What is Sustainability?

Gazing into the Abyss

Sustainability is the capacity for human society, the environment, and the global system of economics and governance to persist over time. 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.

Photograph: Jasper James/Stone Sub.

Photograph: Jasper James/Stone Sub

‘Sustainability’ involves solving complex problems from a holistic perspective that incorporates many viewpoints, and yet this approach is at times hampered by the history of the movement itself. Although there are elements within sustainability dating back to the Ancient Greeks and even earlier, the idea truly came to prominence during the 1970s, spurred into public consciousness by the broader momentum building within the environmentalist movement.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – widely credited for kick-starting modern environmentalism – had been released in 1962 and done much in the intervening years to raise awareness within the US and abroad that human activities were not only harming the planet, but also humans themselves. ‘Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves,’ Carson told a Senate Subcommittee in 1963, not long after the book’s publication.

In 1972, a decade after Carson’s best-selling book had sent reverberations around the world, Stockholm hosted what was arguably one of the first conferences relating directly to the idea of sustainability: The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. The result of the conference, among other things, was the Stockholm Declaration – a list of 26 principles intended to guide a new and more sustainable kind of development. Reading through that list of principles, the influence of the environmental movement is evident. There are perhaps only three principles that do not explicitly mention or concern themselves with the environment, which goes to show how the focus of early sustainability was far narrower than it is today.

This historical partnership with early environmentalism would have lasting implications for how sustainability was both conceived and interpreted. To this day, sustainability still struggles to move beyond the environmental in many people’s perceptions. In my limited personal experience, only a few people I speak with are familiar with the term, and fewer still recognise that it encompasses more than just the environment.

This, however, is hardly their fault. If you Google the term ‘sustainability’ you will encounter the word ‘environment’ everywhere you look. You will notice, for example, that sustainability-related projects in government are almost always overseen by their environmental departments. Within education, you’ll notice the subject is usually taught by environmental departments too – ANU’s own sustainability degree is offered by the College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, for example. The first hit I get on a Google search for ‘what is sustainability?’ is from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, and the article explains sustainability purely in environmental terms. It takes quite a bit more digging to realise that there is more to modern sustainability than caring for our environment.

Despite this narrow misconception of sustainability, for over 40 years now the UN and associated bodies have been expanding that earlier definition to be more inclusive of other equally important factors. By 1983 the UN’s Brundtland Commission was speaking about the idea in terms of the ‘three pillars’: the social, the economic, and the environmental.

Not much has changed in the intervening years. This ‘three pillars’ idea has remained since Brundtland, and cemented itself into the research, discourse and practice of mainstream sustainability. When organisations like governments and corporations practice sustainability, they typically do so using what’s known as the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ – a framework that encourages focusing on social and environmental outcomes in addition to the economic ‘bottom line’. The three pillars idea is explicit here, as it is elsewhere.

What are these three pillars, then, and what is sustainability as it relates to them? The idea is relatively simple: societies cannot achieve sustainability by focusing on the environment alone. We could, for example, achieve all the environmental goals laid out by the UN and others, yet still be living in an unsustainable world destined for collapse. A reduction in ocean acidification or the complete halt of biodiversity loss would only be a partial victory for sustainability so long as women around the world remain disempowered, poverty continues to destroy lives and economic inequality rises to dangerous and unprecedented levels.

These lingering unresolved issues would also risk creating situations that could unwind progress made elsewhere. If countries with alarming levels of economic inequality fall into civil unrest and even conflict, then the progress made on the environmental front is almost certain to slip. The US provides ample demonstration of this principle: economic inequality helped create the conditions in which a populist like Trump thrived. A largely unexpected electoral victory followed, and now an administration that shows indifference and hostility towards climate change occupies the White House.

Another way of looking at this is that achieving environmental outcomes depends hugely on taking a holistic approach. The social and economic impacts of environmental policy are often so significant that tackling just one ‘pillar’ in a vacuum dooms any such process to failure. Much of the pushback against environmental policy, particularly in Australia, is framed as an economic argument. As the arguments go, achieving environmental targets is no good for Australia if the cost is large-scale economic turmoil. The argument is not without merit, and echoes the complex interrelationship between the three pillars.

To wrap up then: sustainability is a movement with three core concerns of environmental responsibility, equitable economic growth, and social justice. Sustainable development (the practice of sustainability) aims to tackle each of these three pillars in a holistic, integrated, and interdisciplinary way that ensures progress made in one area does not cause regress in another. This idea sounds good in theory, and indeed much tangible progress has been made under this framework. As I’ll discuss throughout this column, however, there is more to sustainability than the three pillars and even within just these three areas there remain many challenges ahead.