The politics of 'sustainability': a critical discourse analysis of Victorian Government policy discourse, 1999-2006

Coffey, Brian 2010, The politics of 'sustainability': a critical discourse analysis of Victorian Government policy discourse, 1999-2006, Ph.D. thesis, School of Social Work and Human Services, University of Queensland.

Title The politics of 'sustainability': a critical discourse analysis of Victorian Government policy discourse, 1999-2006
Author Coffey, Brian
Institution University of Queensland
School School of Social Work and Human Services
Degree type Research doctorate
Degree name Ph.D.
Thesis advisor Marston, Greg
Henman, Paul
Date submitted 2010-09
Keyword(s) environmental policy
critical discourse analysis
ecological modernisation
Summary Since its emergence during the 1980s the idea of sustainability has come to provide the dominant frame within which environmental policy is debated. Thus, for many ‘sustainability’ represents the best way to address the economic, social and environmental effects of the myriad of environmental issues facing human societies, including biodiversity loss, soil erosion, pollution of waterways, ozone depletion and climate change. There are however, widely divergent views advocated as to what sustainability means, which has important implications for how serious environmental issues are understood to be, why they are important, what has caused them, and what needs to be done to address them. Given the diversity of such views, the consequences for policy making, and the likelihood of effective responses being developed, are self evident. Within this context, this thesis investigates the politics of sustainability, focussing particularly on the way in which it is defined, because of the implications this has for the way in which environmental issues are understood and addressed. Following a review of various approaches to analysing environmental policy (traditional, mainstream, ecopolitical and discursive), Norman Fairclough’s approach to discourse analysis (Critical Discourse Analysis) was identified as having particular merit. Fairclough’s approach avoids the assumption that policy issues exist independently of the way they are framed and offers a perspective on discourse that links the social theoretical concerns of Foucault with the micro level concerns of linguistics. It also provides a means for taking environmental policy analysis in directions that that have attracted relatively limited attraction, namely the detailed analysis of the ideological effects of language on environmental policy. In this thesis Fairclough’s approach is used to explore how three storylines of sustainability (sustainable development, environmentally sustainable growth and transforming society) and their associated discourses shaped environmental policy making in Victoria, Australia, between 1999 and 2006. In undertaking this analysis, I examined the political and institutional context informing policy making (social practice); the contested process of text production (discourse practice), and; the detailed wording of a policy text (textual analysis). A major policy statement on environmental sustainability released by the Victorian Government in 2005 is subjected to detailed analysis. Based on the analysis undertaken, the substantive finding from this research is that rather than moving beyond neoliberalism, the Victorian Government embraced an approach to sustainability that was informed by neoliberalism and (weak) ecological modernisation, which constructs sustainability in ways that limit its importance and constrain the types of responses that could be advocated. In doing so, it drew heavily on notions of natural assets and ecosystems services as ways to make sense of the environment and why it is important. The Victorian Government also highlighted that environmental issues are caused by the cumulative effects of individual choices, and emphasized the importance of individual choice and behavioural change as central features of sustainability, while restricting opportunities for more transformative ideas to be heard. The broader conclusion arising from this research is that approaches to environmental policy that rely on neoliberal and (weak) ecological modern discourses are flawed, because, in commodifying nature, limiting the nature and magnitude of change required, and placing responsibility onto individuals they offer a constrained understanding of the challenge of sustainability and what needs to be done about it. The overall contribution made by this research is an improved understanding of the discursive nature of the politics of sustainability and the influence of neoliberalism and ecological modernisation, the use of a methodology that has attracted relatively limited attention within environmental policy (despite its widespread use in other areas of policy) and the documentation of a period of significant environmental policy reform in Victoria.
Language eng
Description of original 240 p.
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