Reframing Environmental Governance: Lessons from a multilevel case study in New Zealand
The question that lies at the heart of this investigation is why, given the considerable knowledge available on environmental problems and their potential solutions, is progress towards sustainability so slow? The aim of the thesis is to explore environmental governance as a framework for improving sustainability outcomes. It is proposed that the quality of environmental governance is a critical cornerstone for addressing the multitude of complex environmental issues facing communities and their governments. But what constitutes 'good‘ governance? Based on a review of contemporary governance literature a normative framework of good governance for sustainability is devised. Then, to better understand the constraints under which governance operates, a political lens is developed through an exploration of political ecology, power and discourse. The normative and critical strands of scholarship are represented in the methods of research and analysis used in undertaking the thesis; the material gathered from case studies is thematically analysed using the normative framework, to evaluate governance in New Zealand cases, and discourse analysis and phronesis are used to critically evaluate these cases. The multilevel structure of environmental governance is reflected in the arrangement of the empirical chapters as explorations of governance at national, regional and local levels. To explore how governance plays out at a national level, a longitudinal perspective of New Zealand‘s changing political economy is presented to demonstrate how major shifts since the mid-1970s and associated social and institutional changes have led to the system of environmental governance in place today. From this critical overview, a number of legislative, institutional and social barriers to effective environmental governance are evaluated. Environmental governance is then framed discursively, and it is argued that the nature of New Zealand‘s political economy has resulted in a strong growth and prosperity discourse which often drowns out or distorts sustainability discourses, lowering overall environmental governance capacity. At the same time, there is an alternative social-ecological discourse at play which opens up the space to challenge the status quo. The regional focus is on the northern South Island of New Zealand. Beginning with a contextual history of governance in the region known as the 'Top of the South‘, the results of surveys exploring residents‘ perceptions of environmental issues, social capacity and governance in three communities in three different districts are then presented. Survey respondents demonstrate a relatively high level of concern over environmental issues, appear interested in sustainability, and reactions to statements about their communities suggest good levels of social capacity are also present. However, perceptions of central and local government and of governance are notably more negative, with respondents, on average, disagreeing that they feel they can influence decision making or that there is good communication about environmental issues relating to their community. The survey sets the scene for the local case studies in each of the three communities. Each case highlights a different focus of attention for governance, and each of the chapters begins with a context-setting review of literature relating to the particular concern. Through interviews with community key informants and local government officials, current issues are explored for each community. Social, institutional and governance capacities are assessed, before analyses of specific examples of governance are presented. The first case illustrates social-ecological vulnerability, the tension between growth and environmental protection and the idea of building resilience in a peripheral community. The narrative draws attention to governance issues associated with community representation and contends that one way to increase resilience may be to allow some governance responsibilities to be transferred to the community itself. The second case examines the dilemmas associated with a changing coastal environment in a settlement experiencing population growth pressures, and evaluates local governance adaptation responses. The narrative highlights the importance of multilevel governance in tackling complex environmental problems such as climate change and argues that, in particular, national level governance responses need strengthening to deal with the scale of the problem. The final case critically examines one council‘s strategic quest for sustainability, highlighting the importance of social and institutional capacity for sustainability governance. The narrative also emphasizes the importance of institutional/policy learning and positive visioning for promoting sustainability discourse. The final chapter of the thesis brings the threads of research together to answer in a phronetic sense how and where environmental governance is succeeding or failing in the New Zealand setting and how governance might be improved to better address sustainability issues. The chapter evaluates the national context and local cases as a whole against the normative framework and applies the political lens through phronesis to highlight how power held by dominant actors and associated discourses influences environmental governance. The phronetic analysis concludes that environmental governance in New Zealand is currently on a trajectory that is detrimental to social-ecological systems and the environment and wider society are in some instances being adversely affected by actions associated with the powerful growth and prosperity discourse. This state of affairs is clearly undesirable from a sustainability point of view. The opportunity for praxis is highlighted first at the local level of governance before lessons are drawn more widely. Recommendations are made relating to the advancement of sustainability and the improvement of environmental governance in the New Zealand context and more generally. The thesis draws to a close reflectively and refocuses the normative framework underlying the research to encourage more critical scrutiny of governance practices.
Advisor: Thompson-Fawcett, Michelle; Freeman, Claire
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Geography
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: environmental governance; New Zealand; sustainability
Research Type: Thesis