I’ve seriously tried to believe capitalism and the planet can coexist, but I’ve lost faith



RAJAT GUPTA/EPA

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

This article is the first in a three-part series on radical ideas to solve the environmental crisis.


As the Productivity Commission confirmed this week, Australia’s economy has enjoyed uninterrupted growth for 28 years straight. Specifically, our output of goods and services last financial year grew by 2%. Economists obviously see the growth of a national economy as good news – but what is it doing to the Earth?

Capitalism demands limitless economic growth, yet research shows that trajectory is incompatible with a finite planet.

If capitalism is still the dominant economic system in 2050, current trends suggest our planetary ecosystems will be, at best, on the brink of collapse. Bushfires will become more monstrous and wildlife will continue to be annihilated.




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As my research has sought to demonstrate, an adequate response to climate change, and the broader environmental crisis, will require creating a post-capitalist society which operates within Earth’s ecological limits.

This won’t will be easy – it will be the hardest thing our species has tried to do. I’m not saying capitalism hasn’t produced benefits for society (although those benefits are distributed very unequally within and between nations).

And of course, some people will think even talking about the prospect is naive, or ludicrous. But it’s time to have the conversation.

What is growth?

Economic growth generally refers to gross domestic product (GDP) – the monetary value of goods and services produced in an economy. Historically, and across the globe, GDP and environmental impact has been closely linked.

Capitalism needs growth. Businesses must pursue profits to stay viable and governments want growth because a larger tax base means more capacity for funding public services. And if any government tried to slow or stop growth for environmental reasons, powerful economic forces under capitalism would offer fierce resistance – with some businesses perhaps threatening to leave the nation altogether.

What about ‘green growth’?

Most mainstream economists and politicians accept the science on the dire state of the planet, but not many people think capitalism is the problem. Instead, the dominant response to the ecological crisis is to call for ‘green growth’.

This theory involves producing ever more goods and services, but with fewer resources and impacts. So a business might design its products to have less environmental impact, or a product at the end of its life could be reused – sometimes called a ‘circular economy’.

If our entire economy produced and consumed goods and services like this, we mightn’t need to abandon the growth economics inherent to capitalism. Instead, we would just “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact.

Too good to be true

There are several big problems with green growth theory. First, it isn’t happening at the global scale – and where it is happening to a limited extent within nations, the change is not fast or deep enough to head off dangerous climate change.

Second, the extent of “decoupling” required is simply too great. Ecological footprint accounting shows we need 1.75 planets to support existing economic activity into the future – yet every nation seeks more growth and ever-rising material living standards.




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Trying to reform capitalism – with a carbon tax here and some redistribution there – might go some way to reducing environmental harm and advancing social justice.

But the faith in the god of growth brings all this undone. The United Nations’ development agenda assumes “sustained economic growth” is the best way to alleviate global poverty – a noble and necessary goal. But our affluent living standards simply cannot be globalised while remaining within safe planetary limits. We need degrowth, which means planned contraction of energy and resource demands.

Taking a fair share

Let’s do the maths. If all humans lived like Australians, we’d need more than four planets to sustain us. Earth’s population is set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Our current levels of consumption do not add up.

Something resembling a fair share could involve developed nations reducing energy and resource demands by 50% or even 75% or more. This would mean transcending consumer lifestyles, embracing far more modest but sufficient material living standards, and creating new post-capitalist modes of production and distribution that aimed to meet the basic needs of all – not for limitless growth.




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The “downshift” in material consumption can begin at the individual level where possible. But more broadly we must create local and sharing economies that don’t depend on globalised, fossil-fuelled distribution chains.

A range of social movements will be needed to persuade politicians to adopt systemic change.

Last year’s global student strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests were a good start. Over time, they could create widespread public momentum for an alternative, post-growth economy.

Ultimately, structural and policy inventions will be needed. This includes changes to land governance to make sustainable living easier. And we need to start having difficult but compassionate conversations about population growth.

Transcending capitalism

I’m certainly not suggesting we adopt a centralised, Soviet-style state socialism. After all, a socialist economy seeking growth without limit is just as unsustainable as growth capitalism. We must expand our imaginations and explore alternatives.

