29th August 2002
Special Edition for readers interested in Sustainable Development,
especially in NZ
* Stop Press: important Dutch report advocates "a return to
basics"; see below *
[General readers may care to award themselves a break until the
A critique critiqued
On the eve of the Johannesburg World Summit, the Parliamentary Commissioner
for the Environment Morgan Williams, was kind enough to send
upton-on-line his recently released review of progress towards sustainable
development in New Zealand since the 1992 Rio Summit. In a nutshell,
the report highlights difficulty in coming to terms with the concept
but good progress, notwithstanding that, by almost every sector except
central government in the period up to 1999. The failure of central
government in the Commissioner’s view means that New Zealand could have
been a leader but didn’t become one. But since the change of government
three years ago a mass of strategic activity suggests that the future
is full of promise.
Entitled Creating our Future, this stocktake (182 pages not
counting supporting background papers) can be found at www.pce.govt.nz.
At that length, upton-on-line suspects its casual audience will be limited.
In fairness, as with all the PCE’s reports, it is ultimately designed
to inform a public policy debate – that means politicians of all sorts,
their advisers, interest groups and so on. But in upton-on-line’s view
it deserves to be widely read – though not necessarily for reasons the
Commissioner would necessarily endorse. In upton-on-line’s view, the
report provides an apparently unconscious but magnificent insight into
just what a problematic concept sustainable development really
is – and why governments universally are having so much trouble with
But first a disclaimer
There are few neutral observers in this universe. Upton-on-line was
Minister for the Environment for most of the 1990s – both before and
after Rio (though not at the time of Rio itself or its immediate aftermath).
As such he comes weighed down with all the ideological baggage of a
former elected central government politician. The Commissioner has helpfully
labelled the era up to 1999 as a period of "New Right economic
thinking" in which governments had "an ideological commitment
to market solutions". It was an era of "linear and silo thinking"
in which central government leadership on sustainable development was
almost wholly lacking. Accepting that the Commissioner is free from
any ideological taint, readers of upton-on-line are therefore warned
that they must be on the lookout, in what follows, for the devastating
blight of value-laden, ideological commentary – and the obvious tendency
for defensive special pleading.
Some grounds for agreement
With the appropriate mea culpas out of the way, it’s appropriate
to identify two important areas of agreement. In the first place, upton-on-line
welcomes the PCE’s version of ‘strong sustainability’ which posits
that "to function sustainably we must not exceed the capacity of
the biosphere to provide for and absorb the effects of human activities."(p35)
Phrased in this way, upton-on-line doesn’t have too many problems (although
he is aware of some much more stringent formulations). There is no infinite
substitutability of physical and human capital for the bio-physical
systems on which life depends. Equally, the absorptive capacity of the
biosphere is unknown – and it’s no simple task to describe any thresholds
(see the references in the Dutch report at the end of this edition).
As something of an old conservative, upton-on-line also shares the
Commissioner’s concern that "A culture of consumerism/hedonism
encourages us to feel that happiness and success derives from purchasing
and consuming more and more goods and services." Materialism is
alive, well and remarkably corrosive. That’s not a necessary consequence
of the neo-liberalism that so concerns the Commissioner, but it is unquestionably
a dominant cultural force (at least in the universe that u-o-l inhabits).
Furthermore, readers of the last edition analysing the centre-right’s
political woes in New Zealand will not be surprised that upton-on-line
is not at all uncomfortable with the idea that a form of political liberalism
took hold in which governmental reluctance to intervene was increasingly
rooted in ideology rather empiricism. Having sat around a cabinet table
at which almost any proposal to intervene in respect of holding the
line environmentally was considered heresy (at least until we were much,
much richer), upton-on-line feels reasonably well placed to judge. Silo-thinking
did exist (although not as seriously in the public sector as the Commissioner
Aiming for the stars – or was it a nebula?
Notwithstanding that, one has to ask whether the Commissioner’s problem
definition is very helpful. If policy making prior to 1999 was on the
right track, does he provide a star chart to steer by? The answer, in
upton-on-line’s view is – in common with many other reports - sadly,
no. Almost from its opening paragraphs the review focuses squarely on
the difficulty of defining what sustainable development is all about.
