Abstracts and examples

A selection of abstracts and quotations from the work of our members, exemplifying the variety of our approaches to eco-social sustainability, interdisciplinary and the Murray-Darling Basin.

Professor Bobby Banerjee, Group for Employment and Workplace Change/International Graduate School of Management, University of South Australia

'I argue that sustainable development, rather than representing a major theoretical breakthrough, is very much subsumed under the dominant economic paradigm. As with development, the meanings, practices and policies of sustainable development continue to be informed by colonial thought, resulting in the disempowerment of the majority of the world’s populations, especially rural populations in the Third World. Discourses of sustainable development are also based on a unitary system of knowledge and, despite its claims of accepting plurality, there is a danger of marginalizing or co-opting traditional knowledges to the detriment of communities who depend on the land for their survival.' (p 144)

'If discourses of sustainable development are to retain their radical and political edge, they "must ultimately be rooted in the relationship between specific human populations and specific ecosystems located in specific places” [from Gould 2000: 12]. Trans-nationalism and international institutions operating under neo-liberal economic regimes have little regard for specificities of place or the communities that inhabit them and cannot and will not generate sustainable local economies. Current development patterns (even those touted as ‘sustainable’) disrupt social system and ecosystem relations rather than ensuring that natural resource use by local communities meets their basic needs … What is needed is not a common future but the future as commons.' (p 174)

Source: 'Who sustains whose development? Sustainable development and the reinvention of nature.' Organization Studies, 24(2), 2003: 143–180.

Professor Jennifer MacKay, Water Law and Policy Group/School of International Business, University of South Australia

'Assuming that the environmental regulation selected is sound and enforced, how does the market assist in making choices between sustainability and social justice? The results suggest that the market creates many gaps, which need to be filled by education policies to help farmers adjust to the new water management regimes.'

'Marketisation is a relatively recent phenomenon in Australia but one hailed as yielding sustainable and socially just short term and long term solutions to irrigation water and urban water management issues. But the markets make very blunt choices between social justice and sustainability. For each positive social outcome there is a negative, and the same for environmental outcomes.'

'The market mechanisms in Australia need to be further evaluated from the sustainability and social justice perspective over a long period of time. Early results suggest community education needs to be incorporated into the market package and that the community must feel that the regulator will enforce the laws to promote fairness.' (p 146)

Source: 'Recent Australian water markets mechanisms as a component of an environmental policy that can make choices between sustainability and social justice' (with H Bjornlund) in Property: rights and responsibilities: current Australian thinking (Land and Water Australia, 2002).

Paul Sinclair, Australia Centre, University of Melbourne

'What is missing from many popular representations of the Murray’s degradation is an awareness of how the cultural and economic forces that justified the Murray’s transformation continue to influence management and popular attitudes. For example, at the same time as the salinity audit was predicting the final demise of the Murray, the South Australian town of Renmark constructed a tribute to its irrigation pioneers who had turned river "water into gold", and yet the salinity audit made it obvious that what the next generation of South Australians would lack was not gold but clean, drinkable water. A profound change in the way Australians think about the river and its history is necessary if we hope to preserve what remains of the old river, and imagine a healthier future for the regulated Murray.'

'There is a tendency to portray the Murray’s degradation as a recent phenomenon. It is forgotten that deliberate decisions have been made against the river for the last eighty years because the economic and social rewards procured from river regulation appeared limitless. Many serious-minded Australians … still refuse to critically examine the river’s past …Today the cultural and historical meanings associated with the river have been largely ignored in favour of applying reactive technical solutions to specific problems affecting water users.' (p 20)

Source: The Murray: a river and its people (Melbourne University Press, 2001).

Professor Graeme Hugo, Director of GISCA (National Centre for Social Applications of Geographical Information Systems), University of Adelaide

'Since environmental health involves the examination of how human health is influenced by the environment, and understanding of how the "people" side of the population-environment interface is changing is of considerable relevance. As the science which seeks to measure and explain changes in the size, characteristics and spatial distribution of human populations and identify the implications of those changes, demography is a source of data, methods, approaches and theories which can assist environmental health practitioners.' (p 1)

'This far there has been limited co-operation between demographers and environmental health researchers in the Australasian context. This partly has been the result of the strength of discipline barriers but it perhaps is also due to Australian … demography being predominantly concerned with national rather than local, community and regional population issues and problems. Moreover, it has paid little attention to the interactions of population variables with ‘contextual’, especially the environment, and to a lesser extent the socio-economic situation … Nevertheless, this situation is changing and the pace of this change is likely to accelerate over the next decade…' (p 14)

Source: 'Demography and environmental health', draft chapter 6 of Environmental health in Australia and New Zealand, forthcoming from Oxford University Press, published with permission of Adelaide University Library.

