainable?

While I haven’t done embodied energy and water accounting on my household and lifestyle, I am confident I am using way more than I am generating. At the scale of ‘me’, I am not sustainable.

And I know that my country, Australia, has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any nation, and the world is rushing towards a climate apocalypse and that my government is in total denial about this (we also lead the world in species extinctions). So, at the scale of my country, I am not sustainable.

And the world is currently suffering climate event after climate event. Australia is seeing its coral reefs, forests and mangrove systems wither under climate extremes, while the planet is careering past multiple planetary thresholds. On top of this, the world’s richest people are getting obscenely rich while the world’s poorest are drowning as the seas rise. At the scale of my planet, I am not sustainable.

Am I kidding myself?

Given this, do I really think I’m moving towards sustainability?

If I do, it must be a form of broad and weak sustainability? I must think that the natural capital being remorselessly lost at an accelerating rate around me today will be replaced by human capital (smart technology) and social capital (smart human organisation) at some time in the future. And I must believe it will happen before irreversible ecological decline makes our planet unliveable (for humans).

And, if I truly believe this, I must be an extremely optimistic techno-idealogue (who doesn’t read the news and is unaware of the negative environmental trends around me). Unfortunately, I am not these things but I still believe ‘sustainability’ is an important idea that we all should subscribe to. There’s more than a little cognitive dissonance here.

Of course, I’m not completely responsible for my country’s failings on sustainability. I didn’t vote for the bastards currently in office. And how responsible am I for the world’s efforts? Which introduces two other shades of sustainability – bottom up and top down; think global, act local; look after my own backyard but try and influence the backyards around me; while trying to get our political representatives to implement sustainable policy (at national and international scales).

All of which only hints at the incredible complexity embodied in the idea of sustainability.

So, what’s your idea of sustainability?

How’s it going for you so far?

Banner image: geralt @ Pixabay

On ‘resilience’ as a panacea for disaster

When the going gets tough, the government hides behind resilience

By David Salt

Have you noticed that when the chips are down, and I mean really down, our political leaders frequently invoke ‘resilience’ as the thing that’s most important? We’ve seen it following massive floods, devastating cyclones and, most recently, in response to the bushfire catastrophe (that continues to unfold as I write).

What’s this about?

In my time I’ve written a bit on resilience. While I think resilience science can offer many insights on the challenges that currently beset us, I don’t see its current deployment as anything more than a strategy of obfuscation and displacement, the strategy you roll out when you don’t actually have a plan.

When a massive disturbance overwhelms a country’s capacity to continue with ‘business as usual’, governments do their best to reassure the community that everything will be alright, even though they are often impotent in the face of that crisis.

When that flood wipes out critical infrastructure, for example, it’s often apparent that despite the government’s grand claims, it can’t make the rain stop or move people and emergency services to where they are needed. And when that happens, they often fall back by saying: ‘we’ll get over this, we are resilient.’

Or when the fires are so extensive, as we are witnessing now, and whole communication networks and the road system goes down (and everyone is on edge while choking on endless smoke), we know there is only so much the government can do, but we want reassurance that it’ll all be right. And what is the Prime Minister telling us our priorities should be? “That resilience and adaptation need an even greater focus,” he said.

We are resilient

What’s the attraction in invoking resilience? From a political point of view, I think it’s twofold.

The first relates to our belief of the ‘rightness’ of the system we are in. Yes a fire/drought/flood might knock us down but we are ‘good, hard working people that care for each other’. We may be knocked down but our inherent qualities will help us triumph over adversity, get us back on our feet and prosper.

You’ll hear this refrain time and again following disasters from political leaders at every level, from the town mayor to the prime minister, each crafting their message of resilience to their own group of people, reassuring them that they are ‘right’, they are ‘good’ and ‘they’ll get over it’.

Consider Premier Anna Bligh’s now famous statement following the unprecedented Queensland floods in 2011: “We are Queenslanders,” she told the public. “We’re the people that they breed tough north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down and we get up again.”

