Katharine Moody on environmental conflict resolution, towards a circular economy, banning the bag, what we can learn from albatrosses, ethics and environmentalism, Einstein & more

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Today’s Top 10 (and a bit) is from Katharine Moody, a senior tutor at Massey University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences in Palmerston North, who comments on interest.co.nz as “Kate”.

As always, we welcome your additions in the comments below or via email to [email protected]

We are keen to find some new Top 10 contributors so if you’re interested in contributing, contact [email protected]

See all previous Top 10s here.

1.  Finding shared meaning: environmental conflict resolution.

Our dominant way of working and thinking on matters of environment in New Zealand is framed by philosophic theory and knowledge grounded in 18th century European Enlightenment-thought.  

The 21st century’s emphasis on public participation in democratic decision-making, has led to a greater awareness of diverse views and perspectives and the need to forge a better path toward shared meaning, as Ken Homer, Founder of Collaborative Conversations explains;

Understanding is a marvelous thing. Metaphorically speaking, it can restore eyesight to the blind. It can sooth hurt feelings, assuage guilt, calm anger, activate deep compassion, and release enormous amounts of creativity and passion.

Understanding among and between people flows from the creation of shared meaning.

Shared meaning does not mean that everyone in the conversation sees things in the same way.

Shared meaning does mean each stakeholder in the conversation shares what is meaningful to them as it pertains to creating the desired future those in the conversation are seeking to create.

Shared meaning occurs when people understand each other’s perspectives well enough to accept them as legitimate in the context of exploring and realising a desired future.

2.  Global Mind Shift – All Is One.

To make sense of how ‘others’ might see things, I refer to a typology of narratives, or environmental ‘worldviews’ and in the below table, these and linked to what I refer to as the three principle ‘schools’ in the philosophy of ethics. 

I make a critical point in presenting this typology.  There is not one right or wrong way to view the world – no one narrative is fallible or infallible – no ethical approach is superior or inferior to another.  The intent of the model is to move beyond Cartesian-dualist thinking as a means to foster understanding on how to Get Along – in the spirit that the wombat decrees (And BTW, in my assessment, the wombat is of the environmental ‘systems and carrying capacity’ worldview).

3. Old certainties, old prejudices, old fears are losing their grip.

One of the greatest strengths in New Zealand environmental management is the contribution Te Ao Māori brings to our understanding of the environment as a ‘cultural conception’ worldview.  This is captured beautifully in Dame Anne Salmond’s most recent book, Tears of Rangi, reviewed by Kennedy Warne at E-TANGATA, who explains;

[The] picture of reciprocity and exchange is the book’s central image. Titiro atu, titiro mai — one glance directed at another, the other glancing back. I see you, and I am seen.

That principle permeates the Māori world. We see it in action at every pōwhiri, every marae encounter. One calls, another responds, and a connection is forged. The exchange shapes identity and generates life.

Te Ao Māori is contrasted with our dominant worldview;

One of the achievements of Tears of Rangi is how vividly Salmond renders the two cosmologies: one based on hierarchy, the other on reciprocity. One linear, the other circular. One focused on separation, the other on relational exchange… 

The European “Enlightenment” was epitomised in “I think therefore I am.” The Māori understanding is “I relate therefore I am.”

In Aotearoa, these two worldviews met — and are still negotiating their engagement. Hence the book’s subtitle, Experiments Across Worlds…

The good news is that the country seems to be in a process of recovery — and for Pākehā, discovery — of the Māori conceptual world. For Anne Salmond, this movement isn’t a cultural nicety but a social necessity.

“The old Cartesian dualisms and their fragmented dreams are no longer working — in science, in material matters, or in human affairs,” she writes in her preface.

Given the seemingly intractable nature of many of our environmental problems, I tend to agree. The time to give equal legitimacy to all environmental worldviews is long past its due date.      