Upton-on-line counted no fewer than nine different references to definitional
Here are some. Sustainable development is: "not an easy concept
to define or communicate" (p16); "a vast and all-encompassing
topic of investigation" (p28); an "elusive goal" fashioned
from terms that are "meaningful but non-specific" (p29); "an
intuitively attractive concept, which has no single and agreed meaning"
(p31); "a difficult, ambiguous concept to understand"(p77).
Upton-on-line was brought up to be wary of mysterious concepts – if
they really are so shrouded in mystery, shouldn’t we shake them hard
until we have a meaningful version?
Notwithstanding this, the Commissioner pushes on towards the stars
as so many have before him (including the OECD) in opting for an ambitiously
expansive field of operations. The august organisation where u-o-l is
based is approvingly cited in support of the view that "Sustainable
development means recognising and thinking about the linkages between
economic, social and environmental factors that influence the decisions
we make."(p30) "Progressing all three dimensions – environmental,
social and economic – is essential to achieve sustainable development
goals" the Commissioner asserts (p28) whilst noting that he possesses
neither the mandate nor the resources to undertake a comprehensive analysis
of how well the social and economic dimensions of sustainable development
are being managed. A lucky out, since this is the standard description
of sustainable development that basically has no boundaries. In its
holism it becomes nebulous. To say, as he does, that "decisions
need to reflect an understanding of social, cultural, ethical, economic
and environmental interests of society, and the interactions and tensions
that occur among those interests" (p38) is to spread the net to
An ecological core
Upton-on-line has explored the problem with this three pillars
approach to sustainability in a couple of papers available at the OECD’s
website. In his view, the output of Rio in terms of Agenda 21
was less a seamless, coherent paradigm than an uncomfortable compromise
between rich, developed, environmentally fearful countries and poor,
developing countries who were not prepared to curtail their development
rights in the pursuit of global sustainability. Significantly, Agenda
21 lumped economic and social concerns together. There were not
three pillars – that came later. In a
paper given earlier this year, u-o-l outlined the dangers in these
There are two dangers. The first is that in the search for ‘balance’
between the three pillars, we end up in a world where everything
is tradable for everything else: where there are, for instance,
no environmental bottom lines. The second is that it is hard to
see what considerations might be excluded from the shelter of these
three all-encompassing pillars. In short, we risk emptying sustainable
development of content by seeking to extend it to everything.
Now it might be objected that this is harmless enough; that sustainable
development embraces a broad church of disciplines and that anyone
worth their salt would know where the live issues are – a sort of
‘thousand blooms’ approach to policy analysis. What is troubling,
however, is the implication that there never was a hard core to
what the Rio conference was about; and further, that if there is
no minimum content to sustainable development as a policy paradigm,
then there is in effect nothing that can be measured should we wish
to gauge whether or not the ability of human kind to sustain itself
on this planet is becoming more or less precarious.
Such a conclusion would indeed be a break with what Rio set in
motion, since considerable store was placed on the need to develop
robust indicators that can inform decision-making. But a decade
on from Rio it is difficult to discern that we have made much progress
at all – and the extension of sustainable development to a new ‘three
pillars’ approach could mean that we never get there.
The full paper ('Poverty, Demography,
Economics and Sustainable Development...') is available in the Sustainable
Development section of this website and at: http://www.oecd.org/pdf/M00028000/M00028451.pdf
In upton-on-line’s respectful view, the Commissioner – notwithstanding
his pursuit of an all-embracing holism – has reached the same view.
After all, as his report says only too clearly, "fundamental to
the ‘strong sustainability’ model of sustainable development and to
what makes New Zealand unique is the protection of our ecological ‘bottom
lines’." If biophysical resources aren’t infinitely tradeable,
then the hard core comes back to our ability to make use of – and leave
available o future generations – those ecological ‘services’ necessary
to support life. They’re all to do with air, water and soil and ecosystems.
