Has sustainability become a dirty word in Australia?

Sustainability abused and mis-used as a word

A question posed on the cover of The Economist back in July 2002 “How many planets?” goes to the heart of an even larger conundrum: “Can we live sustainably?”   The Economist cover page vividly depicted the human predicament – that if everyone was to live, consume and waste like the populations of the OECD, the resources of at least three Earths would be needed.  It was a simple illustration of our unsustainable values, behaviours and development pathways.

The existentialist dilemma was made even more pointed by American Vice President Al Gore who added the moral dimension to discussions of sustainability when he ventured:  “Surely, it is wrong to destroy the habitability of our planet and ruin the prospects of every generation that follows ours”[iii].

Sustainability in itself is the most misunderstood and mis-used concept in public discussion today.  It’s abuse gives rises a prejudice against the term which draws into question its very utility.   The word ‘sustainability’ comes from the French word ‘sustenare meaning ‘to continue indefinitely’.  And yet governments of all persuasions have tried to marginalise the idea behind the word by claiming that no one can agree on what it means.  Therefore, the critics will say, there is no point insisting on its inclusion in policy and practice.  And when sustainability principles are factored in to decisions inevitably the outcome is a bastardised diluted version.  The modest steps being made globally toward sustainability reflect in fact a far more deep seated human difficulty in dealing with complexity, systems and cultural change.

Sustainability after all is a systems condition and farmers understand better than most the systems basis of daily life – with their dependence on variable weather, reliance on fickle markets coupled with the more general challenge of trying to achieve some understanding from an urban population which is culturally removed and ignorant of the processes involved with food and fibre production. 

In policy terms, sustainability is a systems benchmark aspiration.  Natural systems have evolved to optimise their chances of survival and that means closer connectivity, resilience, adaptability, exploitation of potential, and resistance to decline.  Indeed the laws of physics remind us that in time all systems begin, grow, decline, and renew (evolve) and die.

Bringing the concept back to the global conversation we have been having for more than a generation now, sustainability is about us (humanity) and our relationship with future generations and the planet – as a living system. 

2. When resolve is needed we get instead eco-pusillanimity

No one should underestimate how challenging are the changes required for sustainable development to be mainstream.  Along the way many have miscalculated on the weight of reason or scientific argument forcing change.  After climate scientist James Hansen first reported to the US Congress back in 1988 about the threat of global warming, there were a number of Bills sponsored to address the issue, leading the then head of the Environmental Defence Fund, Michael Oppenheimer, to say: “I’ve never seen an environmental issue mature so quickly, shifting from science to the policy realm almost overnight”[iv]

How wrong he was, because once the costs of change were factored the vested interests of the fossil fuel lobby rose to the defence of the status quo and American action at the federal level of climate change has languished ever since. The same occurred there in Australia.  The Hawke-Keating Government played to the green vote to win the 1990 election, but when Ros Kelly went off to Rio in 1992 her commission to commit Australia to action on climate change stopped at the point of actual cost or impact to the economy.

And what I call eco-pusillanimity (it’s an awful word to pronounce) or that growing sense of timidity for action in the face of actual need for commitment is not restricted to governments. 

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