defining sustainability

…is essential to enable us to widely engage in dialogue and design a shared future together – views on ‘sustainability’ vary widely…

‘old man’ Ficus tree in a Sydney park

Climate Change and ‘sustainability’ discourse

“If delusion is a fixed, false belief resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact, then the public conversation in Australia on global warming can only be so described” (Spratt, D. 2008:27)

Climate Change is part of the larger issue of sustainability, and is intertwined and interdependent with many of the other environmental concerns like pollution, loss of biodiversity and deforestation. There have increasingly been warnings of “a multi-issue crisis of sustainability that incorporates food, water, peak oil, and global warming” (Spratt, D. & Sutton, P. 2008:151)

The history of environmental philosophy, politics and discourse has a depth and breadth that cannot be discussed here – however a few brief comments will suffice to place this research in context.

As far back as the 1970s people were questioning the dominant economic growth paradigm, with books like ‘The limits to growth’ by D.H. Meadows, D.L. Meadows, J. Randers, and W. Behrens in 1972; and ‘Small is Beautiful: Economics as if people matered’ by E.F. Schumacher in 1973; drawing widespread attention and debate.

Of course, similar concerns had been expressed by Malthus as far back as 1798 – but he was a lone voice back then. Today there are a range of views in sustainability discourse, from the scientific; to the ‘sustainable development’ spoken of by industry and government; to ‘systems thinking’; alternative viewpoints suggested by ecofeminism and permaculture; and then those who advocate simple individual change.

sunset over False Bay, South Africa
sunset over False Bay, South Africa

 Scientific sustainability discourse

“In order for a society to be sustainable, Nature’s functions and diversity must not be systematically impoverished by physical displacement, over-harvesting or other forms of ecosystem manipulation” (Suzuki, D. & Dressel, H., 2002:19)

Scientists, like those from the Natural Step, who formulated the influential definition above (used in ‘lifecycle analysis’), define sustainability from the perspective of their studies of ecosystems and global patterns.

With climate change, the global carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and water cycles are of particular relevance, as a disturbance in many of these (compared to previous patterns) are the main causes for concern. These are also the fundamental natural cycles maintaining life on our planet, in a myriad of ways, affecting not only climate, but the soils and oceans which sustain us.

The scientific discourse on sustainability needs to be taken seriously, to inform people of the nature of the issues and possible solutions; and then the political, economic and community discourses need to be employed in debating and implementing these.

Sustainability is about more than balanced ecosystems however- it includes social and cultural sustainability too – in other words health, employment, education, social justice, community and respect for diversity are al recognised as essential components (Yencken, D. & Wilkinson, D., 2000:12).

fragile ecosystems – wildflowers in the Western Cape, South Africa

‘Sustainable development’

At the United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, which became known as the ‘Stockholm conference’, the environment was first discussed as a global policy issue. However, the discourse was divided between ‘North’ (developed countries) and ‘South’ (less developed countries), and viewed the ‘pollution of poverty’ as the core issue to address – which resulted in a focus on economic growth as the solution (Clapp & Dauvergne 2005:56).

By 1987 the ‘Brundtland report’, issued by the Brundtland Commission (formally the World Commission on Environment and Development or WCED, convened by the UN), added to this discourse the concept of ‘sustainable development’, or

“meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987).

This has since become known as the ‘Brundtland compromise’ (Clapp & Dauvergne, 2005:61,81) by the many scientists and environmentalists who question the concept of ‘sustainable development’ as a contradiction in terms – since infinite development is not possible on a planet with finite resources. The discourse of economic growth, unfettered by human or environmental concerns and costs has therefore always been a contested concept – if only on the fringes of mainstream debates.

By the time thousands of anti-globalisation protesters converged on Seatle in 1999 outside the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meetings, it was clear that many blamed global economic institutions for aggravating environmental and social injustice (Clapp & Dauvergne, 2005:67).