That’s the basic definition of ‘resilience’, it’s all about how we cope with disturbance, and we like to think there’s something inherently right and good about our system (municipality/state/country) that will enable us to triumph. ‘We are Queenslanders/Victorians/south coasters/insert place name here, and we are tough…’

Politically speaking that’s exactly the ‘we-are-righteous-and-shall-overcome’ message that a government wants to convey to the electorate so invoking ‘resilience’ is an attractive notion; especially when it’s clear there’s not much they can actually do.

The second attraction for invoking ‘resilience’ is that everyone has their own idea of what it means and it’s impossible to measure in a precise manner. Consequently, it’s an ambiguous goal that is easy to hide behind while avoiding accountability.

So far, our Prime Minister’s invocation of resilience seems more about avoiding talk on emissions targets and climate change policy than any genuine engagement with the idea.

The new ‘sustainability’?

The idea of ‘sustainability’ has similar weaknesses (or strengths, depending on your perspective and degree of cynicism) to resilience but sustainability (and sustainable development) have been around for longer as a policy goal. Having been seriously worked on for at least the past 40 years, sustainability has had a lot of time and energy spent on working out how it might be operationalised.

‘Sustainability’ was also a ‘made up’ word to embody efforts to respond to the damaging effects of unbounded economic growth. In this way, sustainability had meanings loaded into it. ‘Resilience’, on the other hand, is a real word that now labels many different approaches to managing systems (people, families, communities, cities, nations and ecosystems to name a few) to help them overcome disturbance. People have their own idea what it is to be resilient.

All models (or framings) are wrong but some are useful (to paraphrase George Box). Sustainability, with all of its shortcomings, enabled national and international conversations to take place around the connections between the economy, society and the environment. It also allowed notions of equity and justice to be incorporated into our thinking. And, while it’s still a work in progress, the sustainability project is still an important and potentially critical element of our species ongoing survival.

Many faces of resilience

Resilience too has many weaknesses as a strategy and policy goal. For starters, what resilience approach are you talking about? It has separate origins and applications from many disciplinary areas with the disciplines of psychology, emergency relief, engineering and ecology being the main four fields from which it has emerged. Each considers resilience at a different scale and with a different purpose though all are concerned with how the systems we are interested in cope with disturbance.

The value of resilience is that it is a systems approach that engages with the complexity of the system of our interest (for example, in psychology that’s individual people, for ecology that’s social-ecological systems).

When I use the term resilience science I’m talking about ecological resilience, the topic I have helped write two text books on. It’s a rich body of research and academic discussion that has revealed much about how linked systems of nature and people endure over time coping with a range of disturbances. It’s all about thresholds and tipping points, linked scales, adaptive cycles and transformation.

To really make a difference with resilience science you need to honestly engage with the complexity of the system of your interest. You need to respect those people with expert knowledge on how it functions, maintain healthy buffers of economic, environmental and social capital, and work within the limits of your system rather than ignoring them. (These are themes I will explore in future blogs.)

Unfortunately, when governments invoke resilience they use it as cover to continue doing whatever it is their vested interests dictate (which seems in Australia at the moment the continued support for more coal mining). They usually spin resilience as a magic bullet that solves a multitude of problems without ever being accountable for what it is they are specifically attempting to achieve.

And isn’t that the perfect escape for a government – ‘because of this fire/flood/drought we are down but we are not out. We are resilient and we shall triumph come what may.’

Image: Epicormic regrowth from bark of Eucalypt, four months after Black Saturday bushfires, Strathewen, Victoria, in 2009. (Photo by Robert Kerton, CSIRO. Creative Commons 3.0.)

A (very) short history of sustainability

A mud map of how sustainable development has grown up

By David Salt

For many, sustainability is a buzz word; a descriptor used and abused by governments (and corporations) all around the world to give the impression their policies of economic growth and development are simultaneously meeting the needs of society and the environment. But it’s more than just a hollow catch cry. Sustainability is a concept with substantive meaning and pedigree.

