Environment policy: standing on principles

Although a mere snapshot of ‘eco-philosophy’, this article aims to provoke a broader discussion of the quest for better, values-based environmental policies by:

  1. listing four key characteristics of ‘the environment’;
  2. connecting these with the values in Reclaiming our Common Wealth: policies for a fair and sustainable future;
  3. noting key environmental challenges for elaboration in future articles; and
  4. suggesting principles for environmental policies and tools for programs.

1. Key characteristics of the environment

i. The environment contains us

Humans are not separate from ‘nature’. Some of the environment is alive (plants, animals and even ‘us’), and some of it is inert (such as air, soil, water and minerals). Some is renewable, some depletable. Many elements are tangible and some less so.

The environment can also take many different forms — urban, rural and those areas we consider as natural or ‘wild’. A complex understanding of the environment is important because if environment is defined simply as our physical surrounds, excluding us, mismanagement is more likely now and into the future.

ii. The environment is an interconnected system

Everything is connected to everything else. Scales from molecular to global are connected and inter-dependent (e.g. climate and ocean systems), and transformations may be instantaneous or take place over millennia. Problems that appear to affect only a single species, locality, or region, may in fact have a global impact.

Environmental problems are exacerbated if we treat components of the environment as disconnected or deal only with the local and short term. Complex systems are resilient, but pressures, especially cumulative pressures, can weaken the whole system and even cause catastrophic change and collapse.

iii. The environment, society and economy are linked and inter-reliant

Extending this concept, we each belong to each sphere. The human in nature is not separate from the human in society. ‘Sustainability’ is about balancing objectives across the interdependent social, economic and environmental spheres, and across space and time. This requires stronger linkage and feedback mechanisms between each sphere. We must deal with the capital embodied in the environment not just traditionally understood forms of capital which are seen to be created by, and embodied in, humans and society collectively.

iv. The environment provides essential supplies, support and services

Services bringing benefit to us (e.g. forests filtering water) are usually prominent, but non-human elements also service each other, and we serve or disserve them. The life-support we receive from environmental resources is clear (e.g. food, air, water, energy). Equally important are the less tangible factors like recreation, aesthetic satisfaction, and a sense of wonder and oneness.

The environment helps shape society’s culture and health, its settlements and pursuits. It mixes the material and the spiritual, reason and intuition: environmental responses ought to be based on knowledge, but perhaps some faith too!

  • All environmental services are valuable, but not all are fully costed. Lack of valuation is a factor in misuse and unsustainable consumption. Management would be enhanced if more were measured and valued, noting that the total value of the parts taken individually may be less than of the whole (the sustaining ecosystems) and that some things will remain difficult to value but this does not mean they are less important.
  • Technologies can modify, augment and substitute for environmental services. But they may carry considerable risks and limits which can emerge in painful, costly ways when they are not dealt with and understood. There are limits to the environment’s capacity to cope and to continue serving our needs, including limits to some resources (e.g. oil) — which we approach ever faster with the growth in population and living standards.

Box 1. The vital link between our environment and economic systems

A 1973 Treasury paper on ‘limits to growth‘ debates was entitled ‘Economic Growth: is it worth having?’ The question remains relevant. Much growth relies on the environment; but growth can precipitate environmental problems — putting such pressure on finite environmental resources as to threaten or diminish services per head of population. When the economy costs the environment too much — by overusing its services – the consequent deterioration becomes a cost to the economy. Growth per se does not solve environmental problems, despite claims; it often transfers them from one group, time, or form, to another.

As well as deferring the costs of environmental problems to future generations, this transfer also tends to shift costs from wealthier to poorer or more marginalised communities, a phenomenon sometimes described as ‘environmental injustice’.

Better forms of development are possible. Treating the economy as a means rather than an end, and focussing on the quality of economic growth rather than its quantity would improve matters. ‘Sustainable development‘ would have lower energy and material intensity per unit of output or service (doing more with less); closed loops which avoid wastes and pollutants, or recycle and reuse them; reinvestment in natural capital; consumption closer to needs; more information on the (local and global) environmental and social consequences of our choices; greater equity in the distribution of benefits and costs; and more options left open for the future.