Of course we need to be concerned about an economy that is dynamic enough
to provide for human needs and adaptive capacity; of course we need
to be concerned about the social impact of policies. But you can’t shoehorn
them into the same analytical framework as though there is some magic
alchemy that will throw up an ideally harmonious society. Some things
can be traded-off, some can’t.
Measureable limits and tolerances
When it comes to measurement, the Commissioner’s advocacy seems perfectly
sage. Everybody agrees that if a more sustainable development path is
to be achieved, we have to have a much clearer picture of how bio-physical
systems work and where the thresholds of substitution or depletion might
lie beyond which radical and costly feedbacks might start to occur.
All of this the PCE sensibly advocates. The only slightly disturbing
misleading implication is that New Zealand is somehow behind hand in
"Successive New Zealand governments since the Earth Summit
in 1992 have not been active in developing indicators of sustainable
development. New Zealand is, therefore, not in a position to measure
and accurately assess the country’s progress towards sustainability."(p124)
This is not strictly accurate – indicator development programmes both
regionally and centrally have been underway from the mid 1990s. They
are incredibly complex and expensive. But it’s true that New Zealand
has not embarked on the billowing sweep of indicators that the Commissioner’s
wide definition would require. The more interesting point is that not
a single country in the world is yet in a position to do this. And it
would be a bit bizarre if every country were developing its own (potentially
That, in fact, is the risk that the three pillars approach being advocated
by the PCE runs. The trouble is that once you’ve tipped everything into
the hopper (and the Commissioner at p36 notes that this potentially
embraces institutional, political, ethical, cultural and spiritual dimensions),
it’s impossible to know what to give priority to let alone what to measure.
The intractability of the task was neatly demonstrated by OECD countries
recently following a sweeping ministerial injunction to develop indicators
of sustainability for inclusion in the regular Economic Development
Reviews of member countries. It was a good idea – the only problem
was that countries didn’t say what they meant by ‘sustainability’. So
the organisation prudently suggested that since there wasn’t any agreement
on the objectives, it would instead propose a cocktail of indicators
that could illuminate the boundaries of the social, economic and environmental
pillars to assist policy makers.
Illuminating the economic/environmental boundary proved reasonably
do-able. To the traditional economic measures have been added a pretty
solid core of environmental data (on things like air and water quality,
CO2 emissions and such like). But when it came to the social pillar
it was all a bit difficult. And in the end the only indicator on which
any could agree – and for which there was pre-existing data – was the
sustainability of public pension schemes in member countries! More will
be added in due course but to upton-on-line’s mind, the inclusion of
this one alongside something like aquatic biodiversity is just mind-boggling.
But then again, why not – or why not an indicator of cultural sustainability
(museum attendances?). If everything is in, the more the merrier. The
EU has included child-care facilities.
The Commissioner’s own attempt to illuminate the relationship between
the environmental and social pillars is woefully thin:
"The environment provides life-supporting resources and eco-systems,
quality of life conditions, and amenities that are valued by people.
Society consumes products and services provided by environmental
resources, and generates wastes that are disposed of in the environment.
The values of individuals and groups within society drive decisions
that ultimately determine the quality of the environment they live
in and depend on."
Um, yes. But at this level of generality have we said anything new?
Understanding the essentials
In upton-on-line’s view, the danger of the "thousand blooms"
approach is the temptation it raises to have every country pronounce
itself ‘sustainable’ in terms of the local state of its pillars. Cultural
and social trade-offs have for years been used to justify all sorts
of nonsense, both economically and environmentally – one thinks of the
old NZ Forest Service’s artful defence of the destruction of primaeval
podocarp forests. But there’s an even more difficult twist to this.
Even if we could agree on a standard set of universally applicable indicators
of sustainability (which would preclude much of the nebula), there’s
still the problem of drawing conclusions about national ‘sustainability’
in respect of global bio-geochemical processes.
The bio-physical systems on which life depends are at one level global.
