A New Road for EAs?

Linear leadership understands power as the ability to assert your will, even against resistance.  In this mindset, the environmental assessment (EA) process is linked to the licencing process as a watchdog for potential problems. It seeks to protect the environment, even against economic drivers. It is also a stopgap, if you will, for government excessively asserting its will. Government holds the authority to licence a project. In this scenario, why not link EAs and licencing? They are conceptions of the same project, the same data-set, and the same way of knowing power, namely linear. 

The EA provides a neutral body to bring in information from an array of sources, collate it and make recommendations. The licencing process makes a decision based on the government’s conception of good governance. Good governance often means providing project certainty. After considering of the relevant factors, the limits of an activity are defined for the duration of the licence. Proponents can rely on their ability to conduct activities into the future, as long as they are in compliance with the terms of a licence. These terms are measurable, predictable and consistent.

In a 2WK world, the circular manifestation of good governance would also be considered. This is powered by knowing ourselves, being ourselves, and supporting others in doing the same. In other words, it is a transformational circle, with the ability to be responsive to changes. It leads to resilience when environments are unpredictable and gains the ability to capitalize on potential benefits as they arise.

Rapheal Benke, a macroeconomics experts with Proactiva Results gave a great description of the evolution of environmental assessment processes at a recent UN conference. They began by conceiving themselves as a part of the licensing process, responsible for identifying obstacles to overcome, as mentioned above. Next, EAs were linked to the licencing process as a forum for optimizing design and consideration of sustainability.  The axis of discussion became aspects like dam construction, transportation routes, the carbon footprint and social impacts. Then the big shift happened. Circular power began to find its place. The understanding of sustainability shifted to become the quest to find ways to benefit local communities through the assets and skills of the company. No longer is it enough to do no harm. Companies want to create a legacy of benefits in other sectors such as farming or manufacturing. This generates circular power – the desire to support other is being all that they can be. It becomes reciprocal and continues to generate mutual benefits in unexpected ways.

Realizing the full benefits of the shift requires a de-linking of the EA process from the licencing process. This allows the EA to operate under circular power dynamics, while licensing utilizes linear dynamics. Projects could then enjoy the benefits of both ways of knowing! 

Under circular power dynamics, the EA process would start well in advance of the licencing process. The parties would begin discussions at the point where there is time to build relationships, and generate trust. They take an interest in knowing and growing in understanding of each other, and working to support each other in fulfilling their values and creating shared benefits. When this is done long before thousands of dollars are spent, people are much more willing and able to find ways to accommodate each other.  

A circular environmental assessment process would be interactive and ongoing. Every time a new endeavour is proposed for a region, or an innovative process is found, it is shared with the regional hub to explore the potential benefits. That’s right. People would abandon certainty and welcome an iterative process rather than a one-time gateway. This creates the potential to consider how a change might be accommodated or provide a mutual benefit. The EA process would create a forum for all interested people to join the discussion. It would see itself as a facilitator of inclusion, transparency (including removing barriers to information), and conveners of good discussion. In short, they would form a hub that facilitated good relationship, good information exchanges and consensus decision-making, where appropriate.

Consideration of cumulative impacts would suddenly be possible. The forum would explore the potential for benefits to the new comer, the carbon footprint, the local economy, the company, and the collective. The discussion could result in an agreement between the parties and/or a proponent initiated, community supported, application to amend a licence to facilitate a benefit. 

In this new world, when someone offers new information of possible benefits or hazards, the proponent would receive it with gratitude knowing they are increasing their ability to bring their best effort to the project. They are gaining the benefit of a diverse range of perspectives.