Poser for the new right, Geoffrey Bertram

Ethics and Ecosystems: Protecting Human Interests and Environmental Values
Barry Maley
Centre for Independent Studies, Australia, $18.95,
ISBN 186432 0028

Reconciling Trade and the Environment: Issues for New Zealand
Grant Hewison
Institute of Policy Studies, $22.00
ISBN 0908935 994

Environment: The International Challenge
Sir Geoffrey Palmer
Victoria University Press, $29.95
ISBN 086473 2627

Spare a thought for the new right. With the ruins of the welfare state and the New Zealand working class smouldering in their wake, followers of Hayek and Friedman were just turning their gaze to a future without government intervention when up popped the prospect of a global environmental crisis. Enter a replacement alibi for governmental regulation to restrict individual liberty and extend the role of the state into new fields. Even worse, the new case for intervention rests not on wet old notions such as equity and fairness but on the bone‑dry basis that market failure has caused inefficient resource allocation.

This environmental ambush has triggered a fluid new politics of position and manoeuvre and an accompanying need for ammunition. In very different ways these three new pamphlets try to supply the ammunition needs of various protagonists. The inadequacies of all three reveal starkly the problems of a political class caught in the open.

Maley’s book sketches the neoliberal right’s battle plan. The right instinctively feels that the whole environmental issue is a conspiracy by the dark forces of statism. Its first line of defence has been to deny the existence of any serious large‑scale environmental problems, while mounting a witch‑hunt for those responsible for perpetrating such a gigantic scientific fraud on humanity. This position has already been overrun by a human wave of professional sdentists heavily armed with evidence, closely followed by the massed bureaucracies of numerous national and international agencies. But Maley loyally sacrifices his credibility (and that of his sponsor, the Australian Centre for Independent Studies) in a last‑ditch stand before falling back on to more secure ground.

The cold war lives on in these parts of Maley’s monograph. Western values and material progress are under threat from an insidious new foe, the “deep greens”, for whom whipping up public concern about non‑existent environmental problems is merely the means to the wider end of imposing command‑and‑control politics. The christian religion has been captured and its theology distorted to place creation (nature), rather than humankind, at the centre of moral debate. International treaties such as the Rio Convention entered into by Australia are a means of aggrandising the ever‑growing power of Canberra at the expense of the states and individual liberties.

Are there, then, no environmental externalities at all? Maley moves quickly to protect his flanks by recognising the importance of local issues such as point‑source pollution and preservation of natural beauty spots. But to deal with such problems, all that we need are a free market and individual liberty, with appropriate property rights and incentives in place to nudge individuals into valuing and maintaining a dean environment.

Wider externalities, alas, are not so amenable to the Coase theorem. Maley simply dismisses them. Global warming due to greenhouse gases is not happening, so nothing needs to be done about it. The ozone hole, if indeed there is one, is not due to CFCS, so the cost of phasing out those chemicals is just a deadweight loss imposed on humanity for no good purpose (other than the self‑aggrandisement of the command‑and‑control fraternity). Species extinction is not an issue and the only required action in the Australian context is a campaign to exterminate feral cats and foxes. Whales merit mention only to note their “charismatic” qualities, which make them easy to exploit in media campaigns, the true purpose of which is to undermine mainstream western values. And so on.

Science poses a problem for this view that there are no large‑scale environmental externalities, only local problems with foxes and global problems with environmentalists. Maley breathlessly parrots the rhetoric of scientific objectivity: ‘scientific accuracy about the facts … is of the first importance … Ultimately, it is the continuing integrity of this ethic and the dispassionate enquiry it supports upon which we must depend”. Alas, neither the integrity of the ethic nor the notion of dispassionate enquiry survive long in Maley’s hands. His discussion of the greenhouse effect is taken secondhand from publications of the Heritage Foundation, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the George C Marshall Institute. The massively responsible and cautious Intergovemmental Panel on Climate Change, which has spent the past decade embodying the scientific ethic in its quest for some consensus on the evidence, is missing from Maley’s bibliography, is referred to only sidelong in his text (with the name wrong) and is there dismissed as ‘hardly a model of responsibility”. (p57)

Maley, in short, comes across as a credulous illiterate in matters of environmental science.

But this ground is expendable for the right, provided it can ultimately capture the design of environmental policy and shape it in their image. That project requires opponents to be engaged and if possible disarmed in high‑level philosophical debate. Here Maley is more in his element. His discussion of ethical approaches to nature is relatively literate and sure‑footed. He has indeed read some philosophers and is able to deploy strong arguments in favour of a human‑centred definition of ethics and moral judgement and against absolutist claims that animals and plants enjoy moral standing on their own account. The main target of his attack is animal‑rights groups but a wide range of other opponents, from creation theology to standing‑for‑trees advocates, are in Maley’s sights and he lands a number of telling blows.