I don’t have all the answers – and I think post-capitalist movements, now and in the future, will probably fail. But if we do not recognise capitalism’s inherent growth fetish as the central problem, we cannot formulate a coherent response.The Conversation

Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lots of people want to help nature after the bushfires – we must seize the moment



Dan Mariuz/AAP

Denise Goodwin, Monash University; Abby Wild, Monash University, and Melissa Hatty, Monash University

As the devastation of this season of bushfires unfolds, many people have asked themselves: what can I do to help? Perhaps they donated money, left food out for wildlife or thought about joining a bush regeneration group.

Big, life-changing moments – whether society-wide or personal – provide unique opportunities to disrupt habits and foster new behaviours. Think of how a heart attack can prompt some people to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

For many Australians, the bushfire disaster could represent such a turning point, marking the moment they adopt new, long-term actions to help nature. But governments and environmental organisations must quickly engage people before the moment is lost.

Creatures of habit

Human behaviour is generally habitual, resistant to change, and shaped by context such as time of day, location or social group. But when this context is disrupted, opportunities emerge to foster change.

Take the case of taking action on climate change. Research into public perceptions, including in Australia, suggests most people see climate change as not personally relevant. In other words, they are “psychologically distant” from the problem. This means they are less likely to adopt pro-environmental behaviors.




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But the bushfire crisis was personally relevant to millions of Australians. Some tragically lost loved ones or homes. Thousands were forced to evacuate or had holidays cut short. And the smoke haze which engulfed our cities badly interfered with daily life.

Such ruptures are described in psychology and behavioural science as a moment of change, which means the time is ripe to encourage new behaviours.

Where there’s a will

Even before the fire crisis, many Australians were primed to act for nature.

In 2018 we conducted a survey which found 86% of Victorians support pro-environmental and pro-social values, 95% are aware of the condition of Victoria’s environment and the importance of biodiversity, and more than 64% feel connected to nature.

Experience of previous natural disasters provides further insights into why people might volunteer.




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After the 2011 Rena oil spill in New Zealand, communities came together to quickly remove oil from the coastline. Subsequent research found people volunteered for a range of reasons. This included a sense of collective responsibility for the environment for both current and future generations, and to connect with others and cope with their negative response to the spill.

One model of behaviour change theory suggests if people have the motivation, capability and opportunity, they are more likely to act.

Australians have shown motivation and capability to act in this bushfire crisis – now they need opportunities. Governments and environmental organisations should encourage easy behaviours people can perform now.

Bush regeneration groups are keenly awaiting new volunteers to help with bushfire recovery.
Flickr

Putting it into practice

Timeliness is essential in promoting new behaviours. Organisations should limit the time that passes between a person’s first impulse to help – such as signing up to a volunteer organisation – and concrete opportunities to act.

Volunteering groups should communicate early with volunteers, find out what skills and resources they can offer then provide easy, practical suggestions for acting quickly.

In the short term, this might mean suggesting that concerned citizens keep their cats indoors and dogs under control, particularly near areas affected by the fires; take a bag on their beach walk to pick up litter and debris; or advocate for the environment by talking with family and friends about why nature needs protecting.




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In the longer term, these behaviours could be scaled up to activities such as encouraging people to fill their garden with native plants to provide new habitat for wildlife; regularly volunteering for nature, and participating in citizen science projects.

Governments, councils and other organisations should provide information that guides the activities of volunteers, but still gives them control over how they act. This can lead to positive initiatives such as Landcare, which allows local people to design solutions to environmental problems.

Analysis of natural disaster response overseas has shown that decentralised approaches which incorporate local communities work well.

The long-term picture

There is a danger that once the immediate shock of the bushfire crisis passes, some people will return to their old behaviours. However research has shown when people undertake one pro-environmental behaviour, they are more likely to repeat it in future.

Encouraging people to help nature, and spend time in it, can also improve a person’s physical and mental well-being.

After the New Zealand oil spill cleanup, for example, most volunteers reported a sense of satisfaction, better social ties and renewed optimism.

This summer’s east coast bushfires are a tragedy. But if the moment is harnessed, Australians can create new habits that help the environment in its long process of recovery. And perhaps one day, acting for nature will become the new social norm.The Conversation

Denise Goodwin, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Abby Wild, Research fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University, and Melissa Hatty, PhD candidate, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Remote Indigenous Australia’s ecological economies give us something to build on


Jon Altman, Australian National University

Land titling in Australia has undergone a revolutionary shift over the past four decades. The return of diverse forms of title to Indigenous Australians has produced some semblance of land justice. About half the continent is now held under some form of Indigenous title.

