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Have the environmental scientists got it right this time?

By Tony Gleeson - posted Saturday, 1 March 2003

In early November a group of environmental scientists, the Wentworth Group, released a Blueprint for a Living Continent. The blueprint received extensive media coverage and consideration at the highest levels of government. What weight should be given to the Blueprint? Have the scientists got it right? Where is the debate?

Sensibly, the Wentworth Group is building on the back of the drought-induced public awareness of the state of our environment. However, the Blueprint needs to be critically reviewed. It should be the beginning of a public debate, not the end of it.

Scientific reductionism is alive and well

The Wentworth scientists, like moths to a light, promote a fatal reductionism. They advocate a water policy isolated from considerations of the economic, social, spiritual and biophysical realities of our ecosystems. The lessons of history - even our recent history - are forgotten, not learned. We struggle with the narrowly conceived national program on salinity. We forget the lack of impact of the equally narrowly conceived tree programs of the 1980s. Most astoundingly, we forget that we are now wrestling with the aftermath of the father of all reductionist programs, the Snowy scheme.


Surely the lesson is that there are grave risks in dealing in isolation with one part of the ecosystem. There is no recovery from such a reductionist position. The total ecological jigsaw is greater than the sum of the bits. Once the elements become packaged separately - into their own administrative and policy boxes as is proposed - wild horses will not pull them back together.

Property rights

The Wentworth Group puts its considerable weight behind the runaway train that is the alleged need to better define property rights. Although the Group sensibly defines the water right in terms of it being "a right to use a proportion of available water for a finite time" just how this removes the uncertainty allegedly limiting investment, development and environmental flows is far from clear. And in any event, has the certainty of land rights prevented land degradation? Quite the contrary one might attest.

The reality is that water rights are vested in the State. What we are looking at here is a claim on public resources reminiscent of the squatter claims on land. We need to examine the basis for these claims and what might be the national benefit from meeting those claims. As the Group says, there is only one cake and for every allocated litre there is one litre not available for an alternative allocation.

In a novel yet bizarre twist, the Group suggests that uncertainty about water property rights flows through to uncertainty about the obligations associated with water use. One might have thought that the water user plagued by any such uncertainty might take surety from a clearly regulated need not to pollute.

Market mechanisms

For over two centuries Australian agriculture has operated within institutional arrangements that have defined land rights and enabled market-based transfer of those rights. Over the same period we have extensively degraded our land resource. However, this has not deterred the Wentworth Group and others from the notion that applying similar arrangements to water will markedly improve the environmental impact of how we use water.

The Group acknowledges the self-interest of large water businesses ("the history of water development in Australia is a history of articulate interest groups seeking to have water used for their advantage") yet it promotes the establishment of a market mechanism to give expression to those interests.


Curiously, the Group advocates that "from 2006, water trading could be limited to those with water".

The point to be made here is that although the market can be a useful tool to give expression to the values of a community, the market does not establish those values.

Furthermore, there are values that lie beyond commodification, beyond the ability of markets to sensibly price resources for exchange. Environmental flows fall into this category, as do many landscape attributes.

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About the Author

Tony Gleeson is a contract researcher and farmer with extensive experience in rural policy and research.

Related Links
Environmental Evaluation in Europe - papers and briefs
Synapse Consulting
The Wentworth Group's Blueprint for a Living Continent
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