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Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition 29th August

Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition

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 next issue]

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 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 it.

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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 alleges).

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 problems.

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 everything.

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 terms:

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 is available at:

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 this department:

“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 self-serving) kitset.

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 can be found at:

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 up.

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 tables?)

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 emissions.

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 future.”

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 paradigm.

This is all most interesting. The Commissioner’s discussion helpfully explains that

“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 active citizenry.”(p55)

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 strong premises

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 conclusion

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 it

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 consequences”.(p17)

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: under the publications heading.


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