2. Connecting these characteristics with the ‘Reclaiming our Common Wealth’ values

The values put forward in Reclaiming our Common Wealth -— freedom, citizenship, an ethical culture, fairness and stewardship — each apply as much to the environment and its characteristics as to the social and economic dimensions of a satisfying and sustainable life.

i. Stewardship and an ethical culture

Understanding that the environment is a sustaining source of economic and social wellbeing makes stewardship natural and ethical. It is about managing all the environment’s services, whether tangible or not. It includes stewardship for services as yet unknown, implying attention to conservation beyond merely preserving the obviously beneficial. ‘Duty of care‘ does not imply preservation of everything, nor resistance to all change, but it does entail far more conscious decisions about what to use and what possibly to lose.

ii. Fairness

Fairness includes just and continuing access to environmental services and fair distribution of both benefits and costs. So far most benefits have accrued to some of the environment’s human element. Costs are disproportionately borne by the non-human environment (exploited and under-recognised in anthropocentric systems); by some regions or groups (providing resources without adequate reward); and, in some senses and places, by females rather than males. Real costs will be borne by our successors.

Intergenerational equity requires that future generations can obtain adequate services from the environment. So we must maintain, restore, and develop our natural capital for both practical and ethical reasons.

iii. Citizenship

Citizenship has a focus on relationship networks and social capital and should extend to building environmental capital and respecting contributions from all its elements to the public good. The system nature of the environment requires us to act with attention to both the local and global elements of our support system — and with respect for citizens now and in the future.

The value of citizenship also implies the right of society’s members to participate in environment decisions and management. This requires sound institutions and processes and equitable access to the means to make informed choices.

iv. Freedom

The freedom of each individual to ‘exercise rights as long they do not impinge upon the rights of others’ also requires access to information and feedback to ensure that individuals understand the impact of their decisions on others and are aware of the rights of all elements of the environment. Freedom comes with the responsibility of governing bodies to intervene and to lead whenever the greater ‘public good‘ is threatened (short or longer term) and where self-managing tools in the economy or society are inadequate – where the invisible hand causes or allows detriment, as manifestly does occur in many environmental matters.

Box 2. Why does the environment deserve prominence in policy?

There is very strong evidence that aspects of the environment are deteriorating. Australia has some of the globe’s most diverse biological resources, but they are dwindling. Human-made chemicals proliferate, often beneficial but not all well understood or controlled. Water supplies for agriculture and cities are under extreme pressure. Salinity is rising. Energy use grows, as do greenhouse-gas emissions. Our often-poor soils decline in many areas, with some of the land most suited for agriculture swallowed by ‘development’. Forests and fish stocks falter. The volume of many wastes rise. We manipulate genes, which may well lead to better lives but poses considerable real or potential risk — as does the long-term nuclear radiation we liberate.

Parties trumpet their environment programs while State of the Environment reports show decline for many factors. Is it sensible to head into a future of increased pressures with approaches that have already proved unsustainable in the present? We do not sound the alarm for its own sake but because the costs of avoidance, rectification, substitution and adaptation grow the longer we delay. Action now will be cheaper than action later — and inaction may be fatal. Accumulated dangers and abrupt turning points are possible.

So, dealing with environmental problems is not a trivial side concern. It is central to meeting our present and future needs. We are a part of, not apart from, the environment: we rely on it.

We take pride in our rationality and progress: yet we are eating our grandchildren’s future. We will hand them money and property, but we should also hand on proof that the benefits from our management of the environment are higher than the costs we have imposed on it. Can we currently be confident of that? Will we pass on the means to meet their needs? Better environmental policy and performance is vital, and there are ways to achieve it — if we are willing.


