Note: The characters and forum portrayed in this article are entirely fictitious. The topics discussed are based on real information gathered from authentic sources and real experts who are referred to and quoted within.
The PM was exhausted as she settled into her seat. Her private flight would take around 90 minutes and she planned to spend the time looking over the reports she was supposed to have read for that afternoon’s cabinet meeting. She tried to focus her attention on what the words meant, but all she could see were blurred bunches of tiny squiggles separated by spaces. Soon, all she was staring at, really, were the spaces on the page. She struggled to keep her eyes open, but she was powerless. The pull to let go was too seductive and she blissfully surrendered, releasing control of her thoughts as she was snatched away into a turbulent sleep…
Welcome to the Stocks Are Limited sustainability forum. My name is Jinny Jones, and the purpose of today’s discussion is to explore arguments and viewpoints on sustainability. The views we hear today will be taken into consideration to assist policy decisions on sustainability and climate change. You will notice the diverse selection of experts and consumers here today. This, we hope, will give a balanced range of opinions.
Sustainability is a term that gets tossed about by politicians, corporations, scientists, journalists and independent organizations. For most of us, presumably, it’s a good thing that we like the idea of. Something a bit like good weather or good luck; it’s nice to have, but is maybe not considered important enough that the lack of it would ruin our day. What I want you to first think about is: What does the concept of “sustainability” really mean to us in regards to our future here on Planet Earth? What exactly does it mean to be sustainable? Can we measure it? What is it based on?
When we hear experts talk about “being sustainable”, do they mean being a bit less wasteful than we currently are, so we can prolong our consumption of non-renewables a bit longer? Or do they mean sustainable in absolute terms, as a definite commitment to ensuring a continually live-able planet for the whole of the world’s population? Is sustainability about being truly sustainable or just a bit more sustainable? Are we kidding ourselves to believe that anything less than a complete commitment can be called ‘true sustainability’?
My second question to you all will be: Do you think that commitment to true, definite sustainability is necessary, realistic, or even desirable? If not, why all the fuss? Why even bother pretending that we care about our future? Is all this talk about sustainability just another form of relieving our middle-class guilt? And if the people in charge of policy making are not genuinely committed to the goal of true sustainability, is there any use in the concerned individual or like-minded group of people isolating themselves in ecologically sustainable lifestyles, when the fundamental building blocks of human civilization continue to be unsustainable?
If we really do want to be truly sustainable, then why do we continue to behave so unsustainably? Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to sustain what we have now? What are we waiting for?
But first, what is sustainability? And to help us answer this question I’d like to introduce our guest speakers, and then ask each of them to give their own definitions. Starting on my right, from Foil Seal Magazine, we have feature story writer Natalie Hutchins, next to her is Kevin Sales, PhD Student at Mintone University, who is currently doing research on corporate sustainability. At the end of the row is Dr. Rose Swann, senior research advisor for sustainable development at Pondstone University. On my left side we have Melanie Frederickson, PhD student in ecological science at James Thomas University, Michael Morris, senior economic advisor with Innings Consultancy, engineer and inventor Evan Brown, and social scientist for the Well-Being Institute, Gary Fabian. Thank you all for joining us today.
1. What does it mean?
Let’s start with feature story writer, Natalie Hutchins from Foil Seal Magazine. What is your definition of sustainability?
Natalie: Thank you, Jinny. As a member of the press, I have to admit that I have not yet come across a perfect definition of sustainability. Even researchers and experts will tell you that sustainability is one of those words often used to mean whatever the writer (or speaker) has in mind (1). You would also presume then, that definitions on sustainability are as widely ranging as are people’s opinions on it. Particularly when you consider how different groups of people will be affected by the necessary changes that sustainability suggests.
Ok , let’s ask Kevin Sales from Mintone University what he thinks sustainability is.
Kevin: Thank you. My main area of studies is corporate sustainability, so I’m looking at how well companies are able to include environmental and social responsibilities as part of their business objectives, without sacrificing their responsibility to maintain profits. As a definition from a corporate perspective, I’ll quote fellow PhD student and friend of mine, Kaushik Sridah, from Macquarie University. In his view “Sustainability is the integrated concept at which corporations detect, measure and manage their environmental and social impacts with and without their financial and economic metrics, its alignment with corporate strategy, and the positive outcome coming from the integrated view, on the society and the environment” (2).
(audience looks confused)
Natalie: See what I mean? Kevin’s definition must mean something to experts like him, but I think it’s likely to confuse most other people.
Kevin: There are numerous definitions of sustainability. Once society gets the definition right, then the action plan can be built around executing the vision behind the definition. As Kaushik puts it “From a corporate perspective, enhancing the economic value of the business is still the primary goal, but an integrated view towards financials and non-financials is a move towards creating more visibility around the impacts of sustainability on the business” (2).
Well, yes, that’s an important vision, and I think that raises another important question: What is the goal of this analysis? Is there any obligation or motivation to do anything with this concept other than to analyze and monitor? Let’s ask Dr Rose Swann, senior research advisor from Pondstone University how she defines sustainability.
Rose: Thanks Jinny. Even academics in the area of sustainability find it hard to pinpoint a clear, concise definition. But I think Damien Giurco from Institute for Sustainable Futures at University of Technology Sydney makes a good point: “Sustainability has this assumption of a prosperous, happy future, but if you look at the world now, for most of the population of the world, life is a battle. Is this what we want to sustain for the future? With Sustainability, let’s be sure we are heading towards an improvement for the world today as well as tomorrow” (3).
Melanie, you are doing a PhD in ecological science. What’s your understanding of sustainability?
Melanie: Well, I think Business Dictionary.com gives an elegant definition of ecological sustainability. They describe it as “A capacity of ecosystems to maintain their essential functions and processes, and retain their biodiversity in full measure over the long-term” (4).