4. Towards a “circular economy”: is it inevitable?

  

In the circular economy opportunity report released jointly by Sustainable Business Network (SBN) and Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed), the authors employ a ‘stock of assets’ methodological approach in estimating the value of adopting a circular economy in Auckland.

They quantify this benefit to be vicinity of $8 billion dollars;

Ateed’s business, innovation and skills general manager Patrick McVeigh said the sharing economy, like Airbnb, Uber and clothing rentals were examples of businesses using the circular economy model.

Moving away from the traditional take-make-waste model to a more sustainable one could bring more than $8 billion to Auckland’s economy, a new report says…

…Prefabricated housing, recycling and 3D printing within the construction industry alone could yield $2.5b… [and] Encouraging ride sharing, refurbishing commercial vehicles and reducing congestion could yield $1.8b. 

And, in answer to the question posed in the heading, yes, according to James Griffin;

SBN’s projects and advisory head James Griffin said businesses and governments around the world were recognising the circular economy – one which aims to lengthen the life of finite resources – was inevitable.

A ‘stock of assets’ is the most prevalent environmental worldview in my experience, and the circular economy on first blush, looks to be an extension of ‘stock of assets’ thinking. But must we justify all of our social choices in dollar (i.e., growth) terms (although it appears the circular economy frames this as ‘growth within’)?  Might we instead rely on our observations of the world around us as adequate proof, or rationale, for adopting a new policy direction or approach?  Or should we insist on more quantitative evidence before taking any action to say, change our consumptive ways in accordance with the principles of a circular economy?

I suspect it all depends on your environmental worldview.

For those ‘stock of assets’ followers among us, the full report on Auckland’s prospects can be downloaded here.

5. Banning the bag.

At Croaking Cassandra, Michael Reddell provides a compelling (or should I say scathingly effective) analysis of the Ministry for the Environment’s recent consultation document on the proposed ban of single-use plastic bags. 

He notes the Prime Minister’s apparent partial justification of the proposed ban being that numerous school children had written to her on the subject, and opens with a delightful proposition;

There is a reason why we do not let primary school children make policy or vote.  They are children, precious and growing but prone to all the enthusiasms of children, easily influenced, and not responsible (as taxpayers or anything else) for their expressed preferences. 

Back to the task at hand, he laments the absence of any cost-benefit analysis in the MfE consultation document;

Surely that uncertainty [as expressed by Eugenie Sage in the preamble to the document] would then be reflected in the cost-benefit analysis for any regulatory intervention?  Oh, silly me.  That assumes there is a cost-benefit analysis, but in this document there is nothing even remotely resembling such a standard part of the policy analysis toolkit.   And that is even though they explicitly acknowledge of what evaluation they did do

This assessment was based on information from overseas experience,
which has many gaps in relation to these goals.

So what is the rush?  Why not do your evaluation rigorously and robustly, clearly identifying your assumptions when there is (as there always is) inevitable uncertainty?  And how about pricing the option of waiting, or incentivising the development of genuinely biodegradable bags?

And he is highly sceptical of the role a prospective transition towards a circular economy played in the proposed policy intention;

It isn’t about marine pollution or the potential toxicity of plastics, but a stake in the ground for a strategy which, if pursued, would up-end the way we do things across the spectrum of economic life, all based on the new dogma known as “the circular economy”.

The instrumentally-rational approach he applies to the analytical task is impeccable. For contrast, I commented taking a values-rational approach (an ‘our world’ worldview on the environment) – one that we all, as children, likely had those many years ago.