And we know (from the ozone destroying substances scare) that we have
the ability to damage them at that level. Augmenting the atmospheric
greenhouse effect is a more recent example – and orders of magnitude
more complex. Similarly, economic activity is a global phenomenon. So
economic and environmental indicators taken from behind national borders
may be very misleading. In the paper referred to above, the problem
was outlined in these terms:
This can be neatly illustrated with respect to greenhouse gas emissions
- one area where there is some reasonably sound scientific knowledge
about the impact of human consumption on a significant pressure
point. Country emission levels only tell us a part of the story.
The role of international trade in carbon-intensive products like
steel or chemicals becomes particularly important when talking about
sustainable development because it can distort an economy’s estimate
of its quantity of emissions and thus the level of its contribution
to the problem.
A country’s emission levels may appear to be set artificially low
because it imports significant quantities of carbon embedded in
non-energy products. A national-level indicator, which fails to
take into account trade flows, can easily mask this kind of ‘carbon
leakage’. In this context, global emissions might not be reduced
as much as expected or might even increase. The magnitude of this
problem is underlined by the rapid expansion of international trade.
It is this sort of concern that has led a number of research teams
to consider the idea of trying to come up with some sort of ecological
footprint indicator. This is all fascinating, leading edge sort of stuff
and the PCE tucks a brief description away in one of his back ground
papers (accessible on line). But in terms of New Zealand’s responsibility
here, it is only something that makes any sense if attempted globally
and developed in much the same way GDP was developed (itself a controversial
idea at the time). For that to work, one thing is clear: it would be
impossible to embrace the amorphous array of social indicators and judgements
about distributional and ethical issues that are so often promoted.
The reality is that these issues aren’t the subject of agreement within
countries; trying to secure agreement between countries is beyond
imagination. In short, the Parliamentary Commissioner’s advocacy of
an ecological ‘core’ is the right one. His advocacy of a much broader
approach is fraught with difficulties – even for those untainted by
an ideological silo mentality
A more detailed discussion of the issues ('Measuring
what?')can be found here in the Sustainable
Development section of this website and at http://www.oecd.org/pdf/M00023000/M00023751.pdf.
In upton-on-line’s respectful opinion, countries like New Zealand should
work hard to refine the idea of an ecological footprint that can be
used both regionally and globally. Seeking an analytical framework that
drafts a raft of social/cultural/political factors into the equation
is to risk never reaching agreement.
Sustainable participation & sustainable skills
The other major thrust of the Commissioner’s report that calls for
prima facie scepticism, is the scale of his ambitions for government
leadership. One of his yardsticks for measuring performance over the
last ten years is to look back over the substantive reports his office
has produced on issues that bear on the substance of Agenda 21,
and assess the extent to which governments have acted. He refers to
no fewer than 30 major reports. Needless to say, in the silo-bound,
New Right winter of the ‘nineties they did not fare particularly well
although they were conscientiously read and many elements were taken
But the sheer fecundity of the Commissioner’s office is itself a clue
to a mindset that at the very least needs to be questioned. It is very
easy to advocate better information, participation and communication
as so many of the reports do; or to advocate new tiers of co-ordination,
more fundamental reviews and new strategies. It’s another thing to find
the skilled people to do them – and to maintain the active, willing
participation of members of the community who are (all too easily) assumed
to be sitting there just waiting to be consulted.
One of the reasons many issues are not further advanced in New Zealand
is a matter of resources. In a material sense that comes down to priorities
and I share the Commissioner’s explicit criticisms in this regard. (Re-allocating
to the Ministry for the Enviornment a small portion of the analytical
riches available to the Treasury would be a good start!) But an even
more important reason has to do with the unavoidable scarcity of skills
and available time to participate.
A dilatory centre?
Upton-on-line considers that the Commissioner significantly overstates
the lethargy of central government once the fiscal crisis of the very
early ‘nineties had been overcome. Environment 2010, which rates
barely a mention in the review, was the first ever attempt to take a
broad cross-portfolio approach to many of the issues that concern the
Commissioner. Contrary to the impression given, it went significantly
further than narrowly environmental issues with explicit, carefully
consider sections on economic and social issues, cohesion and participation.