Peter Cullen, CRC for Freshwater Ecology, University of Canberra

'We have now learned that managing bits of a system is doomed to failure. While we talk about integrated or total catchment management this is commonly just a smoke screen to hide the lack of integration across States and between surface and groundwater. We have also learned that we need a language in which to hold discussions. Some agreed measure of river health is fundamental to having a useful discussion of sustainability and having informed trade-offs between environmental, economic and social objectives.'

'It seems to me bizarre that we try and manage the Murray-Darling system as a whole with organisations like the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. Yet we have no single computer model for flow, far less river health or even water quality. Years of water quality data have been collected but never interpreted or used. The MDBC models the main stem of the rivers, but needs to have States run models of the major tributaries to feed into the MDBC model. The States use different modelling approaches, and there are no common data sets. We do understand that rivers do not recognise State boundaries; it is a tragedy our management structures are so inappropriate.'

Source: 'Learning from the mistakes of the Murray', paper delivered at River Festival, Brisbane, 2–9 September.

Dr Deborah Bird-Rose, Centre for Resource and Environment Studies, Australian National University

'Open any newspaper or magazine on any day of the week in the year 2001 and you will find stories that discuss some aspect of global environmental crisis. It might be global warming, and the politics of greenhouse gas emissions. It might salinity, or blue green algae, water rights and catchment flows. It might be endangered species and biodiversity. It might be famine, warfare, guns for timber, and diseases that are resistant to antibiotics; it might be floods, frogs, butterflies and rainforests. The concept of crisis alerts us to the existence of major changes which are running out of control. Most scholars assert that the driving forces in out of control processes are primarily social and cultural, although environmental processes have their own internal dynamics that can turn into runaway systems. Major ecological change, much of it in crisis, is situated across the nature/culture divide. Our academic division between arts and sciences compounds the problems of that divide, inhibiting the work we need to be doing to address crisis. It would be nice if this were the full extent of the problem, but it is not. In the twentieth century a radical break occurred within the west’s understanding of the world. The repercussions of that break are very much with us, and we are in the uneasy position of living with several conflicting worldviews, none of which fully meshes with, and gives guidance for how to live in, the world as we are now learning to understand it.'

Source: 'Connecting with ecological futures' in Proceedings of the National Humanities and Social Sciences Summit 2001.

Dr Geoff Syme, CSIRO Land and Water/CSIRO Social and Economic Integration

'Water reform in Australia has meant increased concentration on managing water in a sustainable manner and with increased economic efficiency. Achievement of these goals is meant to occur within ill-defined "social constraints". So far, the most visible results of reform have been the introduction of environmental flows in river systems to promote environmental health and market mechanisms to promote use of water for higher value purposes. The least defined and understood changes have occurred within the social context. What exactly are the "social constraints" against which the desirability of change can be evaluated?' 

'To improve decision making, we contend that the concepts of procedural and distributive justice need to be included in an overall fairness evaluation. In this way the potential social impacts can be understood, inadvertent "scape-goating" avoided, and community support for reforms maintained and enhanced. Case studies are presented which demonstrate that communities can confidently make fairness judgments and apply them to water allocation policies and the public involvement programs, which underpin them. These judgments combine the procedural justice associated with public involvement programs and the distributive concerns from water reallocation. The major issues associated with the implementation of this fairness methodology are described and discussed.'

'It is concluded that the current tendency to put these issues into the "too hard" basket may be a major contributor to confused and conflict-ridden decision making in this area.'

Source: 'Public involvement and justice in water allocation: some social psychological approaches' (with B. Nancarrow).

Professor Margaret Alston (with Professor Chris Cocklin), Centre for Rural Social Research, Charles Sturt University

'[S]ervices in rural communities often play a part that extends well beyond the commercial or social functions they are designed to provide. They are a source of both employment and of skills, valued within the community … The loss of services, then, often means the loss of much more to a community than simply the loss of banking or schooling.' 

'Services are a significant element of community vitality and prosperity, but other factors may exacerbate or ameliorate a diminution in service provision. For example, the existence of other forms of social organisation and community identity may reduce the impact of loss of services. To understand more clearly the impact of community resilience, we need to examine in detail examples of both vulnerable communities and communities which appear to be thriving in order to “ascertain if their successes are related to chance and good luck or to strategic development and good fortune…” (from Baum et al. 1999: 136).'

'In Australia, a small number of individual researchers and research teams have … begun to address these issues.  However, research on the sustainability of rural towns and regions has tended to play second fiddle to examinations of environmental sustainability or the viability of the agricultural sector.'

'A recent overview of priorities for rural social research (Black et al. 2000) identified a need for studies of economic and social change in rural and regional Australia, including small country towns, and social equity, social indicators and the sustainability of rural communities.' (p 2)

Source: M Alston and C Cocklin, eds, Community sustainability in rural Australia: a question of capital (Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, 2002).

Areas of study and research

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