Although I think it is also worth noting that in ecology ‘sustainable’ is a term mostly used when talking about a particular species or population, with regards to whether or not they are going to go extinct. So, essentially, if numbers are staying the same or increasing this would be considered sustainable. If numbers are decreasing it would be considered un-sustainable.
Ecologically, the word ‘sustainable’ rarely gets used in the same way as it is in the context of sustainability of human resource consumption. Perhaps most of us are more familiar with the notion that an increase in something is considered to be unsustainable, although PhD student at Sydney University, James Schlunke, once gave me an example of an ecologically unsustainable increase within captive populations of kangaroos in Australia. And by captive populations I mean fenced-off. There was a big story about a particular army base near Canberra a few years ago where officials proposed to cull hundreds of kangaroos because their increased numbers could not be supported by their limited food supply. The depletion of this resource also threatened the survival of other reptile species who were dependent on the grassy habitat (5). Essentially, If you remove downwards pressure on populations (predators and roads), then populations grow exponentially until resources (grasses) are depleted. At that point kangaroos would usually just spread out and move on when there is little food left, but in cases like army bases where there are high (human-proof) fences they can’t, and they starve. I think this gives us an obvious demonstration of what happens when a population’s needs exceed its limited supply of resources, which is therefore, unsustainable.
Hmmm… nicely illustrated. Michael Morris from Innings Consultancy, how do you define sustainability?
Michael: Well, I think the Secretary to the Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, puts it better than I can. He says that “Sustainable wellbeing requires that at least the current level of wellbeing be maintained for future generations. Sustainability requires that, relative to their populations, each generation bequeath a stock of capital that is at least as large as the stock it inherited” (6).
Natalie: Well-being? Capital stocks? I’m not sure what you mean by that. What are these things? And how do you measure them?
Michael: Dr Martin Parkinson emphasizes that this stock should include all forms of capital, (physical and financial capital, human capital, environmental capital, and social capital) (6).
Natalie: So why aren’t we measuring and monitoring our stocks of these things now?
(audience member 1) It still just sounds like mumbo jumbo to me.
Wait a minute, I’ll Google it… Here we are. According to Wikipedia, the most widely quoted definition of sustainability and sustainable development, is that of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on March 20, 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (7).
It then goes on to explain how sustainability “is the capacity to endure.” Ecologically this means that biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. For humans, sustainability is about maintaining the potential for long-term well being. In this case well-being is based on the 3 pillars – environmental, economic, and social demands. These three pillars of sustainability “are not mutually exclusive and can be mutually reinforcing” (7).
Gary Fabian, from the Well-Being Institute, what’s your take on this?
Gary: Thank you Jinny. I’d like to quote The Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) on this one. They have a clear, down to earth understanding of sustainability. Quite simply, they are concerned with the size of the human economy relative to the ecosystems that contain it. According to CASSE, “Sustainability is achieved when the human economy fits within the capacity provided by Earth’s ecosystems” (8).
Ok, so obviously sustainability infers that there is something we wish to sustain, and we would presume that this “something” must be kept within the ecological limits of this planet, which means that it cannot be spent at a rate that is faster than it can be produced. But what is it that we want to sustain exactly? And can we measure and monitor these things?
Gary: Well, you would presume that we would want to maintain a decent standard of living and quality of life, but this may mean very different things to different people. Prosperity or well-being, for example, can be measured, and there are people doing this. You should have a read of The Inkling’s article Happiness (9). It talks more about this. But it’s not just whether or not we can do it. Do we want to do it? Will we make it a priority? Policy makers need to decide how important or valuable well-being is to society. And for this they need to know that society will gain measurable benefits as a result of greater well-being.
Yes, the man up the back there would like to make a comment…
(audience member 2) It’s simple! To maintain what we now enjoy means that in the future we shouldn’t be any worse off, right? So to maintain our current levels of comfort and prosperity, you’d think that we shouldn’t lose any of the benefits that we currently get from our capital stocks. Otherwise, what’s the point in having them?
Natalie: But how do you expect us to maintain our current levels of comfort if our levels of consumption are ecologically unsustainable? We can’t just go on spending our environmental assets at a rate that is faster than they can be replaced… they aren’t like money, which we have gotten used to just printing more of.
The young man here with glasses…
(audience member 3) Dr. M. Parkinson talks about stocks of capital as our basis for prosperity and well-being (6). Maybe our perception of value needs to change. Shouldn’t we consider our environmental assets, things like fish in the sea, clean drinking water, fossil fuels in the ground, intact ecosystems, and fertile farmland as a kind of term deposit or savings in the bank, to be set aside for necessity rather than consumed thoughtlessly like petty cash? Why don’t we take regular stock of our environmental savings account and monitor the performance of these stocks with as much attention and agitation as is given to the stock market and our economic performance?
But here we are in a vicious circle. How realistic is it to expect that we can continue to enjoy these benefits indefinitely, without either losing the benefits themselves, or the assets which provide them? Can we possibly continue forward without being any worse off?
Evan Brown, as an engineer/inventor, would you like to comment?
Evan: Thank you, yes. It’s a bit of a balancing act, but if we are intelligent enough to act while we can, there are all sorts of things we can do to make better use of our resources, without necessarily consuming any more of them, and possibly consuming less. Without sacrificing the benefits themselves, we can find alternative ways to get the same benefits, we can extend our use out of things we already have, rather than throwing them away and replacing them with new ones, but most obviously, we need to be far more efficient. Reduce our waste, particularly when excess consumption delivers no extra benefit.
So, are we making any progress with this now? And what (if anything), are we doing now that IS truly sustainable?
