Monthly Archives: May 2004

2 – Sustainability

“Sustainability” is not a word I like. Of course the general sentiment that lies behind the word is very much a good thing, but word itself is very much a confusing thing. Given the topics I am interested in and the circles I mix in, I hear it constantly.

In practice the word is sometimes used in either a very narrow ecological sense (in which use it may have some relevance to policy or management, but is too narrow to use as a decision criterion) but usually in an incredibly broad, catch-all sense, sometimes meaning nothing more specific than “good”, and sometimes the very slightly more specific “good in the long term”.

It is quite amazing the outcomes or objectives that people try to bundle under the banner of “sustainability”. Most recently I read a research paper in which some people were arguing that animal welfare is an important component of sustainability. Now, I think animal welfare is very important – it certainly qualifies as something “good” – but I have to work pretty hard to construct a thought process where it seems meaningfully linked to the idea of sustaining something. Perhaps it could be, but even so, that is not the reason we should be concerned about it. We should be concerned about it because cruelty to animals is bad. Whether it is unsustainable is largely irrelevant.

Another paper I read on “sustainable agriculture” a while back included the following as components of sustainability: “Revitalize rural areas”, “Decrease complexity of food processing and distribution system”, and “Improve the health and well-being of rural people”. Quite bizarre, but not particularly unusual if you read much of the massive literature on sustainability.

Of course these components and numerous others are relevant topics for public debate and government policy, but we should see them as related to other social objectives, such as social welfare, rather than sustainability. I guess it is because “sustainability” has such a momentum as a policy objective that people hope they can advance other things they care about by embedding them within the “sustainability” concept, Trojan Horse style. That might be a canny political strategy (though I doubt it) but it does not reflect clear or rigorous thinking about the concept. It just muddies the waters.

Some critics of the term have argued that its use is thoroughly bad, and should be stopped entirely. Wilfred Beckerman of Oxford University, certainly a clear and rigorous thinker (and a straight talker), offers the following assessment of the woolly thinking behind sustainable development.

“The concept of ‘sustainable development’ is not only logically incoherent and hence incapable of providing any clear guidance to policy or measurement but, if interpreted as literally as possible given its vagueness, could even prejudice the standards of living of future generations or add to inter-generational inequalities.”

And he’s right. But is it worth worrying? Should we be so literal minded as to attempt to take the advocates for sustainability at their word? He says we should.

“Such slogans are dangerous as they can be invoked to justify all sorts of policies that are bad for society, both today and in the future.”

Personally, I’ve managed to learn to live with one common use of the term: as a very general signal about concern for the environment or natural resources in the long term. If you try to get any more specific than that it collapses under the weight of contradictions, but at that very broad level it almost works. For example I can read “the sustainability of agriculture” and translate it into “the set of long term impacts on the environment and the natural resource base from agriculture”.

However, I still feel traumatised when people try to use the term as if it means something well defined, specific and measurable. Its use in legislation (which is disgracefully common around the world) implies that it is well defined, specific and measurable, and that is bad enough. But sometimes people get completely carried away and set targets for themselves like, making an industry 20% more sustainable. (I could give an Australian research example where this was done, but I will spare those responsible.) This is the ultimate in woolly thinking. It can only detract from achieving worthwhile environmental outcomes by wasting our time and effort in puzzling about what it might mean and how we might tell.

The other great sin in the sustainability world is to prepare an overall index of sustainability, typically by lumping together a whole lot of “good” variable with various weightings intended to reflect their relative contribution to sustainability. This is so monumentally unhelpful and time wasting that I would be fully behind Wilfred Beckerman, supporting any appalling insults or punishments that he might devise for the perpetrators. I was sad to learn that a group of postgraduate students at my university has recently been given the task of developing such an index.

If we actually wish to devise or evaluate policy or management, we have to get much more specific about what we are trying to achieve and why. Which specific environmental resources are we trying to protect? Why are they important? What level of protection are we seeking? Without this sort of clarity and specificity, our policy and management objectives for the environment are completely impossible to monitor or evaluate in any meaningful way, and that can only be bad for the environment.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. and Schilizzi, S. (1997). Sustainable agriculture: A question of ecology, economics, ethics or expedience? Paper presented at the 41st Annual Conference of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society, Gold Coast, Queensland, Jan 22-24 1997.

Revised version published as:

Pannell, D.J. and Schilizzi, S. (1999). Sustainable agriculture: A question of ecology, ethics, economic efficiency or expedience? Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, 13(4): 57-66.

1 – Research journals: reading them and reviewing for them

Journals are meant to be the coal-face for current research in a field. Each journal focuses on a specific field of research, often remarkably narrow. In the past week I have reviewed three research papers for research journals. That is quite a few hours work, and it prompted me to wonder why I spend my time doing it.

Reviewers are called on to provide advice to the editor about the suitability of a submitted paper, and advice to the authors about how they can improve their paper or the research it is based on. As reviewers, we aren’t paid for our efforts. It is more of a community service, within the community of researchers. If you publish in a journal, there is a good chance you will be called on to review for it at some point.

Some people, even some researchers, think that journals are used to communicate research results. Of course this is true to some extent, but in my experience there are much more effective ways to communicate your results, if that is your main aim. The internet, electronic media and verbal presentations at meetings or conferences all can have better impacts as communication vehicles if you use them well.

The main role of journals is to provide quality assurance. The very act of submitting a paper to a journal causes authors to think carefully about what they really mean to say and to critically evaluate their own work. After all, the work is going to be critically evaluated by other experts, so you can’t dish up rubbish, or at least you would hope not to. The advice from reviewers and editors further improves the product, even if you don’t end up getting published in the journal of your choice. So journals remain crucial to the standing of research, despite the fact that they are not all that widely read, even by other researchers.

How widely read are they? Here is one indication. When writing a research paper, we have to acknowledge the prior research that we are hoping to build on, and in doing so we give signals about which research we have read, or at least which research we have read, understood and remembered. This is information that universities are willing to pay for, so there are people who keep track of who is citing who else. Some of the results are fascinating. Nearly a quarter of scientific papers published are never mentioned by anyone else. It’s even worse in the social sciences and the arts. Of papers published in the social sciences, around half are never cited. In the arts and humanities the figure is over 90 percent.

So why do I spend time doing all this reviewing. The reality is that, morally, there is little choice. I want to benefit from having my work accepted in a journal, so I have to do my share of the work that allows journals to operate. But I must admit it does rankle to see the subscription fees that some of the journals change, while I am doing work for them for free.

You might wonder what I recommended to the editors about the three papers I reviewed. One was very good, one was OK and one was a shocker. That was actually quite a good outcome from the point of view of saving me time. Most papers I review are OK: not so bad that you can recommend rejection with little effort to spell out the problems, but not so good that there are few improvements to recommend. The good one and the shocker were both quick to review.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2002). Prose, psychopaths and persistence: Personal perspectives on publishing, Paper presented at the 46th Annual Conference of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society, Canberra, Feb 13-15 2002,

Revised version published as:

Pannell, D.J. (2002). Prose, psychopaths and persistence: Personal perspectives on publishing, Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics 50(2): 101-116.

Ockham’s Razor, ABC Radio National, 26/10/03: The dramas of scientific publishing,

Transcript (16K),

Selected email responses to the talk