The magic of sustainability

By Greg Paine…

Fifth and final article in the series Walk With The Elephant

Sustainable development is not business as usual.  Nor is it business as usual with a few token green gestures thrown in. Such clinging to habitual responses, such refusals to engage with what we know are real problems, only demeans us all.

The World Commission on Environment and Development clearly stated this in its report, Our Common Future, in 1987: “In essence sustainable development is a process of change…” and further: “Development involves a progressive transformation of economy and society.”

With this understanding of the dynamic nature of the task ahead, it is curious  – not to say disappointing – to detect a particular static quality pervading the  “core objectives of ecological sustainable development” adopted by the Australian Government in 1992.  These objectives are the government’s response to the call by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio Conference) for all governments to work towards a sustainable 21st century (using a toolkit of understandings that became known as Agenda 21, the agenda for the 21st century).  The core objectives are to:

  • enhance individual and community well-being and welfare by following a path of economic development that safeguards the welfare of future generations;
  • provide for equity within, and between, generations, and
  • protect biological diversity and maintain essential ecological processes and life support systems.

These objectives are to be read in conjunction with four guiding principles adopted at the same time:

  • integration of environmental and economic policies and activities
  • dealing cautiously with risk (i.e. the “precautionary principle”)
  • recognising the global dimension (i.e. “think global, act local”)
  • the internalisation and full valuing of environmental costs.

While undoubtedly pursuing these objectives and principles would require a change in decision-making, they nevertheless lack any strong call for action that reflects both the inherent notion of change within the concept of sustainable development proposed by the World Commission in 1987 and the degree of urgency agreed at Rio in 1992.

Australia, though, did at least differ from most other countries in adopting the term “ecologically sustainable development” in preference to “sustainable development” in the hope that it would ensure the emphasis remained on ecological concerns, rather than the sustaining of mainstream, undifferentiated development.  I will leave it up to you to decide whether or not, in the intervening 17 years, that hope has transpired.

The World Commission also saw that the necessary transformations to achieve sustainable development are relevant for both richer industrialised countries and poorer less-industrialised countries alike, albeit with a differing focus depending on the conditions within each country.

To assist in understanding  – and implementing  – this view, it is worthwhile visiting a model of change designed by David Korten, a community development practitioner in less-industrialised countries.  His model transcends geographical, economic and political entities by defining three “socioecological” classes: the over-consumer, the sustainer and the marginal.

Over-consumers are people (like us) who travel mostly by car and often by aeroplane; eat a lot of meat; use a lot of disposables and generate a lot of waste.  Sustainers travel mostly by bicycle, public transport or by walking; eat more grains and vegetables than meat; use few packaged goods and live in modest houses.

The marginals travel by foot, and perhaps by donkey; have a nutritionally inadequate diet; live in rudimentary shelters and drink contaminated water.

Both the marginals and the over-consumers generate unsustainable impacts.  The former because they tend to live hand-to-mouth on a day-to-day basis, with no spare resources to ensure their actions leave an environment suitable for future generations.  The latter because they are consuming more than a fair share’s worth of resources, concentrating only on personal satisfaction now.

The model illustrates how the simple dualities of “developing” and “developed”, “first”and “third” world and the like are false and that we must define development to comprise paths that lead away from both the over-consumer and marginal categories  – with the excesses of the over-consumer class effectively being transferred to lift those in the marginal class out of their situation.

Indeed, a large proportion of World Commission’s Our Common Future report is actually about the need for poverty reduction, a point that seems to be ignored by many critics of sustainable development who argue for the necessity for maintaining current development models (i.e. business as usual) to assist those in poverty.  Yes, for ourselves “develop” may in fact mean a “giving up”.  Hard news; but something I suspect we all know deep down but choose to delay.

So what are the overall lessons that might guide us in this process of change?  Here it is worthwhile going back to what Professor Peter Newman has said.

“Sustainability,”’ he suggests from his now extensive experience as a practitioner,  “has a disarming quality as it shows us there are no experts,  just complex processes that must involve partnerships.  It forces us to reassess our directions.  It is driven by hope. This is the magic of sustainability.  Sustainability can work magic if it genuinely:

  • Creates a new synergy between the social, the economic, and the ecological (i.e. sustainable development);
  • Is a long-term solution (i.e. is beyond political and personal cycles);
  • Is done on a partnership basis (i.e. recognises there are no specialist experts on sustainability);
  • Is place-orientated as well as global (i.e. think global, act local);
  • Creates hope (not fear).

Just think of the changes that could be achieved if we all adopted that level of enthusiasm and understanding!

Greg Paine is an environmental planner with extensive experience in Government decision-making. These articles draw on a research degree that explored both the concept and the practice of sustainable development from the point of view of a group of people who had “put their hand up” and said “we would like to contribute to sustainability through our own lives”.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.