To be or not to be? It’s really a question about whether we adapt or transform

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By David Salt

To my mind, the word ‘transform’ is one of the most over used and abused words in the realm of sustainability scholarship and policy. It’s up there with the terms ‘resilience’ and ‘sustainability’, all of which have been rolled out so many times for so many mixed purposes that they have become panchrestrons (a fancy way of saying ‘buzz word’; a panchreston is an explanation that is used in so many different cases that it becomes almost meaningless).

The word itself seems harmless; ‘transform’ simply means to change into something else. In common parlance, however, it’s rolled out whenever someone wants to emphasise that the change we need has to be BIG! We’re not talking minor refinement or incremental reform here, we’re talking TRANSFORMATION! And this is problematic for several reasons. Consider this example.

Transformative change

In 2019, following the most comprehensive assessment of its kind, IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) announced 1,000,000 species have been identified as threatened with extinction and that the rate of species extinction is accelerating. What do you do in the face of such alarming news? IPBES called for ‘transformative change’; and by that they meant a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

At the time I was sceptical anyone would listen because while no-one liked seeing biodiversity collapse, no government was going to introduce the wholesale changes being demanded. “The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” said President George Bush (Snr) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, in a breathtakingly insular and cynical remark that all national leaders parrot in their own way.

This particular IPBES announcement in 2019 followed on decades of similar assessments saying much the same kind of thing (something I discussed here). Each time one of these biodiversity reports came out they were heralded with catchy, headline-seeking stats (‘a million species on the chopping block’), dire warnings (‘we’re heading for the abyss’) and demands for a new and even more ambitious set of policy targets (‘this time we must respond with BIG change’).

However, the IPBES announcement explicitly called for ‘transformation’ and even listed what that meant: “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.” Now, I actually agree with everything IPBES is saying, but I disagree with the manner in which it was communicated. In some ways it’s pushing hyperbole to a new level, ‘the stakes are existential and the only solution is changing everything’. Predictably, the report got lots of media and disappeared without a trace. And biodiversity collapse continues at an accelerating pace.

What are we actually calling for?

Transformation IS big and very challenging. Be careful invoking it if you haven’t got a pathway for how it might be achieved because simply demanding it to happen can be less than useful.

Why is it so challenging? I think the school of resilience thinking has some useful ideas here. Indeed, the ideas of ‘transformation’ and ‘adaptation’ are central concepts in a resilience framing of the world.

The system you are interested in – be it a farm, a region, a forest or some other ecosystem – has its own identity (emerging from its structure, function and feedbacks). This system can absorb disturbance, self-organise, and still continue to sustain its identity up to a point. Push the system beyond this point, this threshold, and system loses its identity, it becomes something else.

Adaptation is about managing your system so that it holds onto its identity. It’s about stopping it from crossing a threshold or, if it does cross one, moving it back across to restore that identity (engineer a crossing to get back into a desired regime). It might even involve moving thresholds to create a larger ‘safe-operating space’.

Transformation is about creating a new and different system, to create a new way of making a living. An example comes from South Eastern Zimbabwe where, in the 1980s, ranchers transformed their cattle ranches to game hunting and safari parks when the livestock industry proved unviable.

Transformation is hard as the existing system has a lot of inertia and sunk investment. Fossil fuel companies have long resisted the growth of renewable energy; neoliberalism will defend itself to the death as will autocratic dictatorships. Or, if you want to look at a smaller scale, a farm or business or even a golf club, will take a lot of persuading to transform their enterprise into something quite different because their identity is central to their very existence (and each system has made long-term investments in staying as they are).

Transformative capacity

For transformation to occur, resilience thinking says there are three important factors needed. The first is to get beyond denial. The ‘rule of holes’ is to stop digging when you realise you’re trapped in one. If your farm, business, golf club or energy sector is not sustainable in a changing climate-ravaged world then you need to acknowledge it and accept your existing ‘identity’ might have to transform.

However, even if you accept the need for transformation, what are you going to ‘transform’ to? The second factor is the ability to explore options for transformation. A resilient society is one that encourages experimentation in order to explore options.

And, if an experiment works (if, for example, the golf club works better as a multi-function community centre producing food), the third factor needed for transformation is a capacity to upscale the successful experiment so it becomes the norm everywhere.