Forms of title range from inalienable freehold title to non-exclusive (or shared) native title. Much of this estate is in northern Australia, as this recent map shows.

Status of Indigenous title across Australia.
K. Jordon, F. Markham and J. Altman, Linking Indigenous communities with regional development: Australia Overview, report to OECD (2019), Author provided

Another map from 2014 shows over 1,000 discrete Indigenous communities and the division between north and south.

What’s different about these lands?

These lands and their populations have some unusual features.

First, the lands are extremely remote and relatively undeveloped in a capitalist “extractive” sense. These are the largest relatively intact savannah landscapes in Australia — and possibly the world.

Much of this estate is included in the National Reserve System as Indigenous Protected Areas because of its high environmental and cultural values, according to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria.

These areas still face threats from invasive animal and plant species, bushfires and increasingly extreme heat. These threats will lead to further species extinctions.

Indigenous Protected Area management plans address these threats to ensure biodiversity and cultural values are at best restored or maintained, at worst not eroded.




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Second, parts of these lands in the wet-dry tropics are valuable as sources of emissions avoidance and carbon storage.

Many groups are paid through offset markets and voluntary agreements to reduce overall emissions. There are emerging options for payment for long-term carbon storage – between 25 and 100 years.

These lands have some of the world’s highest solar irradiance. Multi-billion-dollar solar and wind/solar/green hydrogen facilities are being developed.

Third, the Indigenous owners and majority inhabitants are among the poorest Australians. Only 35% of Aboriginal adults in very remote Australia are formally employed. Over 50% of Indigenous people in these areas live below the poverty line.

Such poverty is explained partly by past colonisation and associated social exclusion and neglect, geographic isolation from market capitalism and labour markets, and different priorities.

Having legally proven continuity of customs, traditions and connection to reclaimed ancestral lands, landowners generally look to care for their country. They use its natural resources for domestic non-commercial purposes as allowed by law.

But Indigenous people continually struggle to inhabit these lands. Their dispersed small settlements range from townships to homelands. Government support is minimal and policy intentionally discouraging.




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The problem with official development models

Since federation, many government policy proposals to “develop the north” have sought to replicate the economic growth trajectory of the temperate south. Such plans are based on state-sanctioned, often environmentally damaging, market capitalism.

The latest version is the 2015 Our North, Our Future white paper, released after a parliamentary inquiry. In submission 136, Francis Markham and I asked, “developing whose north for whom and in what way?” We pointed out 48% of the north’s 3 million square kilometres was under Indigenous title at that time, and Indigenous ideas about the land are often very different from those of the government and corporate, mainly extractive, interests.




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Four years on, a Senate select inquiry is examining how the Our North, Our Future agenda is progressing. A specific reference to First Nations people has been added. In submission 13, we highlighted four fundamental changes over the past five years.

  1. the Indigenous land share of northern Australia has grown to 60%

  2. Indigenous people are living in deeper poverty partly due to punitive changes to income-support arrangements

  3. growing scientific consensus that global warming will have escalating negative impacts on northern Australia

  4. slowing population growth suggests the white paper’s goal of a population of 4–5 million by 2060 (from just over 1 million now) lacks realism.




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We are at a critical crossroads in policy thinking about northern Australia.

The dominant approach sees it as ripe for capitalist development, extraction and associated economic growth, irrespective of environmental consequences. Corporate pressure to undertake risky fracking for oil and gas and to develop industrial-scale agriculture and aquaculture projects epitomises such thinking.

The zero-emissions alternative

The holistic focus of ecological economics informs an alternative approach. It’s based on the tenet that everything connects to everything else: the economy is embedded in society and society is embedded in the environment, the natural order.

This line of reasoning resonates with the focus of many Indigenous landowners on the need to nurture kin, ancestral country and living, natural resources.

Ecological economics distinguishes between economic growth that depletes non-renewable resources irrespective of environmental harm, and forms of development that focus on human well-being, cultural and environmental values.




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Development in the north might take many transformational forms as we strive for a zero-emissions economy.

Economist Ross Garnaut discusses the potential of a zero-emissions economy in Australia.

Indigenous-titled and peopled lands are well positioned to drive this in three proven ways:

  1. by intensifying projects that reduce emissions and sequester carbon
  2. by increasing efforts to conserve biodiversity by managing and potentially reversing impacts of invasive species
  3. by becoming key players in the renewables sector through massive projects for domestic energy use and export.