2. What does it look like?
Evan: Well just think of all the technological advances in the last 10 – 20 years, where improvements have been linked to greater efficiency in energy use, material input and size. It’s encouraging to notice how much more conscious consumers are now of “waste”. Efficiency and sustainability are now embedded in our psyche as being beneficial and desirable. This new awareness will no doubt have an effect on consumer behavior, which will, in turn, affect corporate and political behavior.
Can you give me some tangible examples of this?
Evan: Well, just look at modern architecture, engineering, and waste management. There is now a much greater demand for energy and water efficiency, material recycling in building products, better use of natural light and space. Sure, there is still a lot that we are not doing well, but people are now beginning to see and accept the benefits in doing things more efficiently, particularly when they can save money.
Michael: I agree, as do many experts who predict that we are entering a new age of efficiency. A good example of this is how using the internet has given us the potential to increase profit margins by making transactions cheaper and simpler. We no longer need to perform physical transactions when we can buy and sell for ourselves, online, and at the same time we are reducing the labour and material costs associated with transactions.
Rose: But this is just the beginning. As Damien Giurco of ISF points out, the age of efficiency has also provided us with so much more new technology for allowing us to monitor water/electricity use etc. We now have so much more data that we can use to help us decrease our resource consumption. This is significant as he states “There will be money to be made in finding less resource intense ways of doing things” (3).
Evan: Another good example of this is detailed in James Bradfield Moody and Bianca Nogrady’s book, The Sixth Wave. According to The Sixth Wave, the second wave examines the concept “Sell the Service, Not the Product”. This idea looks at the distinction between things we use (services), as opposed to things we consume. This includes things like the service-izing of products, where a customer does not buy and own a product outright, but pays a company to install and maintain a product on their premises for the product’s lifetime. The incentive for the will be to minimize waste, which will reduce their material costs and overall consumption (10).
Michael: Have you heard of the CSIRO’s Sustainable Manufacturing Initiative (SMI)? It’s goal is to work in partnership with the manufacturing industry to develop more resource efficient, cleaner technologies, which will lead to significant savings to the industry through increased efficiency. The Director of CSIRO’s Future Manufacturing Flagship, Dr Swee Mak, says the goal of the initiative is to create “$2 billion of additional annual value for Australia’s manufacturing industry by 2025 through the development and application of resource-efficient, clean and transformative technologies” (11).
Evan: No I haven’t. Now, energy efficiency is a wonderful cost-free tool, in fact after coal, petroleum, nuclear energy and renewables, it has been referred to as The Fifth Fuel (12). However, we need to watch out that we don’t get hit by the rebound effect. We must remember to look at the overall, long-term impact of greater efficiency. Will it necessarily mean, in the long run, a reduction in resource consumption? If we save by doing things more efficiently, do we risk having the opposite effect by just doing more of it? In the end all we may have is a greater number of transactions without any reduction in resource consumption.
Michael: William Stanley Jevons came up with this theory in the late 1800’s with his work Theory of Political Economy (13). The Jevons Paradox has been observed by economists for nearly 150 years. English economist Steve Sorrell goes into this in his article Empirical estimates of the direct rebound effect (14). To an economist this makes sense because being more energy efficient is really about increasing productivity. As a result of increased productivity you will reduce its implicit price and increase demand, as you gain more return for the same money (12).
As we are observing, technology, if directed in a sustainable direction, will lead us to be more efficient. But once again, the motivation for this efficiency is largely based on cost saving and profit increasing. Is it unthinkable to justify changing our behavior without guaranteed, visual, financial benefits?
Isn’t being sustainable out of ecological consciousness enough of a motivation in itself?
Rose: The Transition Movement is a good example of this.
Tell me about this movement.
Rose: Well, it began as a project at the Kinsale Further Education College in Kinsale, a small town in West Cork, Ireland, with Rob Hopkins, (a permaculture designer) and his students. In 2005, as part of this project, Rob Hopkins and his students produced a road map to the sustainable future for Kinsale, “Energy Descent Action Plan” (15). This report was then presented to the Kinsale Town Council who decided to adopt the plan for its town of 7,000 people and put it into practice.
Throughout 2005 and 2006 the idea was adapted and expanded on in other towns in the UK, and the movement has since spread throughout the world. There are currently over 300 official Transition Communities in the UK, Ireland, Canada, USA, Italy, Chile, New Zealand, and even here in Australia!
How big are these towns?
Rose: It depends. Obviously smaller populations are easier to work with and more likely to be successful, but there’s no reason why the same principles can’t be applied to larger populations, even cities. Mostly they are small towns, but it could also be a university, rural community or island. The most important feature that they all share is their commitment to the question:
“How can we make our community stronger and happier as we deal with the impacts of peak oil and economic contraction while at the same time urgently reducing CO2 emissions?” (16).
Once a group/ community initiative has been formed, the movement provides each group with information, support and a Transition Model of how to address this question. There are many ways that a community can achieve the Transition Town goals. In addition to practical community projects to deal with food, energy, transport, health, economics and livelihoods, there are also many “connecting” activities that are encouraged. Things like raising awareness on peak oil and climate change, communication with local governments and other existing Transition groups, and regular communication within the group to reinforce the vision they have for the future, and what they need to do to achieve it. Out of this, the community will develop an “Energy Descent Action Plan” suited to their needs, for a 15 to 20 year timescale (16).
(audience member 1) Ppff…Good luck to them.
Rose: Don’t be so skeptical. Being self-sufficient doesn’t mean you need to go back to the stone-age. On the contrary. The Transition Movement welcomes technology and innovation and makes good use of it. Being sustainable doesn’t mean you need to go without. It’s about being smart, practical and efficient.