Thanks to Bill Leak

3. Some of the key environmental challenges

For the sake of brevity, we will not elaborate on the environmental challenges listed in Box 2, except to illustrate broad aspects of the problems and the potential responses. This list of challenges can also be seen as an invitation for readers to respond with innovative solutions.

i. Water

Water, which is fundamental to all life, is a major issue here because it is scarce in some areas of high and competing demand, at some times, and for some purposes. Global warming adds greater risks. Water is part of a very interconnected system – to biodiversity and to material carried or liberated by water flows (such as salt). It has to be managed on a system basis – watersheds, regions and across borders.

Proper pricing is one key. Property ‘rights’ – and responsibilities – are crucial. But so is the concept of cooperation in many circumstances, where water should be managed as a commons to ensure that it is accessible to all.

ii. Biodiversity

Biodiversity exemplifies the system nature of the environment. Living things provide resources like food, fibres, pharmaceutical ingredients and companionship. Removal of plants is a key cause of erosion, soil deterioration, increasing salinity and other water quality issues. The diversity of our fauna is diminishing due to over-exploitation and habitat loss, and this is related to the decline in the extent and quality of our forests. We are diminishing life’s diversity without understanding the actual and potential costs.

While under or non-valuing of biodiversity’s services is a key issue to address, so is the challenge of accepting that some environmental resources are invaluable and cannot be priced.

iii. Energy

Energy is fundamental to life but its production and use has many environmental impacts. None is more crucial than the role of fossil fuel-based energy in enhanced global warming. The ways we currently meet our energy needs have an increasingly negative effect on the services affected by climate. Effects will be felt in a myriad of ways, from enhanced extreme weather to growing health risks. We need to mitigate the causes (in particular through true-cost energy pricing), and also to adapt to changed states.

iv. The production process and waste

The health of our economy is overly dependent on extracting and transforming resources into manufactured goods. Each step from production to consumption and disposal has environmental consequences. A more sustainable approach — quality growth — was outlined in Box 1.

v. People

People are an environmental problem. Much of the pressure on our environment derives from human numbers multiplied by lifestyle (the ‘ecological footprint’ concept describes the impact of our resource demands). Lifestyle and resource impacts are not related in a simple way since technologies and other factors affect the equation: technologies have allowed the upward surge and far more will be needed to sustain it. The society-economy-environment interaction is often most intense in and near major settlements — congestion, air and water pollution, wastes (such as sewage, packaging), transport, building energy, noise, health and loss of good agricultural land. Well-informed planning and management is vital.

With our ever-rising global population and a concept of quality of life which, like our economy, is overly dependent on material consumption, we can no longer dodge people-lifestyle issues.

vi. Coasts

Coasts are important because bays, swamps, lakes and estuaries are major breeding and feeding grounds for fish and other species; coastal flats have better soils; coastal zones often support good forests; we place a high aesthetic value on coastal areas, and they often have great cultural significance. Pressured by population growth and shifts, our coasts are deteriorating — as are peri-urban areas. Better planning and managing of intensive multiple uses is required.

4. Suggesting principles for environmental policies

From the environment’s core characteristics and the values outlined in ‘Reclaiming our Common Wealth‘, the following inter-connected principles emerge which can be used to confront the key challenges identified above. These principles are relevant to all sectors and all actors, public and private.

Accepting that we are part of a complex life-supporting environmental system for which a stewardship approach must be fundamental, we should:

  • Make decisions on a system basis, taking account of long-term and cumulative impacts, recognising global links and the ultimate finiteness of many resources;
  • Maintain complexity, diversity and integrity – build the resilience of our ecosystems to help sustain functions;
  • Watch and avoid turning points and potentially irreversible damage; and
  • Use the environment’s income, not its capital. Balance current and future benefits by maintaining natural capital, investing in replenishing it, setting enhancement goals, and favouring wise use of the renewable over the depletable.

Recognising that the environment provides services and support, we should:

  • Ensure as far as possible the economic valuation of all environmental services (recognising that some invaluable factors are essentially un-valuable);
  • Where it is the most efficient and cost-effective way to reach a sustainable equilibrium, establish markets for environmental resources and services, or disservices including pollutants, wastes or other impacts.

