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Coastal and marine stewardship in Western Australia: The case for a virtue ethic

Davis, John (2015) Coastal and marine stewardship in Western Australia: The case for a virtue ethic. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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On an island continent, Australians proclaim themselves to be “girt by sea” in their national anthem. Most of the country’s abundant oceans and coastal lands are common property, vested in one of three levels of government. National coastal and oceans policies have invoked community and industry stewardship of these assets yet the nature of this stewardship remains largely unspecified and at risk of remaining symbolic rather than substantive. This is despite there being long history of oceans stewardship which has led to the construction of oceans and coastal areas as particular kinds of commons in the Australian context.

This project uses an interdisciplinary approach to understand the historical basis for the current perceptions of these commons and the policies in place for their governance and management. A genealogical approach is used to explore how stewardship concepts emerged in environmental ethics, and what value can be gained from giving greater weight to ethical approaches in stewardship of the coast and sea.

The thesis is presented in three parts. Part One presents a historical basis for adopting stewardship roles in relation to marine systems. The historical social construction of oceans and coastal areas as commons focused on rights of access, leading to the current challenges for the health of marine and coastal ecosystems. The nature and scale of human impacts on global ocean systems is linked to the diagnosis that the world has entered the era of the Anthropocene. Key responses to the challenges are critically examined against the narrative of stewardship regimes. The core of Part One is an analysis of marine and coastal policies in Australia, focusing on their implementation in Western Australia during the period 1992-2012. Australia’s Coastcare program is identified as a useful model for substantive stewardship policies.

Part Two presents an argument that the concept of stewardship has ethical richness, when framed as an expression of civic virtue and ecological citizenship. A genealogical approach is used to trace the emergence of stewardship into environmental ethics. It has an important role as a pragmatic ethic, linking to existing institutional arrangements, and able to be used in daily life due to its nature as virtue ethics. The importance of this virtue ethic in relation to civic virtue leads to an examination of the different citizenships that Australians, for example, have by virtue of their situation in a particular place on earth.

In the third and final part, examples of coastal stewardship in Western Australia are presented as cases in which links between stewardship practices, ethics and citizen engagement in the public sphere contribute to the common good and sustainability of the commons.

The dissertation concludes by suggesting how the civic virtue of stewardship can be more effectively and widely adopted. It points to the roles of government, the corporate sector, local communities and civic education. It responds to recent calls to rethink human responsibility for coasts and seas, and to debate the role of marine citizenship.

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Management and Governance
Supervisor: Pettitt, Bradley and Barns, Ian
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