It also formed the basis for priority setting across portfolios – or
silos, if you like – and gave the Ministry for the Environment a high-level
source of leverage in policy debates. Furthermore it was itself drawn
up after nation-wide consultations. But the opening admission of ideological
blight and special pleading must intervene here…
In upton-on-line’s experience (multiplied by an order of magnitude
in respect of Resource Management Act processes), there are very real
limits to the number of complex issues that can be opened at any one
time. It is easy to produce a bland piece – or indeed put vague, feel-good
words in a statute. But to really get to the heart of even a handful
of the issues the Commissioner nominates is no small affair.
Upton-on-line handled New Zealand’s climate change negotiations and
policy development for most of the decade. The human resources tied
up in that single (important) issue were phenomenal. Negotiations are
inherently costly and when, as that issue requires, consultation is
with a wide range of sector groups and the consequences are absolutely
economy wide, the required research is difficult and expensive. The
hazardous substances programme took more than half a decade to develop
and is still not fully operational. The Commissioner seems to have no
conception of the vast complexity and practical difficulties raised
by what was thought to be a leading edge regulatory code.
When he laments the lack of standards and regulations issuing from
central government (with which upton-on-line has sympathy in some important
areas) he has equally to make a very sober judgement about the complexity
of what he is calling for and the skills available to do the job. Having
launched major indicator, hazardous waste and water quality programmes,
upton-on-line is in no doubt that to pull those off in a world class
way would be a major achievement without commencing even one of the
new programmes the Commissioner calls for.
Which may explain in part the Commissioner’s view that central government
was, until recently, doing nothing. It might just be that central government
was not confident it could pull off a significantly bigger agenda. The
constant call for National Policy Statements under the RMA is
part of this tension. It’s no surprise to upton-on-line that the Commissioner
is able to point to lots of initiatives by local and regional government.
So often, one is able to be much more concrete at the regional level.
The RMA is a very bottom-up structure (anchored in levels of public
participation that are mind-blowing to many foreigners). Over and over
again, central government advisers find themselves wondering what they
can say nationally that will add real value beyond the general
and the hortatory.
(It must be said, in passing, that the statement on p94 that "there
seems to have been an expectation that environmental standards could
be developed separately from political and value considerations"
is truly bizarre. What values, one wonders, does the Commissioner think
are brought to bear through consultation programmes or around cabinet
It is also fair to ask whether the volume of activity necessarily
connotes effectiveness of activity. The Commissioner makes reference
(p112) to a published inventory of activities that support environmentally
sustainable business initiatives. Attention is drawn to the fact that
26% of the initiatives come from local government and a further 24%
from community associations while only 3% come from central government.
Is that meaningful? Upton-on-line would have thought that a really world
class regulatory system for dealing with hazardous waste (costing millions
of dollars and taking years to implement) is as valuable an ‘activity’
as any other – and more appropriate for central government than many
small initiatives often beyond its knowledge and competence.
A sustainable and limited agenda
In upton-on-line’s respectful view, the case for high quality regulation
is well made. For that to be tractable, high quality public good research
needs to be focussed on the most serious problems. If New Zealand were
able to focus just on water and air quality in a thorough-going way,
(using the mix of regulatory tools, economic instruments and ‘soft’
or voluntary measures all favoured by the Commissioner), it would have
just as much impact on the sustainability of our economy and society
as grandiose attempts to strategise and plan across a wide range of
fronts. Auckland would not be configured as it is if the externalities
to both freshwater and marine environments were taken unyieldingly seriously;
pastoral farming in New Zealand would not be conducted as it is if externalities
to rivers and lakes were taken seriously. And of course, in common with
all countries, our entire transport and energy generation system would
look totally different if we took CO2
emissions seriously – but that’s a global problem which is why global
solutions like Kyoto are the right frame of reference.