The same landscapes can be used for sustainable wildlife harvesting for food and diverse forms of cultural production for income. These uses accord with Indigenous tradition and leave minimal environmental footprints.

Policy and practice must be informed by the environmental perspectives of Indigenous landowners, which are highly compatible with the core concepts of ecological economics.

In these ways, the North could emerge as a powerhouse region beyond current imaginaries. The climate crisis makes this transformation essential.

As ecological economies, remote Indigenous lands could deliver sustainable livelihoods to Indigenous people and contribute significantly to a zero-emissions economy of critical benefit to national and global communities.The Conversation

Jon Altman, Emeritus professor, School of Regulation and Global Governance, ANU, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What is ‘ecological economics’ and why do we need to talk about it?



Ecological economics focuses on sustainability and development, rather than the traditional economic concerts of efficiency and growth.
thodonal88/Shutterstock

Anitra Nelson, RMIT University and Brian Coffey, RMIT University

This article is part of a series on rebalancing the human–nature interactions that are central to the study and practice of ecological economics, which is the focus of the 2019 ANZSEE Conference in Melbourne later this month.


As environmental crises and the urgency to create ecological sustainability escalate, so does the importance of ecological economics. This applied, solutions-based field of studies is concerned with sustainability and development, rather than efficiency and growth. Also, given that cities account for 70-80% of global economic activity and associated resource use, emissions and waste, they are central to finding solutions to the challenge of sustainability.

Ecological economics recognises local to global environmental limits. It ranges from research for short-term policy and local challenges through to long-term visions of sustainable societies. Ecological economists also consider global issues such as carbon emissions, deforestation, overfishing and species extinctions.




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Core concepts

You’re probably familiar with some core concepts of ecological economics. These include “steady-state economies”, “carrying capacity”, “ecological footprints” and “environmental justice”.

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen was one of the first economists to argue that an economy faces limits to growth as a result of resource depletion.

A steady-state economy is both relatively stable and respects ecological limits. Drawing on the work of mathematician and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, economist Herman Daly elaborated the model, editing a 1973 anthology, Toward a Steady-State Economy.

In 1990, Daly co-founded the International Society of Ecological Economics (ISEE). It had three key principles:

  • the human economy is embedded in nature, and economic processes are actually biological, physical and chemical processes and transformations

  • ecological economics is a meeting place for researchers committed to environmental issues

  • ecological economics requires transdisciplinary work to describe economic processes in relation to physical reality.

Joshua Farley, who has worked with Daly, discusses some of these principles in an opening address to the Australia New Zealand Society of Ecological Economics (ANZSEE) conference at RMIT University later this month.

In a partnership program of several North American universities, Farley teaches Economics for the Anthropocene postgraduates. They apply ecological economics to “real-world environmental solutions”. Some will talk at the conference about their research.

Today overconsumption is measured against Earth’s carrying capacity.




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William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel developed the related concept of the ecological footprint. It’s an indicator of the ecological impacts of everyday activities and practices.

Ecological footprints are useful ways for industries, governments and people to assess which practices we need to reduce to keep within the limits of Earth’s regenerative capacity.

The ecological footprint explained.



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ISEE co-founder Joan Martinez-Alier established the global Environmental Justice Atlas. Activists and scholars developed this online database of around 3,000 environmental justice conflicts. It provides open access to many and various ecological and economic value assessments.

Issues of environmental justice in Australia include:




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Mountains of waste are a stark reminder we are consuming more than the Earth can sustain.
ThavornC/Shutterstock

A new kind of economics

Ecological economics partly developed from frustration with the narrowness of environmental and resource economics. These approaches apply mainstream economics to the environment. In doing so, they fail to incorporate critical environmental concerns that arise with inputs, outputs and waste.




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In addition, ecological economists have a broader view about what “progress” is and how to measure it. Ecological econonomists are more sceptical about how much human-made capital improves on the benefits we get from nature. Critically, they ask: “How useful is it to put a monetary value on nature?”

Ecological economist Clive Hamilton discusses that question in the case of Coronation Hill in Kakadu National Park. He argues that market-based assessments such as “willingness to pay” favour market-based solutions. Similarly, Brian Coffey highlights the conundrum of monetising ecological values:

I would rather ask “why is nature important?” and “how can we live with, and within, it?”

Despite this, certain ecological economists use monetary data to make powerful ecological statements. For instance, Ida Kubiszewski and her co-authors surveyed land uses under different future scenarios. They concluded that continuing business as usual could wipe out a third of the value of Asia-Pacific ecosystems by 2050.