Gary: What these Transition Movers are doing is accepting the undeniable reality of the earth’s limits and adapting their own lifestyles to fit within these limits, rather than trusting that governments will get their acts together and come up with the solutions. There’s too much faith in humanity’s ability to find ways of stretching those limits and continuing to grow as we are. But is this realistic? Professor Tim Jackson, Economics Commissioner of the now unfunded Sustainable Development Commission, UK, makes this clear in his report Prosperity Without Growth? (17). He points out that to be sustainable and to prosper we need to accept that our capabilities are bounded on the one hand by the scale of the global population and on the other by the finite ecology of the planet. Tim Jackson suggests that establishing “bounded capabilities” to live well – within certain clearly defined limits – is necessary for sustainability. These limits must allow humans the possibility “to flourish, achieve greater social cohesion, find higher levels of well-being and still reduce their material impact on the environment.” He acknowledges that this is not an easy goal to achieve, but a necessary one, since “It may well offer the best prospect we have for a lasting prosperity” (17). But before we can aim towards greater well-being and flourishing, we first need to redefine our understanding of prosperity.
This lady at the front here has her hand up…
(audience member 4) The Quaker understanding of prosperity draws from their principle of “right relationship,” whereby “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (18).
Yes, this young man with glasses…
(audience member 5) It’s nice what this lady says about right relationships and integrity and all that. It would be good, maybe, if all Australians shared similar values, but they don’t. Most people don’t have a clue, nor do they care. And nobody in power (except maybe the Greens) seems to take our current addiction to consumption seriously. I’ve been doing a bit of research on the net, and according to Centre for Advancement of Steady State Economy (CASSE) the changes need to be at a much more fundamental level, where the very machinery that runs our society needs a serious overhaul. The CASSE report Enough Is Enough (19) outlines a detailed strategic plan of where, why and how these major changes need to occur. The 10 areas addressed in this report are:
1. Limit Resource Use and Waste Production
2. Stabilise Population
3. Limit Inequality
4. Reform the Monetary System
5. Change the Way We Measure Progress
6. Secure Full Employment
7. Rethink Business and Production
8. Improve Global Co-operation
9. Change Consumer Behaviour
10. Engage Politicians and the Media
You lot ought to check it out!
Michael: I have read this report, and I must admit that on first glance many of the proposals appear to be radical and impossible, even frightening, but there are also many undeniable practicalities, bold solutions and well-thought-out ideas, which offer a fair and sustainable alternative. The Steady State Economy is an economic model that may be easily discarded for being too risky, too authoritarian, too radical and too limiting. Then again, compared to our current free-market system, the consequences of major economic collapse if unrestrained economic growth is allowed to continue, may be equally (if not more) risky, frightening, and limiting. According to Dr Martin Parkinson “The Australian economy will need to become more energy, resource and environmentally efficient. In fact, going forward, energy, resource and environmental efficiency will be key drivers of productivity” (6).
This man in the middle would like to make a comment…
(audience member 2) Does this mean we all have to go and live in Transition Towns so we can slave away all day in permaculture gardens and weave baskets for a living? I don’t want to live in a commune where I have to rely on my neighbours to share all my food, energy and water!
(audience member 6) Well, not that I’m in favour of community-style set-ups, but these days it’s possible to live very comfortably without mains power, water and plumbing, provided you have access to some sort of natural water supply and enough money, time, space, knowledge and skill to be able to set yourself up properly. Not many of us do. But that’s beside the point. What I don’t like is the idea of being “looked after” by a presumptuous single state economy who decides what’s best for me. This whole concept of “living within bounded capabilities” feels like a violation of my freedom and independence!
Rose: But where has all this freedom and independence got us? We have become isolated in our independence. What Damien Giurco emphasizes is that we need to maintain vibrant social interactions. Think of all the wasted possibilities for social interactions. What is the value of quality social interaction? Think of how much money people spend on activities like dance classes and internet dating sites just to have the opportunity to mix with people and interact! He says we need to “Keep citizens central to our society, know what our role is in society, not get carried away with money making and power. (We need) A society that encourages thinking and appreciates that everyone has a voice” (3).
Even if the sustainable solutions do exist, and there are plenty of people willing to implement them, is it really necessary?
(audience member 2) Hey, when are they putting the food on?
(audience member 1) Yeah, I’m busting for a toilet break.
Ok, we’ll take a lunch break now, but we still have a lot to get through, so we will resume again in an hour. Thank you everyone for your patience and input.
3. What’s All The Fuss About?
Welcome again to the Stocks are Limited Forum on sustainability, and thanks once again to our panel of experts, Natalie Hutchins (Foil Seal Magazine), Kevin Sales (Mintone Uni), Dr. Rose Swann (Pondstone Uni), Melanie Frederickson (James Thomas Uni), Michael Morris (Innings Consultancy), Evan Brown (inventor/engineer) and Gary Fabian (Well-Being Institute) for joining us here today. To kick off our second session I’d like to give our studio audience a chance to give their views on sustainability. Let’s start with the lady over here with the blonde hair…
(audience 1): Honestly, do we care about what happens when we’re dead? Or in a few decades? We seem to place a lot of faith in our kids and their kids’ ability to “fix it” when the time comes. Maybe our current situation is not as bad as it’s made out to be. Maybe we’re all just catastrophizing.
(audience member 7): I don’t think we can underestimate the seriousness of our current situation. The overwhelming scientific evidence is clearly telling us that Human activity is causing significant changes to our global climate. It is widely accepted that climate skeptics are idiots. However rather than catastrophizing as this young lady puts it, I think perhaps a more rational, cool-headed response is required.
(audience member 6): I would like to say, in response to the climate hysterics, that Planet Earth is far more resilient than it is made out to be. Think of all the major climatic changes and natural disasters it has survived before humans even existed. It can easily withstand Human activity, and even if we were to make living conditions insupportable to us, life on Earth would continue to survive without us.
