Facing the future: actions for the environment profession

“Facing the Future: actions for the environment profession”

2011 Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand

Annual Conference

Twin Waters Resort, Sunshine Coast, Queensland

Wednesday 28 September 2011

[These are the opening remarks I prepared as Chair of the Conference Organising Committee – delivered in part at the outset of the conference].

Can I start by acknowledging and paying my respect to Nurdon Serico and other elders of the Gubbi Gubbi people, whose traditional lands we meet upon today and whose personal challenge for this conference to be a forum of “thoughtful calculating wisdom” is one I hope we live up to?

Eighteen months ago I was approached by a number of the SEQ EIANZ executive to assume this role particularly with a view to assisting with the plenary program and the core themes of the conference.

The EIANZ is coming up for its 25th birthday this year, maturing as an organization with a respected profile among the environmental industries of the region and their clients.

Most of you who know me from EPA days and EMIAA and other such assignments may not know that my core discipline is actually the analysis and writing of history – that I started professional life as an historical demographer.

The historian in me thinks that as we consider the first quarter century of the EIANZ, with humanity itself at a cross roads in its relationship with the other natural systems of the planet, we should ask reflectively and constructively questions about ourselves and our work – for example, in the broad scheme of things as environmental professionals are we making a difference? Are we winning? Is the environment profession contributing in a way that counts? Is it keeping up with the changes that are manifest everywhere we look?

Casting back forty years, in what was described at the time as a disturbing and challenging book called “Future Shock”, American futurist Alvin Toffler led those of us old enough here into the 1970s with a daunting diagnosis of the impacts of increasingly accelerating technological and social change upon ordinary lives – even back then!

“Future Shock” reminded us that in the first 800 generations people did not achieve too much that was scientific nor technological. Social change over the eons amounted to less in fact than has happened over the past three or four generations.

Toffler gave us descriptors of fast changing times like “the throwaway society”, the “new nomads” and “the demise of geography” “taming technology”, “fractured families”, “lifestyle diversity.

He did not talk too graphically of the “environment” as the natural world, instead giving us a notion he called “social futurism”- which anticipated an Earth dominated completely by humanity and its needs. To Toffler it was a preordained a future which would see “the process of evolution itself” become subject to “conscious human guidance”.

For the better part of the past two generations, governments, business and communities across the globe have been grappling with the symptoms or implications of Toffler’s vision: things we might otherwise describe as the issues of sustainable development, wrestling with the challenges of achieving greater efficiency in production and consumption while attempting to provide equitably for a rapidly growing human population – while also leaving a smaller impact on the environment.

So much to achieve, so quickly in such a short span of time! Managing the human relationship with the natural world has become, not surprisingly, one of the most complex and challenging issues of our time, requiring increased investment in education, research and development technology and professional standards.

It also increasingly requires adjustments involving economic reform, social behavioural modification and changed values.

After forty years of all the work of all the environmental protection agencies and environmental managers, our relationship with the natural systems of the Earth still remains unbalanced and unsustainable – and this is confirmed by all the major environmental indicators.

One could reasonably ask whether the environment professionals have been providing answers to the right questions. In warning the post world war 2 generation of the dangers of using chemicals to manage biology, the pioneering entomologist Rachel Carson wrote in ‘Silent Spring’: “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man”.

Can we say the same about the term” environment management” when it is not the environment that needs managing, but human conduct and processes.

So just how does the modern environmental professional fit within this complexity? What about the next 20 years – how will it be different from the past decades which have seen the rise of environmental managerialism and cleaner technologies – but also greater environmental impact and resource consumption through exponential growth in production and consumption?

In an afterword to the 40th anniversary edition of ‘Silent Spring’, Harvard’s emeritus biologist, E O Wilson, reminded us that the birth of modern environmentalism arose in an era “when the ethic of limitless progress prevailed” and when there was a “seeming infallibility of material ingenuity” that meant “environmental warnings were treated with irritable impatience”.

Half a century on and has anything changed? This week ‘The Australian’ newspaper headlined the findings of Monash University’s Mapping Social Cohesion 2011 survey which showed that among the political mainstream environmental issues rank at the bottom of the list well after economic, social and cultural concerns.

Only 17.7% ranked environment and climate change as a key issue of concern and of that nearly one third of respondents were more concerned that there had been an “over-reaction” on the environment – through initiatives like the carbon tax.

With the public evidently so little engaged in concern for the environment including the climate, one could be forgiven for asking of the environment profession: Are we just bar stewards on the Titanic or are we really making a strategic impact through our work?

In a world where we seem to take one step forward and two steps backward will the questions be different for tomorrow’s environmental manager?

What will be the shaping influences on the demands of corporations and communities needing the services of environmental professionals? What have we learned that will endure into the future, in shaping the professional management of the human-nature relationship?

