Australian Text Demolishes Neoliberal Environmental Policies

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Sharon Beder: Environmental Principles and Policies: An Interdisciplinary Approach. University of New South Wales Press (Sydney, Australia) 2006. 336 pages

Reviewed by Ben Courtice

Students and critics of official environmental policy probably despair at the Orwellian doublespeak and ostensibly well-meaning waffle that clouds most governmental policy. In Environmental Principles and Policies, Sharon Beder has carefully dissected the various trends and mechanisms of market-based environmental policy. She holds them up to scrutiny against a series of simple concepts that are frequently cited in the waffle surrounding the policies that are being criticised.

It’s hard to argue against concepts like equity, human rights and participation. Beder defines and explains these three social principles in relation to environmental issues, alongside three environmental principles: sustainability, polluter pays, and the precautionary principle.

Money: a mismatched measure

Having outlined a framework for examining environmental policy-making, Beder sets about bringing her six chosen principles to bear on the dominant economics-based policies that are promoted across the developed world. Economic measures, she argues, are fundamentally incompatible with environmental principles: “Economics-based environmental policies give priority to economic efficiency above all else. Principles that cannot be quantified in monetary terms and that are not compatible with business priorities are ignored.”

Where attempts are made to measure environmental values with money, economists mix up the real world with the money they are using to measure it. This dangerous “misplaced concreteness” enables economists to discount the future value of resources and lives based on a depreciation of their (supposed) monetary value. Using these mechanisms, “future cancer cases are discounted so that 100 cancer cases in 20 years are equivalent to 26 cancers today” at a 7% discount rate.

Market policy found wanting

As global warming and resource shortages (oil, water, fisheries) become key policy issues for governments, Beder’s book is especially valuable for its treatment of the common measures such as emissions trading schemes. Beder dissects policy to find its many weak points, but does not stop there, laying bare the fundamental (even philosophical) problems.

Against each of her social and environmental principles, economic instruments are found wanting. “Human rights are meant to be inalienable, which means they cannot be taken away, sold or given away. Yet economics based environmental policies do just that. Access to environmental resources … and to a healthy environment become just more figures in the calculus of economics-based decisions.”

Market-based environmental policy is also found unable to properly protect the environment. The book outlines a daunting list of problems with environmental policies such as carbon offsets and emissions trading. “Emissions trading tends to protect very polluting or dirty industries by allowing them to buy emission rights rather than meet environmental standards.” In the case of greenhouse emissions, Beder points to the economic collapse in Eastern Europe following the end of the Soviet bloc as a source of greenhouse emission credits: economies contracted, countries’ emissions decreased below their original amount at the start of the Kyoto treaty, and so they now have a credit they could sell to countries that wish to increase their emissions.

Economically driven environmental policy is discredited as Beder demolishes its underlying assumptions. The principles she uses may seem weak for those who have heard too much waffle about participation, sustainability, equity and so forth in the cant of government reports and corporate media releases. However, when adequately defined and robustly applied, these commonsense principles are a good foundation for a critique of the existing order, all the more so as they are generally accepted concepts in the mainstream debate. As the introduction points out, Beder’s principles “have the broadest acceptance … Each has, to varying degrees, been incorporated into international treaties and national law.”

Precautionary principle

One more contentious idea that Beder makes full use of is the precautionary principle. Broadly, this principle means that when it is possible (but uncertain) that something will cause harm, measures need to be taken to ensure that the possible harm is prevented. This principle is contentious (especially in the US at present) because, if applied consistently, it could severely restrict the development of new chemicals and products; and could even lead to the severe restriction of existing economic activity.

For example, if the precautionary principle had been applied, the notions of acceptable risk that greenhouse sceptics used would have had little currency. The terms of debate would have long ago shifted, from whether the greenhouse effect was real, to ensuring measures were acted on to avoid it.

Having started from general principles, Beder progresses finally to very concrete environmental problems (if you find the first chapters tedious, skip to the later sections for a taste of where it’s all leading to!). The final section takes some problems common in countries such as Australia and the US and runs them through the analytical gauntlet: tradeable fishing rights, water trading, salinity trading and offsets, and mitigation banking.

The book as a whole does follow the format that its title suggests at first glance: a textbook. While sources are cited rigorously, the book does not go into every issue in depth (although at more than 300 pages it is still a serious volume). What it does do is introduce a swathe of ideas to a new student, and for those with some grounding in the area, puts those ideas into a good framework for ongoing study and research.

Environmental Principles and Policies may not become a bestseller up there with George Monbiot and Al Gore, but that is unfortunate given the clarity with which it is written. For anyone who has to negotiate the fog of public environmental policy, it is essential reading: activists, journalists, students — and anyone actually working within the state or corporate bodies that deal with these issues could find an epiphany in its pages, too.

From Green Left Weekly #698, Feb. 14 2007