Although the chances of us creating an un-liveable planet, (in our immediate next few generations anyway), is extremely unlikely. What is far more likely is that our human intelligence and innovation, which is advancing rapidly, will allow us to develop the technological solutions and modifications necessary to adapt to our impending climate/resource crisis. There is no doubt that humans will, and already are, working towards a rescue plan for our survival as a species. We are far from doomed.
Before this can happen, unfortunately, the immediate threat of death needs to be accepted as a reality for all individuals and lots of people will need to die. The real impact of these necessary changes will kick-in when the situation requires them – when we hit a critical crisis point and have no other choice.
Simply put, we need to see the end as an immediate threat before we are forced to take action. When this happens our human capabilities will be sufficient to rescue us from extinction.
This series of events may even be considered by many as a necessary and beneficial stage in our human evolution. The human race that survives this test will be a wiser, fairer, more ecologically sound civilization that will have learnt from and overcome mistakes of the past. Intervention in this process is futile and would only be a hindrance to allowing nature to take its course.
Natalie: This sounds to me like a feel-good encouragement for climate apathy.
(audience member 6): Not at all! I would say it is a realistic and rational response to an opportunity like none that humans have ever seen before.
(audience member8): This is disgraceful! How can you talk about your own families and descendents with such cold hearts?! Don’t you love your grandchildren and want them to enjoy the natural wonders of the world as well as surviving? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I certainly do! It might be nice to think that the species will survive but it isn’t so nice to think about it being my grandchildren who die during the transition. Doesn’t genuine love and concern count for anything?
(audience member 1): You make it all sound so apocalyptic, like it’s some great event that is going to take place, like The Rapture (20) or something. Sorry to disappoint you all, but if we let things continue as they are, then I don’t think there’s much to look forward to. I read an article in New Scientist magazine from 28 February 2009 (21), where the effects on the planet (and us) due to a 4 degrees Celsius temperature rise were outlined. It talked about how this temperature rise is likely by 2099 and maybe even by 2050. It is predicted that the population will be reduced by 90% and that most of the land south of Canada and north of Patagonia (an area covering US, Africa, India and China) will be uninhabitable due to it being desert or having extreme weather. All Australian’s will have to move to Tasmania or the Northern Territory if they want to stay here. Can you imagine it if most of the world’s population became refugees?
If it’s true, and we are heading for a new, improved, advancement in human civilization, and a sustainable future anyway, why do we first need to go through a period of decline, crisis and suffering? Why not start improving things now? Why do we need to sacrifice the lives of less fortunate people, our earth’s limited resources and countless other species to learn our lesson? Is consuming a bit less now, so that we all have enough and will continue to have enough later an even greater sacrifice to humanity?
(audience member 7): Before we start improving things, I think we need to be honest and ask if it is truly sustainable to expect to maintain our current human population. Maybe what is needed is a serious reduction in numbers. Are there simply too many of us? Is this a necessary and natural ‘survival of the fittest’ test, which is crucial to our evolution? As this lady points out, maybe love and concern are not necessary for our survival. Perhaps we should consider compassion, charity and selflessness as weaknesses? Maybe greed, ambition and exploitation should be considered as our greatest strengths?
(audience 8): I can’t believe it has come to this! Is this civilization?
4. Do We Even Want To Be Sustainable?
(audience member1): Whether or not future generations have the capabilities to deal with it when the time comes, what does it matter? Should the human race survive at all? Would our extinction be such a bad thing? How does our existence benefit the ecological balance of planet Earth? Are we necessary?
Melanie: As far as any benefits of humans on the ecology of the world, that would have to be limited to us actively protecting/managing things (i.e. species, populations or ecological communities) which, as James Schlunke of Sydney University points out, are on a downwards trajectory as things are now. He gives examples of this type of management as things like bush regeneration programs – where humans actively fight back against the impacts of invasive plant species to preserve ecological communities. This also applies to preserving endangered species where they would become extinct without human help (22).
All that said, James points out that the reasons for the original decline are almost invariably human-caused (i.e. we put these processes in place). Without people to manage these human-caused weed and feral animal populations there would likely be a very rapid extinction of the species most negatively impacted by these factors. As an exception to that, he refers to the Tasmanian Devils, which are now suffering from Devil Facial Tumour Disease, as an example of a case where human intervention is actually wholly beneficial is for the survival of the Tasmanian Devils, since as far as anyone knows this isn’t caused by people, and without people the devils would be extinct very soon (23).
(audience member 8): If you consider that it takes most species up to 10 million years to go extinct (24), and that the current age of the human race is estimated at only 200,000 years (25) then it could be said that we’re doing a pretty good job at wiping ourselves out. Maybe Human Beings are just another evolutionary experiment that wasn’t meant to last.
Michael: Maybe we expect to live too long? According to Dr Martin Parkinson “It has been projected that by 2050, around 5 per cent of the population – that is one in twenty – will be aged 85 and over – this compares to around 1.8 per cent today. The ageing of the population will create substantial pressures around fiscal sustainability” (6).
(audience member 1): I reckon that if we make it to 2050, the aging population will be the least of our worries. What is the estimated population of 2050 based on anyway? Does it take into account the expected environmental disasters – floods, droughts, famines, fires? Or the oil spills and the destruction of farmland by mining as we get more and more desperate for resources?
Gary: Well, I’ll admit I think it may be an optimistic estimate, and we need to consider also what the living standards will be like for the vast majority in 2050. As it is, some African societies are trapped in the Malthusian Era (26) where material living standards are the same or less than those of the stone-age. Technological advances have led to population growth, which has substantially reduced the standard of living for more people.