These three factors add up to transformative capacity, and each presents major challenges for the managers of the system. Which is why calls for transformation are often made but rarely result in anything happening at all; it’s just too difficult.

To be or not to be…

What happens instead is resistance and denial (think of 50 years of climate wars), and token efforts at adaptation (think announcements of the latest techno gadget that will improve efficiency by X%). Because, at the end of the day, no national leader is going to suggest that the identity of their country (or the many electorally important sectors that have traditionally been the strength of that country) should be transformed into something else. What they will say, instead, is that by making the existing system work better (grow faster, be more efficient, etc) we can solve the mounting challenges that confront us (thereby breaking the ‘first rule of holes’).

So, when IPBES called for ‘transformative change’ to meet the challenge of collapsing biodiversity, I say ‘good luck to them’. However, without an honest engagement with what it is they are proposing when they invoke ‘transformation’, a systems approach, I can’t see anything changing (and so far I’m right).

Adapt or transform is a pretty big choice*, it’s as fundamental as the Hamlet’s reflection with ‘to be or not to be’; because it’s all about the essence of the system we care about, its identity.

* Should you adapt or transform? Actually, it’s not a binary choice. On the surface, it may appear there’s a tension between adapting and transforming. But the tension is resolved when you consider the system at multiple scales, because making the system resilient at a regional scale, for example, may require transformational changes at lower scales. Adapting and transforming are actually complementary processes, and adaptability and transformability are complementary attributes of a resilient system.

Banner image: “So, what do you reckon, Yorick. Should we adapt or transform?” (Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, with Yorick’s skull; photographer: James Lafayette. Image by WikiImages from Pixabay)

Five transformations: Breathing life into Australia’s national environmental law

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By Peter Burnett

I often write in these blogs about Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). My excuse is that the EPBC Act is the most important environmental law in the country, but it doesn’t work. This is something we all should be worried about, and, as you’ve heard before, this is a piece of legislation that badly needs reform. Australia’s new federal government is making hopeful sounds here but, again as you’ve heard before, talk is cheap.

The job of reform is big, complex and challenging. However, if you reflect on the basic aims of what the EPBC Act was established to achieve, I think it’s possible to envisage a simple pathway forward. And that pathway involves five basic transformations on how the Act currently performs.

The story so far …

The new Australian government has promised to overhaul the EPBC Act and to establish a independent federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In pursuit of this reform, environment minister Tanya Plibersek has promised to respond to Professor Graeme Samuel’s 2020 review of the Act by the end of this year and to table proposed new laws in 2023.

Plibersek has hinted strongly that the government will follow Samuel’s recommendations, so that provides a clear starting point for discussion while we wait for the detail of the government’s plan.

From great green hope to great green flop

Looking back over the history of the EPBC Act — three years in development and 22 years in operation — it is clear that few of the high hopes held for the Act have been realised. While it expanded federal government involvement in environmental regulation significantly, the evidence suggests that the benefits of this have been marginal. Worse, when we look at the whole picture, the limited benefits achieved are partly offset by the resulting regulatory duplication.

The fundamental reason for this failure to deliver is not poor regulatory design, but gross under-implementation, mostly the result of under-resourcing and a lack of political will.

The EPBC Act can be seen as a three-legged stool on which most of one leg, dealing with environmental planning, is largely missing. (The other two legs protect the so-called ‘matters of national environmental significance’ and provide for environmental impact assessment.)

Most of the plans envisaged by the Act, and essential to its operational, are either vague in content, sitting unimplemented on the shelf, or simply not done.

Meanwhile, as Professor Samuel put it in his review, ‘Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat.’

What should we do about it?

The EPBC Act is highly complex. It is over 1,000 pages long and there are hundreds of pages of supporting regulations and determinations.

And the Act in turn sits within a complex set of roles, responsibilities, laws and agreements that govern the environment in Australia’s federal system.

Understanding the system is no mean thing, let alone fixing it. So, where to start?

