Thursday, March 29, 2012

World Views and Sustainable Development

The National Planning Policy Framework document is a great piece of political compromise at the heart of which is the term ‘sustainable development’, a term of great creative ambiguity – it means whatever you want it to. The interpretation you put onto the term partly depends on your world view, specifically what you think of the environment and how fragile or robust it is.






In the figure the bottom right hand corner represents individuals who think the environment is very fragile, maybe even in a delicate balance which we humans can easily upset to produce catastrophic and irreversible changes. Move to the top right corner and this represents individuals who think the environment is fragile but not so fragile that we can not change things a bit, within acceptable limits. Once these limits are exceeded then problems will occur but as long as we work within these limits there should be no problem. Move to the bottom left and you have individuals who believe that the environment is pretty robust, it tends to survive whatever we do to it, so if there are limits they are quite a long, long, long way off. Whilst the top left represents individuals who just go with the flow accepting it doesn’t really matter what they think they can not do anything about the environment anyway.

A simple caricature I know but does this get at the nub of the problem with the term ‘sustainable development’ . Each world view can make sense of the phrase in its own terms. An individualist can view the environment as being able to cope with a lot of change and so can focus on the ‘development’ part of the phrase, whilst an egalitarian will focus on the ‘sustainable’ part of the phrase as they are concerned with not disrupting the balance of the environment. A local authority might view itself as hierarchist, ensuring that change happens but within well defined and scientific proven limits.

Problem is do we know what the limits are? The original definition of ‘sustainable development’ in the Brundtland Commission report in 1987 recognised that there were limits to sustainable development but these limits were not fixed.

‘The concept of sustainable development does imply limits – not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organisation on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities’. (World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, page 8, 1987).

According to the figure some people will be concerned to find these limits, others will assume that the limits are so far away it doesn’t affect them and what they do. Partly your attitude or world view will depend on how you see yourself in society. The vertical axis is labelled ‘Grid’, this is concerned with how far you see your choices defined by society. Very individualistic individuals will see themselves as completely unconstrained and so able to do whatever they like. Following the rules and procedures to the letter puts you high up on the axis. The horizontal axis is labelled ‘Group’, this refers to the level of cohesion or solidarity there is amongst a group. Low group cohesion will tend to produce individuals who act for themselves, whilst high group cohesion will produce individuals with a sense of responsible to the group. Where would you place all the potential stakeholders involved in using and implementing the National Planning Policy Framework? Where would you put yourself? Do you think that affects how you understand ‘sustainable development’?

Schwarz and Thompson (1990) discuss the above type of figure in relation to environmental issues (amongst other things) in Divided We Stand: Redefining Politics, Technology and Social Class (1990)



Whilst Mary Douglas originally developed these figures in her analysis of cultural theory.



The Brundtland Commission reported in 'Our Common Future' in 1987







Sustaining Vagueness: Planning and Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development is the central pillar of the new National Planning Policy Framework. Judging from the positive various commentaries from business leaders, planners, conservation organisations and just about anyone else asked on recent news programmes, everyone is happy with this focus. Groups normally at loggerheads with each other seem content that the new document suits their purposes. How can this be?
The document itself does not really help much in explaining this strange contentment. The Ministerial foreword states that ‘Sustainable means ensuring that better lives for ourselves don’t mean worse lives for future generations’, whilst ‘Development means growth’ and ‘Sustainable development is about change for the better…’ Any clearer now about what the term means?
On page two the five guiding principles of sustainable development found within the UK Sustainable Development Strategy Securing the Future are reiterated. They are ‘living within the planet’s environmental limits; ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; achieving a sustainable economy; promoting good governance; and using sound science responsibly’. Any clearer now?

Paragraph 7 on the same page states that there are three dimensions to sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. The economic role focuses on building a strong, responsive and competitive economy which will ensure that land of the right type in the right places if available at the right time to support growth and innovation. The social role is to support strong, vibrant and healthy communities by providing housing to support the needs of the current and future generations. Is it a bit clearer now – is that what you thought sustainable development meant?
I will look at the planning document in more detail in another blog but one of the key problems and the reason why everyone seems so happy is that the term ‘sustainable development’ is so vague and flexible that everyone reads into the term what they want to. An excellent article by Robert Kates, Thomas Parris and Anthony Leiserowitz (2005) discusses this problem in detail. Since the initial brief definition by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, the term sustainable development has become hijacked, interpreted, reinterpreted and so imprecise that anyone or any group dealing with the environment can shape the term to mean whatever they hope it means. The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as: ‘ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

This definition has what Kates et al. call a ‘creative ambiguity’, a great term for vagueness. Kates et al., identify that there are three distinct things that can be developed within the term; people, economy and society. Each has a different time scale associated with its development and each places a different emphasis, depending on who is talking, on the ‘sustainable’ part or ’development’ part of 'sustianbel development'.

Kates et al. also suggest that ‘sustainable development’ can be defined in terms of what each group seeks to achieve. There are goals – what we seek to achieve. There are indicators – what we use to measure the achievement of these goals. There are the values that underlie these goals and then there is what we actually do, the practice of sustainable development. I may be na├»ve but my guess is that business groups and environmental organisations may share the term ‘sustainable development’ but the goals and values that drive them are different as are the indicators they would use to assess the success of sustainable development. The use of such a creatively ambiguous term as ‘sustainable development’ may be politically useful to achieve consensus but will become a minefield for implementation.