5. It’s Too Hard!
(audience member 9): I’m sick of all this fuss about economies and aging populations and stocks of capital! What really frustrates me is just how difficult it is, as an individual, to be a truly ethical, decent person. Look, I’m just an average Australian. I don’t have ambitions to save the planet, I just don’t like being wasteful or inconsiderate. All I want is to do what’s best for me and my family without harming anybody or anything else. Yet it seems that even this is impossible! No matter how hard I try to be a good person and to ‘do the right thing’, all I find is that I am becoming more and more frustrated the more conscious I am of how almost everything I do is contributing somehow to making all our problems worse. Why is it so hard to be sustainable?
(audience member 4): Hear, Hear!!
(audience member 10): Finally! Somebody who knows how I feel! Only I’d say I’m probably a more extreme case. Politicians dismiss my concerns, labeling me as “un-Australian” and not “mainstream”. I don’t want to just go with the flow, I really do want to save the world. Then I find that, far from that being possible, I’m going to be ridiculed for even just trying to do my bit. I don’t like greed or the way it gets rewarded. If I were more religious I’d go round reminding people that greed is supposed to be a sin.
I don’t like our consumer culture. I want to be a HUMAN not a consumer. I don’t want to be defined by what I consume! Elaborately packaged things don’t make me feel special, they make me feel wasteful, and conned. I care about how things were produced not which celebrities use them. I want to get what I need using as little resources as possible. I like things that are designed for reuse and to be repaired. I’m not expecting sustainability for nothing. I’d be happy to pay for it! I think natural resources should be valued more highly.
The endless pursuit of economic growth angers me. We need to live within our natural boundaries! I also dislike leaving people out or behind. It sickens me to hear wealthy people complain about their lot in life when I can turn on the TV news and see poor people losing their children to starvation. I don’t like how rich people can influence our politicians more than everyone else. And I really don’t like how the only way to live a respectable “sustainable” life in our society is to first win the rat race. If I decided to live on as little as possible I’d be labeled a failure, a crazy failure. If instead I first won the rat race and then “dropped out” to live in a luxurious eco-mansion I might get some respect, but that would only be because I’d already proven that I was a good rat.
What I want is for it to be easier to be an ethical, sustainable person than to not be. I think that’s only fair. Doing the right thing should be favoured, not doing the wrong thing!
(audience member 7): No wonder so many people prefer to turn a blind eye to their daily contributions to our unsustainable behavior. I can imagine that being constantly vigilant will drive you mad and turn you into a social misfit or a guilt-ridden hypocrite. I wonder if this has anything to do with the increasing rates of suicide and mental illness?
(audience member 1): It’s simply because the whole mechanism on which our society runs is set up to be unsustainable.
(audience member 2): Come on, how many of us are prepared to abandon our jobs, cars, suburbs and social lives to live in isolation, in a humble, self-sufficient, renewable, permacultured lifestyle? And what difference would it make to the rest of the world anyway? It’s just a selfish, self-righteous act of pride that doesn’t contribute anything to society. Or do you expect everyone else to follow you? Ha! Can you imagine how difficult it would be to convince all your friends, family, colleagues, and neighbours to join you in transforming your neighbourhood into a self-reliant transition community?
(audience member 11): Even just transforming your own existing property into a transition-style dwelling requires dedication, money, time, organization and discipline. I know! This is what I am currently trying to do. Being sustainable is hard work, but I still think it’s worth it.
Rose: Damien Giurco says “ You want to be more sustainable? Be poor. Let’s compare Australia and India in terms of purchasing power parity, or PPP. The PPP is basically just the country’s Gross Domestic Profit divided by the population, which gives us an idea of how much the individual, on average, has to spend each year. Data provided by Indexmundi for 2010 has Australia’s PPP at $41,000 per person, whereas India’s PPP for the same year is only $3,500 per person (27). Taking this difference into consideration, it’s little surprise that, according to Carbon Planet statistics, the carbon footprint of the average Indian is just 6% of an Australian (28). Work less, consume less, make time for the things you enjoy… Maybe we need new models for a good life? Not necessarily just individual happiness, but more on community well being” (3).
(audience member 1): Stuff that! The Government has to make it easier for us to change, otherwise nothing will ever happen.
6. So What’s Stopping Us?
Kevin: The main problems, according to Kaushik Sridah, are around aligning the sustainability movement with corporate strategy. The value is there, but is it visible? The topic of long term vs. short term is important. Lack of regulation, a capitalistic sense of corporate style, are but a few reasons for this problem (2).
Rose: Damien Giurco says “Humans, biologically, are very good at assessing risks in the short term, but assessing risk over long term and acting on it, both as individuals and as a species, it’s just much more difficult for us… As well as the ability to perceive it, you also need the mechanism to act” (3).
Michael: Dr Martin Parkinson admits that unsustainable growth cannot continue indefinitely. He says that by us reducing now the aggregate capital stock, we are making future generations worse off in the long run. “The problem is that we can be on an unsustainable path for a long period – and by the time we recognise and change, it could be too late” (6).
(audience member 1): Structural adjustment is going to be the killer.
Gary: Maybe the focus needs to shift off money and onto prosperity?
Natalie: Yes, and whether that is to happen in an evolved, gradual sense or in a radical sense like communism…? We shouldn’t underestimate the challenges of bringing forth and then maintaining a completely new system.
Michael: According to Dr Martin Parkinson “structural adjustment can be managed, or it can be opposed. The critical point is that it cannot be avoided. Moreover, history shows that opposing adjustment rarely succeeds, and the negative consequences are significant. The challenge for policy makers is to facilitate as smooth an adjustment as possible for all affected” (6).
