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Sustainable development is part of a second wave of modern environmentalism and heralds a new approach to tackling environmental problems?a shift from protest to consensus and negotiation. The first wave of environmentalism was associated with the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It grew out of traditional nature conservation concerns into an awareness of the potential for a global ecological crisis and was clearly a protest movement.
Environmentalists at the time argued that the exponential growth of populations and industrial activity could not be sustained without seriously depleting the planet?s resources and overloading the ability of the planet to deal with pollution and waste materials. Some argued that new technologies and industrial products, such as pesticides and plastics, also threatened the environment.
First-wave environmentalists, following the protest mood of the times, did not hesitate to blame industry, western culture, economic growth and technology for environmental problems. Although many of the key writers at the time were scientists or industrialists themselves (for example, the Club of Rome), the environment movement was easily characterised as being anti-development. Nevertheless their warnings captured the popular attention, resonating with the experiences of communities facing obvious pollution in their neighbourhoods.
Although many governments did not recognise the importance of global environmental problems, they were forced by community pressure to respond to local pollution problems. During the 1970s many countries introduced new environmental legislation to cope with the gross sources of pollution. Australian state governments, following the international trend, introduced clean air acts, clean water acts, and legislation establishing regulatory agencies to control pollution and manage waste disposal.
The decade that followed saw a backlash against the early environmentalists. Various writers argued that global catastrophe was the fantasy of doomsday forecasters and that scientific discoveries and technological innovations would easily cope with any problems that might arise. Government departments and agencies found it extremely difficult, in this new climate of opinion, to administer properly the legislation that had been put in place at the height of the first wave of environmentalism and businesses did their best to ignore the laws or get around them.
The second wave of environmentalism, which began in the late 1980s, has had much broader support and has involved governments, business people and economists in the promotion of sustainable development. Scientific evidence about the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the depletion of the ozone layer have made it difficult for anyone to deny the threat of global environmental problems. Many of the concerns of environmentalists have been taken up by senior politicians (including prime ministers and ministers of foreign affairs, of finance and agriculture) from countries around the world, as well as eminent scientists, businesspeople and international bureaucrats.
In the mid-1980s the World Commission on Environment and Development rejuvenated the concept of sustainable development in its report Our Common Future, (also referred to as the Brundtland Report, named after the commission?s chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was prime minister of Norway at the time). In October 1987, the goal of sustainable development was largely accepted by the governments of one hundred nations and approved in the UN General Assembly. The Commission defined sustainable development as: ?development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.?
The renewed interest in ?sustainability? in the 1980s marked a shift from first to second wave environmentalism. Earlier environmentalists had used the term to refer to systems in equilibrium: they argued that exponential growth was not sustainable, in the sense that it could not be continued forever because the planet was finite and there were limits to growth. ?Sustainable? development however seeks to make economic growth sustainable, mainly through technological change.
In 1980 the World Conservation Strategy was produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF, now the World Wide Fund for Nature). The Strategy argued that while development aimed to achieve human goals through the use of the biosphere, conservation aimed to achieve those same goals by ensuring that use of the biosphere could continue indefinitely. In 1982, the British Government began using the term ?sustainability? to refer to sustainable economic expansion rather than the sustainable use of resources. This new formulation recognised that economic growth could harm the environment but argued that it did not need to.
Some environmentalists have rebelled against this capturing of their term. Wolfgang Sachs, editor of The Development Dictionary, argues that by ?translating an indictment of growth into a problem of conserving resources, the conflict between growth and environment has been defused and turned into a managerial exercise? that forces development planners to consider nature. Australian environmentalists have sought to retain the focus on sustainability of ecosystems rather than economic systems by using the term ?ecologically sustainable development?(ESD) and this term has willingly been adopted by the Commonwealth Government which nevertheless uses it to mean economic growth that takes account of environmental impacts.
In June 1990 the Commonwealth Government released a discussion paper on ecologically sustainable development. In the paper it stated that ?The decision by the Government to formulate a sustainable development strategy reflects growing community recognition that, in pursuing material welfare, insufficient value has often been placed on the environmental factors that also contribute to our standard of living... The task confronting us is to take better care of the environment while ensuring economic growth, both now and in the future. Ecologically sustainable development provides a conceptual framework for integrating these economic and environmental objectives, so that products, production processes and services can be developed that are both internationally competitive and more environmentally compatible.?