When I went through Professor Samuel’s 38 recommendations, it struck me that he was calling for a complete transformation, in fact five of them. These are:

First, to change from prescriptive regulatory processes to setting and pursuing national environmental outcomes

  • the EPBC Act (and its state counterparts) focus on following due process, a ‘box ticking’ exercise that requires consideration of various factors such as biodiversity loss and the precautionary principle but, at the end of the day, allows governments to decide pretty much anything they like

Second, to shift from Indigenous tokenism to full use of Indigenous knowledge and a full recognition of Indigenous values

  • Samuel was highly critical of the tokenism of current arrangements, while recent events, especially the Juukan Gorge disaster in 2020, have generated considerable impetus for change

Third, to simplify regulatory processes and harmonise environmental processes and outcomes between federal and state jurisdictions

  • this isn’t just about ‘streamlining’ which has become almost a cliché, but a call for harmonisation of processes and outcomes across the nation

Fourth, to lay new foundations for quality decision-making

  • many of the foundations of the current system are either significantly under-done (eg environmental information, compliance and enforcement) or not done at all (eg bioregional planning across the continent)

Fifth, to restore trust in decision-making

  • damningly, Samuel found that none of the key stakeholder groups — business, environment groups and the wider community — trusted the current arrangements.

The reform process going forward

I’ll take a closer look at each transformation in a series of blogs over the next two months, in the lead up to Tanya Plibersek’s response to Samuel.

The reform debate will last right through 2023 and into 2024, as, once the response is on the table, there’s a large reform Bill to draft and an extended Parliamentary process to navigate as Plibersek seeks to shepherd her reforms through a Senate in which the balance of power, for the first time, lies with a cross-bench that is tinged a fairly dark shade of green.

Among other things, she will have to deal with very strong pressure to extend the EPBC Act by including a ‘climate trigger’.

My aim in the lead-up to that debate is to offer some points of focus in a discussion that always risks getting lost in its own complexity. (If you prefer to watch rather than read, I presented these transformations in a Parliamentary Library Seminar on 30 August.)

The problem is enormous and policy ambition needs to be high — bring on the reform!

Banner image: The job of reform is big, complex and challenging. However, it’s possible to envisage a simple pathway forward involving five basic transformations. (Image by David Salt)

Last chance to see

The contradictions of ‘sustainable’ tourism in a post pandemic world

By David Salt

Tourism is riven by irony. It can empower local economies, support meaningful conservation efforts and enable people to learn more about other cultures while simultaneously encouraging them to reflect upon their own. At the same time, the act of travelling to distant locations creates greater strain on the already stressed Earth system, homogenizes and commodifies intangible culture and often places intolerable pressure on limited resources in poor regions.

Tourism can bring out the best in us and yet it frequently comes with a price that few of us want to acknowledge.

But why even talk about this in a time of global pandemic lockdown? No-one is actually travelling at the moment (far fewer people, anyway)!

Well, as Joni Mitchell says: “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and now that global tourism has been effectively shut down most of us are yearning for our holiday escape.

As the hotel reservations dry up and jet contrails that once criss-crossed our international skies fade away, what is it we can say about tourism and its impacts (both good and bad)? And what will (or should) happen when we get passed the pandemic?

Last week the UN released a policy brief asking these very questions, and it makes some telling points. We might all say we want things to return to ‘normal’, but when it comes to tourism, we really need a new normal. The old ways of doing things are clearly unsustainable.

The loss of an economic powerhouse

Something that is becoming blindingly obvious as the corona lockdown grinds on is that tourism plays a massive role in our economy.

According to 2019 data, tourism generated 7% of global trade, employed one in ten people and provided livelihoods to millions of people in developed and developing countries. As borders closed due to the COVID lockdown, hotels shut and air travel dropped dramatically. According to the World Tourism Organisation, international tourist arrivals decreased by 56%, and $320 billion in exports from tourism were lost in the first five months of 2020. And most forecasts suggest worse is to come.

The UN is particularly concerned about the impact on small island developing states (in, for example, Palau, tourism generates almost 90% of its exports) and developing countries (in Africa, tourism represented 10% of all exports in 2019).

Tourism also provides a critical source of money for conservation, often in developing countries where there is little capacity for such work. For example, a 2015 United Nations World Tourism Organization survey determined that 14 African countries generate an estimated US$142 million in protected-area entrance fees alone. The shutdown of tourism activities has meant months of no income for many protected areas and the communities living around them.

The loss of tourism income further endangers protected and other conserved areas for biodiversity, where most wildlife tourism takes place. Without alternative opportunities, communities may turn to the over-exploitation of nature, either for their own consumption or to generate income. There has already been a rise in poaching and looting, partly due to the decreased presence of tourists and staff.

