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LA21: success or failure in the Western Australian context

Graham Marshall

WA Department of Environmental Protection


Local Agenda 21 (LA21) was promoted by the United Nations to deliver sustainable development (SD) at the level of local government. This paper deals with a central problem related to the implementation of LA21 in Western Australia (WA). That problem is that only nine from 144 WA local councils have formally embraced LA21. The reasons behind the low level of adoption of LA21 in WA were examined. Findings from an extensive literature review and fieldwork involving 170 interviews suggest that LA21 is not being adopted because the actual definitional basis of SD is widely contested. In essence, people involved with local government appear to hold competing views about what, exactly, is to be sustained. There is also a widespread believe that the key issue within Councils that have formally adopted LA21 was the presence of a key ‘champion’ — a person who raised and promoted the requirement for council to pursue LA21. Those councils that have not yet endorsed LA21 were said to lack the necessary internal ‘champion’. Other reasons for the non-adoption of LA21 are also noted.

LA21: success and failure in the Western Australian context

The debate about the proper basis for the human relationship to nature has given rise to a vast and largely non-empirical literature to which the concept of sustainable development (SD) is a relatively new addition (Van Den Born, Lenders De Groot and Huijsman, 2001; Furedi, 1997). Sustainable development was promoted by the United Nations as a central component of future solutions to economic, social and ecological problems (Beder, 1993). The United Nations response to SD was outlined during the Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), known as the ‘Earth Summit’ and was reported in the blueprint document Agenda 21 (UNCED, 1992). Agenda 21 called upon governments around the world to act to implement sustainable development. Agenda 21 identified nine major groups whose participation in working towards SD was fundamental. Those groups included women, youth and children, indigenous people and their communities, non-government organisations, trade unions, business and industry, scientists and technologists, and farmers. The activities of local councils were also mentioned as critically important to the achievement of SD. The UNCED Report noted ‘Because so many of the problems and solutions being addressed by Agenda 21 have their roots in local activities, the participation and co-operation of local authorities will be a determining factor in fulfilling its objectives’ (1992, p. 4).

Whilst clearly perceiving a global scale for environmental problems, Agenda 21 re-conceptualised the scale of solutions for problems to the local level. In this sense, Agenda 21 recognised that local environmental problems affect people in a direct fashion. With the ratification of Agenda 21, it is now recognised both nationally and internationally that a focus on individuals within the community, and specifically, within the realm of local government is a desirable location for sustainable development initiatives to occur (Zarsky, 1990). This is so, since local government helps to shape the lives of communities at local, regional and State-wide levels and the Agenda 21 document recognises that they have the potential to act as agents of change for environmental management (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), 1997; Wright, 1995). Agenda 21 proposed that local government should play a central role in implementing sustainable development via the development of individual Local Agenda 21 (LA21) programs for local areas (Fowke & Prasad, 1996).

This position was adopted as Australian Commonwealth policy with the endorsement of Local Agenda 21 (LA21) (Allen, 1983; Wright, 1995). As yet, however, only a small number of local governments have formally adopted an LA21 planning process and this research sought to explore the reasons behind the low level of adoption of LA21.

The review of literature related to SD illustrates that the definition of sustainable development is where problems begin because the means of achieving a sustainable future and the endpoint for sustainable development are seen to be so broad as to mean almost anything to anyone (Woolston, 2001). On this theme, Campbell (1994, p. 11) said, ‘attempts to define sustainability miss the point that, like beauty, sustainability is in the eye of the beholder’. Pretty (1995, p. 17) also captured the essence of this problem of definition and stated: ‘any belief that sustainability can be precisely defined is flawed. It is a contested concept and so represents neither a fixed set of practices or technologies, nor a model to describe or impose on the world’. In a recent article, Woolston (2001) also highlighted the ambiguous status of the sustainability concept. Woolston (2001, p. 84) stated: ‘As the European Union launches its strategy for sustainable development, it is clear that it remains an issue that has failed to appeal to many… partly because, in the last decade, the sustainability message was so appallingly vague’. Palmer, Cooper, and van der Vorst, (1997) simply referred to SD as a ‘fuzzy-buzzword’ to illustrate its ambiguity.

There exists widespread disagreement over definitions and how to go about implementing SD policies (Woolston, 2001; and Davidson, 2000). Our Community, Our Future: A Guide to Local Agenda 21 — the most recent report on SD published by Environs Australia stated that: ‘There is no one set of principles of sustainable development’ (1999, p. 171). The sustainable development concept has a wide range of meanings and is understood and interpreted in differing ways by different people. This is evidenced by the fact that over 50 academic definitions have been developed (Pearce, Markandya & Barbier, 1989; and Steer and Wade Grey, 1993). This situation is problematical because the concept of sustainable development has been defined by interest groups in ways that meet their own agendas. Fowke and Prasad (1996) have noted that the lack of consensus on a clear definition of sustainable development has led to a risk of the concept being rendered meaningless. On that theme, Woolston (2001, p. 84) stated: ‘The definition of sustainable development is where problems start, because the objectives are so broad as to mean virtually anything to anyone. This apparently nebulous nature has left many companies somewhere between disinterested and stumped, while allowing politicians to wrap numerous agendas in a sustainability flag’. Reid (1995, p. 13) echoed these sentiments and noted that some authors have described sustainable development as variously, ‘moral convictions as a substitute for thought’, ‘a good idea which cannot sensibly be put into practice’ and ‘how to destroy the environment with compassion’.

There is clearly considerable disunity regarding the actual definition of sustainable development (Woolston, 2001; Barbier, 1987; Basagio, 1995). The spectrum of definitions for sustainable development varies depending on the paradigm from which they come. There are differences in the perception of ethical responsibilities towards future generations (e.g., Cousteau, 1980), the value of the environment (e.g., Repetto, 1992) and the need for paradigm shifts towards sustainable societies and a sustainable future (Marshall, 2001). There are also differences over implementation, the scope of problems to be overcome, and the role of science and technology in a sustainable world.

Numerous authors (e.g., Neumayer, 1999; Davidson, 2000; Mercer, 1995; and Fowke and Prasad, 1996) have noted that a dichotomy exists between orthodox and radical advocates of sustainability. These positions are sometimes referred to as ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ sustainability. The orthodox or ‘weak’ position tends to suggest that sustainability can be achieved by modest reforms of current social and economic practices (Davidson, 2000; Jacobs, 1995). The general tendency is to suggest that the goals of a dynamic economy and high quality environmental protection are mutually inclusive, dependent and reinforcing. Jacobs (1995, p. 110) noted the common assumption of the orthodox approach to sustainability and suggested: ‘By increasing the environmental efficiency with which we use resources and energy, and by which we produce wastes, by using ‘clean’, non-polluting technologies, by minimising and recycling wastes and substituting non-toxic substances, it is, in theory at least, possible for a modern economy to grow in income terms while reducing its impact on the environment’.

The radical or ‘strong’ perspective is, however, highly critical of the anthropocentric nature of mainstream orthodoxy. Radical calls for sustainability are characterised by the desire to revolutionise and reconstruct social and economic development and management. There is a rejection of modern industrial society and calls for a simpler, self sufficient and decentralised society. At the core of the radical approach to sustainability is the notion that economic activity must be controlled and reduced. Markets will be constrained by laws and regulations, taxes and cultural restraints (Jacobs, 1995). In essence, the more radical concept of sustainable development expresses the notion that humanity must live within the capacity of the environment to support it. According to Grove-White (1993), there is widespread consensus within the radical viewpoint that pressing problems exist objectively within nature. From this position, the concept of sustainable development is frequently depicted as the guiding principle by which humanity can free itself from an ecological catastrophe of its own making. The assumption is made that the world is on course for catastrophe, and that patterns of resource use and social and economic development must change.

The radical view of sustainable development implies that people should adopt an ecocentric world-view, in which the interdependent relationships between human society and the environment are acknowledged and respected (Labonte, 1989). This version of sustainable development represents a break with the industrial and anthropocentric ideology that the world is infinite, that there are unlimited resources, and that a bottomless reservoir exists into which the waste products of industrial society can be poured. Consequently, radical calls for sustainable development endorse the idea that the earth is not unlimited. On this point, Jacobs (1995, p.110) noted ‘Living within the Earth’s carrying capacity means accepting that there are environmental limits which must not be transgressed’. Davidson (2000) offered a useful summary of the major dispute between orthodox and radical discourse on SD with particular emphasis placed on the degree of environmental protection, the degree of inter-generational equity, the level of participation and the breadth of the subject area. In Davidson’s summary, the orthodox version of SD balances environmental protection against economic growth whereas the stronger version of SD holds that economic activity is restricted by ecological limits.

That brief review illustrates the highly contested nature of current debates about sustainable development. Within the overall context of such debates about SD, this research sought to identify if the contestation about SD was a limiting factor to the formal adoption of LA21 by local government in Western Australia. Furthermore, the research sought to identify other reasons why only a minority of councils have adopted LA21 but the majority remain uncommitted.


As part of a wider research process involving the use of Q-Methodology to identify Australian visions of SD and reported by Marshall (2001), this specific study utilised in depth, semi-structured interviews to allow the participants to provide more detailed information about their beliefs about the reasons for adoption of LA21.

In this study, purposive sampling was used to identify and select people who appeared to be meaningfully affiliated with questions of sustainable development at the local level. The fieldwork component of the study involved 170 Q-sort interviews with people drawn from six major groups, and all of whom were identified as having a professional or personal interest in SD issues. The people in the groups involved with the study were:

• academics in tertiary institutions (N = 14 representing a response rate of 93 per cent);

• members of non-government groups (N = 34 representing a response rate of 16 per cent );

• employees of State Government departments (N = 28 representing a response rate of 93 per cent);

• elected local government officials (N = 35 representing a response rate of 22 per cent);

• employees of local government (N = 44 representing a response rate of 69 per cent); and

• community members not drawn from any of the above groups (N = 15). This was a sample of convenience formed from a group of people known to the researcher and also known not to be academics, involved in non-government groups, elected councillors or council staff.

Interviews occurred during a 12-month period of fieldwork and each interview was of about 2 hours duration. Interviews typically occurred in participants homes or workplaces.


Results from the Q-Methodology study identified that the 170 participants held two opposing visions about the purpose, scope and implementation of sustainable development. This finding offers limited support for earlier propositions regarding definitions of strong and weak SD. The larger group in the present study, represented by 140 participants identified a vision that matched stronger definitions of SD. This vision indicates a value base that is much more aligned with a concern for ecological well being as a basis for sustainable development and there is also a call for a reorientation of human values. There is endorsement of the notion that current economic practices are harmful to the environment and cannot be sustained and that nature is deserving of respect regardless of its value to humanity. There was a high degree of positive consensus by this group in support of the following themes that demonstrate these results:

• The environmental practices of current generations are harming the interests of future generations.

• All the species and systems of nature deserve respect regardless of their usefulness to humanity. Nature needs to be preserved for its own sake.

• Sustainable development requires changes in lifestyle from everyone involving recycling, reusing and reducing the amounts of resources consumed.

• Our civilisation is put at risk when we misuse or mismanage natural resources and disturb natural systems.

• Sustainable development is, inevitably, a long-term process, although it is important to start thinking and acting now.

• There can be clear benefits from involving the public in the sustainable development policy-making process, particularly when complex economic, environmental, and social issues are being addressed.

• We are living beyond the carrying capacity of our planet. Our numbers and our impacts have reached what in the case of any other species we would regard as plague proportions.

• Only a radical change to pro-environmental values can bring about the change needed to protect life on Earth.

The smaller group, representing just 11 people identified their vision as supporting weaker SD definitions. Highly regarded statements for the minority group indicate a view of sustainable development that is much more aligned with a commitment to human welfare as a priority over environmental well being. There is recognition of local environmental degradation but a widespread optimism that emerging technology and the generation of new wealth will lead to greater sustainability. In fact, the essence of this view is that economic, industrial and technological development is making the World more, rather than less sustainable. There was a high degree of positive consensus by this group in support of the following themes that demonstrate these results:

• Emerging technologies offer the promise of higher productivity, increased efficiency, and decreased pollution. This is essential for sustainable development.

• Private companies ought to accept their responsibility to use science and technology in order to minimise harm to the environment.

• The main emphasis of sustainable development ought to be a form of managed economic growth that occurs within the context of sound environmental stewardship.

• The best and only route for countries to overcome environmental problems and promote human wellbeing is to become richer and more technologically advanced.

• Instead of contributing to environmental problems, technology and industry now provide the solutions to those problems.

• Despite local environmental problems, there is a record of enormous environmental progress and much to be optimistic about.

• While economic growth has continued, the consumption of raw materials has held steady and even declined, and new technologies offer the promise of further efficiencies. The modern World is becoming more, not less sustainable.

Nineteen people had idiosyncratic views that did not factor together strongly in any readily identifiable fashion. The discovery of two dominant and competing views supports the existing literature that notes the highly contested nature of definitions of SD. It was, however, interesting to note that a large majority of participants shared a broadly similar vision of SD. It is tentatively suggested that disagreements over the definitional properties of SD are not enough to account for the low level of adoption of LA21 since there does appear to be a widely accepted vision about SD amongst a majority of participants.

The discovery of two competing visions of SD is interesting but the focus of the interviews for this part of the study was to identify potential reasons for the adoption of LA21 by a small number of councils and the generally low level of adoption of LA21 in Western Australia. A macro-level analysis of themes to emerge from the interviews was undertaken to identify the reasons that currently do, or have the potential to facilitate or restrain the endorsement of LA21.

The principal reason provided for the adoption of LA21 in the small number of councils in WA was said to relate to the requirement for councils to have a person playing the role of ‘key champion’ for LA21. These people were sometimes considered to be councillors and sometimes were seen as council employees. Where there was no key champion, it was felt that LA21 was never placed on the agenda for council consideration. Issues related to a requirement for a key champion leading to the adoption of LA21 are illustrated by the following themes that emerged during the interviews:

• The need for proactive officers and a particular councillor that is open to the idea of LA21.

• The need for innovative and highly energetic Environmental Officers that can explain LA21.

• LA21 adopting councils have people in position’s of power such as president’s or CEO’s that are generally motivated and feel in their heart that it is the right thing to do and have driven it from within.

• Requirement for officers that have become interested and see LA21 as a way of improving council’s decision-making processes.

There were other reasons that were said to be important for the adoption of LA21. These themes are illustrated below:

• There was a view that LA21 was being promoted by a younger generation of council employees who had been exposed to a more professional level of training and newer ideas. This was particularly emphasised for the stronger push for LA21 in the urban as opposed to rural councils.

• There also appeared to be a perception that people and organisations that were promoting LA21 were simply ‘early adopters’ and that others would see the benefits and embrace SD in due course.

• It was also noted that many local governments are doing LA21 type activities under another name or banner.

• The Federal government was also widely seen to be an essential facilitator for the promotion of LA21.

The participants were also asked to illustrate their beliefs about the reasons for the low level of adoption of LA21 in WA. The major themes to emerge in response to this line of questioning included:

• The short time-frame of interest in LA21 means that the necessary process of attitude change that was thought to be important for the promotion of SD has not yet occurred within local government.

• The lack of sustainability indicators. Scientists were noted to be working on these but the relatively short time-frame of development has meant that little information is yet available. It has been difficult to build a ‘business case’ for LA21 that demonstrates the longer-term benefits resulting from short-term costs.

• Fear of uncertainty amongst local government decision-makers. Local governments were widely regarded to be inherently conservative institutions and elected officials were concerned about extra financial costs associated with the implementation of LA21. There was said to be a concern amongst councillors that financial costs associated with LA21 are too high.

• The financial benefits of LA21 cannot easily be captured. It is widely perceived as a ‘feel good’ process that is difficult to quantify.

• There is said to be a widely held misconception within local government about LA21 and a lack of understanding and knowledge about SD generally.

• The short time-frames between elections were seen as a barrier to effective decision-making as far as it reduced a focus on longer-term issues like sustainable development.

• The community was said to lack interest and knowledge about SD and this meant that community members and groups were not putting political pressure on councillors to work with SD issues and promote LA21.

• Environmental degradation was seen to be a slow and cumulative process — spanning generations — without obvious catastrophic consequences. This process was said to result in a lack of urgency for pro-environmental decisions.

• The short-term business and administrative cycles were regarded to have a high priority in decision-maker over longer-term geological timeframes in which environmental degradation and loss of species diversity were seen to be occurring.

• Councillors were regarded as being elected to pursue their own ‘pro-development’ agendas and were simply disinterested in LA21.

• There was a perception that no requirement is coming from the State or Commonwealth for local government to implement LA21. It is simply up to a largely disinterested group of elected councillors.

• Councils were said to be reluctant to release funding for officers to instigate LA21.

• Finally, some people were simply uncertain about LA21.


The results of this study demonstrate that visions of SD fall into two broad camps. This finding adds empirical data to previous propositions that SD takes a radical and orthodox form and the study offers confirmation that definitions of SD are highly disputed within the community. The lack of a single coherent vision for SD at the level of local government may play a significant role in the relative lack of endorsement of LA21 in Western Australia.

Other reasons for the low level of adoption of LA21 appear to include:

• limited numbers of ‘key champions’ with the motivation to push LA21;

• fear of uncertainty about SD due to lack of knowledge;

• lack of SD indicators and difficulty with quantification;

• lack of a sound business case for deploying LA21; and

• inherent conservatism of local government.

In order to overcome these reasons for non-adoption of LA21, a starting point is to establish a shared vision for sustainable development, or at least a shared understanding of the different perspectives that people hold towards the concept. More work on this topic is still required.

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About the author

Graham Marshall is a qualified psychologist and he specialises in research on sustainable development and safety culture assessment. Graham works part-time for the WA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and lectures at Edith Cowan University in Perth. The DEP and the Australian Research Council (ARC) have sponsored Graham’s PhD research on Local Agenda 21.

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