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The Embedded Bias Against Low Impact Use in Decision Making

Kathy Ridge - Executive Officer, Nature Conservation Council


First of all, I'd like to acknowledge the fact that I'm on Dharawal country and I'd like to thank Gary very much for pointing out the fact that, as a society, we do not hear, because we do not respect the knowledge the stories and the culture of indigenous people and I think we would be much better resource managers if we did.

Where I'd like to start this afternoon is to look at the biases, the inherent biases in a decision making system against the values of low impact uses. And I put the environment firmly within one of the low impact use values. So the key issue is "how do we value things that have no measured worth?".

There is a need to maintain the biodiversity of estuaries. The international, national, state and local governments all acknowledge that there is a need to maintain the biodiversity of estuaries.

We need to eliminate negative externalities because at the moment, every SoE report which is prepared at every level shows that we are losing the values of our estuaries.

We need to preserve the social values, our relationship with the estuaries as an environment. And that's directly linked to our experience of a natural place. That has tremendous value to us as people and to the health of our society as a whole.

The other thing I'd like to point out is that we don't own the future. There is something called opportunity cost which is recognised within real economics.

Opportunity costs should not limit the options of future generations. We can look back on past decisions and clearly see - through our increased knowledge in terms of science - how poor those original decisions were. And you can guarantee that we're currently making similar decisions in terms of what we know at the moment and it is not in full knowledge of the potential problems.

I think Paul pointed out just how complex estuary ecosystems are and how we cannot hope to model or make decisions that take into account all the possible impacts of those uses. So I think we need to go very carefully when we're making decisions about how we affect future values of estuaries in particular.

Decision Making

The next point I'd like to make is that the traditional decision-making process is actually quite simple and I know we saw one earlier which went through the estuary management planning process so there's lots of add-ons you can put in there.

But essentially you firstly define the issue you're trying to seek an answer or solution to. You then go out and collect data, and you assess options and make a decision.

Now my argument this afternoon is that at every single one of those stages, we're in-building a bias against measuring low-impact use, environmental values, social values, indigenous values. We do it when we define the issue, we do it when we collect the data because we're not collecting data on those values. We don't include options that say "Do nothing" very well. If you look at every single EIS that's prepared the "Do nothing" section is one or two paragraphs. It's like it's not an option. Well it is, and it's a very real option. And finally, because we've inbuilt this bias along the whole way in the decision making chain, we are not able to make decisions that accurately protect low impact uses such as the environment.

Community Values

We need to respect community values like we respect science and economics. What the community knows is currently outside the existing democratic process. Now that's not democracy OK.

Fundamentally, we've got it wrong. If we cannot value what the community protects in our decision making processes then we don't have a democracy at all and we should be looking at that very carefully.

For instance one of the community values that aren't currently expressed in decision making processes are memory. What do the old people within our society remember about the way the environment was? Where is that collected and valued and put into decision making processes?

Intuition is also important. What do people know naturally? If I talk to a commercial fisherman on the south coast, he can tell me more about the local estuary than just about anyone else I care to go and have a chat with because he's out there every day and he notices the small things, the small cumulative decisions that no-one's measuring the impact of on the environment.

The indigenous cultural aspects. Ron West, Gary Caines and myself were having a discussion over lunch, about an indigenous story on the south coast about a big tidal wave. Now when you go for your DA at any of the Illawarra councils, whether it's Wollongong or Kiama, you don't get told about this tidal wave which would obviously wash-over where you're hoping to build you're new multi-million dollar apartment block. And that's also been measured by a scientist at the University of Wollongong.

So these old cultural stories actually do have a lot of information for us which is extremely relevant in the planning decisions we're making including those that relate to estuaries.

And the last point which I think is really important is commonsense. I've read countless scientific papers and EISs which collate data and tell you at the end of it that there is only one answer. But when you apply basic commonsense, you know that their answer is nonsense and we really shouldn't be making that decision at all. So I'd like to see some formal recognition of commonsense in the decision making process.

