Opinion

Economic Vision or Environmental Oversight?

‘A tractor is plowing very dry and dusty farm land in a drought’ by Johan Larson. Sourced via Shutterstock, stock photo ID: 200056787.

On 30 July the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet released A 20-Year Economic Vision for Regional NSW.1  For someone interested in intergenerational and environmental justice this peeks interest. Governments, in general, are not good at planning or at offering visions for the long-term. So even though 20-years is not really long term, I approached this document with hope.

My hope and interest were raised again when the report’s focus turns to the ‘global forces’ or what the report labels ‘megatrends’ that will shape regional economies over the near future. The introduction states that the ‘megatrends’ “represent major shifts in environmental, social and economic conditions that change the way people live.”2

But my hopes are dashed. The mega-trends identified are the rise of Asia; rapid urbanisation; demographic and social change; and digital disruption. Not to diminish them, these are indeed important trends, and each will affect people’s lives, livelihoods and economic well-being throughout the regions of NSW, but they are not all there is.

As the report notes, “[w]hile megatrends are often big-picture changes occurring overseas, they influence us too.”3 The report takes a serious look at how to prepare to respond to these changes, at the opportunities and threats to the Regions and the adaptations required to protect their sustainable economic development.

What the report does not do is examine the existential mega-trend. The quotes above imply an understanding that social and economic systems and conditions rely on stable environmental conditions. And in many ways, the fact that the environment is otherwise unmentioned in the report (other than in the context of investigating the management of Crown land on p.34) points to its overlapping and dominant position as a mega-issue.

Environmental conditions are changing. Habitats for both native and imported species are lost and altered. Major and destructive fire events are occurring more often and over an extended season on past norms. Flood and wild weather events are more frequent and in new areas. Soils are compacted, and topsoils are eroding. Droughts – and NSW is currently gripped by a record-breaking drought concurrent with this report’s release – are an ever-present threat to regional wellbeing – human, animal, plant, social and economic wellbeing. Coastal properties exposed to dune erosion and storm surge threats. Heat waves are longer and more intense.

None of these issues are mentioned in the report. The closest perhaps are a couple of references to needed to ensure safe and secure water supply to ‘engine industries.’4

The report fails entirely to acknowledge that the ‘environment’ is changing. It is if you like a mega-megatrend or supra-megatrend. Climate particularly is changing rapidly, globally. It is a change like the others over which Australia has little control – but to which it must adapt. For which it must prepare.

And it seems reasonable to say that people in the regions, especially those in agribusiness and forestry identified as an ‘engine industry’ – that is one that is pivotal for driving growth – are highly exposed to environmental changes and threats.

This is not an ‘ideological’ issue. It is a lived, felt, experienced and well-documented fact. The climate is changing. Soils are eroding and compacting. Habitat loss is occurring. Growing seasons are changing.

So at a time when 100% of NSW is officially experiencing drought, when the BOMA identify temperatures are the highest for all recorded droughts,5 climate and other natural phenomena that have the power to disrupt business throughout the region goes unmentioned.

It seems extraordinary in a report that is focussed on global megatrends that are impacting, and that will shape regional NSW over the next 20 years, adaptation strategies to climatic changes and other environmental challenges go unexamined. There seems to be what American philosopher Charles Mills calls ‘epistemological ignorance’6 at work here. A deliberate determination to ignore and write out the narrative circumstances that are critical to all other elements of success.

There are two ‘silent constituents’ the government fails in this report and their omission constitutes an injustice. The first is the new-born and future generations. The second, as you have probably guessed, the environment or nature. And by failing to address the entanglement of human and nonhuman in this report, the government privileges the present over the future. It enables, as Steve Gardiner refers to it, the ‘profligate generation’7 to reap benefits without considering the burdens they place on future generations or the environment. And this is a matter of injustice.

Maybe I’ve jumped the gun. Perhaps what I don’t know is that the government has a Dealing with Supra-Megatrends document detailing their near and long-term environmental strategic visions in the pipeline. Let’s hope so because, without it, the assumptions within this document are likely to be washed away by the changing tides of fortune dictated not by government but by their no longer ‘silent’ super-constituent; nature.

References

1. NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet. (2018). A 20-Year Economic Vision for Regional NSW. Access here.
2. Ibid., p.14.
3. Ibid.
4. See pages 18, 22, & 31.
5. See, for example, Mackenzie, M. (2018). Whatever the Weather: inside the Bureau of Meteorology on Life Matters. Life Matters [radio programme]. Access here.
6. Mills, Charles. (1997). The Racial Contract. Cornell University Press.
7. Gardiner, Stephen. (2011). The Perfect Moral Storm. Oxford University Press.


Dr Christine Winter is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Government and International Relations and former SEI PhD Candidate. Christine’s PhD research critiqued claims that existing Western justice theories are universal, and sought to decolonise intergenerational environmental justice theory by examining some Aboriginal and Māori philosophies.