Ecologically Sustainable Development: the last ten years

First published in the National Parks Journal, October 2000

We were all a decade younger then. Bob Hawke was in The Lodge, Ros Kelly was Minister for the Environment, and Our Common Future, the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Brundtland Report, had been published long enough for the words “Sustainable Development” to be on the lips of every senior bureaucrat and politician in every member state of the United Nations. Except Australia. 

Here the new buzz-term had a prefix, which the then-influential environment movement had insisted upon to differentiate what we were talking about from all the other kinds of development most other vested interest groups wanted to sustain. The Hawke government’s 1989 policy response to the World Commission’s report was therefore called Ecologically Sustainable Development: A Commonwealth Discussion Paper. This document committed the Commonwealth Government to a two year policy process to develop a National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, leading up to the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio De Janiero, also known as the Earth Summit.

The environment movement’s formal intervention in what became known as “the ESD process” began with a carefully argued joint submission by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace (Australia), The Wilderness Society, and World Wide Fund for Nature – Australia (Hare et al, August 1990) critiquing both the Brundtland Report, and the Commonwealth’s own discussion paper. It presented an alternative set of thirteen principles within which “policies designed to achieve ecological sustainability should be cast.” On the basis of this research the environment organisations were invited to participate in the Hawke government’s  Working Groups to examine what ESD might mean across nine industry sectors of the national economy. The Wilderness Society decided to stay outside the process, and Greenpeace withdrew in protest at the government’s position on Resource Security in the foresty industry. ACF and WWF agreed to participate in all but the forestry working groups, and received substantial federal funding to facilitate this.

 “We went into it with our eyes open, knowing it was a political process and would involve compromises to get a result, but it gave us the money to do a lot of policy research we needed to do anyway and that was valuable,” recalls consultant Karen Alexander, who managed the joint environment groups’ ESD Liaison Unit at the time. “I don’t know if I’m exaggerating, but people were excited about it. We had a real sense that something could be achieved.”

According to Alexander and many other participants in the federal ESD process, some of the outcomes from the working groups were “quite ground-breaking”. “But then it all got bureaucratised and we withdrew,” she recalls. “And Keating dumped ESD. I’ve never heard him so bored as when he talked about the environment. I felt such sadness when I looked at the policy statements in the Compendium of ESD Recommendations that accompanied the 1992 National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development and the National Greenhouse Response Strategy, and compared the words with reality.”

This disappointment at the gap between government rhetoric and reality, between policy and practice, is felt almost universally amongst environmentalists. “Basically we’ve thrown away the last ten years, and if anything we’ve gone backwards,” says energy consultant Alan Pears, who represented the environment groups in the Energy Use Working Group. “For example, we’ve now acknowledged that introduction of electricity markets has increased greenhouse gas emissions by 6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year above the predictions, yet the restructuring of the electricity industry was the centrepiece of the 1992 National Greenhouse Response Strategy! At that time supporters of electricity reform claimed it was the most powerful greenhouse strategy we could apply!” 

Michael Buxton, now head of RMIT University’s Environment and Planning Program, was on the Steering Committee for the 1992 Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment (IGAE), which committed the State governments to the Commonwealth’s ESD Strategy. He also looks back at the last decade with sadness, regret, even anger at the lost opportunities.  “Very little is being done to tackle the fundamental causes of environmental degradation, such as water allocation and use, land cultivation and grazing methods, coastal and urban development, and land clearance,” he insists. “Institutional responses have been a monumental failure!” He cites the Murray Darling Commission as “the perfect demonstration” of this. “It’s a farce,” he says. “All the wrong decisions have been made and now we have to claw back water use in a reducing supply.” Indeed some commentators now believe the Murray Darling system is so seriously degraded that little can be done to save it.

Mike Krockenberger, ACF’s Strategies Director, agrees that institutional responses to environmental degradation have so far failed to change society’s handling of the environment in any meaningful way in this country. “There are however some positive signs,” he concedes. “One of the major differences now is that an increasing number of businesses are becoming enlightened, especially with Greenhouse and salinity issues, because they see they are potential beneficiaries from environmental action. We’re getting beyond the “greenwash” phase in corporate culture. We’re somewhere between PR and a recognition that real action is required!” 