The last time the UN called a ‘World Summit on Sustainable Development’, it was held in Johannesburg in 2002, but resulted in such cynicism and disillusionment for many – because of the clash of views, the ‘North-South’ divide in the debates, and the noncommital nature of the end statements by most countries – that there have been no further plans for an international summit of this nature in the near future (Clapp & Dauvergne, 2005:70).

In recent years ‘Ecologically Sustainable Development’ (ESD) principles have been adopted by all governments in Australia, and include reference to the precautionary principle: “where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation” (Yencken & Wilkinson, 2000:10)

The National Strategy for ESD adopted in Australia has the stated goal of: “development that improves the total quality of life, both now and in the future, in a way that maintains the ecological processes on which life depends” (Yencken & Wilkinson, 2000:320).

Some also place an emphasis on the social importance of ‘development’ – with the goal of ecological sustainability “while maximising human welfare – material, psychological and spiritual well-being” (Yencken & Wilkinson, 2000:317) – however even this discourse usually favours development over non-development.

Paihia beach in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

The ‘four pillars’ of sustainability

The adoption of ‘sustainable development’ around the world has been continuously extended to include other concerns, and is now said to have four ‘pillars’ – ecological, economic, social and cultural sustainability all need to be considered and balanced to achieve sustainability.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) includes the following categories within the scope of sustainability –

– Society: Human Rights, Peace and Human Security, Gender Equality, Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Understanding, Health, HIV and AIDS, Governance;

– Environment: Natural Resources, Climate Change, Rural Development, Sustainable Urbanisation, Disaster Prevention and Mitigation; and

– Economy: Poverty Reduction, Corporate Responsibility and Accountability, Market Economy.

(Bird, E., Lutz, R. & Warwick, C., UNESCO, 2008)

Yet these assessments, from reputable international agencies, remain dire:

significant environmental problems remain deeply embedded in the socio- economic fabric of nations in al societies” (UNEP in Yencken & Wilkinson 2000:26);


the world is in a crisis of such magnitude that it threatens the fabric of civilisation and the survival of the species – a world of rapidly growing inequality, erosion of relationships of trust and caring, and failing planetary life support systems’” (The International Forum on Globalisation in Clapp & Dauvergne 2005:36).

Knysna rainforest, South Africa

Systems thinking approaches

Systems thinking is a discipline which assesses the whole system and the inter-relationships between its components, rather than isolating each – a holistic framework which enables observation of the patterns of change in a system, and a problem solving approach which acknowledges complexity.

Within this framework climate change is seen as a ‘wicked’ problem (Horst & Rittel 1973), as it is hard to define, solve, or untangle (complexity); has multiple causes and actors (conflict and controversy); we are unsure of its urgency, but know it is serious (disempowering); and it feels out of our control (interdependence and non-linear thinking).

Wicked problems defy attempts at linear resolution, as the very definition of the problem keeps metamorphosing as various solutions are analysed or implemented (Rittel & Webber in Moser, S.C. & Dilling, L. 2007:489). Clearly this makes systems thinking a relevant framework for assessing sustainability in general, and climate change specifically, as these are issues involving multiple systems and layers of interaction.

When applied to the issue of climate change it is especially liberating and empowering – we are reminded that we just need to start somewhere and we can admit we don’t know, but start with what we do. In the absence of a complete solution or universal consensus (neither of which are possible), small changes can be agreed upon as an improvement, and a step in the right direction.

In this way, we ‘learn through it’, instead of waiting for the so-called ‘experts’ and ever elusive ‘magic bulet’ solutions. According to systems thinking, the effectiveness of a system will be an ‘emergent property’ of all interaction in the system.

Orewa beach, New Zealand


According to ecofeminists, what Vandana Shiva calls the “‘sustenance economy’, where life is nourished, maintained, and renewed”, has been destroyed by the curent paterns of globalisation and free trade, which privilege capital exchange over living processes, and the rights of corporations over the rights of people (Shiva, V. 2005:14).

From this viewpoint, the global market is “disembodied” and “decontextualised” – whereas the ‘sustenance economy’ operates in balance with nature, and through partnerships, mutuality and reciprocity (Shiva, V. 2005:17,19).