Some questionable judgements
It would be churlish to pick through every statement in what is a comprehensive
and well-written report. But it seems fair to note that on occasions,
the Commissioner has either displayed some incautious enthusiasm, or
not explained himself fully. For instance, what are we supposed to make
of the conclusions the Commissioner draws from Jo Stiglitz’s
statement that "a borderless world through which goods and services
flow is also a borderless world through which other things can flow
which are less positive"? No-one could quibble with his reference
to the arrival of Ross River virus in New Zealand. But can we seriously
add the September 11 terrorist attacks in the same breath? Upton-on-line
thought Mr Bin Laden had been reasonably clear that this was all about
American military and foreign policy engagement in the Middle East and,
specifically, Saudi Arabia.
Similarly, there will be folks in a number of government ministries
who will be leaping about in respect of the claim on p125 that "free
trade agreements put added pressure on biosecurity systems". This
may be the case but it is not necessarily so and certainly
does not appear to be a necessary consequence of any negotiated treaties.
Upton-on-line would have stuck with a more cautious may.
And on p127 there is the truly speculative statement that "a burgeoning
elderly population will place increasing pressure on public expenditure
on superannuation and health. This may have the effect of reducing the
amount of public funding available for environmental management."
Upton-on-line applauds the ´may´ in this case, but can’t help
wondering how valuable a judgement like this is. The poor old elderly
get it in the neck again when, on an equally plausible analysis, an
ageing population with far more people scooting around on walking sticks
and battery powered wheel chairs can only be a boon for lower transport
Paradigms, values and democracy – a conundrum for the Commissioner
It’s often hard to gauge the level of approval with which the Commissioner
cites some of his sources. This is a pity since some sources certainly
raise some meaty stuff for debate. And if, as the Commissioner himself
has stated, "values are often hidden or unnamed", it becomes
doubly intriguing to know what hidden values may underwrite the decision
to cite particular sources and not others.
This all ran round upton-on-line’s mind when he ran across a quote
from a writer he was not familiar with (but who is doubtless well-known
to properly informed readers), one J Huckle. Huckle is cited (p32) in
support of the statement that sustainable development can be seen
"as a revolutionary concept which requires constraints on
market forces and the democratic planning of production to ensure
a secure livelihood for all the world’s people both now and in the
Upton-on-line has never felt particularly revolutionary in making the
case for environmental regulation, but the "democratic planning
of production" rang a vague bell somewhere about what happened
in Eastern Europe. That may not have been what Huckle had in mind but
the phrase seemed ominous. But Huckle is clearly a writer who has been
considered not just in passing by the Commissioner since he/she makes
a further appearance on p57 in support of something called socially
critical education which Huckle is cited as describing (approvingly)
as ‘emancipatory’ in that it helps create a new sustainable development
This is all most interesting. The Commissioner’s discussion helpfully
"Many commentators have highlighted the paradox of education
being funded by government (central or local) institutions that
are part of the dominant culture. This implicitly educates citizens
to conform to that culture. At the same time, sustainability education’s
goal is to educate the population to behave in a more sustainable
way, a message that is often at odds with messages received from
the media and institutions themselves."
Now upton-on-line doesn’t have too much difficulty with the Commissioner’s
observation that -
"A fundamental premise of education for sustainability is
the need to understand the ecological limits operating on our planet
and the fact that human beings need to function within them."
Those limits, of course, are not well understood although – in the
light of accumulating scientific evidence – intuitively believed to
be at risk of being breached. But that is a question of bio-physical
evidence – and decision-making (i.e. rule setting) in the face of uncertainty.
It’s quite another matter to take the next step and prescribe ‘socially
critical education’ or the ‘democratic planning of production’.
Who imposes whose values?
This is where the Commissioner gets himself into difficult territory.
