Evolution sees the gradual development of organisations, practice, and systems from simple to more complex forms. Revolution represents a dramatic and wide-ranging shift to an entirely new paradigm.
The introduction of environmental impact assessment was, in its day, a revolutionary means to ensure consideration of environmental factors in decision-making. Some 50 years later, environmental impact assessment (IA) has evolved to be a substantive broad-based plank in project and policy decision making. IA has shown both flexibility and resilience, its processes being adapted and applied in a wide range of contexts and settings across the world. It has diversified its focus to strategic environmental assessment, sustainability assessment, economic impact assessment, social impact assessment, health impact assessment, and cumulative impact assessment.
The utility of IA is under question on many fronts. IA is not without its critics. It has been attacked by project and policy proponents for impeding development, and by environmental and community interests for failing to meaningfully influence decision making and protect environmental and social values. Both groups criticise it for being costly, overly procedural and political, and question the value it adds to development and environmental outcomes.
IA is generally mandated by statute law. But laws that fail to serve the interests of good governance of communities can become moribund and fail to be administered. IA will change as governments, proponents and communities rationalise competing views about values.
• Are IA regulations adequate in terms of scope and content, and can they be effective in the future?
• Is the mandated science-based analytical approach of IA at odds with the broader purposes sought by communities, such as promoting sustainable development, educating and empowering stakeholders, and challenging the normative values of growth?
• What role can practitioners play in this debate and the ultimate reform of IA processes?
The conference theme is deliberately provocative, inviting delegates to consider IA from different viewpoints. It calls for reflection on the imperatives for change if IA is to be part of another half-century of good practice environmental management. Will it be enough for IA to continue to evolve? Is there a better way to ensure that impact assessable matters are taken into account in project and policy decision making? If revolutionary change is needed, what might it look like?