The growing body of evidence, unfortunately, is that our world is not on a trajectory of sustainability. If anything, we are accelerating away from it. However, there was a time, no so long ago, when there appeared to be a growing international consensus that sustainability was a real and achievable goal. When was that? Here is my (very) short potted mud map of sustainability (with a fist full of caveats at the end for me to hide behind).

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century was the century of human domination in which our species ‘conquered’ the final bits of the planet’s surface. We encircled the world with our communication cables (1902), reached its South Pole (1911), ascended to its highest point (Mt Everest, 1953) and then reached even higher with artificial satellites (Sputnik, 1957). We also made a real effort to annihilate many dimensions of our own culture in two world wars.

If the first half of this century was marked by massive global-scale disruptions (two world wars and a Depression) and empire failures (Britain and Japan especially), then the second half was characterised by population and economic growth of unprecedented scale. Population more than doubled, while the global economy increased by more than 15-fold. And it was in this second half that notions of sustainability were developed.

The 1940s: Reboot

My mud map begins in the aftermath of the Second World War; a time of mass destruction, renewal and new beginnings. The aim of governments was growth, stability and the kindling of hope for a prosperous future.

The tremendous economic growth that followed was in large part enabled by the ‘rebooting’ effect of the wars. These broke down old imperial and feudal institutions, opened up space for new institutions based on liberal-democratic and later neo-liberal economic principles, and empowered us with a new suite of powerful science and technology.

Survival was more the consideration than sustainability, but towards the end of the 1940s there was an international push to set aside bits of landscapes for wildlife and nature with the establishment in 1948 of the International Union for the Protection of Nature (which was to become the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, in 1956). Economic growth was the main focus and the environment was seen as a space separate from human activity.

The 1950s: Lift off

Today’s economy and environment has direct roots in the explosion in economic growth that took place in the 1950s, the beginning of the so called Great Acceleration. Population, GDP, energy generation, fertiliser consumption, water use and international tourism all underwent dramatic (often exponential) increases as the economy powered up.

The ‘sustainability’ of the environment was not really a question back then. The USA, a major driver of growth, was concerned about the ongoing supply of natural resources, but only as it related to feeding the economy rather than sustaining the environment. It set up a commission, the Paley Commission, which led to the establishment of the NGO called ‘Resources for the Future’. Its brief was to look at resource scarcity issues on an ongoing basis. The great environmental economist David Pearce identifies this as the founding of environmental economics.

The 1960s: Cracks in the model

The economy was growing strongly, living standards for many were improving, the rich were getting richer but the poor were getting less poor. Indeed, during these first decades after the war the gap between the richest and the poorest was decreasing (proof that a rising tide can indeed lift all the boats).

But underneath the growth and the technological mastery, cracks were appearing in the form of environmental decline. These concerns were embodied in the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962). It drew attention to the accumulating impacts of pesticides on natural ecosystems, and questioned the costs of industrial scale-agriculture.

Technology also gave us new frames for considering humanity’s role and place, with the race for the Moon providing new perspectives, metaphorical and literal, on our planet. Kenneth Boulding coined the term ‘Spaceship Earth’ in a famous essay in 1966 (and in 1968 we saw our fragile home in perspective for the first time in the famous ‘Earth Rising’ photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon).

Concern was growing as case study (eg, acid rain) after case study (eg, contaminated waterways) caused people to question the costs and benefits of economic development. Laws for environmental protection started taking shape and the idea of Environmental Impact Assessment took off (enshrined in US environmental law, NEPA, in 1969); yet the approach that evolved was more a ‘bottom up’ one of minimising impacts on a case by case basis rather than the holistic bigger picture approach that Boulding had advocated and NEPA, read as prose rather than law, clearly embodies.

