Has sustainability become a dirty word in Australia?

Right now the greatest environmental impact is being felt as a consequence of the unlocking of the latent economic potential of three billion Asians.  During a recent trip to China I saw firsthand the environmental impacts of massive urbanisation and rapid industrialisation.  When we were leaving Beijing, as our airplane turned on to the runway I remember being able to see only about half way down the airfield such was the limited visibility caused by particulate  in the air. That’s what our coal exports are contributing to in China right now.

The cost of environmental degradation as a percentage of GDP in places like China is already very high.  There the World Bank has calculated, poisoned rivers, industrial pollution, polluted skies and greenhouse emissions are costing 9% of GDP.  In other words if we factor in the economic costs of environmental impacts to China’s development miracle, one could rightly conclude the country is not even standing still – it is going backwards in absolute sustainability terms.  Countries like Nigeria, Pakistan and Iran are doing their best to play in the same endangered environmental zone as China[ii].

In the face of these overwhelming development pressures, the sustainability report card shows up as a big “F” for failure.  Like “fixing climate change”, “eliminating poverty”, the “sustainability” meme fails to translate into a mass activity or focussed strategy.   Interestingly, colleagues are resorting to other words like “resilience” “well-being” “responsible development” – anything but the word “sustainable” itself.  It suggests that ‘sustainability’ is becoming a dirty word because it is distracting from other strategies, inapplicable in practice and lacking utility as a core motivation concept.     Well, let me table a list of factors which go a long way to explaining why “sustainability” has failed to get traction as a driving force in human affairs.

  1. Sustainability abused and misused as a word
  2. When resolve is needed instead we get eco-pusillanimity
  3. A generation of failed governance
  4. Reliance on the techno fix offers contradictory possibilities
  5. Economic and financial focus is all short term
  6. Household debt constricts the interest of the mortgage class
  7.  Dealing with complexity means dumbing down information, issues and interests
  8. Disposable politics erodes the potential of citizenship
  9. Business sustainability – innovation strategy or push-back
  10. Return of the hydro-illogical cycle reminds us that memory matters
  11. Change not possible  without consumers, markets and price signals
  12. Maybe getting beyond denial is no longer important



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