But the absence of leadership from all governments over the last ten years remains deeply disappointing. “While there are some individuals who know what’s going on, no single government has a real sense of the economic and structural changes that are required,” Krockenberger says. 

As a signatory to both Agenda 21 (the very gentle “blueprint” for sustainable development that emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit) and the accompanying biodiversity and climate change conventions, the Australian government  has binding obligations to the international community. As a signatory, it must report annually to the UN Commission for Sustainable Development on its progress towards ecological sustainability. 

So far, the reports have been little more than a greenwash, but how long can we get away with this? Will the international community accept Australia’s recalcitrance at the next Earth Summit in 2002, or at the next Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in November this year? And how will Professor Bruce Thom, Chair of the Australian State of the Environment Report Committee, and his team assess our progress towards ecological sustainability when they report to the nation next year? What will their much-hyped “sustainability indicators” tell us? 

Felicity Wishart, who worked with the ESD Liaison Unit all those years back, and is now the coordinator of the Queensland Conservation Council, accepts that the future is not looking good. “There will probably be major biodiversity losses, runaway Greenhouse, and other irreversible pollution problems with nuclear waste and chlorine based toxins that are here to stay, and all the stuff we don’t yet know about, like synthetic oestrogens”, she says. “But we humans have the foresight, intelligence, and knowledge to come up with ways of living that can protect the environment and give us all fulfilling lives, and if we don’t keep striving for that then we do ourselves incredible disservice. For me, that’s the most deciding challenge in life, to be able to find the solutions to these incredibly complex problems.” 

And the challenge is profound.


Trial plot of Bt cotton on Shamrock Gardens, south of Broome in Western Australia's Kimberley region. Photo by Merrill Findlay, 1998.

Trial plot of Bt cotton on Shamrock Gardens, south of Broome in Western Australia's Kimberley region. Photo by Merrill Findlay, 1998.

A decade ago few of us had thought about the ESD implications of genetic engineering, Native Title, corporate globalisation, and the future of Australia’s still-underdeveloped north. Nor were our rivers and underground water resources high on the ESD agenda. But now, in the year 2000, these issues have made ecological sustainability an even more complex goal to achieve.

Western Agricultural Industries (WAI) Pty Ltd’s proposal to irrigate almost 250,000 hectares of transgenetic cotton and other crops for the global market, on so-far uncleared Pindan soils south of Broome, in northwest Western Australia, highlights many of these new complexities. All the land under question, mostly leasehold, is also subject to a Native Title claim by the Karajarri and other traditional landowners, who may, in the future, also be interested in developing irrigation agriculture for their own economic viability.

Cotton requires intensive inputs of both water and pesticides, and has caused massive environmental degradation wherever it has been grown. The 1998 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the State of Western Australia and WAI proposes that groundwater be taken from the Canning Basin for Stage I, and that a dam be built on the still-wild Fitzroy River to supply water to an expanded Stage II.

The preferred dam site, Dimond Gorge, is of fundamental cultural significance to many of the West Kimberley traditional owners. The river system itself, and the many unique groundwater-dependent ecosystems of the region, are also of extreme biological significance. Not surprisingly, two recently completed surveys for the WA Waters and Rivers Commission show an almost exact correlation between high cultural values and high biodiversity values in the areas subject to the MOU.

Bt cotton produces an enzyme that is toxic to the cotton bollworm. Trials have been completed on Shamrock Gardens, and excision from Shamrock Downs pastoral lease, south of Broome, but little information is available on what happens when the bollworm develops resistance to the Bt gene, or whether the gene poses a threat to non-target insect species. (Recent research in the US and Europe has shown that pollen from Bt corn can kill monarch butterfly caterpillers, for example.) More challenges for the future!

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Content revised March 2004, January 2005 and January 2008. Posted onto this new website 5 December 2010.

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