The language of the government?s and other sustainable development documents are clearly aimed at replacing protest and conflict with consensus by continually asserting that economic and environmental goals are compatible (whilst subtly emphasising the priority of economic goals). The concept of sustainable development accommodates economic growth, business interests and the free market and therefore does not threaten the power structure of modern industrial societies. It also pays full lip service to environmental goals and seeks an indeterminate measure of environmental reform. In this way it seems to accommodate everyone.
For more conservative environmentalists and for economists, politicians, business people and others, the concept of sustainable development offers the opportunity to overcome previous differences and conflicts, and to work together towards achieving common goals rather than confronting each other over whether economic growth should be encouraged or discouraged. Instead of being the villains, as they were in the 1970s, technology and industry are now seen to provide the solutions to environmental problems.
Shortly after the release of its discussion paper the Commonwealth Government set up nine working groups to study how sustainable development would be applied to nine different industry sectors that were thought to use or have a significant impact on natural resources. These sectors were agriculture, energy use, energy production, transport, mining, fisheries, forest use, tourism and manufacturing.
Membership of the working groups was comprised of representatives from government, industry, unions, consumer/social welfare organisations and conservation groups. In addition there were a number of academics and CSIRO scientists. The groups were, however, dominated by bureaucrats from state and federal government departments, particularly those from development-oriented departments such as the Department of Primary Industries and Energy (DPIE).
Only two conservation groups took part: the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). These groups were provided with finances by the Commonwealth Government to enable them to participate fully. Greenpeace Australia pulled out of the process after the government signalled its intention to pass resource security legislation which would guarantee companies access to natural resources in some areas. Other groups were not invited or chose not to take part.
The working groups produced draft reports in 1991 which were made available for public comment. A few ?community consultation forums? were held to enable working group members to get a feel for community concerns and the priorities the community accorded to various issues. A ?public attitudes survey? was also taken (of approximately 2400 people) to give the working groups and the government some idea of how much the community knew and cared about the environment and sustainable development and to see what they thought of the working group reports. The public consultation process was criticised at the time because the forums were very limited in number and scope (For example, one day in total in Sydney and one in Dubbo for the whole of NSW), and because very little public discussion was promoted outside the forums or in the media.
The final ESD working group reports were issued at the end of 1991 and were followed up in early 1992 with two other reports compiled by the three people chairing the groups. One report was on the greenhouse effect; the other covered issues such as health, population, urban issues, coastal issues, employment and equity.
The working-group process enabled erstwhile opponents to achieve an unprecedented degree of consensus and work out areas of agreement and disagreement. It was claimed the process had enabled them to break the entrenched hostility and mistrust that had marked environmental debate in Australia up to that time. The Working groups reemphasised how unnecessary conflict was: ?This interdependence of the economy and the environment counters a common view that the economy and the environment are opposed to each other?.
But the degree of consensus achieved was dependent on ensuring that members of the working groups were carefully chosen in advance. More radical elements were excluded such as environmentalists who oppose the dominant social paradigm of Australian society? Marxists, anarchists, radical feminists, deep ecologists and others.
Clearly for those environmentalists who subscribe to or are sympathetic to the dominant social paradigm and view the current social system in Australia as satisfactory the sustainable development process offered an opportunity to influence government and industry to change some of their practices. The multilateral discussions and round-table working groups required willingness to make deals and accept trade-offs, and to tone down on the confrontation but it allowed entry into the decision-making process.
However, for many deep green environmentalists the existing power alliance of moneyed interests, industry and government is itself the problem and they cannot see environmental problems being solved whilst that system remains in place. It is alien to them to liaise and negotiate with corporations whose first priority is profit and who, in the past, have not hesitated to use their power to ensure that environmental reforms do not inhibit their ability to make profits. To endorse political parties whose first priority is economic growth is similarly seen by them to be short-sighted pragmatism. They condemned the sponsorship of the Earth Summit by multinational corporations, they despair at the lack of discussion of the role played by economic growth and business corporations in environmental degradation, and they abhor the reduction of environmental values to monetary values and the commodification of nature.