Cultural conservation is also taking a beating. Many cultural organizations have also seen their revenues plummet with the lockdown. During the crisis, 90% of countries fully or partially closed World Heritage sites, and around 85,000 museums were temporarily closed.

And yet the pandemic has also had an environmental upside with significantly fewer carbon emissions resulting from the downturn in tourism activity. The tourism sector has an incredibly high climate and environmental footprint, requiring heavy energy and fuel consumption and placing stress on land systems. The growth of tourism over recent years has put achieving the targets of the Paris Agreement at risk. Transport-related greenhouse gas emissions from tourism has been estimated at 5% of all human originated emissions.

Return to normal

Taken together, this presents us with a bit of a conundrum. Everyone is pushing for a return to normal, an opening of our borders and the return of the stimulus provided by a growing economy. But that very return to business as usual would see an increase in the environmental decline that international tourism helps create. It’s the conundrum that modern life seems unable to solve, that our societal addiction to economic growth prevents us from engaging with the real costs of that growth.

Even the UN report on COVID-19 and Transforming Tourism seems blind to this contradiction. It points out all the advantages that modern tourism brings but, even though it acknowledges its high environmental footprint, it proposes that we ‘tranform’ tourism as we get past the pandemic by doing it exactly the way we did it before but be a bit more clever about it.

Okay, I’m sure the authors of this report would disagree with my summation. The report uses all the right words (resilience, competitiveness, innovation, green growth, digitalization and inclusiveness) but as far as I can see they are asking for all the benefits of mass tourism without acknowledging the costs of tourism when done as ‘business as usual’ (or the difficulty of reforming this business-as-usual approach).

The term ‘transform’ means different things to different people. To me it means a fundamental shift from the system you are a part of to something quite different. Transformation is not about a little change around the edges, and yet that is what I read in the UN report (noble though its aspirations are).

A new normal

If society was to really to engage with the sustainability of tourism in an uncertain future then maybe we should be talking about how we can protect the many environmental and cultural values of our top tourism destinations in a way that doesn’t involve travelling to see them.

How do we generate the resources required to steward our world heritage in a carbon constrained future? How might we enable access to these rich experiences in a meaningful and fair manner? How do we make tourism more than its current tradition of seeking the new, the pleasurable and the exciting? How do we cultivate this new tourism so that people in the developing world still receive the support they have come to depend upon from traditional tourism?

I believe most people would simply reject any notion of tourism that leaves behind the travel component, and people are hungering for their next hit of travel after this prolonged period of enforced homestay.

However, if we’re being honest, we should acknowledge that tourism is already under mounting pressure from a changing world, and that’s been happening long before COVID 19. Increasing areas of the world are falling out of bounds because of environmental collapse (think fire and storm for starters), political instability, lawlessness and disease.

Last chance to see

If you reject my thesis that tourism as we have known it has to profoundly change – to transform – then may I recommend this itinerary as your next grand tour: the snows of Kilimanjaro, the Great Barrier Reef and Tuvalu. Call it your ‘last-chance-to-see’ tour, and tell your grandchildren you were among the lucky few who used their tourist dollars to experience some of the world’s wonders before they were lost forever.

Maybe that’s the human condition – ‘that we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.’

Image: Image by kendallpools from Pixabay

Not in my backyard

To save the planet we need ‘transformative change’!!! (But not in my backyard.)

By David Salt

Did you hear the sobering news last week? “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history,” says the UN-supported Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Following the most comprehensive assessment of its kind; IPBES announced 1,000,000 species have been identified as threatened with extinction and that the rate of species extinction is accelerating.

Consequently, IPBES says, we need ‘transformative change’; and by that they mean a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Well, having sobered up, my first response to this science-based statement and ‘call to arms’ is to reach for the bottle.

I don’t for a second doubt the evidence or the gravity of the declaration; it’s just that I’ve heard it all before. Pretty much exactly the same thing was said in the Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 released in 2015, the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 released in 2010, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released in 2005, and at the proclamation of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 (and at its renewal in 2002).

The numbers in this 2019 declaration are direr but the underlying message is the same: situation awful and it’s getting worse and the awfulness is accelerating. To address it we need BIG change, transformative change, and we need it immediately.