It’s one thing to talk about a paradigm shift in the sense that we need
to internalise a whole raft of new knowledge about the consequences
of the way we live on the planet we rely on. It’s entirely another to
assert that there is a definitive body of knowledge and values,
inter-twined, that must be brought to bear. But that is what happens
in statements like this:
"There is thus a tension for the media between giving the
public what it wants and what it needs to become a well informed
Or, more expansively, this:
"In general, decision making is a matter of choosing between
a number of predetermined alternatives, but values are more fundamental
to the decision than are the alternatives. Value-focused (or constraint-free)
thinking, in the context of sustainable development, involves identifying
a desirable end point and working to make it a reality. In contrast,
alternative-focused thinking involves starting with a limited and
readily available set of options and adopting the best of the lot.
Keeney (1992) expresses the view that one of the main driving forces
for decision making should be values. Keeney maintains that focusing
early and deeply on values when facing a difficult problem will
lead to a more desirable consequence in the long term."
Upton-on-line is not intellectually equipped to dissect this subject
with any finesse. But he is troubled about where it leads – in this
world, if not the next. In the first place, he has never thought of
value focused thinking as being free of constraints. In the second place
he is (probably as a result of a muddled mix of liberal, conservative
and Christian values) deeply suspicious of laying down desirable end
points for others. He does believe there are some, personally, but the
terms of his civil and political association with his fellow citizens
(steeped in a political culture that has known all manner of religious
and ideological absolutism) make him cautious about making them the
starting point of political engagement.
At the core of our reasonably peaceable democratic culture (value-laden
to the hilt), is the proposition that we have to be careful about asserting
a hegemony of values in a world which has found them to be volatile
solvents. Surely one of the lessons of history is that peaceful political
co-existence is most easily achieved when it is based on weak
rather than strong premises. In upton-on-line’s respectful view,
the Commissioner’s treatment of these issues is ambiguous and raises
as many questions as it answers.
Strong sustainability on weak premises – or no sustainability on
Upton-on-line believes the Commissioner has nonetheless done us a service
in raising the issues. Because they go to the heart, perhaps unwittingly,
of why around the world so many people find sustainable development
a problematic concept. If, as the Commissioner seems to hint, sustainable
development is about visions, goals and suchlike that rooted in strong
value-based premises (and there is explicit reference at p86 about the
need to lay down commitment well beyond the election cycle), then he
risks placing a potential consensus beyond reach. Indeed, the breezy
commentary about New Right thinking and deep ideological debates (p47)
could convince roughly half the Parliament of any western country that
sustainable development was nothing more than another ideological construct
with which it had little in common.
It is for this reason – not some ostrich-like view that such issues
aren’t important – that upton-on-line has always cautioned against maximal
definitions of sustainable development. When relatively egalitarian
societies like New Zealand can’t agree on how much wealth should be
redistributed in the name of equity, it’s inconceivable that such agreement
can be attempted at the global level. When there is fierce disagreement
on the level of risk aversion that a relatively small and homogeneous
society like New Zealand should expose itself to on a range of issues,
there is, again, little chance that ambitious (and hence contentious)
agreements will be reached internationally.
(It would even appear that the strong general support for sustainability
that the Commissioner is able to report is based on wildly different
conceptions. One of the most interesting sections of the report is Appendix
3, in which 65 preparatory interviews are summarised in tabular form.
Significantly, the call for ‘leadership’ is the single most strongly
endorsed view. However when one looks at the wide range of views on
what the concept is believed to be about, lack of top-down leadership
is perhaps less surprising!)
Upton-on-line’s own value-laden, constrained and probably ideological
Sustainable development cannot be a concept that will only be promoted
if the ‘right’ people are in office – those with appropriate values
who know what a well-informed citizenry needs.
Sustainable development, at least if it is to be about the ‘strong’
notion that there are bio-physical limits, has to de-couple itself from
inherently contentious ethical and political debates. Important though
these are, they risk paralysing progress on a list of priorities that
relate to things like pollution of air and water and the destruction
of fisheries and forests all of which find their rationale for action
in the chilling findings of bio-physical research.
Similarly, when it comes to development issues – on which the Johannesburg
conference will be largely focused, a much stronger case for action
will be developed if it is rooted in the moral immediacy of chronic
disease problems rather than abstract notions about inter-country equity.