The environmentalists involved in the ESD process in Australia, whilst recognising the moral, political and ethical values of the environment and attempting to distance themselves from attempts to commodify nature, nevertheless took on the issues set by and the language of economic rationalism (for example, describing the environment as natural capital). Ian Barnes, from Murdoch University, observes that the paper produced by the four mainstream environmental groups on sustainable development makes ?a strategic accommodation to the view that the fundamental issues are economic and that the principal task of sustainable development involves incorporating environmental concerns into mainstream economic thought.?
Ally Fricker, from the South Australian Greens, has also criticised the large Australian Conservation groups such as ACF for their willingness to work within the system in this way: ?This conservation grouping is dedicated to the system as we know it, but desires minor modifications and reforms. They promote a world of nice, sensitive developments: well-managed and striking a perfect balance between greed and need. They are dedicated to going ?hand in hand? with developers but not into the wilderness... they criticise economic growth but bend over backwards not to be categorised as anti-development.?
Yet conservative conservation groups in Australia have successfully established themselves as the representatives of all those who are environmentally inclined and have sought to act on their behalf in negotiations about sustainable development. To some extent this has disenfranchised those of the deep green complexion who have been marginalised from any discussion about what sustainable development should be and whether it is a desirable goal. The working group discussions were not open to the public and their very existence tended to remove discussion about sustainable development from the public arena to closed meetings of select people. This tended to inhibit a wider public debate about sustainable development.
The ESD negotiations also tended to diffuse the sense of environmental crisis that had peaked in 1989-90. The setting up of the working groups and the involvement of the ACF and the WWF in them reassured the public that the government was taking the environmental future of Australia seriously. The rhetoric of sustainable development gave the impression that the environment could be saved through sound, commonsense adjustments to the way things were done without the need for social upheaval.
For environmentalists who want more fundamental change, sustainable development is merely a diversion, a hindrance. It may achieve small reforms in policy, it may save patches of wilderness, reduce industrial emissions, stop some projects, but it will not change the basic structure of industry and government nor the political and economic institutions which lead to environmental destruction. Yet without the sense of crisis that has so cleverly been diffused by the sustainable development consensus and without the public discussion that has been avoided by ensuring debate took place between selected representatives in private, how can the public be persuaded of the need for such change?
In this light the resulting inaction on the ESD reports by the Keating Government is not surprising. Many of those involved, including environmental groups and business groups were disappointed with the watered-down reports produced by the government. And despite the intensive discussion on sustainable development in some circles, most Australians are still confused about what sustainable development means.
At the same time the scope for old style protest is greatly diminished. The easy industrial targets that flagrantly polluted the atmosphere and waters so obviously that any television camera could film it, are disappearing, or at least promising they will clean up in the near future. The obstinate bureaucrats and obnoxious company executives of times gone by have been replaced by smooth talking PR people who admit the problems, use the right words and express concern for the environment.
Sustainable development has enabled these people to incorporate the rhetoric and even the substance of environmental reforms but has not changed their priorities. The Business Council of Australia argues that environmental concerns should ?be integrated into economic decision-making and policy, which in turn has to be focussed on improved international competitiveness.? Sustainable development, for them, is not about giving priority to environmental concerns, it is about incorporating environmental assets into the economic system to ensure the sustainability of the economic system.
Sustainable development encompasses the idea that the loss of environmental amenity can be substituted for by wealth creation; that putting a price on the environment will help protect it unless degrading it is more profitable; that the ?free? market is the best way of allocating environmental resources; that businesses should base their decisions about polluting behaviour on economic considerations and the quest for profit; that economic growth is necessary for environmental protection and therefore should take priority over it.
To a large extent the move from protest to consensus that has accompanied the incorporation of environmental concerns as mainstream concerns has taken the environmental agenda out of the hands of environmentalists and enabled it to be manipulated and shaped by economic interests. If environmentalists want it back, if environmentalism is to be a force for real change, they are going to have to move beyond sustainable development into a third wave of environmentalism that transcends both protest and consensus approaches.