I also think that community values are identifiable. I think, as Paul pointed out, clean air, clean water, walks, swims, all sorts of recreational values are respected by the community. And they're built-in to the way they make decisions about time and about how they live their life. And there's plenty of survey data which does point to this but doesn't give you an economic value or worth.

What's the problem with environmental values? Well the first problem is that no-one owns them, i.e. the Tragedy of the Commons principle. There's no accountability even in it's managed, although the State of the Environment reporting process is starting to get to at least measuring the rate at which our environment is being degraded. Unfortunately it's like watching the Titanic sink.

Community Consultation - How does it Measure Values?

I'd like to go through an example of a recreational fisherman. The issues was reported in the discussion papers that went out to the community, which asked recreational fishermen whether or not they wanted commercial fishing in their estuaries anymore.

The recreational fishermen valued their activity by the amount of money they were spending on things like lines, boats, fuel, tackle, and hotels. I think food was even counted in that total price. It was actually a very broad estimate of how much recreational fishing was worth to the community.

But nowhere on the transaction chain that was reported to the community was the 'cost' of that activity. How much was it costing in terms of loss of seagrass? How much was it costing in terms of greenhouse gas emissions? How much was it costing in terms of maintaining structures such as boat loading ramps and facilities up and down the coast? None of that was reported.

And I think the decision-making process in that instance was very much perverted by the fact that recreational fishers could say "I fish, and I vote", which was heard very loudly by the politicians who ultimately made the decisions. The recreational fishermen could also say that "I spend X amount of money".

Conservationists, on the other hand, said "we don't think the fish care whose catching them, whether they're commercial or recreational" and "we don't think you've done enough science to show that a decision to close down commercial fishing is actually going to improve the environment". They also said "we don't fish and my activities or my conservation community's activities cost nothing".

And it was a really dreadful argument and discussion to have, and in no instance where they've closed a commercial fishery up and down the coast, on the basis of the above community consultation process have they put in place a monitoring program to prove to you, the community who are going to spend $20m on those closures, that it does actually work as a management measure.

And I think in five years time we'll come back to another decision making process where we say "The rate of commercial fishing has remained stable for a number of years, 100 years at least, but recreational fishing has slightly increased. Why is the conflict so much higher? It's because we're not counting the cost of pollution and degradation. There is an environmental 'catch' caused by pollution that wasn't part of that decision making process. And we're going to have to go back at some stage and go through that all over again, which I hope I'm not around for.

What about the future? We want to have clean, healthy places where our children play. We want to be able to hand on an environment that's in better shape than the one that we inherited from our generation before. And we want to be able to explain that we could respect their rights to exist in our future environment. And at the moment, I don't think any of the decision making processes adequately provide for that sort of contemplation.

Conservation Planning

In terms of "What do we do about it?". Well I think we need to take a conservation planning ethic. For the gentleman who asked the question about where the estuaries start, they start at catchment boundaries and to pretend that you can manage anything smaller than that is to not adequately manage the problems of our estuaries.

I agree with Ron's earlier point in that I don't think we need to do an extensive investigation process about where to put in place the first lot of conservation reserves. I think we can protect immediately, in " no take " conservation zones, (that means no fishing), sufficient areas of seagrass, mangrove, saltmarsh and identified habitats to ensure a healthy future. That's for everyone, not just for the environment, but for everything that relies on the environment to exist.

The second point is, we need sustainable planning and management. We need to be able to respect the fact that we have to live within the limits of our natural environment and to do anything else is to go back to the arrogance of the acclimatisation type people who think you can modify the environment and somehow improve it.

So we need to find out what our natural limits are and live within them. We also need to have a much longer term view. We must have a much broader decision making process that can deal with the sorts of things that are considered in our economic rationalist society as a bit soft and 'left', those things like memory, like intuition, like culture. Those sorts of values must be brought - in formally to decision-making process so we get outcomes that the community think respects their role in democracy. It's not just what the scientists and economic rationalists think are important.

Thank you.
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