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Unreality & Sustainable Development

Sustainable New Zealand

Unreality and Sustainable Development

After a decade of dithering, New Zealand is taking sustainable development seriously. Maybe too seriously.
By Stephen Knight

Finnish academic Janne Hukkinen puts it this way: in order to live with themselves, resource managers must learn to deny reality. After reviewing case studies in Europe, China and the US, Hukkinen argues there are varying degrees of mental gymnastics involved in balancing what is seen as good for the local environment, for society, and for the economy. But more fundamentally, there is also the problem of the organisations and, ultimately, the institutions those organisations serve. When it comes to the crunch, Hukkinen argues, sustaining institutions is more important than sustaining ecosystems.

New Zealand resource managers find themselves in the same frustrating situation. They have to deny their technical knowledge in order to obey managerial requirements. But they cope with this by arguing to themselves that, in the long run, it is best that the organisations and institutions do win, because this maintains social cohesion - and keeps them employed. It is a form of gamesmanship.

Yet, as Hukkinen and others note, institutions formulate the rules that apply to the game being played, which is society. Organisations devise strategies to win or survive in the game. They can out-manoeuvre minor players such as resource mangers (and we are talking here about natural and social scientists, planners, engineers and the like). The rules include laws, regulations, and standards, or more informally, norms, habits, and customs. Thus social cohesion becomes its own self-justifying system. Such a refined process creates its own momentum and inertia, even when given information showing the system may self-destruct.

Resource managers know certain decisions supporting organisational and institutional needs will tend to favour continuing ecological and/or social decline. So for example, we have to build more power stations because that's the way the game works. We can build them with less ecological impact; but they still decrease ecological value, just more slowly. Yet there are alternatives which, in the long run, are more socially, ecologically and ultimately economically beneficial. We've known for a couple of decades that, with a 10-20 year time horizon, investing in (for example) small-scale solar heating for domestic use is highly efficient. But we don't do it. (That we might now do it as part of crisis management is grist for another column).

Hence the unreality, and the evolution of a coping mechanism for such cognitive dissonance: sustainable development.

Famously described by Sharachandra Lélé as a 'metafix' that will unite capitalists, equity-seeking social workers, environmentalists, bureaucrats and politicians, it apparently allows us to account - literally - for the trade-offs between ecology, economics and society. In a big-picture sense, it gives us a new narrative, a new way of seeing things, and a way of incorporating non-monetary values into daily decision making. But as any good post-modernist will tell you, it's all done within the existing neo-classical economic paradigm, enframed by our technocentric language. And to bastardise an idea from chaos theory, how you conduct the trading-off is sensitively dependent upon your initial assumptions. Are you a cornucopian, believing technology will find a way? Or are you a deep green, favouring the idea that we've already overshot the earth's carrying capacity, and it was technology and economic growth that created the problem? Naturally, this latter end of the spectrum is inhabited by those suspicious of the whole sustainable development concept.

There is voluminous room for debate over just how much ecological decline can be justified for just how much improvement in income, health and welfare. Long-time green politics analyst Andrew Dobson argues that, in the end, sustainable development is at best just one particular type of social justice contributing to one particular conception of environmental sustainability. And that it is this term, environmental sustainability, that is really the topic of conversation. In other words, the spectrum between cornucopians and deep-greens (an image promoted by Timothy O'Riordan in the early 1980s) is a debate about what is meant by 'sustainable'. If you favour an ecological perspective, that places you further away from what is accepted by the term 'sustainable development'. The argument here being that, if you believe ecological decline is critical, sustainable development will not reverse it.

The other argument is that sustainable development allows consideration of non-monetary values to gain a purchase within the current economic paradigm, and thereby change it.

To muck about in this metaphysical quagmire a little further, consider this. Pursuing the logic of sustainability leads inevitably to considering development issues in the context of ecosystem and societal functioning; and, in turn, that ecological issues need to be tackled by understanding politico-legal and economic systems. In other words, systems thinking. The current trend for 'whole-of-government' policy formulation reflects this idea. But systems thinking is also a trait of ecologism, or the political ecology of deep greens, and is related to the habit of ecologists to think in terms of interactions, not entities. It is not the individual birds and trees you are interested in, but how they influence eachother. From this, you view all animal-environment interactions within an ecological context, including human social structures. In contrast, sustainable development systems thinking tends to be addressing the human socio-political system first, and then its interaction with the natural environment. A distinctly different approach leading to quite different conclusions about managing human affairs.

New Zealand's Biodiversity Strategy (released in 2000) is an example. In order to realise the goals in the strategy, you need to focus on the tension between private ownership rights and responsibilities, particularly in terms of land use. What decides this is the ecological capacity of the local system. Put simply, the productive low-lying lands need to be managed in a way that supports indigenous plants and animals. But these are the bits New Zealanders want to live and work in, and many argue that, as such, decisions on how this land (and adjacent water) is used should not be driven by biodiversity concerns. Which is a valid conclusion under sustainable development, because it is the net benefit across the economic, social and ecological spectrum that is measured. But such an approach will ensure we do not realise the goals in the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy.

In contrast, a systems approach would allow analysis of the underlying geological, climatic and water/soil processes in order to identify land use activities that would allow indigenous biodiversity to be best realised. An auditing process would measure movement toward these biodiversity goals, and measure economic productivity success within the ecological capacity of these systems (as measured by biodiversity indicators). Very much a systems approach, but totally at odds with the norm of identifying and meeting economic needs, and mitigating ecological impacts along the way. Even trends towards using 'ecological services' such as wetlands to manage stormwater run-off, which often involves rehabilitating ecosystems, are justified primarily in economic terms.

Ultimately land use decisions are driven by a variety of pressures remote from the need to realise the ecological goals of a national biodiversity strategy. Yet, in terms of long-term sustainability and productivity (in the widest sense), this is very much what New Zealand should be considering.

Note that we are not talking about setting aside more reserves (the here be man, there be nature approach), but the requirement that the land (or water) upon which you work and live must contain plant and animal systems capable of supporting indigenous biodiversity. This will then be married into public land already managed for this purpose. This would take away some rights you have over your own assets, by emphasising the responsibilities you have as a consequence of having such assets.

Thus the reality of sustainable development is that you do what you can (and many do it very well, considering), but the limits are set by processes divorced from an ecosystems approach. Hence we are back to the cognitive dissonance of the resource manager: Hey, nice biodiversity strategy, but its success depends on people behaving eccentrically from the rest of the world. Good luck.

The usefulness of sustainable development will lie in its ability to ensure such contradictions do not go unadressed. So far this has not happened. A Ministerial Advisory Committee addressed the above biodiversity on private land issues during 2000, but its discussion and suggestions have effectively disappeared. The rules of the game demanded it.


Stephen Knight, Environmental Scientist (BSc (Hons); MSc (Hons); DipJour). E-mail: c/o Planning Department, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand

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