An important part of Maley’s case is his claim that ‘the only possible moral orders are those emerging from human communities and human rationality”. Of these two, Maley puts the emphasis squarely on communities. ‑To speak of an actual morality or system of ethics is to refer simultaneously to the community in which that morality, that set of moral values, is acted out [A] certain level of mental capacity and rationality exercised by a deliberating participant within a moral order or community are the essential conditions of moral performance and minds so capable and so located are the only locus of moral action”.

This communitarian underpinning for his ethical arguments works powerfully in Maley’s favourin his case against according absolute moral standing to animals. It also gives a colour to his ethical position which differentiates him significantly from more rigorously individualistic followers of Hayek. Once the moral authority of the community has been conceded, one must accept as legitimate the adoption by a community, as a convention, of a rule such as ‘treat nature as though it has a right to exist”. One can deny, on Maley’s grounds, the truth of this rule in any absolute sense, while still recognising its utility as a guiding principle for conduct, albeit qualified by the need to balance it against other principles.

The book thus presents an intriguing tension between communitarianism and individualism in its strongest philosophical sections, while sinking beyond redemption in its engagement with modern environmental science. Its real contribution is to stake out clear philosophical ground against deep ecology, of which more below.

Grant Hewison’s book, written for the Wellington‑based Institute of Policy Studies, is on a different plane altogether. issues of grand morality are barely glimpsed in this relentlessly ‘balanced” and non‑controversial pedestrian tour through the New Zealand policy landscape. Hewison, Gary Hawke’s preface informs the reader, “has written this paper exactly as the institute wanted”. The reader learns as a result more about the institute’s approach to spin‑doctoring than about the issues at stake. Political action here is motivated purely by realpolitik: if New Zealand wants to sell its products as “clean and green” it must either placate or neutralise all agencies which might otherwise blow the whistle.

Hewison’s brief was evidently to produce a politically correct base document. No possible issue or potential stakeholder should be left unmentioned and none should be criticised directly. ‘On the other hand” (Hewison’s favourite phrase) none should be left uncontested; so each opinion or claim from one point of the political compass is instantly counterbalanced by a judiciously‑selected counter‑claim, if possible from a named interest group, but if necessary from that useful anonymous source of competing claims, “some” who ‘have suggested…” The aim is to show that policy goals such as trade promotion and environmental protection may conflict, leading to the need for striking balances and making tradeoffs, for which a process is needed, into which all shades of possible opinion and vested interest can be fed and from which a consensus position can be extracted at the end of the day, after necessary research and consultation have been completed.

Clearly, one should not be too cynical about this sort of work, since in the real world this is how policy compromises are actually hammered out. Having said this, there is nothing to get excited about in Hewison’s book, unless you belong to some stakeholder group that has inadvertently failed to receive its obligatory one‑line mention somewhere on the way through.

Hewison’s conclusion is in keeping. “There is an immediate need for a more formal governmental working group on trade and the environment…. To support the formulation of trade and environment policy guidelines, a research fa~ should also be established supported and directed again by all interested parties. It is vital that work be initiated on developing a process for arriving at common positions.”

So there it is. A talk‑shop, a think‑tank and a large amount of talking and thinking are recommended. The 66 pages which precede this conclusion belong to the well-established Wellington genre of agenda‑setting, inclusive consultation and general positioning that precede the startup of a new piece of policymaking machinery. Watch this space.

After a preliminary diet of Maley and Hewison, one turns with anticipation to Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s new book. Palmer has a sense of missionary purpose on global environmental issues, coupled with a willingness and ability to apply some serious intellectual effort.

The book, however, is ragged and disorganised despite the legal and intellectual pyrotechnics. Once the chronology of the writing is taken into account, one can reconstruct Palmer’s discourse as a five‑year cry of impatient frustration from an activist lawyer‑politician who sought to lead his country and the world boldly into new ways of acting on environmental issues but then found himself out on his own, rather than leading a consensual charge. The book is the sound of a voice crying in the wilderness.

Rational reconstruction requires us to begin at the back of Palmer’s book with two chapters which otherwise seem quite out of place. One is a 1992 retrospective look at the passage of the Resource Management Act. The other is a 1991 interview in which Palmer called for new United Nations environmental agendes and a radical strengthening of the International Court of Justice.