Today the focus of the environmental manager can be in fields as diverse and increasingly complex as food and energy security, climate change, marine and waterways degradation, industrial pollution, community engagement and inter-sectoral resource conflict between farmers and miners.

If there is one thing that transcends all these disciplines, it is the expectation of the client, the regulator and the community. And to borrow from demographer Bernard Salt, “If there is one thing that can be said of modern society, it is that we have a healthy culture of expectation. We have come to expect the future to be better than the past because, well. That’s the way it always been during our lifetime”.

Salt was talking about boomers and pensions, but what does that same culture of expectation and entitlement mean for future consumption patterns, natural resource management and the environment?

And what of the role of leadership? A few weeks ago a great champion and leader for sustainability passed from this world. Interface chairman Ray Anderson showed us that commerce and ecology could not only coexist but be mutually beneficial. Through his and the Interface sustainability journey, Ray reminded us of the power of one, particularly when everyone did it! He reminded us too of vital things like the “human spirit” and of cause and purpose beyond problem solving.

In this context where is the EIANZ on the leadership scale? In representing its principle and core assumptions what does EIANZ see as its value contributing role, particularly in facing the big issues of our time? Is the problem solving focus of the profession holding it back from achieving creative sustainable alternatives?

In a very useful book English climate scientist turned historian Mike Hulme explains “why we disagree about climate change”. His conclusion may have central relevance to EIANZ and its role.

Hulme believes there

“are serious limits to the problem-solution framing of climate change. What was being constructed by climate scientists in the 1980s and 1990s as an environmental problem has turned into something very different. I argue that climate change has more potency now as a mobilising idea than it does as a physical phenomenon. Ideas can be used, but they can’t be solved. Climate change can no longer be approached as an environmental problem demanding technical solutions. Climate change is not like lead in the petrol or asbestos in construction…”

He then goes on to show the limits of science, technology, politics, and economics in solving “wicked” human dilemmas. Can we substitute the concept “environment management” for Hulme’s “climate change” and be talking in similar terms? Does Hulme take us back to Tofler to the real ingredients of finding effective alternatives to the prevailing paradigm of unsustainable development?

A few weeks ago when speaking about this conference and the current position of the profession, I said something similar to the editor of ‘Waste Management and Environment’. To be more effective some would argue that the environment professional has to be more creative and proactive in looking beyond environmental engineering and Earth sciences to engage .

Am I correct in suggesting that the environment profession has to become more “systems-capable”, with a broader, multi-disciplinary capacity evolving over time in response to broader issues.

Can the profession move beyond the limits of environmental impact assessment and the micro-analysis and micro-management of major industrial and infrastructure projects to offer alternative development formats.

I suggest it is time to begin thinking beyond cumulative impacts and wondering at the potential forms of cumulative possibility.

In shaping the human-economic-environmental interface is there scope for the professional approach to be turned on its head with far greater emphasis on the alternatives beyond the purely technical problem solving approach? Can risk be communicated and the public engaged without everything becoming apocalyptical and overwhelming to the point of denial and despair?

As we approach the milestone of celebrating the first 25 years of the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand (EIANZ), we should use the opportunity of this conference to challenge ourselves to stop, consider and explore:

  • what about the environment profession needs to change to ensure continuing professional relevance to delivering value and shaping the future;
  • new perspectives coming from the next generation of Australians who have the biggest stake in the future;
  • better ways to engage the community and respond to emerging issues that, for resolution, require higher levels of input from the social sciences;
  • the lessons of more than 20 years of more than 20 years of active professional development in environment management both for the members, their clients and communities;
  • the implications of making sustainability the crucial performance determinant in assessing the professional role of the EIANZ member.

Providing a practical focus and professional orientation to these issues, in addition to the thematic plenary opening addresses, discussion about these challenging questions will be structure in the main conference around four themes:

  • Dealing with uncertainty in a world that does not understand risk and foresight
  • Managing country holistically and sustainably
  • Engaging people in ways that matter and have positive impact
  • Future directions for environmental professionals.

These are the subjects of our forum over the next two days. After the conference I intend posting a report on what I heard during these two days.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

One thought on “Facing the future: actions for the environment profession”

  1. Shame I wasn’t there John. All good observations and questions. Despite our best endeavours it seems we have failed. Probably if we continue to fail, most of our grandchildren will be doomed.

    I look forward to your report. We all struggle with the dumbing down of the world and the inability of us to convery risk and science.

    Why are engineers and geologists amongst the worst deniers of climate science? Is there a clue in fishermen? Go to northern NSW and the commercial fishers “get it” about habitat and sustainability. I don’t know, it is merely an observation.

    One way or another, those of us who can read the writing on the wall need to communicate it to those that can’t.

    Steve Posselt


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: