SCIENCE AT THE SHINE DOME canberra 1 - 3 may 2002
Symposium: Transition to sustainability
Friday, 3 May 2002
Professor Aynsley Kellow
Head, School of Government, University of Tasmania
Aynsley Kellow is Head of the School of Government at the University of Tasmania. He was previously Professor of Social Sciences in the Australian School of Environmental Studies at Griffith University. He is a former president of the Australasian Political Studies Association and is currently Tasmanian president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He has published numerous papers on political science and environmental politics and policy and is the author of several monographs. He is coauthor (with Timothy Doyle) of Environmental Politics and Policymaking in Australia and coauthor (with Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen) of International Environmental Policy: Interests and the Failure of the Kyoto Process.
Social aspects of sustainability
In this paper I want to state the case that the social sciences and humanities not just the natural sciences must form part of any approach to the topic of sustainability.
I want to do so by making some remarks about the concept of 'sustainable development'. You will note that this is not quite the same as the topic of this symposium: 'sustainability'.
I want to argue that the concept is a highly contested one; it could be considered what Gallie (1955-56) once referred to as an 'essentially contested concept' whose application is inherently a matter of dispute. The subtle shift in our symposium title is part of that contestation and should be recognised as such. Failure to recognise this, I would argue, is to seriously diminish the potential of the concept to achieve the hopes held for it.
Some would argue that is no bad thing. I have variously heard sustainable development described as an oxymoron, or as 'just words'. But words and their meanings are important fundamentally important to addressing public policy problems. We cannot devise laws or public policies unless we can define what it is we are doing. Yet developing shared understandings of problems, while not all the story of gaining political support, then is at least much of it, and the very vagueness which limits policy effectiveness can help with policy adoption and therein lies a dilemma.
But even vague concepts can exert a discursive hegemony. One needs only listen to deliberative bodies at the national or international level to realise the discipline which concepts such as sustainable development impose upon the freedom of action of participants. True, many might not be strong adherents to the concept, and some might be attempting to subvert it, but even they must at least neutralise the power that the presence of the concept in the prevailing discourse brings.
Sustainable development came to prominence with the publication of the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, in 1987. Quite clearly, it has its origins in the conflict between essentially 'Northern' concerns with environmental protection and 'Southern' development aspirations and fears that the pursuit of the environmental agenda would result in the development 'ladder' being pulled up behind themselves by affluent nations.
These concerns were not without foundation, and they dated back to the emergence of the modern environmental agenda in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Moreover, sustainable development was merely the latest manifestation of attempts to moderate this conflict, and one which attempted to accommodate adherents to both sets of beliefs, allowing them to worship together in the same church.
As Donald Worster put it, sustainable development promised an easier path forward. Modern, neo-Malthusian environmentalism seemed to demand the impossible agenda still cherished by some of limits to growth in population, technology and appetite and greed in short, a whole new philosophy which was politically highly problematic. Sustainable development provided a quite functional blurring of the environmentalism of the North and the development needs of the South. In Worster's (1993: 143) words, 'lots of lobbyists coming together, lots of blurring going on inevitably, lots of shallow thinking resulting.'
It is easy to forget just how frightening the neo-Malthusian spectre must have appeared when viewed from the South. Not only were influential authors such as Ehrlich (1968), Hardin (1972, 1977), and Commoner (1966, 1972) warning that key resources would be depleted within our lifetimes, their prescriptions also included some quite draconian measures, especially with regard to population. These measures were much more alarming to developing nations than to those which had undergone the demographic transition that has typically accompanied industrialisation.
We hear much less now of the need for survival, triage, arks and 'lifeboat ethics', all of which rang alarm bells for those who did not have a seat in the lifeboat and whose attempts to get on board were to be thwarted by those who feared the boat thus must be swamped (Pirages and Ehrlich, 1973; Lucas and Ogletree, 1976).
This, of course, echoes the debate surrounding the first manifestation of Malthusian thinking. It was roundly criticised by Marx and others for underestimating the possibilities of technological change and, most of all, for neglecting the class-based institutional factors which resulted in the axe of subsistence falling on the necks of the poor.
It should be noted that Marx's hostility to the environment was much overstated, and he even produced his own principle of population, which (by requiring attention to factors such as the social distribution of scarcity as well as mere numbers of the population) suggested that progress was possible without Malthusian collapse (Harvey, 1974).