Here we meet Palmer the recently‑ousted Prime Minister and Minister for the Enviromnent, committed to the 1987 Brundtland Commission’s vision of sustainable development and persuaded of the need for urgent action to save the global environment. As Environment ~ster he had rammed through a complete rewriting of New Zealand’s resource management law to enshrine Brundtland’s principle of sustainable development; then watched from the sidelines as Planning Tribunal judges refused to share his vision of activist lawmaking and litigation failed to reach the Court of Appeal (a body which Palmer approvingly describes as ‘capable of dealing effectively with the challenge of crafting broad principle into workable judicial tests”). His frustration boils over at the end of the piece: “In hindsight I regret that Parliament did not abolish the Planning Tribunal… The need to change the judicial culture was overlooked.”

As Prime Minister similarly, Palmer had gone to the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 fired with the sustainable development vision. His speech urged formation of a new Environmental Protection Council as a United Nations organ set up by amending the charter, with power to act as an international legislature on global environmental issues, with enforcement available and with procedures modelled on the international Labour Organisation.

The 1989 Hague declaration on climate change he saw as a major step forward in its support for a new institutional authority which would have power to make binding decisions without unanimous agreement and increased powers for the International Court of Justice to discipline erring nations. Against the benchmark of Palmer’s expectations based on that experience, the 1992 Rio Conference failed miserably. No new “hard law” or United Nations organ emerged, tough issues were ducked, the test of political leadership was failed. The central three chapters of the book are an impatient, hostile and repetitive constitutional postmortem on Rio.

The opening chapter now falls into place. Here are two Geoffrey Palmers struggling with each other. One is the activist lawyer and would‑be leader who had confidently declared (p189): “Policymakers have to look at the evidence and make up their own minds. 1 have looked at it. 1 know what I think. We have to act to stop climate change. ” (One cannot resist the thought: how different the world might be now had Geoffrey Palmer, rather than George Bush, been President of the United States in 1992!)

The other Palmer is the academic lawyer and advocate who realises, late in the day, that his case has failed to sway the jury. Palmer’s reaction is to turn up the volume rather than plug the holes. A familiar array of evidence of potential environmental catastrophe is paraded, but with repeated apologetic concessions: “in some ways the emerging realisation has no solid intellectual base”; “the facts speak differently to different analysts”; “there are difficulties with this analysis”. Token pages are devoted to eco‑feminism, deep ecology, indigenous peoples, social ecology, the Coase theorem, moral pluralism.

But finally Palmer comes face to face with his nemesis on pp41‑2: “There resides in the concept of sustainable development the possibility of an oxymoron. We can have sustainability or we can have development. It is not clear whether we can have both. There is an inevitable tension between the two ideas which is not resolved by yoking them together… It is far from dear that the idea as it is developed in the Rio Declaration could be translated into any meaningful, positive law. It just does not have enough detail and specificity to provide a clear basis from which to draw practical, workable legal rules.”

That admission casts a long shadow back over the Resource Management Act, the 1989 General Assembly debate and the 1989 Hague Declaration. It figures in Pahner’s attempt to explain the failure at Rio to resolve tough issues of global governance or establish enforceable mechanisms of compliance with international environmental codes. And it (almost) draws Palmer out into Maley’s direct line of fire on the fundamentals of environmental ethics.

The attraction of the slogan of “sustainable development” has been its promise that an anthropocentric approach to environmental ethics is unproblematic so long as the win‑win promises work out, in which case cost‑benefit analysis is an easy one‑way street. If instead there are hard trade‑offs to be made, then the judgment calls are tougher and the ethical basis on which they are to be made becomes crucial. Deep ecology offers a siren song for those who wish to see early action on environmental problems, because it portrays protection of nature as an ethical imperative rather than a calculated choice for humanity.

High moral philosophy, therefore, is ground which has to be worked over carefully, honestly and critically. Palmer’s flirtation with deep ecology and with the proponents of an enlarged moral community that would include animals and plants is too casual to be satisfactory. At only one point, right at the beginning of the book, does Palmer get the central issue into focus and indicate how a robust response to Maley might be framed. “An anthropocentric approach and an ecocentric approach”, he bellows cheerfully, “are two ways of defining a continuum between which most points of environmental policy fall. They tug in opposite directions, an anthropocentric approach dictating human utility as the only touchstone, an ecocentric approach emphasizing the inexorable laws of nature which humans will ignore at their peril.” Thus armed with the iron laws of physics and biology, what need has nature of moral standing?


Geoffrey Bertram teaches economics at Victoria University of Wellington. He has had a longstanding research interest in environmental issues.

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