The 1970s: Hopes are high

1972 saw the publication of landmark report titled Limits to Growth, one of the first formal efforts to understand what the consequences of unbounded economic development might be. Its conclusion was that our species was likely heading for some form of collapse in the mid to latter part of the 21st Century. (While widely dismissed by economists, a review in 2014 of the Limits-to-Growth analysis found its forecasts are still on track.)

The 70s saw many efforts by governments and community groups around the world to address the swelling list of environmental problems falling out of our rapacious growth. Key among these was UN Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference, in 1972. It catalysed many activities that were to prove pivotal to the manner in which we dealt with the environment, including many nations setting up their own environment ministries. It also saw the creation of UNEP (the UN Environmental Programme), and it put a greater focus on the connection between society and the environment. The Stockholm Conference was one of the first events where there was a strong acknowledgement of the need for poverty alleviation and its connection with access to environmental resources.

And it was during this decade that the term sustainable development began to see common usage. Indeed, the term was first used officially in the World Conservation Strategy launched in 1980, though at this stage the focus was on the environment alone.

The 1980s: Negotiations are had

‘Sustainable development’ took real form with the release of the report titled Our Common Future by The World Commission on Environment and Development (let by the indefatigable Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female Prime Minister) in 1987. The report defined a sustainable society as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It made sustainability an idea that involved acknowledging the linkages between the economy, the environment and society.

The mid 80s also saw the emergence of a massive ozone hole over the south pole (resulting from humans pumping ozone depleting substances into our atmosphere). This went some way to puncturing our complacency about environmental decline. Countries met and negotiated what they would do about the ozone problem, treaties were signed and these days ozone depleting emissions are on the decline.

Not so easily addressed, unfortunately, was the greenhouse gas problem in which a by-product of economic activity (energy, transport and agriculture in particular) was carbon-based emissions that distorted the Earth’s climate systems. Though the science of greenhouse warming was well understood and discussed in scientific circles in the 70s, it actually became visible in the late 80s. (In 1988 Jim Hansen, a leading atmospheric scientist at NASA, declared: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”)

The 1990s: Plans are drawn

In 1992 the world came together in Rio for the great Earth Summit in which nations would pledge how they were going to meet the great challenge of sustainability. A plan for sustainable development in the rapidly approaching 21st Century was adopted (Agenda 21) and an international agreement on biodiversity conservation was opened for signing.

Through the 90s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (formed by UNEP and the WMO in the 80s) began compiling an enormous brief of evidence that greenhouse gas levels were growing remorselessly and creating a raft of problems from shifting climate to sea level rise and extreme weather. But as the fear rose about the need to do something about carbon emissions, vested interests increased their efforts to discredit the science, and obfuscate the emerging picture.

And governments everywhere were discovering that policy positions developed to meet sustainability pledges came with real short term electoral pain, and that the prospect of deep change, transformational change, was simply too much to push through. Sustainable development is a moral imperative but the reality is that sustainability bites. Or, as President Bush said in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit: “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.”

The 2000s (the Naughties): Sustainability bites

As you’d expect, the beginning of a new millennium saw a lot of reflection, discussion and planning for a better world (a bit like my New Year’s resolutions to be a better person). There was the Millennium Summit in 2000 (and ensuing Ecosystem Assessment in 2005), a Rio+10 Earth Summit (held in Johannesburg in 2002) and a World Summit held in 2005. Millennium Development Goals were drawn up and agreed to, and almost all nations (with the US a notable exception) committed to reversing declines in biodiversity (the Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD).

And the manner in which many governments sought to deliver on their sustainability commitments increasingly invoked utilitarian values, a move supported by an emerging line of conservation science that demonstrated that nature provided benefits to humans that save us money (like native vegetation providing water purification). So, why don’t we start paying for the things that nature gives us, ecosystem services, and let the market optimise the delivery of these services? Some saw this as a dangerous move away from acknowledging nature’s intrinsic value.