While the poor within affluent societies were less able to contest the distributive consequences of environmental policies, wide disparities in wealth between nations meant that global responses required the development of some kind of accommodation between rich and poor. For this reason, right from the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the international environmental agenda has been politically inseparable from questions of global distributive justice. This was given significant symbolic expression in the location of the headquarters of the UN Environment Program (UNEP) in Nairobi in a developing country.
But it was also reflected in the highly circumscribed mandate given to UNEP, which is not an executive agency empowered to carry out its own programs in member states, like UNESCO or FAO. It is a poorly resourced agency which can only seek to influence governments and intergovernmental organisations.
Its lack of resources and consequent dependence on voluntary contributions leave it open to having its agenda shaped by those prepared to support particular programs financially. But restrictions on its mandate and the usual limitations on its ability to transgress the sovereignty of member states mean that it is caught in a cleft stick between the preferences of affluent nations able to afford to worry more about the global environment and developing nations fearful of that agenda and wishing to ensure UNEP has little capacity to force any agenda contrary to their interests.
One can see the obvious appeal to UNEP of a concept which promised that both environmental protection and economic development for poor nations were possible simultaneously. Early development of the concept took place at the joint UNEP-UNCTAD symposium on patterns of resource use, environment and development at Cocoyoc, Mexico in 1974.
But it was not UNEP which made the first substantial step in this direction. Rather the International Union for the Conservation of Nature produced a World Conservation Strategy (WCS) in 1980. The WCS not only attempted to ensure that the development agenda informed the environmental agenda, but it also attempted the reverse, and drew attention to the need for development efforts to be based upon a respect for ecological processes. After the WCS, the concept appeared in 1981 in the book Building a Sustainable Society, by Lester R Brown of the Worldwatch Institute and in Norman Myers' Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management in 1984.
One could object that economists such as Herman Daly (1973), in emphasising a 'steady state' economy in which the rate of material throughput was constant but in which wealth could continue to grow, laid the intellectual foundation in the early 1970s for the later blurring, but historians of economic thought will remind us that the stationary state featured in the thought of political economists in the nineteenth century, such as John Stuart Mill.
The origins of the word sustainability 'that magic word of consensus' as Worster (1993: 144) puts it lie in the concept of 'sustained yield', which emerged first in scientific forestry in Germany in the late eighteenth century. As Robert Lee (cited by Worster, 1993: 145) has noted, it came not just as a response to the decline in German forests, but as a response to the uncertainty and social instability which still wracked Germany at that time (and which were responsible at least in part for the decline in German forests). It was an instrument of a strong state, for ordering social and economic conditions which stood as a 'necessary' counterweight to emergent laissez-faire capitalism. (There is a warning here that institutions cause unsustainable practices, and thus lie at the heart of sustainability.)
The publication of the Brundtland Report and the subsequent UN Conference on Environment and Development at Rio de Janiero in 1992 therefore represented merely the refinement and institutionalisation of the concept of sustainable development which had evolved over the course of two decades.
Sustainable development therefore represents an attempt to mediate a deeply embedded conflict (see Redclift, 1987). Not surprisingly, the definition of the term and the manner in which it has been operationalised have exhibited in various ways a continuation of that tension (see Boehmer-Christiansen, 2002).
At the international level, it is fair to say that the South has sought to exploit the linkage between environment and development to advantage in international negotiations, with insistence on double standards provisions, technology transfer, capacity building, and other means of channelling development assistance as their price of consent.
At the domestic level in affluent nations we have seen various attempts to tilt the scales of interpretation back in favour of the environment and away from the economy. In Australia, the success of the environment groups in inserting the word 'ecologically' into what became known as the ecologically sustainable development (ESD) process was something of a coup, but it came at the cost of alienating industry to some extent from the process.
Similarly, our focus in this symposium on 'sustainability' reflects a subtle shift in environmental circles to drop the word 'development'. My analysis suggests caution in taking this too far, lest part of the 'congregation' not continue their worship. There is virtue in vagueness in mediating conflict even if this lack of conceptual clarity is often the source of failed policy ambition.
There is no clear consensus on what sustainability means, but there are some fundamental questions inherent in all this. Sustainable for how long? Are ecosystems to be sustained? Or should the emphasis be on the sustainability of human societies? If so, should it be all humanity? Nation-states? Or subgroups, including traditional societies, threatened by development activities? (see Sneddon, 2000).
Many of the conceptions which aim to settle this matter rest as eventually did the ESD process in Australia on a notion of ecological sustainability. But how helpful is this? Ecologists once thought that nature left free of human interference would eventually reach a steady state, but over the past 30 years ecological disturbance has replaced the climax community among most ecological scientists a revolution to which Australian Ralph Slatyer made a significant contribution.
It is a point of some interest that in the popular imagination, the stability of the climax community is probably still the dominant 'myth of nature', sustained by constant repetition by political ecologists and, like sustained yield in Germany, no doubt offering the promise of stability in uncertain and rapidly changing times.
An ecological science in which perturbation, turbulence, disturbance, succession and flux are the norm creates insurmountable problems for ecocentric philosophical positions. While we are not reduced to seeing nature in purely utilitarian terms, it does place the emphasis back on human choice in Botkin's (1990) terms, we must choose among the discordant harmonies of nature those elements we wish to retain. We must reject nature as providing norms which guide how we must live and accept instead that we are part of a living, changing system; we can chose to accept, use, or control elements to make for a habitable existence, both singly and individually.
An emphasis on disturbance and chaos also suggests we need to be cautious about assuming we can manage resources at sustained yield, of course, and this is the basis for the emergence of the 'precautionary principle' although this too is frequently little more than a slogan with an infinite number of meanings.
While Worster dismisses sustainability as a sloganeering approach to environmental problems, his solution lies in the direction of another slogan: biodiversity. He argues that we must make our first priority the strict preservation of the billion-year heritage of the evolution of plant and animal life, and thus preserve all the species, subspecies, varieties, communities and ecosystems that we possibly can. We cannot stop every extinction, but we should avoid adding to the tally.
But even 'biodiversity' is frequently used as a slogan, and there are dangers in this, especially with the unquestioned belief that one simply cannot have enough of it. You will search long and hard for critical discussion of how much biodiversity we should seek. There is an unquestioning belief that more is both always better and never sufficient, despite there being doubts as to whether the supposed benefits of diversity, such as ecosystem stability, are real. This is so not just because of the decline in acceptance of the notion of the climax community, but because there is evidence of resilience in simple systems and fragility in diverse systems (Budiansky, 1995: 97-99).
Slogans sometimes make for good politics, but they are a dangerous foundation for policy. A management plan for a national park in Germany was once saved from the efforts of environmental groups to write into it a requirement to 'maximise biodiversity' when ecologists in the parks agency realised the alpine ecosystem had low natural biodiversity (Haber, 1993: 39).
Similarly, sustainability needs to avoid assumptions that slogans such as 'intermediate technology' will deliver the right results. The tragedy of arsenic poisoning from tube wells in India serves as an appropriate warning. Similarly, we need to be careful about translating risk management decisions from developed to developing nations: Peru following US Environmental Protection Agency assessments not to chlorinate drinking water caused thousands of deaths in the South American cholera epidemic of the 1990s (Anderson, 1991; Lee and Dodgson, 2000).
In summary, it is essential we recognise that 'sustainable development' is both a contested concept and an explicitly political one which mediates the conflict, at the global level, between the desire of the North for greater environmental protection and the desire of the South for increases in human welfare. If the contest over the meaning of the term shifts the language to 'sustainability' and squeezes out the social dimension, there is likely to be a backlash in the international political agenda.
Second, it has to be recognised that neither 'sustainability' nor 'sustainable development' as slogans can deliver much effective policy. As any examination of attempts to operationalise the concept clearly shows (eg, Pearce et al., 1990; Lawn, 2000) there is much detail to add to make for effective outcomes. To provide this necessary detail requires the careful, critical and skeptical application of the very best that the natural and social sciences have to offer.
Sustainability, I suspect, is ultimately a journey rather than a destination. And it refers to the quest as a whole, rather than to any step along the way, so that it makes little sense to condemn any single step as 'unsustainable' or praise another as 'sustainable'. Thus sustainable development might include depletion of non-renewable resources, though depletion of flow resources might be more problematic.
Undertaking the journey requires not just good natural science, but also the development of good policy. The humanities and social sciences will be indispensible in this process because it will require the application of ethical judgments, concerns with distributive justice, efficient allocation of resources, the legitimacy of decision processes, and many other processes which are the domain of such disciplines.
Sustainability without a social dimension not only excludes the poor from the equation; modern ecological theory suggests that it makes little sense to even try to talk of 'ecological sustainability' except inasmuch as the concept is concerned with the ability of ecosystems to sustain human development. 'Nature' will continue on its chaotic path, sustaining a multitude of changes and indifferent to the fate of humanity. Technocratic institutions not moderated by the inconvenient concerns of the demos seeking equity, demanding justification are unlikely to be any more proficient at guiding sustainability than they have proven to be thus far.
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Question: In an evolutionary context, a well-adapted organism is one that has immediate fitness but also the capacity of long-term flexibility. It seems that much of the concern about sustainability, in one sense, is about immediate fitness in terms of the responses that we give, and yet there is the rhetoric of long-term flexibility. You have made the point that people’s views in a sense have changed, and definitional change slogans have changed. I wonder about the balance between the immediate consequences of the problem as we perceive it now, compared with the longer-term response, and whether you would comment on that, please.
AK: I think you have put your finger on exactly the difficulty. The challenge for us is to try to make decisions which, as far as we can tell now, are going to produce better fitness, in your terms, in the long term. Sometimes we get it wrong. We will get it wrong. For example, CFCs were introduced in 1928 in response to concerns over the dangers of ammonia-based refrigerants. So we thought we were doing good. We caused another problem. We didn’t know about the problem at that stage. But anything we do in trying to react to these sort of difficulties, in itself runs the risk of causing new, unforeseen problems. So that the significant thing for society is really to continue an open dialogue and discussion and contestation between scientists and between economists, between social scientists and, most importantly, between the people themselves, because we ultimately have to justify this to them if you want to use a ‘fitness’ expression, to try and make sure that society as a whole is as fit as possible in its ability to weigh risks and opportunities in a way that mediates conflicts between economics, social dimensions and the environment.
Question: Amongst many points that you made I would like to take up the issue about biodiversity, your question about how much is too much. I would suggest that you are making a straw man here to knock down, because, in the cases where this has been tackled, it is a question of maintaining what is there in an intact system, such as the Great Barrier Reef or rangelands or whatever. It is not a question of introducing and trying to promote diversity; it is a question of retaining what we have. So that dilemma does not occur about how much is too much.
AK: Even taking your point, though, I think there are still problems and awkward choices to be made, and there are conflicts between concerns with overall biodiversity and, for example, conservation biology. I guess I first started thinking about this when CSIRO was doing some work in Cape York Peninsula and found an area of wet sclerophyll forest that was being aggressively reclaimed by rainforest, and the wet sclerophyll forest was habitat to three or four endangered species. The wet sclerophyll forest was the result historically or prehistorically of Aboriginal fire activity. What is the management decision? If you put it to a rainforest ecologist, they say things like, ‘Well, a rainforest is much more naturally biodiverse, and therefore has higher value.’ If you put it to a conservation biologist, they are likely to argue in favour of the endangered species and that we should actively intervene to save the wet sclerophyll forest. So the point I was making is that even within ecological concerns there are still decisions to be made of that kind, and they are often intractable. Explicit choices have to be made.
Question: I want to take up the biodiversity issue with you also, because it seems to me conservation biologists have had this argument going on about whether preserving biodiversity is really an ethical issue as opposed to whether we view biodiversity from a human orientation. I think many biologists, at least conservation biologists, would argue that preserving biodiversity is really an ethical issue which does impinge upon the social sciences very greatly. I wonder if you would like to comment on that.
AK: Yes, but I think that in itself throws up some difficult questions about whether you should intervene to prevent, for example, a natural extinction. Do we owe a responsibility to act against nature, in a positive way as well as negative way? I tend to think we probably do, and I am quite happy to justify that kind of intervention. But we need to be careful about the notion that somehow we are deriving those ethical principles from some reading of nature. In the old days, the philosophers used to refer to that as committing the naturalistic fallacy. (It doesn’t seem to be around as much these days.)
In other words, what I am emphasising is that ultimately we do have to make choices, regardless of what the basis for those choices might be. And there will be those who see this as an ethical question. But we are never likely to have the situation where the whole of society shares those ethics, so we still have to have the political process where we try and moderate those views against the views of those who would argue that the cost of preserving any particular piece of biodiversity might be too high, or might be questionable.