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Solutions for sustainable and just futures

In short, ecological economics has contributors from diverse disciplinary and professional backgrounds.

Presenters to the ANZSEE conference of course include ecologists and economists. But there are also social and physical scientists, sociologists, philosophers, historians, planners and sustainability experts.

Sustainability expert Samuel Alexander speaks about living well with degrowth. Others argue that a climate-safe world requires radical forms of economics.




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Contributors will also talk about just transitions, commoning, the genuine progress indicator (GPI), School Strike for Climate (SS4C), resilience, decarbonisation and ethical investment. Keynote speaker Jon Altman presents a model of hybrid economies that’s useful in the context of Indigenous peoples.The Conversation

Anitra Nelson, Associate Professor, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University and Brian Coffey, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Attorney-General Christian Porter targets Market Forces in push against environment groups



Greenpeace members protesting at Newcastle port in 2017, calling on the Commonwealth Bank to stop investing in coal.
Jaz Kaelin

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has the activist group Market Forces squarely in its sights as it considers ways to stop environmental organisations persuading financial and other businesses to boycott companies in the mining sector.

It is also targeting funders of class actions, in its proposed crackdown on those running climate change campaigns that hit firms.

Attorney-General Christian Porter singled out Market Forces in a Monday statement that said he was co-ordinating advice across several portfolios on what could be done to protect resource businesses from such activism.




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Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday condemned “an escalating trend towards a new form of secondary boycotts” which had potentially serious economic consequences, especially for regional economies.

“Environmental groups are targeting businesses and firms who provide goods or services to firms they don’t like, especially in the resources sector,” Morrison told the Queensland Resources Council.

Market Forces was launched in 2013, and is affiliated with Friends of the Earth. The organisation’s website says it “exposes” institutions, such as banks, superannuation funds and governments that are financing environmentally destructive projects.

Market Forces has lobbied heavily against Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine in central Queensland. Its website lists the companies it says have links to the project, and asks supporters to contact those companies to demand they cut ties.

A 2017 protest against the Commonwealth Bank over its then-links to mining giant Adani.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

The organisation’s chief executive Julien Vincent hit back at the government on Monday, saying that where it saw something it did not like “its response is to get it shut down”.

“We simply allow people to make informed decisions on who they do business with,” Vincent said.




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“That’s a right that we thought, until recently, that this government was prepared to uphold”.

But Porter said it was “simply not OK” for any Australian business to be targeted by groups seeking to do it financial harm “when all they are doing is working in an industry like mining and resources that a small number of domestic and international activists have an ideological objection to.

“There are a growing number of examples where we have seen radical activist groups like Market Forces that try and impose their political will on companies across the country through widespread, co-ordinated harassment and threats of boycotts,” he said.

The government was looking at multiple options, across portfolios, Porter said, and the work would be prepared urgently.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has announced the government will try to prevent activist groups from initiating boycotts against companies.
BIANCA DE MARCHI/AAP

The government was also considering regulatory action against “the growing presence of litigation funders who are receiving disproportionately large shares of payments in class action litigation which is becoming increasingly politicised by a focus on companies that operate in the mining and resources sector”.

Casting the net even wider, Porter said the government would consider other areas of activists’ “lawfare” which was “designed to delay, frustrate and cause unnecessary expense to mining and other legitimate commercial projects and businesses”.

Secondary boycotts are already outlawed under the competition and consumer legislation but there is an exemption where the dominant reason is for environmental or consumer protection.

An obvious course for the government would be to seek to remove the exemption.
Another option would be to remove the tax deductibility status of groups.

Labor has accused Morrison of “virtue signalling” in his planned attack on activist groups.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Our nature laws are being overhauled. Here are 7 things we must fix



A koala mother and joey seeking refuge on a bulldozed log pile near Kin Kin in Queensland. Federal environment laws have failed to prevent widespread land clearing across Australia.
WWF Australia

Jan McDonald, University of Tasmania

Environment Minister Sussan Ley yesterday announced a ten-yearly review of Australia’s national environmental laws. It could not come at a more critical time, as the environment struggles under unprecedented development pressures, climate change impacts and a crippling drought.

The laws, formally known as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, have been in place for 20 years.




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Announcing the review, Ley said it would “tackle green tape” and reduce delays in project approvals. She said the laws must remain “fit for purpose” as our environment changes.