Observing that technologies can augment nature’s supplies and services and have brought great benefits but sometimes with considerable accompanying risks and costs, we should:

  • Support creativity and innovation but adopt thorough risk management and a full life-cycle analysis of all new technologies.

Understanding that policies will not achieve sustainability unless environmental matters are fully integrated with social and economic matters, we should:

  • Extend integrated decision-making, including wider use of appropriate economic instruments and internalisation of environmental costs and benefits which are currently treated as economic ‘externalities’;
  • Adopt different accounting practices (broader well-being concepts, not just GDP) reflecting changes to different forms of capital — human, social, economic and environmental.

Believing that our systems work best and most sustainably if fairness is maximised, we should:

  • Accept shared responsibilities and act consciously for inter and intra-generational equity, which means that we should not draw from some regions to meet the needs of others without compensation, re-investment and attention to all impacts.

Knowing wasteful material, energy and other practices are a major problem and that we need to reduce pressures and to anticipate, avoid and prevent harm, we should:

  • Aim for the lowest possible inputs of material and energy (especially carbon-based);
  • Avoid and minimise pollutants, toxins and wastes, especially where they exceed the environment’s ability to absorb or reprocess; cut material and chemical leakage; maximise cost effective material reuse and recycling, renewal and remanufacture;
  • Approach risks with caution; use risk assessment and management; avoid alteration unless consequences are known; place the burden of proof on those who will benefit from a potentially harming practice.

Believing in the strengths of citizenship and participatory decision making and that the protection of values requires sound institutions and governance, we should:

  • Ensure wide participation in decision-making, from individuals at local levels to national participation in global action, in both the public and private spheres.
  • Accept that informed choice is essential for effective systems and build awareness and knowledge including the use of tools such as eco-labelling and clear communication;
  • Inform, empower and consult communities. Build strong institutions and processes;
  • Adopt environmental management systems for all industries, and assessment processes which take account of system connections, the longer term, and the possible cumulative impacts of harm to some elements or at multiple-points.

Understanding that sound policy, programs and decisions depend on adequate information tied to a strong knowledge base, with system-level understanding, we should be:

  • Assiduous in investing in observations of the system including measuring and monitoring, data production and auditing, and production of indicators;
  • Painstaking in building knowledge including via multi-disciplinary R&D (accepting that knowledge forms vary and all have value including traditional knowledge);
  • Thorough in making the best possible information available to assist decisions;
  • Ceaseless in support of education and training, adaptive learning and continuous improvement;
  • – Concerned about maintaining flexibility so that our options for the future remain open;
  • Wary of singular views of what constitutes a solution.

These principles are a list of illustrative tools for decision-making. They are aspirations which often face practical obstacles, and trade-offs between them are sometimes required. They fall into several broad types:

  • economic approaches – essential although ‘the market’ alone is never enough;
  • laws and regulations (command and control) – also usually essential;
  • voluntarism – laudable at both individual and collective levels;
  • support and reward systems; and
  • education, training, capacity building, knowledge, communication and participation.

No one tool or approach alone is a miracle cure. Each has its merits, but a suite is needed. The listed principles and tools if tackled collectively and assiduously, with considerable investment and sound leadership, would be a solid step forward.

Box 3. A reprise of factors determining environment policy principles

Values-based environmental policies derive from a realisation that the environment is:

  • a complex, connected, interdependent system of which we form part;
  • a provider of valuable services which we and our successors depend on – some concrete, some intangible; some known, some potential; many unvalued and priced;
  • inextricably linked to our society and its economy and should be treated as such;
  • neither invulnerable nor limitless: it is being damaged and diminished – largely by us;
  • something everyone has rights to, although the deck has been stacked against non-humans, some regions, the poor and the future – responsibilities accompany rights!
  • something that will continue to give to us only if we give back via wise, long-term care based around a suite of tools, sound institutions, foresight, evolving knowledge, participation — and our will.

Later articles and papers will take up the environmental characteristics, values, and principles suggested here and apply them to issues such as water, biodiversity, climate change and energy, to further demonstrate the chain from values to principles to policies and programs.

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