However dissatisfying or incomplete that rationale may be for some,
it has a better chance of winning a coalition for action. In upton-on-line’s
view, strong sustainability based on ‘weak’ premises (i.e. hard science)
is the most tractable game in town. Anything else risks a descent into
either rancour or mysticism.
Stop Press – a Dutch report with much to commend
Upton-on-line had no sooner finished the above when a cope of a report
by the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy landed
on his desk. Entitled Sustainable Development: Administrative Conditions
for Activating Policy, the report was commissioned by the (previous)
Dutch Government to try to make sense of its desire to implement policies
in a way that are consistent with sustainable development. The report
makes a withering critique of the all-embracing version of sustainable
development that upton-on-line has critiqued – and with far more analytical
rigour. Some key extracts follow – food for thought for the Commissioner
and all governments wherever they may be.
On the need for a less than all-embracing approach:
"The Council therefore considers it highly important for the policy
focus to be on sustainability as a value. This will mean that ecological
issues provide the frame of reference for tackling the discussion of
trade-offs with other relevant domains. By contrast the Council does
not consider sustainability as a meta concept to be a good starting
point for policy…"(p15)
One defect of such an approach they explain in these terms:
"The observation of the ‘interrelationship of all things’ and
the derivative desirability and harmony can hardly do anything but refer
to themselves, as they lack any substantive point of reference…"(p14)
"The all-embracing significance assigned … to the concept can
mean that one country translates sustainability largely to the ecological
sphere, while another places the emphasis on tackling the problem of
ageing or good social facilities. A meaningful discussion at international
level is only possible if the efforts in common problem areas can be
compared to one another." (p15)
In summary the Council recommended –
"… a return to basics in the Dutch policy debate and for concentration
on those issues where our present state of knowledge and capacity for
judgement enable us to say that human activities have problematic environmental
On the subject of making science the basis for policy, the Council
has these sage words:
"The fact that in abstracto there are scientific limiting
conditions on behaviour would appear clear enough. Ultimately, humankind
must make do with the available bitotic and abiotic substrate…"(p19)
"In order to determine what should be regarded as the ecological
base that needs to be respected, an assessment is required of the scientific
knowledge, consisting of both the existing positive knowledge and the
uncertainties that this leaves. Controversy as to what should be done
or omitted in the light of that knowledge forms an inherent part of
this. Instead of the ability to designate unambiguous ecological limits
from which a certain course of conduct can automatically be determined,
sustainable development is concerned with the implementation of policies
in a situation of fragmentary insight, large margins of uncertainty
and divergent and changing expectations and valuations."(p21)
"…on the basis of scientific and ecological knowledge, it is impossible
to specify these kinds of lower limits. [Thresholds or ‘bottom lines’]
In certain areas there may of course be a consensus, subject to certain
safety margins, concerning the lower limits that must not be breached
(cf. the ozone problem). Generally speaking however the available knowledge
has not (yet) led in many areas of the enviornment to a consensus that
definitive lower limits have been reached. In that sense the starting
point of the potential for exchange between the various welfare aspects
remains wholly valid – except, as the Council warned, that there is
major uncertainty concerning future preferences and the return on technological
and human capital. A generationally-aware policy of sustainability would
therefore urge caution about the scope for such exchange."(p24)
So rather than getting into ‘socially critical education’ as a way
of building a new paradigm or identifying desirable end points as if
they are out there waiting to be found, the Council soberly proposes
that any national strategy should –
"… seek to base the political choices on an explicit weighing
of the alternative possibilities for human behaviour in the problem
areas. By juxtaposing the advantages and disadvantages of those operational
possibilities … the dilemmas are brought out. The argumentation underlying
the choices, the priorities set and the risks deemed acceptable also
come to light…"
"It is therefore neither possible nor meaningful to direct and
link up the full range of developments on a top-down basis. Politicians,
policy-framers and scientists must learn from a case-by-case approach
in which the various stakeholders are involved in various areas…"
Good old north-European pragmatism (of which New Zealand is – or used
to be – an inheritor). The full report, well worth reading, can be found
at: www.wrr.nl under the publications