Serious declines in most biodiversity indicators strongly suggest the laws are not fit for purpose. Some 7.7 million hectares of endangered species habitat has been destroyed since the Act was established and the lists of threatened and endangered species continue to grow.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley pats a koala during a National Threatened Species Day event at Parliament House in Canberra in September 2019.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

The review should ensure Australia’s environmental law achieves what it was designed to do – protect our precious natural places.

The list below reflects the EPBC Act priorities of 70 environmental lawyers and practitioners who were polled by the National Environmental Law Association. Collectively, they have more than 500 years experience of the Act’s operation.

1. Independent decisions with clear criteria

Under the laws, proponents of activities likely to have big impacts on so-called “matters of national environmental significance” must get federal approval. The minister or a representative makes this decision and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, grants approval.

This approval power should be vested in an independent body to take the politics out of decisions. Criteria for deciding on approvals should be clearer, including thresholds for when applications must be refused on environmental grounds.

2. Take stock of cumulative impacts

A search of the EPBC Act will not find any reference to cumulative impacts, or the need to consider whether approval of one proposal is likely to lead to a raft of new projects being proposed. There is little scope to consider cumulative impacts that might happen in future — only when a new proposal constitutes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The Act must do better at considering both how proposed activities and future plans will interact, and the background processes of environmental change and decline.

Suburban sprawl north of Brisbane. Environment law experts say the EPBC Act does not take account of cumulative impacts of developments.
Dave Hunt/AAP

3. Provide funds for proper enforcement

Improving the content of the Act is one thing, but monitoring, compliance and enforcement are critical. There is little point imposing tough conditions if no one is there to ensure they are met. This demands an ongoing sustainable funding base that is not dependent on political budget priorities.

4. Better data and transparency

Access to information about environmental decisions is essential for good governance. Not all documents and decisions are publicly available. It is very difficult to track down detailed aspects of approval conditions – for example, the detail of the groundwater management and monitoring plan for the Adani coal mine. This is especially important when the department’s capacity to oversee compliance is so constrained.




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The Act should consider the need for public registers of all documents and data collected as part of decision-making and monitoring processes, including decisions, approvals, conditions, offset locations, compliance reports and monitoring data.

5. Expand scope of national environmental impact assessment

Commonwealth involvement in environmental approvals is limited to specific “matters of national environmental significance”. Land clearing and climate change are not included in the list of such matters, and are usually considered under state laws.

This means activities that may damage native vegetation or lead to rising emissions are only scrutinised under federal law if they might affect other things, such as threatened species or world heritage places.




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Also, the Act only seeks to protect water resources when the proposed project is a large coal mine or coal seam gas venture. New triggers are needed to require federal assessment and approval for all activities that might significantly affect water, native vegetation and climate change.

Rare black cockatoos in Victoria. The number of threatened species has grown while the EBPC Act has been operating.
THREATENED SPECIES RECOVERY HUB

6. Deal with land clearing

Habitat loss is recognised as the primary driver of species decline in Australia. Rates of land clearing have increased dramatically in recent years, despite the operation of the Act.

Stronger protections are needed. These must prevent further clearing of vegetation types that are not adequately conserved in Australia’s system of protected natural areas. In cases where a proponent plans to offset damage caused by their project by restoring land elsewhere, construction should be delayed until work has begun on the restoration project and conservation benefits are occurring.

7. Make strategic assessments truly strategic

Conservation planning and environmental assessment are complex. Major new initiatives can involve interacting influences and trade-offs. The Act’s so-called “strategic assessment” process to some extent accounts for this — for example it might consider development plans across a region, rather than project-by-project.

But strategic planning must occur for a wider range of activities that may have long-term impacts on conservation: for example, the Tasmanian government’s desire to open up the Tarkine region to further mining. The planning must also better consider spatial conflicts and account for future change.

This list is just the tip of the law reform iceberg, but addressing these priorities would be a good start. With only one environmental law expert and no environmental scientist on the newly announced panel, it remains to be seen how these priorities will be addressed, if at all.The Conversation

Jan McDonald, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why a sense of kinship is key to caring about the living world



Framing nature in terms of kinship can motivate people to care about the loss of biodiversity.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Matthew Hall, Victoria University of Wellington

Leading thinkers in environmental economics and conservation are asking a pressing question. Why are we ignoring the destruction of the living world?

