The Public Sector Informant

From little things, big things really can grow

The push for sustainability might seem to be stalled, but social change can be sudden.

A friend was telling me how her neighbour had proposed that a group of home owners in their street should sell up together, so a developer could put high-density housing on the land. Luckily, in this case, the zoning did not permit it.

But the pressure to go after the dollar is constant and unremitting. Once the genie of the market has been let loose, it is very difficult to put it back in its bottle. Population growth, favourable tax treatment of investment property and low interest rates are producing uncontrolled development in our cities.

How might true sustainability be revived? The immediate signs are not promising. In the recent Bennelong by-election, the only party that put sustainability first, Sustainable Australia, received only 1.2 per cent of first-preference votes. The Greens, who are supposed to put the environment first, have been taken over, at least for now, by the politics of identity. On the other hand, history shows that the concerns of a small group can sow the seeds of long-lasting reform. Perhaps political science can give us some insights into how minorities can bring majorities along.

When the preconditions are there, politics can achieve change amazingly quickly. Marriage equality is a case in point. If you had told me 20 years ago that the Federal Parliament would, by an overwhelming majority, legislate for same-sex marriage by the end of 2017, I would have thought you were dreaming. But as the outcome of the preceding plebiscite showed, by this stage the proponents of change were working with public sentiment rather than against it. Once public opinion had shifted, even an institution as embedded in the social fabric as traditional marriage could be recast.

This begs the question: how do you change public opinion? It takes a while, of course, and change would not happen without sustained pressure from those who want it to happen. The social movements of the 1960s – remember gay liberation? – were the start. But there were broader factors at work, too. We know that as societies modernise, the bonds of tradition loosen. Achieving social change is much easier in contemporary Australia than in more traditional societies.


It's important not to overgeneralise about public opinion. About 40 per cent of those who voted in the same-sex marriage plebiscite did not want any change. Normally, we would expect that a minority of this size, containing many people with strong feelings and beliefs on an issue, would be able to prevent change. But in this case, it was difficult for conservative people to make their presence felt politically, because the main major political parties (Labor and the post-Abbott Liberals) had moved away from them.

The political genius of the plebiscite was that it reflected the way costs and benefits were distributed across the community. Those against change were more numerous than the small minority who were most passionately in favour of it. But their views were outweighed by the people in the middle, not directly affected by change themselves, but not wanting to stand in the way. They thought "why not?", and voted accordingly.

Politics is about values, but it's also about the numbers. And it's how those numbers are expressed politically that counts. Small groups that feel passionately about a particular issue can bring about major change when jurisdictional factors are in their favour. Take greyhound racing, for example. Greyhound racing in the ACT was doomed, because the industry in the ACT is small, and ACT Labor has no need of it. Greyhound racing in NSW survived, because the fate of key members in key seats depended upon it.

So what does all this mean for sustainability? Most thoughtful people want to care for the earth rather better than is currently the case. If the issue were simply a social one, we would have seen major change long ago. But sustainability is at its heart an economic issue and economic issues penetrate even more deeply than social ones. The techno-capitalist system has us all in its thrall, and the interests that it favours are concentrated and powerful.

In policy terms, sustainability, at least in the form of ecologically sustainable development, has a long history. Ecologically sustainable development might have smacked of having one's cake and eating it too, but it produced some excellent policy thinking. The international debate began in earnest in 1987 when the UN Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future, better known as the Brundtland report. By the early 1990s, the Australian federal government had led the production of a wide-ranging intergovernmental agreement on the environment, supported by working-group reports that were models of detailed, coherent policy thinking. There were agendas for forests and fisheries, transport and tourism, mining and manufacturing and energy production and use.

In the intervening years, climate change should have added to the overall concern with sustainability. But a very strange shift occurred. Rather than a full suite of responses, action on climate change has come to revolve around renewable energy. Despite what some will tell you, this is scarcely the dawn of a new era, reflecting a lack of overall planning in the energy sector, rather than a balanced approach to energy sustainability. In other respects, nothing fundamental has changed. More people than ever are driving around in large fuel-inefficient vehicles. Land-clearing activity has begun to increase again.

Small groups that feel passionately about a particular issue can bring about major change when jurisdictional factors are in their favour.

It's easy to point the finger of blame at farmers. But cities are important sources of vegetation, too. Bird populations are falling, because there are not enough trees to support them. Gardens are disappearing. Land development, or land exploitation to give it its correct title, remains the abiding interest, not just of big companies but of mum-and-dad developers up and down the land. Half the population owns investment properties. The other half wishes they did.

We are a happy, pragmatic, materialist lot and we are, properly, suspicious of precipitate change. But that does not mean we cannot combat the ideology of economic growth. The impetus for doing this need not come from the centres of power. Sometimes, ideas that make a difference come from unexpected places.

Indeed, given that the mind of the state needs to change, this seems the more likely scenario. After all, Christianity, a very novel set of notions for its time, came from what we would now call left field. Once people were convinced, even the Roman Empire was no match for the new way of thinking.

Professor Jenny Stewart is a visiting fellow in UNSW Canberra's school of business.


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