Gazing into the Abyss
This column explores the topic of sustainability: what it is, what challenges and opportunities it presents, and what we can do as individuals and communities to live more sustainably.
Here’s a question you’ve probably never considered: could cat memes be contributing to the likelihood of a mass extinction event not seen in the last 500 million years? It’s a serious question, and yet it’s taken about as seriously as cat memes. To understand why that is, we need to return once again to the history of sustainability.
My last article introduced the very basics of sustainability and looked briefly at some of the historical trends that shaped the movement; beginning as a largely environmental cause in the 1970s, and eventually morphing into the triple-headed beast it remains today. This triumvirate of concerns is often referred to as the ‘three pillars of sustainability’: the social, the environmental and the economic.
Not much has changed since the 1980s. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently defined sustainable development as the ‘integration of economic growth, social justice and environmental stewardship’. The three pillars are explicit and obvious in his words, as they are in most places you see sustainability discussed and practised. The ‘triple bottom line’, in which a business may forgo additional profits (the economic bottom line) to reinvest in worker training (social) or improved efficiency that reduces resource waste (environmental), is another example of three pillar thinking at work.
Does this model go far enough, however, and capture everything that we need it to?
Firstly, there’s a lot to be said in the framework’s defence. For one, it includes a hell of a lot. There’s not much we couldn’t categorise into these three areas. A focus on environmental sustainability alone is doomed to failure, so the incorporation of other critical areas like social justice and equitable economic growth is a vast improvement. It has the additional advantage of simplifying horrendously complex problems, enabling a clear path forward that promotes tangible action.
Despite these strengths, and the enduring popularity of three pillar thinking over the last four decades, I’d argue that some important elements of this movement are still being left out. Australian Jon Hawkes helped start this conversation over 15 years ago, in his work The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability. Hawkes wants to add culture as a fourth pillar. He argues that without including it explicitly in the conversation, sustainability initiatives are doomed in much the same way that environmental-only programs once were. This same argument is echoed by the many ANU academics specialising in the field of ‘human ecology’, an interdisciplinary school of thought that marries the study of ecology to the study of human culture.
Why is culture important, though? Consider as an example the culture of cat ownership in Australia. In 2013 The Australian Geographic published statistics showing that 48 percent of Australian households own a cat, the highest percentage globally. These same cats are linked to the extinction of nine bird species in Australia, and the endangerment of over 30 others. The same story plays out elsewhere; in the US free-ranging and feral cats account for over 12 billion mammal deaths each year, many of which are native. These cats aren’t usefully killing invasive species that disrupt ecosystems. They are the disruptive ones, undermining other native species footholds in an ecosystem in which they can play important ecological roles.
Most of us aren’t aware of this reality, or we choose to sideline it. We pass around memes and aww-inducing gifs of our fuzzy, cute friends, struggling to imagine that these cats are also natural born killers going full Mickey Knox in our backyards . It’s hard for us to imagine environmental consequences because we’ve normalised cat ownership within our culture. After all, this culture has an incredibly long history, extending back 10 thousand years to their first domestication in the Middle East. Ten thousand years of doing the same thing is a difficult habit to break; a cultural norm that is hard to re-assess in the cold light of day, against the backdrop of a rising native species body count.
These same themes play out in even bigger ways when it comes to other cultural norms. Ruby Smyth’s excellent Woroni article, Start with your Plate, tackled culture as it relates to the normalisation of meat-eating – a tradition even older and more ingrained than that of owning cats, and far more destructive. However, time isn’t necessarily a factor. Modern mass consumption is quite new, yet it is profoundly entrenched and particularly dangerous to our continued survival for that same reason.
Now, imagine you’re a sustainability expert within the UN or a national government. You’re tasked with tackling these kinds of problems, and you’re armed with only the ‘three pillars’ framework. Where do you begin? You might argue that cat ownership, meat eating and consumerism are ultimately social problems (and consequently categorise them into that pillar). You’d not be completely wrong, of course, but what we’re really dealing with here is a cultural issue too, no?
This is a realisation embodied by the Aaroh campaign and Oxfam’s work in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The problem they tackle is different, yet fundamentally similar. Approximately 160 million women living in rural India have agricultural jobs. Despite their huge contributions to agricultural productivity, only one percent of these women have access to agricultural training, only two percent have access to credit, and only six percent own the land they work on. Why is this? For the most part, it’s cultural norms and tradition – women are not seen as farmers. To tackle this issue, the Aaroh campaign and Oxfam spent years focusing on building social acceptance for women as farmers. Only then, once they’d made progress on the cultural front, did they shift gears to advocating for land ownership. Before tackling the ‘three pillars’, they tackled a fourth – culture.
Closer to home, ANU’s Kioloa coastal campus houses thousand-year-old middens on the beach, which I had the immense privilege of standing before on a field trip. ANU preserves these sites and is clearly dedicated to providing the lessons they teach well into the future. What is the significance of these to us? Their main value is not derived from potential economic gain, environmental importance, or social impact. Their primary value is in offering a glimpse into a civilisations’ history and culture.
While modern sustainability is doing good things, the framework we’re often using is decades old. It needs serious updates and expansions. Until we start integrating other ‘pillars’ such as culture, we’re going to leave some important things out and struggle to affect positive change as a result. Furthermore, culture is just one consideration of many. Sustainability is a truly interdisciplinary undertaking!