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Policy, Environment and Economy

A lot of people have asked “what is environmental policy”? Policy occupies the space between law and science. It includes the normative aspect of law, but the substantive and prescriptive character of science. This is what is happening so this is what we should do. It should be informed by evidence based thinking and govern the equitable use resources. However, environmental policy is value laden and often based on the assumption of environmental dominance as a necessary evil for growth and economic opportunity.

Economic growth and environmental protection is considered a mutually exclusive binary. Economic factors are supposed to be explicitly weighed against the cost to the environment and society. This is because the perpetual pursuit of growth is an unchallenged assumed societal good despite the obvious environmental and social costs. The separation of economics and environment is artificial as the earth’s systems are closed and finite. 

The separation of economy and environment is evident in the concept of “environmental externalities”. Rod Campbell, an economist from the Australia Institute critiqued the political power of economic modeling during his visit to Alice Springs. There are no regulatory bodies or accreditation standards that justify the level of trust we put in economic modeling. Any man and his dog could commission an economic model to say that any fossil fuel project can bring significant jobs and growth while completely neglecting the embedded social and environmental costs. Such models are trusted because they reaffirm our blind bias in favour of growth and production.

Environmental theory as it currently exists in policy and law is limited to reducing impact and minimising conflict between interests. There is little scope for prevention or precaution, for example simply rejecting a mine because its emissions are too great. The law does not enable this to happen yet, so it must strive to do more.

There is another persistent tension when thinking of change; is it a question of individual action or collective political reform?

Buying from your local farmers market is a political act. It challenges the dominance of the major players in food distribution and reduces our reliance on carbon miles. Reducing your footprint for the waste that is produced through consumption is also necessary, despite on an individual level it being rather negligible compared to industrial production. Eating green and riding your bike help with our own sense of environmental conscience but they are not challenging structures that are causing systemic contamination and degradation of our air water and land.

Individual choices should not be taken at the expense of engaged and informed collective political action. We need both but it is undoubtedly time to seriously challenge the growth assumption and push for alternative narratives like a circular or steady state economy.  Only through resisting and disrupting political and economic structures of production can we reduce pressure on environmental systems. As a collective we need to engage with political reform through avenues such as lobbying, submissions and protest. This is so that we can continue to redefine our relationship with the non-human world from one of exploitation towards that of stewardship and cooperation.

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