Has sustainability become a dirty word in Australia?

We the people are just as eco-pusillanimous – as the Lowry Institute Poll 2012 reminds us.  Since the height of the big drought in 2006 the percentage of Australians who regard climate change as a “serious and pressing problem” about which “we should start taking steps now even if this involves significant costs” has fallen from 68% to 36%.  At the same time the numbers in favour of the gradual low cost option on action have risen from 24 to 45% and the actual number opposed to any action that has an economic sting has risen to nearly one in five Australians.[v]

3. A generation of failed governance

It was 20 years ago this year when more than 160 world leaders gathered at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.  Convened by the UN, it was the first the first meeting of it kind to come up with a “comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally” to ensure sustainable development.  Agenda 21 with its think global, act local mantra was the centre-piece of the summit and agreement was made in respect of emerging issues like global warming. 

A lot has happened over the past generation including the spawning of thousands of initiatives like the Fitzroy Basin Association’s strategy to manage and restore natural landscapes and waterways catchments.  But two decades on, as we all know, the so called consensus and promise of action in Rio has dissipated in the mind numbing negotiations of international bureaucracy.  It has been further subverted by vested commercial interests, marred by overt political disagreement between developing and developed countries, and lost in the general indifference of the public. 

The loser has been Earth’s natural systems, our environment, the enduring vulnerability of billions of people living in poverty, and the general loss of vision by the leading nations.  We seem to have lost the capacity to dream and act as our parents’ generation did.  And with global leaders preoccupied with the European debt crisis, the American presidential election, and a slow down in Chinese economic growth, this year not as many international leaders returned to Rio to sign off on what has been described rightly as a lot of compromises and “weasel words”.   There was lots of “encourage” but not much “we will” in the environment summit of 2012 – and that is a pretty good indicator of the current status of discussion about sustainable development – a lot of words, indeed a plethora of programs, but nothing that cuts through in a transformative way.

Sometimes I wonder if government was lead by younger people with a bigger stake in the future, maybe we would see more creativity and transparency in accounting for the principles of sustainability, especially in addressing the needs of inter-generational equity.  The median age of most country populations is well under 50 years, but the average age of most national Cabinets (including Australia’s) is past 50.  In India, China and the United States the average age of leaders is positively “senior citizen status” at between 60 and 70 years[vi]

I can recall a number of times over the years older people, some of them having occupied quite senior positions in politics and industry, admitting after listening to one of my talks that the next generation would be left the unfortunate legacy of having to correct and repair many of the poor decisions taken over the past 50 years in the interests of national progress.  It’s not a bequest about which we should be proud.  To make matters worse, a private acknowledgement of the inadequacy of our approach to many vexatious public policy issues is too often matched in public by a nonchalant dismissal of any cause for concern.  “She’ll be right!” is the mantra and an unthinking hope that technology will come to the rescue.

4. Techno fix offers contradictory possibilities

In many different parts of the world, reassuringly there are some exciting and very encouraging examples of innovation, ingenuity and personal commitment pushing the boundaries of sustainable development.   Some of the presentations at the conference highlighted the role of farm skills and new technologies associated with precision agriculture that deliver incredible efficiencies, vastly improved farm productivity, and all round benefits including positive environmental spin-offs. 

But a key lesson of the past decade has been that technology alone will not deliver us sustainable businesses or communities. 

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