Maybe we should be asking ourselves what we are more afraid of? On the one hand, if we sacrifice profits and a growing economy we risk economic collapse and human suffering due to loss of livelihoods etc. Heavier taxes and tighter regulation of non-sustainable practices risks further human suffering by imposing lifestyle changes. Many Australians see our “way of life” as having a greater value than almost anything else.
Then again, by continuing as we are, we risk major loss of resources, the outbreak of wars over resources, increasing numbers of political and environmental refugees, mass human suffering and death, not to mention the major loss of natural assets. This is the gamble we take by trusting that when the inevitable climate and resource crisis hits, we will be prepared to deal with it.
Michael: Dr Martin Parkinson agrees that there are significant risks and uncertainties arising from our imperfect knowledge of the climate system. “It is possible that climate impacts could suddenly accelerate. In fact, certain impacts to the climate system may lead to a tipping point where sudden irreversible changes arise. These sudden changes may not be seen for some time, but they could arise from our actions, or inaction, today. To an economist, climate change is fundamentally a risk management issue. Even if you do not accept all elements of the science, prudence suggests taking out some form of insurance (6).
Does it make sense to ignore this window of opportunity that we still have for investing in an insurance policy for our children’s future? Surely the sooner we stop contributing to the problem, the better chance we have of maintaining more of what we have now.
Michael: Dr. Martin Parkinson makes a good point…
(audience member 1): I’m getting sick of Dr. know-it-all-Martin Parkinson
Michael: “We also need to remind ourselves, and others, that if no-one acts first we all lose. But more so – unless we all act, we all lose in the end” (6).
(audience member 6): This is nonsense! We can’t afford to risk profits and sacrificing the strong economy that we are so fortunate to enjoy in these financially volatile times! Surely it makes more sense to keep growing strong now, while we can, to secure an economic advantage, which is essential to building the new infrastructure we will need to survive the challenges ahead!
Michael: That’s not necessarily true. The key message from the modeling of the recent Strong Growth, Low Pollution report, (29) was that the economy will continue to prosper while emissions are reduced. Furthermore, as Dr Martin Parkinson points out, the economic costs of adjustment are modest if action starts sooner rather than later – delaying action will only raise the eventual economic costs.
So who is in charge of making the choice and taking responsibility for the consequences?
(audience member 5): I think we all are. We all make decisions with our wallets and our actions and our votes. We just all need to wake up and tell our politicians what we really want because they are the ones with the power to legislate and fund these choices. I like what Professor Tim Jackson says in his report Prosperity Without Growth?
“…governments have an undisputed duty to intervene. Public investment is essential. Restructuring is inevitable. Targeting these interventions towards sustainability makes obvious sense” (17).
But maybe we are missing the point here. Before we go hypothesizing and bracing ourselves for the on-coming threat of the future, why not take a look at our current circumstances and do what we can, now, as human beings, to improve our present living conditions for everybody?
Gary: We can’t ignore that even though income equality, since the Industrial revolution of the late 1800’s, has reduced within societies, it has dramatically increased between societies. The gap in income between countries, which has been called The Great Divergence, is currently around 50: 1 (26). Alive today, we have some of the richest and the poorest people who have ever lived.
Rose: So let’s not forget, as Damien Giurco of ISF remarks, “Is it about me, here, now? Or also others, elsewhere, tomorrow? What if we started at least with others here and now?…”(3).
Gary: In chapter six of the report Enough is Enough: Ideas for a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, Rob Dietz and Kate Pickett remark that economic growth is commonly given as an excuse to avoid dealing with poverty and inequality (19). They then go on to explain that the conventional wisdom that “a rising tide lifts all boats” has been shown not to work. They refer to the Equality Trust website (30) that presents evidence showing that “In rich countries, a smaller gap between rich and poor means a happier, healthier, and more successful population” and propose that instead of concentrating on economic growth and assuming that it will help those worse off, greater equality of income be used as a substitute for growth.
They end the argument with “Narrowing income differences provides a golden opportunity to enhance social relations. By changing the nature of status competition, more equal societies can suppress unnecessary and conspicuous consumption and improve social and psychological well-being. In short, an economy that features greater equality will have healthier, happier, and more creative citizens, as well as a less degraded environment in which to operate” (19).
To achieve this, the difference in income levels between the richest and poorest people in society, and between societies, would need to shrink. The objective would no longer be on unsustainable economic growth. Instead society would give priority to economic development in areas like education, poverty alleviation and high-quality employment opportunities.
Rose: I’d just like to emphasise that sustainability isn’t about living in poverty. It isn’t about taking away economic growth without giving an alternative. It is about maximizing the well-being of all societies within the natural boundaries of the planet. What are the boundaries and how do we know whether we are within them? This is perhaps the most important question that needs to be addressed and acted upon immediately.
(audience member 12): My ancestors were able to live sustainably off this land for over 40,000 years before the arrival of the English settlers. They knew that their survival depended on living in harmony with the environment and forming a relationship with it based on respect. It’s simple. We need to respect our limits and only take what we need.
I’m afraid we’re running out of time, so I’d just like to finish off with a bit of a summary. What we have heard here today is that we can’t deny the fact that Planet Earth is not an infinite resource pool. It’s natural stocks are limited.
Trying to be more efficient alone will not increase our stocks, it may only make them last a bit longer. This is not sustainability! To be truly sustainable we must do a thorough inventory of our planet’s supplies, look at our population and it’s rate of growth, and establish limits. Once we are aware of our boundaries we can accommodate to make the best possible living conditions for everyone within those limits. If humanity is intelligent enough to adapt and live within these limits then we may have a chance of restoring the balance. There is even a good possibility for an improved future, with greater well-being for more people. But this opportunity is available for a limited time only. We must hurry!
Let’s thank our panel of experts, Natalie, Kevin, Rose, Melanie, Evan, Gary and Michael, and thank you to our audience for your input which has been both candid and insightful. So here’s to living within our limits! Cheers everybody!