But, just like my News Year’s resolutions, it didn’t take long for most governments to begin making excuses for why aspirations (for sustainable development) needed to take second place to the realities of day-to-day life: “as soon as we’ve secured a strong economy we can begin worrying about fixing up the environment.”

Targets adopted under the CBD meant that 2010 was supposed to be the line in the sand for biodiversity conservation but all countries failed to deliver on their commitments with extinction rates climbing and the drivers of extinction only accelerating.

The 2010s: Cracks in the ice cap

Sustainability, however you want to define it (and heaven knows it comes in many flavours), was proving a stubbornly elusive goal. But the negotiations continued.

The world’s nations continued to get together (Rio+20 in 2012, this time in Rio) but failed to agree on any major outcomes other than replacing a failed international body, the Commission on Sustainable Development, with a new one, the UN Environment Assembly); the failed Biodiversity Convention targets were replaced with a more nuanced set of goals (the Aichi Targets); the Millennium Development Goals (which some believed were quite effective while others said were unmeasurable) were replaced with a more nuanced set of sustainability targets (the Sustainable Development Goals); and the stalled climate change discussions actually reached half a consensus with the Paris Agreement (in 2015; though President Trump has since withdrawn from it).

In many ways, it’s the same old, same old; endless meetings, discussions, agreements and targets; one step forward, two steps back, another step forward; but, at the end of the day Bill Clinton’s 1992 election mantra ‘it’s the economy stupid’ sums up the approach of virtually every country. Which sometimes has me wondering that Rachel Carson, Kenneth Boulding and the doomsayers behind ‘Limits to Growth’ were simply wrong. The environment is undoubtedly in decline but we’re still standing, talking and aspiring to better things (most of us are wealthier, but at the expense of future generations). Clearly governments are almost unanimous in believing that the economy is what counts and if things get scarce then markets and technology will always find a solution; they have so far.

But those people calling for reflection and change were not wrong; and the 2010s and the emerging science are emphatically backing their calls for a new way of stewarding Spaceship Earth. We’re losing species and ecosystems that we depend upon. We are seeing changes to our climate and Earth system that are already stressing many parts of our planet (including our food and water systems); and the science tells us these changes are just beginning, promising an increasingly uncertain future. We are losing the challenge of sustainability and it’s not a challenge we can afford to lose.

Caveats and endnotes

This ridiculously short history only touched on a few of the elements that have contributed to the evolution of sustainable development (and only mentioned a couple of the thousands of identities – people and institutions – who have made important contributions to its story). And, clearly, dividing this history into decadal phases doesn’t reflect the real inflection points of its evolution, it is merely my effort to subjugate a complex, non-linear, multi-faceted topic into something that looks like time line with a simple narrative.

However, even the limited set of events described here tells us that the history of sustainable development has gone through life stages with different dynamics. It began as our faith in the economic growth model began to erode and it’s early days kept a tight focus on the environment; as it developed there grew a better appreciation of the connections between society, economy and environment; and as it reached maturity and asked for real commitment from its sponsoring actors, the reality of shifting the status quo has proven that much of its rhetoric is impotent.

In its youth sustainable development was driven by natural science. In its young adulthood, it began to take on it legitimacy from ideas founded in social values, rights and laws. And as it matured it cloaked itself in the robes of economics and markets.

Is it any wonder then that sustainable development is no longer a force for change (if it ever was)? Rather than challenge the paradigm of unbounded economic growth, it has been forced to work within the normative structures that put economic growth before all other goals.

So, if you were a doctor asked to prescribe a change to an ageing man whose life style is clearly leading to a miserable old age, what might you suggest? Because maybe this is the lens we need to look through when considering where to from here for sustainable development. And, maybe, just like our ageing patient, we need to be confronted with some hard truths about what the future holds (unless we sign up for some demanding therapies)?

Image: Earthrise, 25 December 1968. Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders. Earth is peeking out from beyond the lunar surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon. (NASA)