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Tuesday
May292012

Wish One Is ALWAYS for More Wishes

Last week I went to drinks celebrating the 5th birthday of the Centre for Policy Development, a think tank that sprang out of the policy development the New Matilda magazine was doing; you may remember I’ve written for NM now and again.
The CPD is run by Miriam Lyons, and at the birthday drinks I ended up with conversation with her parents. Lyons’ mother, a psychologist, asked me the following question:
“If you had three wishes to change the world to help the environment, but that change had to occur through political processes, what would those wishes be?”
I found the question fascinating, and pondered it for a minute or two. Think about your own answers for a while, if you like. (You know it’s a happening party when people stare into the middle distance rubbing their chins thoughtfully for a while.)
My first wish, I decided, was:
  1. Give the environment legal rights.
Once you treat the environment as a legal entity, and give it rights, any dealings with it then have to recognise those rights. Damage to the environment no longer becomes ‘free’, but instead requires restitution to someone (presumably the government) for infringing these rights. Okay, ‘the environment’ probably has de facto rights (via the government) in some sense already, and I don’t know exactly what my system of rights would look like, but this is magic genie wishing at a party, remember?
I was pretty happy with this answer, and for a while I couldn’t think of anything to do with my other two wishes. After a bit of needling from Lyons Senior, I decided that a framework for protecting the environment and some absolute standards probably wasn’t enough; I’m protecting the environment for the sake of people, so there should be a relationship to people in my plan. Therefore, my second wish was to:
  1.  Give every person the right to a minimum amount of environmental quality.
‘Environmental quality’ is obviously fairly fuzzy, but it would cover things like clean air, water, land, biodiversity, etc. There are thousands of indicators of environmental quality, so I’d let my genie loose on that. (Or some applied statistics majors, whatever.)
Having now established a framework of sorts and a mandated supply of environmental quality, my economist brain decided the final piece of the puzzle was obvious: create demand for environmental quality. How, though? Creating demand, especially ingrained demand, is tough – it’s often as much cultural as anything else, and creating or changing culture is a barrier I’ve never been able to surmount. In genie-party-land, however, I was able to get away with:
  1. Create an ingrained (cultural) demand for environmental quality, e.g. through education.
When it comes to affecting (or effecting) culture, I usually throw my hands up and look for a sociologist/psychologist/theologian/whatever to pass the question to; they invariably profess to not know the answer either – and I don’t know I’d believe them if they claimed they did! But educating people to value the environment, e.g. through bush walks or family outings, seems to be a fairly effective method. It was certainly a good topic of further conversation.
We asked the same question of another party guest, and the differences in our answers was fascinating: her first wish would be to “assassinate some people – clear the decks!” (Lest you get the wrong idea about the CPD, remember this was birthday drinks, and I don’t think she took the question quite as seriously as I did.)
I’ve forgotten her second wish, unfortunately, but her third was to take over a large stake in the media to promote her message: “buy Channel 9”, basically.
It’s intriguing how differently people approach the question; I think I’ll squirrel it away as a conversation starter. You have been warned.
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