A line in the sand

I think my pessimism about these declarations really took off in 2010 with the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook. 2010 was supposed to be a line in the sand for biodiversity conservation around the world.

Most of the world’s nations signed up to the Convention of Biological Diversity in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio (though the US, along with Andorra, Iraq and Somalia, never ratified it). In this Convention, signatories promised to do something about declining biodiversity.

In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg (famously boycotted by US President George W Bush), signatories agreed to work to specific targets – these being to halt or reverse declines in biodiversity by the year 2010. To celebrate what signatories hoped would be achieved, 2010 was declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

However, rather than demonstrate the success of the CBD, the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook revealed that biodiversity declines were accelerating (at all scales), that the drivers of decline (land clearing, invasive species, over exploitation, pollution and climate change) were growing and that the future was looking bleak.

‘We need transformative change’ was also the call at the time, but rather than exploring what that meant, a more comprehensive and nuanced set of targets (the Aichi Targets) was drawn up on what needed to be achieved by 2020.

Business as usual

Well, rather than witnessing a transformative change from this wakeup call in 2010, the world trundled along, business as usual.

The fight over greenhouse emissions seems to have stolen most of the available oxygen in the environmental debate, and rates of biodiversity decline have skyrocketed.

The IPBES report last week suggests we have a snowflake’s chance in hell of meeting the Aichi Targets (by next year); but even that shock announcement will quickly be forgotten in the relentless 24/7 media overload that is life in the 21st Century.

I’m not saying that the IPBES announcement last week was ‘wrong’, just that its framing reveals an inherent ‘disconnect’ with reality. The numbers presented (and the underlying trends they reflect) are horrifying, but the call for transformation just seems naïve (particularly so when that same plea is oft repeated).

In this instance, the IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, observed: “by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”

Taking on the status quo

Too tepid by half Bob. Those ‘interests vested in the status quo’ have been running the show since the beginning of the Great Acceleration back in the 1950s. That status quo is founded on unbounded economic growth and held together by neoliberal ideology. What’s more, the elites in all the developed world are the main beneficiaries of this status quo and are unlikely to seriously engage with the transformation that might change it.

And that’s the nub of the problem. It’s all well and good to say that environmental degradation is unacceptable (unsustainable) but transforming the status quo simply won’t happen of its own accord. The ‘broader public good’ is usually trumped by the ‘sweet self-interest of the successful man’*.

Which is why I included earlier a couple of references to the US not participating in the international agreements on biodiversity conservation. The US Government is very divided when it comes to international conventions that might constrain their business interests. As a general rule they don’t sign them.

“The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” said President George Bush (Snr) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the event where the Convention of Biological Diversity was signed. Sustainability is all well and good, but not if it requires us to change the status quo.

The Australian backyard

Back in Australia the government response to the IPBES announcement was so poor it was comical. We are in election mode at the moment so the shelf life of any important news story is lamentably short. Our political leaders know that so when our Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about the extinction report he claimed his government had already taken action on that, hoping no-one would follow up his statement. But, as it turned out, the PM was referring to a recent bill on the testing of cosmetics on animals, an animal welfare issue that has absolutely nothing to do with biodiversity conservation. All the while our Environment Minister said nothing.

Possibly more germane to this editorial on the difficulty of transforming the status quo, our Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the IPBES report “scared him”. We assume he was ‘scared’ because he knows the scientific consensus tells us that declining biodiversity has breached a planetary boundary with dire consequences for the Earth System and all who depend on it.

But possibly he’s really scared because if we do respond appropriately to the IPBES report then he could suffer a direct electoral backlash. That’s because one of the main drivers of extinction is land clearing and guess which electorate in Australia has the worst record for clearing of threatened species habitat? It’s the electorate of Maranoa where two million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed since 2000 – and it’s represented by David Littleproud, our Minister for Agriculture.

*Borrowed from the song “Girl, Make your own mind up” by Seven World’s Collide.
The verse it comes from reads:
“They’ll try to make you believe in the invisible hand
The sweet self-interest of the successful man
To believe in the chance however remote
The rising tide lifts all the boats”

Image: Stumps on the valley caused by deforestation and slash and burn type of agriculture in Madagascar (Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock.com)