Has sustainability become a dirty word in Australia?


This is an expanded version of a talk I gave in Rockhampton last September to the Fitzroy Basin Association.  Put it aside, went overseas, and forgot about it. Digging through old drafts I just came across it.

Has sustainability become a dirty word in Australia?

And should we be concerned?[i]


Ten years ago I travelled to Rockhampton to address the Fitzroy Basin Association (FBA) about sustainable development, innovation and the role that community groups might play in restoring and managing our natural systems.  To mark my return visit and a follow-up presentation to the FBA in September 2012, I decided to reflect on the current status and recent direction of the sustainability discussion in Australia, and specifically in Queensland. This article has grown out of that presentation and further reflections.

On several occasions this year I have spoken about the topics of “sustainability” and “sustainable development”  and their currency  in public opinion, policy debates, and business strategy.  The upheaval caused by the 2008 global financial crisis has prompted a reactionary response in many quarters as governments, corporations and consumers have bunkered down to ride out the subsequent economic and social storm.   The only trouble with this strategy as a short term proposition is that more than half a decade later the global economy remains fragile and depressed with few encouraging signs of positive transformation.

With the primary focus on preserving institutional integrity, economic stability, arresting social decline, and boosting employment, I believe there has been a concomitant decrease in the emphasis given to environmental protection, sustainable development, sustainability innovation, and thinking long term for generations not yet born.  Why is this so?  Cannot we deal with the impacts of the GFC, the European debt crisis and the political gridlock of the US political system – and still have sustainable development?

A snapshot of the planetary environmental condition gives us a discouraging report.

Planet Earth in decline

Disappointingly, I could not claim on my return visit that our environment was in better condition and under less threat than it was in 2002.  It is a sorry fact that at the regional it almost impossible to find an environmental system that is better overall.  And for the planet there are enough bleak pointers for the alarm bells to be ringing loudly.   Because good efforts, notwithstanding, the scale and exponential rate of population growth, economic development and technological capacity has combined to overwhelm Earth’s natural systems.  Globally, the list of threats presents depressingly on the plight of Earth’s environmental health with massive implications for the future quality of all forms of life:

  • Global warming and climate change
  • Population growth
  • Falling ground water tables
  • Soils and cropland degradation
  • Collapsing fisheries
  • Waterways eutrophication and contamination
  • Disappearing forests
  • Species loss

In Australia, we mirror pretty much the global list of core elements of ecological decline:

  • Climate change
  • Decline of river systems
  • Deforestation
  • Land degradation
  • Inland salinity
  • Sedimentation of waterways
  • Marine degradation including threats to the Great barrier Reef
  • Biodiversity loss

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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