6. Spot the missing option.

Also considering our mountainous (and mounting) plastic waste problem, a recent Newshub article considered four potential options:

  • A money-back scheme for recyclables
  • Make the general dump more expensive to encourage recycling
  • Consumer pressure
  • “Moving away from our current economic model” – product stewardship

A point I would make here is, if we can’t recycle the waste locally (and we can’t export it for someone else to process), we ought to take care not to refer to these waste types as “recyclables”. That issue aside, the author applies a good example of options in incremental decision-making (a ‘systems and carrying capacity’ worldview). Initially, a radical, ‘one-off’ solution is posed, but then discounted as unrealistic to make way for the incremental options;

Obviously, the most effective way to reduce waste is to create less of it in the first place – buy foods wrapped in fewer plastics and say no to the straw. Realistically, though, we are going to keep using things that create waste, a large portion of which could be recycled far more efficiently than it is at the moment. 

To my mind, the missing option in the above analysis is regulation (ban) – or, in the language of a circular economy, we could ‘design out of the system’ all non(locally)-recyclable, single-use plastic via executive fiat.  

Given the sector have labelled the issue a “crisis” , there must be good reason a “ban”, similar to that proposed for single-use plastic bags is not one of the urgent actions listed as needed;

Actions that need to happen now include:

  • access to funding, to ensure recyclables aren’t sent to landfill
  • facilitating national communications to enable better consumer decision making, and
  • gathering better data on recyclable materials

7.  Reporting from the Green Party annual conference.

At the Green Party annual conference, Newsroom report that Associate Minister Eugenie Sage nailed her colours to the mast on the circular economy;

Sage said it was time for “a radically different approach”.

“We must use circular economy principles to design waste out of the system,” she said…

New Zealand currently has limited capacity to recycle most plastics. Of the seven types of plastic waste, types one and two can be processed on shore, whilst the remainder have to be exported.

Until the end of last year, New Zealand sent most ‘type three to seven’ plastics overseas to be recycled, mainly to China.

But rather than design those types of single-use plastics out of the system, the Ministry will commence an investigation into onshore processing of these plastic types, a ‘solution’ that can only be considered deliverable in the longer-term. The deliverable that seems to be most able to be expedited urgently, appears to be amendment of the Waste Disposal Levy.  In other words, an  increase to the cost consumers will pay to dispose of their (largely unavoidable) non-recyclable plastic waste. But, even in that regard;

Sage said she expects to expand the levy as well as the number of landfills on which it is levied. The changes will be in place by 2020 after a public consultation.

 The levy generates around $30 million annually, split between councils to help them fund waste minimisation activities and the Waste Minimisation Fund and its grant scheme.

The grants can be used by businesses and organisations to reduce waste.

So, perhaps in two years we will collect an additional levy/tax to use to increase the size of the Waste Minimisation Fund for schemes to further reduce waste.

Sounds like more of a circular money-go-round than a “circular economy”.

Hands up those who don’t find an increased levy/tax a “radically different approach”.

And despite all my reading, I have no idea what Associate Minister Sage’s environmental worldview might be.

8. GOOD GRIEF: What we can learn from albatrosses.

If you are not yet all that fired up about this plastic waste problem, New Zealand Geographic present an ‘our world’ reflection on artist Chris Jordan’s documentary, Albatross. 

The movie’s heartbreak lies in its documentation of the deadly toll of ocean-borne plastic on these ocean-spanning birds. We look over Jordan’s shoulder as, dead bird after dead bird, he photographs their stomach contents—kaleidoscopes of fatal fragments that they have mistaken for food.

The compendium of swallowed objects is appalling… Even more distressing is seeing a slurry of plastic being disgorged from a parent into the open beak of its hungry chick. The betrayal of trust is acute.

The filmmaker found himself grieving for the birds, but as the title of the article so aptly expresses, Jordan reflects on how grief can be good, in that;

“Grief is the same as love. When we surrender to grief it carries us home to our deepest connection to life.”

From that connection comes the impulse to protect what needs protecting and to confront what needs confronting: a fishing industry with a vast and destructive ecological wake; a consumer economy that is profligate with its waste.

The New Zealand Geographic reporter concludes that;

In these unprecedented times for life on Earth, it has never been more necessary to do this work of protection and confrontation on behalf of ocean life—especially in New Zealand, the pre-eminent seabird nation, with more species of penguin, albatross, petrel and their kin living in our waters than in those of any other country.

