The wonders of contradiction

The wonders of contradiction

Australia’s environment is in an unsustainable state of decline and the laws are not fit to address current and future environmental challenges.

This is a brave assertion from Graeme Samuel, a former competition watchdog head, and reviewer of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act, a once-in-a-decade statutory requirement likely to shape policy for the next ten years in an area of policy that is highly politicised.

No matter that Professor Samuel is a businessman with interests in public health and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia for eminent service to public administration through contributions in economic reform and competition law.

No environmental expertise, no matter.

Samuel recommended the introduction of national environmental standards that set clear rules for conservation protection while allowing sustainable development, and the establishment of an independent environmental regulator to monitor and enforce compliance.

Another likely contradiction.

Protection and development are uncomfortable bedfellows. Placing the sustainable adjective between them is nice but it in no way guarantees that the two will get on. Economic development, after all, involves the mobilisation of capital, natural capital in this case, into dividends. What the capitalists call progress and the citizens, for the most part, enjoy.

Yes, you do. Pub lunch arrived at by car on an excellent public road, where you chat about your recent holiday to Bali, and the new mobile phone you bought.

But it’s ok.

As reported in the Guardian, the Federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, “agreed to develop environmental standards, but rejected the call for an independent regulator and said she would immediately start work on an accreditation process to devolve responsibility for most environmental approvals to the states and territories”.

Ah yes, the states and territories. Another contradiction.

There are, for example, two lists of endangered communities in NSW, one put together by the Federal government who decide on what habitats types are endangered at the national level. Another list is put together by the state government who do the same at the state level.

Now it would be logical that these two lists would be nested. The area of the nation being larger than the area of NSW, so there should be a higher chance of habitats being rare in a state than the whole country.

Here is what is on the lists.

At the state level, the NSW government has listed 15 plant communities as Critically Endangered Ecological Communities (CEECs), the highest level of conservation concern. Only four are critically endangered according to the Commonwealth government, one is endangered, and ten are not listed by the Commonwealth at all. This nesting is in the right direction.

Two ecological community types are nationally endangered but only vulnerable in NSW. Endangered nationally but only vulnerable locally does not make any sense.

NSW has 86 ecological communities listed as endangered, one category down from critically endangered. The Commonwealth has not listed 53 (62%) of these, one is listed as vulnerable and 17 (20%) as critically endangered — inconsistencies in both directions.

Some ecological communities are endangered in NSW but not nationally, and some are endangered nationally but not in NSW.

That is a severe contradiction.

The only way it can happen is if the processes to determine what gets on the list is different between the two jurisdictions.

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of human values and decision making. It is opaque with muddy water.

It is why plant communities can be endangered or not and why a business executive with no experience of the science of biodiversity gets to review the legislation on it.

I wonder if he knows that species go extinct, that the pre-1788 condition is an arbitrary point in evolutionary time, and that nothing in nature is pristine since humans became abundant across the planet.

I wonder if he also knows that all this preservation malarky is fine, but it is meaningless beside the real natural resource problems facing the country over the coming decades.

I’m guessing not.