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Ethics and the seven commandments

Margaret Bolster

Vice President, Conservation Council SA, Editor Environment SA

The real threats and opportunities — be they economic, social or environmental — that face us today are, as they always have been, aspects of the Human Condition. Which is a construct of the tensions between individual well-being and race survival — between different individuals, different races, different species — and always hedged by biological necessity

Once upon a time there seemed a clear — an obvious distinction between ethical and unethical behaviour. Genetic or race-memory — whatever — a basic instinct of childhood is that sense of fair play. Perhaps the greatest life-stress lies in coping with what is or seems to be injustice. On a cultural level — the containment becomes a system of ethics historically peculiar to a particular community, tribe, race or nation. Ethical analysis is both simple — as for a child — and immensely complex. In Australia, under pressures of so-called democratic elections and party politics, racial and religious diversity, economic irrationalism and environmental crises — our ethical under-pinnings have been under stress. Society and its habitat guided by nothing more than the simple bottom line, self interest and a glib set of double standards is unlikely to be sustainable. In the short run exploitation of selfishness and ignorance can be a vote winner — in the long run destroy the society in seeks to govern.

In the last issue of ESA, the growth of Local Agenda 21 is examined in depth.

Steve Dovers, Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, ANU has said (page 6)

The principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development have pervaded policy and law. They reflect decades of accumulated understanding as well as international policy setting. They remain the most cogent framework we have. Yet there has been a failure to ‘institutionalise ESD’.

The 1992 National Strategy for Sustainable Development (ESD), endorsed by all Australian governments, provided guiding principles regarding

  • the precautionary principle
  • ecological processes
  • biodiversity
  • public participation
  • integration of environmental, social and economic policy.

‘These principles’ says Dovers, ‘now expressed in hundreds of Australian policies and over 120 laws are expressed vaguely and do not clearly instruct decision-makers how to implement them’.

(This creates uncertainty for politicians, legislators, developers, corporations, community, individuals — the only gain is for lawyers. It is not necessary to re-invent the principles — but vital to universalise and have faith in the wheel that drives them).

Two months in court last year defending what CCSA sees as a Planning, a Reconciliation and a Public Participation plus Freedom of Speech issue, inspires me to add to the authorised principles

  • commit to freedom of speech and information — and to full public participation in democracy.

and expand them a little, so formulating the Seven Commandments.

Wayne Wescott, Executive Director of ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) observes (page 3) ‘Nations are struggling to engage with the issue of sustainable development in a meaningful way... Barriers include sovereignty, competitive advantage, existing investment in infrastructure and changes to partners and roles in global governance. Starting at the grass roots, Wayne says — ‘the local government sector is taking substantive action’.

The Commonwealth government according to Nena Hicks (page 5) seeks to double the number of LA21 Councils in Australia from 136 to 272 — I believe this aim is way too modest.

BUT — AND ITS A BIG BUT — while everyone agrees a fundamental tenet of LA21 is building community partnerships — involving the community in decision making processes. Natalie Fuller (page 13) confronts the issue that those multiple, often overlapping communities of interest are hard to engage. Natalie comments on the frustration when, after planning creative ways to involve people and working hard to organise and promote consultation processes, to see the same people turn up once again ... who may then offer helpful suggestions like ‘perhaps you could have advertised it more through ..’. Natalie sighs — ‘offering free food and entertainment are good drawcards but even they have limitations ...’

Robin Lister’s analysis (page 12) of her Council’s Environment Advisory Committee was seminal. From a background as a lecturer in environmental law and policy, Robin recognises the significance of local historical and cultural traditions vis a vis the need for increased cooperation between councils. She grasps the expansive principles underpinning LA21 and the need for training on sustainability issues. One cannot consult — meaningfully — with an uninformed community. She stresses the importance of actually implementing an action plan. Insincere community consultation undertaken over years by governments and corporations has a lot to answer for in terms of the current disillusionment with consultation.

I spoke to a respected friend in the land management sector. I asked her what were the most important factors — in her experience — in successful consultation processes. ‘Trust’ — she said instantly. People must trust you and trust in the integrity of the process. She admitted having lived through terrible experiences when consultants and facilitators had been totally let down by their employers. Plans went ahead before consulting was completed. This has been demoralising for all concerned. Secondly she mentioned ‘Significance’ for people concerned — ‘this is often why consultation on local issues work best’. Local people often have a strong stake in the issues — see them as being critical and are able to relate to them closely

The currency of consultation has been degraded. And this is where Ethics and the Seven Commandments come in!

Individuals, corporations and states-persons with a commitment to the future — and accordingly to environmental excellence — must behave prudently, not governed by conflicting interests, to:

  • protect the biosphere — its air, water, earth and habitats — preserving the healthy biodiversity of which homo sapiens is part.
  • promote the ecologically sustainable use of natural resources through efficient use, careful planning and triple bottom line accounting (economic, social and environmental)
  • work to eliminate waste by reduction, reuse and recycling
  • conserve energy, promoting environmentally safe and sustainable sources.
  • observe the precautionary principle
  • join in environmental restoration to redress injuries we have caused
  • commit to freedom of speech and information — and to full public participation in democracy.

And what hell awaits those individuals, corporations and states-persons without that commitment you ask? Well — dream one up! Its cathartic.

Once upon a time the environmental status quo of our birth time-and-place did not change greatly within our life span. There were changes and people complained that things were better in the good old days — but the hyper-revolutions in land use and abuse, climate change, social mores, patterns of war and economics with which we now live are dizzying. So too, are the implications for our systems of ethics.

By the year 2030, if the computer modelling is on target, a projected 8 billion people must be feed and housed on this small planet. Planning for the future is not for the faint-hearted. Sufficiency and sharing is no longer a religious choice, a feel-good option — its a matter of survival. Do we invest in wisdom, ethical integrity? The alternative is to become, like overcrowded rats in first-year Psychology experiments, more aggressive. We would then spend millions on security, tooling up the armed forces for wars on all fronts and re-acculturating the population to hate foreigners,

I was born in New Zealand and lived for eighteen years in an old wooden house on top of a cliff overlooking the Hauraki Gulf. Rangitoto, a volcanic island spread itself symmetrically across the water and the rocky beach, to which there were steep steps built into the cliff, was my playground. Back then I knew a place at Mahurangi Heads, a farm on a peninsula, scalloped with small sandy beaches, fringed with Pohutukawa. A family lived in one sprawling, beautiful farmhouse. The family sold the farm to a developer. Five years later it had become the archetypal Anglo-Saxon suburban disaster. It was my first personal experience of environmental tragedy.

Whose was the ethical deficiency? The farmer who sold land in his care, uncaringly?

The developer who was short on aesthetics and worked to a maximum quantity/profit and minimum quality plan? The local council who enabled such sacrilege? The consumers who bought in to this disaster? The original motivations of the lower middle-class colonists, Victorian, Calvinist, who sought a better life in the Antipodes via more comfort and money...?’ The pattern has been repeated of course, across the world — but NZ still had much to loose

The ethical dilemma is embedded in the basic patterns of civilisation. Since Neolithic man abandoned nomadry for settlement and agriculture, the fundamental assumption has been that once the land is thoroughly clapped out, the final crop is houses. And the search for virgin land to replace the degraded has been euphemised in the histories of empires, the annals of war and the glories of new frontiers.

Orthodox planning has been mindless and remorseless. From the City springs the Outer Metropolitan Development Plans, Supplementary Development Plans, and Plan Amendment Reports. Low quality grazing land on the fringe of a city or suburb is defined as Deferred Living. The land continues to be used for rural purposes attracting rural land values for transactions during that period. Inevitably the classification will later change to Land for Living. Developers in the know will buy land at a price that will escalate instantly with the new zoning and implement plans laid perhaps a decade earlier. Land development is the most basic economic driver. Expressways and inner city traffic problems come later.

This process indeed allows for orderly development. It also ensures out-of-date development. How may advances in wisdom since the 1987 Bruntland Report, principles of Ecological Sustainability emerging from 1992 Rio Earth Summit be retrospectively applied to development plans laid in the 80’s. Approvals are updated from year to year. And in our Western system of law, commercial contracts and property rights are virtually the Word of God, taking massive precedence over emerging wisdom regarding sustainable development — there’s no contest!

The National response to fearsome issues of salinity and water quality in Australia, is a move to Integrated Natural Resource Management. It is only logical that INRM planning should in future precede Regional Development Plans and subsequent Plan Amendment Reports. But will government have the courage to stand in the way of the rights of elites to enrich themselves?

To me as a child growing up in NZ, the fundamental ethical flaw was the reality that those islands had been appropriated in a series of battles. Legitimised theoretically by the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the British had transformed Aotearoa — Land of the Long White Cloud — into an English colony called New Zealand. I studied the English version of this history at school. But it was not until I was about to leave the land of my birth that I escaped the pall of English conditioning. I found my spirit in the spirit of Aotearoa surviving in remote places. Camping under the open sky, eating shellfish from the rocks — finding a deep intuitive sense of relatedness/connectedness to the world and universe described by Cecil Camilleri of Yalumba (who provided wines for the Conference dinner) as ‘the metaphysical reality human society needs to live fully and find meaning in life’. Spirit of the Land alive beyond the smothering impact of banal, vulgar, lower middle-class Victorian materialism. For in the 1860s, 70s, 80s and 90s when the formative wave of migrants moved in, the British were particularly committed to the ‘progress = civilisation’ equation.

Earlier — and worse — was the bald-faced decision of the British House of Commons and House of Lords in August 1834 to pass the Foundation Act establishing the province of South Australia. This declared among other things — ...all of the lands of the said Province or Provinces (excepting only Portions which may be reserved for Roads and Footpaths) to be Public Lands, open to purchase by British subjects.

The Preamble described the entire area as being ‘waste and unoccupied’. None of the Aboriginal Nations — the Kaurna, the Peramangk, the Ngarrindjeri and others would have been told they were henceforth non-existent, or that the lands they had cared for from time immemorial had been expropriated for the British Empire. Yet the Ngarrindjeri groups at the mouth of the Murray eg had formal gatherings in the nature of law courts, held organised meetings in which old men and women always took the lead.

We have a few fundamental flaws in the history of land acquisition, re-sale and management to expunge. And in matters of Aboriginal consultation need always to remember that throughout the continent there are barriers of language, geography, mythology and blood which as Geoffrey Blainey has written, ‘have divided the land into hundreds of fluid republics’.

I wrote about Afghanistan in this Rio to Jo’burg issue of ESA. I read recently a brilliant essay by Nazif Shahrani, Professor of Anthropology and Central Asian Studies @ Indiana University and a Scholar-in-Residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washing DC. He writes, in relation to a future for Afghanistan

It is only through liberating ourselves from the legacies of old forms of the modern centralised and often ‘tribalised’ (could a political party possibly be described as a tribe, I speculated) state structures and acknowledging and incorporating the tremendous strengths of our re-emergent civil society into a new community governance-based state structure, that we may be able to rise to the challenges facing us at this historic national crossroad.

Is it possible that we are all on the same track — pursuing the same fundamental truth? It is vital we think out new forms of modern community and not surrender to old forms of the modern state.

The Institutions of Local Government are will be basic to New Ethics and quality of life on this delightful, if stressed, planet.

Most ecological disasters have occurred in the wake of inappropriate ‘planned’ development. Principles of Ecological Sustainability emerging from 1992 Rio Earth Summit, gestated in international think tanks, given substantive birth as Local Agenda 21 if integrated with purpose and integrity are a fundamental solution to attaining planetary ecological sustainability.

About the author

Margaret Bolster has been President of the Conservation Council of SA, 2000 and 2001, and is editor of the Environment South Australia magazine. Born in NZ, her academic background was in education, music, history and theory of fine arts. She worked in the NZ music industry for seven years. In Sydney, Margaret was co-director of a specialist art gallery for eighteen years, exhibiting Australian and Asian/Pacific Art. She studied the Indonesian culture and language, collecting, lecturing and conducting Asian study tours. In Adelaide Margaret and her partner purchased a degraded orchard/market-garden property, abandoned for 25 years. She became involved locally with land management issues in the aftermath of the Ash Wednesday bush fires and has since worked with a variety of public, community and government environmental bodies.

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