The full-length documentary, gifted by the artist to the world, is available free for download here.

9. But is New Zealand one of the ‘real’ problem ocean polluters?

A similar point is often raised in relation to New Zealand’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. So, how do we stack up on waste?

The answer to the question is yes, albeit indirectly.  The World Economic Forum reports on a study conducted by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, which found that 90% of the plastic that ends up in our oceans comes from just 10 river systems

And of those, the Yangtze River, was the biggest carrier of them all, but perhaps not for long;

China has made efforts to curb waste.

For years the country had imported millions of tons of recyclable waste from overseas, but a growing recycling burden at home prompted the government to shift its policy.

Last year, it ended imports of “foreign garbage”. Recently it extended the ban to metals, saying stopping imports of foreign waste was “a symbolic measure for the creation of an ecological civilisation in China”.

And this year China has ordered 46 cities to begin sorting waste in order to reach a 35% recycling rate by 2020.

According to Erik Solheim, head of the UN Environmental Program;

“If there is one nation changing at the moment more than anyone else, it’s China … the speed and determination of the government to change is enormous,”  

So, yes, our favoured export market for waste (much of which might have ended up in the Yangtze River) has been cut off at the pass – likely forever.

In my opinion, thank goodness we now have to own-our-own garbage.

10. Ethics and Environmentalism: Costa Rica’s Lesson.

In Kerry McDonald’s recent article on interest.co.nz, titled Paradise Lost! Two decades of shocking failure in political leadership, he posits that,

“When the economic engine of a democracy fails, social and environmental imperatives become unaffordable”. 

This reflects a not uncommon premise reflected in the ‘stock of assets’ worldview, that being that only ‘rich’ countries can afford to pursue goals of environmental protection and enhancement, or put another way, achieving sustainability or sustainable development goals is a factor of ‘wealth’. The most commonly used denominator of ‘wealth’ is GDP.

This premise reminded of Costa Rica, which ranked 66/187 in the United Nations 2016 Human Development Index ; 1/140 in the New Economics Foundation’s 2016 Happy Planet Index ; and 30/180 in the Yale University/World Economic Forum 2018 Environmental Performance Index.

The International Monetary Fund ranks Costa Rica’s 2017 GDP per capita (PPP) as 76/187, whereas New Zealand ranks 31/187.

Costa Rica’s environmental policy achievements make a very relevant case study for a New Zealand audience, more so than say, Australia, the UK, the Scandanavian countries or indeed anywhere in Europe, to my mind.  Why?

Robert Blasiak’s 2011 article from the United Nations University, Our World publication will provide you with plenty of parallels and much food for thought.

11. Sustainability: Planning’s Saving Grace or Road to Perdition?

One of my favourite academic articles from Associate Professor, Michael Gunder of the University of Auckland.  Not available in the public domain, but the abstract provides context to the critical analysis, and this passage of text clearly illustrates the author’s environmental ‘systems and carrying capacity’ worldview;

The conflation of market and environment creates a risk that the desire for growth will trump the needs of the environment to sustain. Under sustainable development, the arguments of ecological sustainability often are subsumed as mere justifications or legitimizations for policies that are largely market oriented. Here, sustainability’s underlying message that we must change our consumptive behaviors to be consistent with the carrying capacities of the planet largely are overlooked, if not outright negated.

12. Albert Einstein: that enigmatic quote.

Despite the proliferation of images and web references purporting to quote Albert Einstein as having said, “”We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, the phrase, it appears, is but one of many reinterpretations of that enigmatic quote.

  

Notwithstanding, this ‘reinterpretation’ still resonates better than any other ‘quote’ when considering the need to better understand, and subsequently assign equal weight, or legitimisation to all environmental worldviews as a means to find shared meaning, and hence realise a desired future.

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