Recently, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published a global assessment of biodiversity that set out alarming statistics: a million species at threat of extinction, 75% of terrestrial environments severely altered by human activity, and a 30% reduction in global habitat integrity.

Despite all this, practical solutions to redress an ecological crisis — land use and economic reform, action on climate change and improvements to environmental governance — are not prioritised. One key reason for this is how we frame our relationship to the living world.

Instrumental nature

An endangered baobab species in Madagascar.
Bernard Gagno/Wikimedia Commons

Our prevailing relationship with nature is instrumental – that is, we predominantly frame the living world as a set of natural resources, apart from humans, for our privileged use.

Such framing is so deeply embedded, and our material dependence on nature so total, that it can seem strange even to question the idea of nature as natural resource. In Western nations, this position has deep philosophical and religious roots.

My latest book, The Imagination of Plants, highlights the role of the creation story in Genesis and the philosophy of Aristotle in rendering plants, the living beings that make up the visible bulk of most terrestrial ecosystems, as existing for the sake of animals, and both for the sake of humans.




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Such accounts have powerfully shaped a human-centred, utility-based worldview that has silenced the needs of plants and animals. They form the philosophical basis of our claims to “own” other species.

If plants and animals exist for the sake of humans, why take action to conserve them when they’re not useful? Why care when their numbers are going down, as long as we can still get what we materially need from them?

Conservation concepts and strategies that place the living world within this frame, including ideas of natural capital, ecosystem services and the protection of the living world for our enlightened self-interest, are destined to fail because they do not address this underlying framing. Indeed, as researchers have pointed out, by not addressing such framing they perpetuate the very drivers of biodiversity loss.




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Intrinsic value

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Albrecht Dürer, 1504.
Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

Environmental thinkers have warned for decades that such a view of nature is at the root of our ecological crisis. More recent research has argued against this instrumental view, criticising its value as a basis for conservation action.

Since the 1980s, discussions of the intrinsic value of nature – “valuing it for what it is, not only what it does” – have happened across a number of environmental disciplines. This led to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), founded on the cornerstone of the intrinsic value of biological diversity.

In some countries, such as New Zealand, the concept of intrinsic value appears in major pieces of resource management and conservation legislation. It has been instrumental in recent legal battles over land use.




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Recent work by environmental philosopher Michael Paul Nelson shows people acknowledge the intrinsic value of nature. He argues that the only reason we make decisions inconsistent with this value is because we don’t believe the general populace shares this belief.

But the concept of intrinsic value does not demand a move away from a dominant use-based frame. In the preamble of the CBD itself, intrinsic values sit alongside a raft of use-based values, including economic, scientific, educational, cultural and aesthetic values. The power of the use-based frame dominates the concept of intrinsic value.

A highly resolved tree of life demonstrates the kinship of all life on Earth.
Ivica Letunic/Wikimedia Commons

All our relations

There is an alternative to the dichotomy of a purely instrumental relationship and the concept of intrinsic value.

In many Indigenous cultures, such relationships are built on fundamental kinship with the living world, a kinship that actually blurs and subverts the very concepts of nature and culture.

Within these kinship relationships, the needs and capacities of living beings are acknowledged, not left in the background. This is what the late anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose called the Indigenous ethic of connection, or what is also called kincentric ecology.

Kinship offers a way of connecting to nature that acknowledges our need to use plants and animals, but constructs relationships beyond use. Where the concept of intrinsic value can be difficult to engage with, kinship relationships naturally extend to care, respect and responsibility.

Framing nature in terms of kinship can motivate people to care and make the loss of the living world real for people. Ever since Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, science has known of our fundamental kinship with nature. Yet we don’t frame (or live with) nature in a way that honours this.

A recent example gives me hope. At the school climate strike, a young Brazilian Indigenous woman addressed a crowd in New York, speaking in terms of kinship about the human children of a mother Earth, fighting to save their mother from destruction. Framing nature in terms of kinship noticeably energised the crowd of young people.

The challenge to reframe the living world in terms of kinship is massive. A good step would be to convene a human-nature kinship platform as a way of influencing the UN Biodiversity Conference in China next year. Another step could be to enshrine our fundamental kinship with other species in all major environmental governance frameworks, including the CBD and national environmental legislation.

Both could provide the springboard for us to undergo the hard work of talking about, and living with, other species in ways that acknowledge them as our earthly relations.The Conversation

Matthew Hall, Associate Director, Research Services, Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.