(Champagne glasses chinking)
“Sparkling mineral water, Prime Minister?” asked the flight attendant.
“Oh… Yes please, I must have nodded off….. Thank you. Here’s to greater well-being for more people, and a sustainable future for all!”
- Dr. Jenny Gordon, Principal Advisor Research, Productivity Commission, Canberra office, comment made by email 28 August 2011
- Kaushik Sridah, Macquarie Graduate School of Management Macquarie University, North Ryde, comment made by email 30 August and 5 October 2011
- Damien Giurco, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney, interview 11 August 2011
- Ecological Sustainability definition, Business Dictionary.com, http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/ecological-sustainability.html Accessed 10 October 2011
- Australia facing mass protests as military vows to cull kangaroos after row, Mail Online News, Last updated at 12:18 07 March 2008 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-528498/Australia-facing-mass-protests-military-vows-cull-kangaroos-row.html#ixzz1acEWBmIl Accessed 10 October 2011
- Sustainable Wellbeing – An Economic Future for Australia, Speech by Dr Martin Parkinson, delivered 23 August 2011, http://www.treasury.gov.au/contentitem.asp?NavId=008&ContentID=2134 Accessed 29 August 2011
- Wikipedia, Sustainability, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainability Accessed 26 July 2011
- Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, http://steadystate.org/discover/definition/ Accessed 28 July 2011
- Happiness, The Inkling, July 2011, https://the-inkling.com/category/features/ Accessed August 2011
- The Sixth Wave, Moody, James Bradfield and Nogrady, Bianca, Random House Australia, 2010, ISBN: 9781741668896
- Research initiative to foster sustainable manufacturing future, CSIRO, 5 September 2011, http://www.ecosmagazine.com/?paper=EC11031 Accessed 12 September 2011
- The Efficiency Dilemma, Owen David, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010 http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/20/101220fa_fact_owen Accessed 12 September 2011
- The Theory of Political Economy, Jevons, William Stanley, Oxford University, Macmillan and co., 1879
- Empirical estimates of the direct rebound effect, Sorrell, Steve, Dimitropoulos, John, Sommerville, Matt, Elsevier Energy Policy Journal, Volume 37 Issue 4, April 2009, http://ideas.repec.org/a/eee/enepol/v37y2009i4p1356-1371.html Accessed 12 September 2011
- Energy Descent Action Plan, Version.1. 2005, Kinsale Further Education College, Edited by Rob Hopkins http://transitionculture.org/essential-info/pdf-downloads/kinsale-energy-descent-action-plan-2005/Accessed 6 September 2011
- Transition Network, http://www.transitionnetwork.org/support/what-transition-initiative Accessed 6 September 2011
- Prosperity Without Growth?, March 2009, Professor Jackson,Tim, Economics Commissioner, Sustainable Development Commission UK, http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications.php?id=914 Accessed 4 August 2011
- Moral Economy Project, Quaker Institute For The Future, http://www.moraleconomy.org/index.html Accessed 28 August 2011
- Enough Is Enough, Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, November 2010, www.steadystate.org/enough-is-enough/ Accessed 18 August 2011
- Book Of Matthew 24:15 – 24:22, New Testament, http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Matthew+24 Accessed 9 September 2011
- Surviving in a warmer world, New Scientist Magazine, 28 February 2009, pages 28-33.
- James Schlunke, PhD Student, Sydney University, comments made by email October 2011
- Devil facial tumour disease, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil_facial_tumour_disease Accessed 10 October 2011
- When Will Humans Go Extinct?, Nelson, Brenda, Published October 2 5, 2009, Scienceray http://scienceray.com/earth-sciences/paleontology/when-will-humans-go-extinct/ Accessed 15 August 2011
- Human, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human Accessed 15 August 2011
- A Farewell to Alms – A Brief Economic History Of the World, Clark, Gregory,1957, ISBN 978-691-12135-2, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, reprinted 2007
- Indexmundi Country Comparison – GDP per Capita (PPP) http://www.indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?v=67 Accessed 10 October 2011
- Green House Gas Emissions By Country, Carbon Planet Limited, 2011, http://www.carbonplanet.com/country_emissions Accessed 10 October 2011
- Strong Growth, Low Pollution – modeling a carbon price, Australian Government, Treasury, 10 July 2011 http://www.treasury.gov.au/carbonpricemodelling/content/report/06chapter2.asp Accessed 23 August 2011
- The Equality Trust, Why More Equality?, http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/why, Accessed 23 October 2011
Australia in 2050, Published 5 September 2011, Professor Cribb, Julian, Adjunct Professor in Science Communication, University of Technology Sydney, http://www.ecosmagazine.com/paper/EC11027.htm, Accessed 12 September 2011
Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy, Brown, Peter G, Garver, Geoff, Helmuth, Keith, Howell, Robert, February 2009, ISBN 9781576757628, Berrett-Koehler http://www.bkconnection.com/ProdDetails.asp?ID=9781576757628 Accessed 12 September 2011
Welcome to Postnormal Times, Sardar, Ziauddin, Futures, 42, 5, June 2010, http://ziauddinsardar.com/2011/03/welcome-to-postnormal-times/ Accessed 12 September 2011
The Story Of Stuff, Annie Leonard, (http://www.storyofstuff.com/)
Special Thanks to
Damien Giurco, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology
Kaushik Sridah, Doctoral Scholar, Macquarie Graduate School of Management Macquarie University
James Schlunke, PhD Student, Sydney University
Dr. Jenny Gordon, Principle Advisor Research, Productivity Commission
Paul Belin, Assistant Commissioner, Productivity Commission
The Gadigal People of the Eora Nation