Some useful texts on sustianble development are below:




The origin of the term can be found in the Brundtland Commission report 'Our Common Future':




Friday, March 16, 2012

Beijing Atmospheric Pollution now online

On 23rd January the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre began to release atmospheric pollution data online (see this site but a knowledge of Chinese helps in navigating and understanding the data http://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=zh-CN&u=http://zx.bjmemc.com.cn/&ei=EBVjT5LAIKXS0QWE-JT1AQ&sa=X&oi=translate&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CH4Q7gEwBA&prev=/search%3Fq%3DBeijing%2BMunicipal%2BEnvironmental%2BMonitoring%2BCenter%26hl%3Den%26biw%3D1707%26bih%3D1121%26prmd%3Dimvns ).





The hourly data had previously only been available for laboratory use (http://www.china.org.cn/environment/2012-01/06/content_24337033.htm) but the release of the data seems to be a response to public concern over air quality and the mismatch between government statistics and public perception of air quality. Some of this perception may have resulted from the release of atmospheric pollution data by the US Embassy from a rooftop monitoring station(http://ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2012/01/22/political-pollution-how-bad-air-equals-social-unrest-in-china/ for report and http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/07/world/asia/beijing-journal-anger-grows-over-air-pollution-in-china.html?_r=1 for a discussion of the halting of the tweets in July 2009 and http://twitter.com/#!/beijingair for the tweet). The mismatch between official announcements about good quality air and the tweet caused some friction between officials and the embassy.



So what are we to make of the release of this data? Firstly, it is handy to know Chinese to interpret the site but then again the site is not aimed at an English speaking foreigner but at the Chinese inhabitants of Beijing so this is a fairly lame criticism. Secondly, the data release may be a political decision but at least the data is out there and can now be assessed by the public and by other scientists around the world working on air pollution – surely a good thing in its own right. Thirdly, should the data be questioned? The US embassy site seems to have taken on the role of arbitrator in assessing the data quality (at least in Western press releases). The US embassy is just one site with monitoring equipment at a specific height (not necessarily standardized to the height of the Chinese monitoring stations) so any spatial variation in air quality would not be picked up by data from one site. Even asking the question about data reliability is political. It suggests that the Chinese data will somehow be affected by the political powers that be (as if the US act of monitoring pollution isn’t political as well?!) Details of where the monitoring sites are located, the accuracy and standardization of the monitoring equipment, etc are reasonable scientific questions to ask both of Chinese pollution data and the pollution data of any monitoring network wherever it is. Such questioning ensures comparability of datasets. By releasing the data the Chinese scientists and authorities are putting themselves within this scientific debate. Criticising a dataset does not mean the data set is wrong; questioning and clarification and refinement to ensure compatibility is merely part of the scientific process.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Haddon Matrix: Getting The Message Across

The Haddon Matrix is a tried and trusted tool for thinking about managing risk, particularly in public health. The basic matrix contains 3 key elements: the host, the agent (or vehicle) and the environment (subdivided into physical and social). These form the columns of the matrix. The rows refer to pre-event, the event and post-event activities.

HOST

AGENT

ENVIRONMENT

PRE-EVENT

EVENT

POST-EVENT

In a previous post I illustrated this with a road traffic accident example as below.

This is useful but does it get across two important aspect when trying to manage risk: which of the cells in the matrix is the most significant AND which of the cells is it most effective to try to influence?
Not all the cells and their contents affect the risks of a hazard equally. From public health take the example of smoking - it could be argued that the social and cultural norms that an individual grows up in have a huge impact on their propensity to smoke. The host or individual smokes but what chance did they have given their environment. In other words the environment cells, particularly pre-event (the event being the cancer caused by smoking) has a massive impact on the risk. Likewise, survival of the event depends greatly on the level of health care available including catching the cancer early on, so both the event and post-event are greatly influenced by the environment. Visually the Haddon Matrix might look as below.

HOST

AGENT

ENVIRONMENT

PRE-EVENT

EVENT

POST-EVENT


This alteration of cell size to match the perceived level of influence of host, agent and environment can help to get across the message as to which of the three is most important.
A second aspect, however, is which of the different elements to try to influence. It could be argued that changing a social or cultural environment is a long-term and difficult process but the one that has the greatest imapct on smoking levels. Effectiveness cna be defined in many ways and it maybe that in the short term targeting the host to change their behaviour is much easier (and cheaper) to produce and places responsibility firmly in the lap of the person smoking. As well as being cheap for health authorities and potentially politically more palatable as it highlights individual responsibility (depending on your political persuasion) altering cells sizes to reflect this, as below, does highlight to the individual that they do have potential control over their fate (whether this is an illusion or not is another question).

HOST

AGENT

ENVIRONMENT

PRE-EVENT

EVENT

POST-EVENT


So for risk analysis and management maybe it is worthwhile changing the sizes of the cells when discussing both degree of influence and effectiveness of potential actions however this is defined. This may help in targeting resources effectively for the ends in mind.









Going Places With Geography!

Following on from thinking about what you can do with Geography there are a couple of very useful videos produced by the RGS (Royal Geographical Society) available on Youtube that are a little old now (4 years and counting) but are still very worthwhile looking at.

They are 'Going Places With Geography Part 1' and, the unsurpirsingly named 'Going Places With Geography Part 2'!


These videos are good, general introductions to the possiblities that geography opens up for graduates as well as illustrating the use of the 'transferable skills' the subject can provide. A quick thought on 'transferable skills' as well - lots of subjects provide a great deal of the generic transferable skills that you hear about such as the abiltiy to write for different audiences, numeracy, data analysis and presentation skills. Mentioning that the subject provides them is fine but what evidence do you have that you ahve acquired them? How do you show someone, an employer maybe, that you have acquired these skills? View the videos in this light - do those involved show these transferable skills? Do they focus on general skills or do they show these transferable skills through their discussion of subject specific skills? Maybe the confidence you get from studying a subject you enjoy and understand helps you to demonstrate 'transferable skills'. Skills without this sort of context maybe difficult to demonstrate.