Shiva advocates a return to “people-centered economic systems” and “living economies” – based on the “creativity, intelligence and self-organising activities” of human beings, and mimicking “nature’s diversity, self-organisation, and complexity” (Shiva, V. 2005:72).

Ecofeminists see the destruction of nature as an extension of the domination over women, and indigenous or marginalised people groups. These views are closely aligned with theories of peace and peaceful societies, as sustainability would require the whole society and its interaction with the natural world to be just, equitable and peaceful.

Greyton river, Western Cape, South Africa


Permaculture is proposed as an alternative worldview, “an ethical design process for a sustainable lifestyle. It uses methods gleaned from everywhere…It is grounded in the basic laws of nature and in common sense” (Lillington, I., 2007:16).

The research of Molison and Holmgren, co-originators of the permaculture concept, observed similar ethics at the foundation of every traditional society, for example, only hunting and harvesting certain foods at certain times, to ensure sustainability for the coming years or next generations (Lillington, I., 2007:24). Also, “co-operation, not competition is the key” (Mollison in Lillington 2007:24).

Permaculture is based on twelve core principles, with some of the key concepts being local energy capture and storage, local economies and supplies, being connected to nature and learning from it, and simpler lifestyles (Lillington 2007:12).

Proponents of permaculture also note the prominent role of women in attaining a more sustainable culture in the future – and advocate a return to traditional patterns of domestic life, childcare and education; connection to nature and seasonal cycles; gardening and rearing animals; community support and interdependence; and other simple, even ‘mundane’ activities (Holmgren, D. 2002:268).

Advocates envision major adjustments like setting limits to consumption and production, and redistributing surplus (Holmgren, D. 2002:8-10); and a “future sustainable culture” emerging from bioregional political and economic structures, with a biogenetically and culturally cross-fertilised population, “giving natural hybrid vigour” (Holmgren, D. 2002:48).

The Canadian Environmental Scientist, David Suzuki, has commented that “what permaculturists are doing is the most important activity that any group is doing on the planet” (David Suzuki in Lillington 2007:9).

However, individual change and action is seen as the key to this transformation – “Permaculture is a positive and practical antidote to the global environmental crisis and the feeling that individuals are powerless to do anything about it. We can each take smal, local actions” (Lillington 2007:78).

The permaculture movement is concerned with “facilitating individuals, households and communities in increasing self-reliance and self-regulation” (Holmgren 2002:80). Holmgren believes in targeting the minority of socially and environmentaly motivated people who he believes are ready, wiling and able to substantially change their own behaviour, and who will become catalysts for large-scale change  (Holmgren 2002:80).

Manly beach, Sydney, Australia

Individual agency

Many others advocate personal transformation as the catalyst for greater social change, citing the ‘hundredth monkey’ story or ‘Tipping Point’ theory – where a certain number of people adopting a new environmental behaviour will gather momentum until it becomes normal practice.

In many ways this could be illustrated as an effective approach – and even individual lifestyle choices, like cutting down on meat consumption, would make a huge difference to the environment, as the amount of water and grain used to raise livestock is phenomenal.

At the same time, this would reap rewards in terms of personal health – it has been shown that the life expectancy of people in Mediterranean countries, for example, is higher than that of Americans, due to their diet being rich in starches, fresh fruit and vegetables, and only moderate amounts of meat (Brown, L.R. 2001:166).

A groundswell of community initiatives could make a substantial difference – 25% of Australian GHG emissions are from private travel and energy use (Spratt & Sutton 2008:244).

Therefore the ongoing debate in social sciences between ‘agency’ and ‘structure’ as the focus for change is expressed within sustainability discourse as the dilemma between the need for personal adjustments (‘agency’) – some of which may be inhibited by the available choices and policies (‘structure’) – and the need to make important changes to the overarching structures themselves.

It is important to note that climate change cannot be prevented by personal lifestyle changes alone – but requires global environmental agreements, national government polices, and substantial industry action – as the biggest causes of climate change relate to high level economic activities and policies.

frangipani flower

‘Sustainability’, like ‘nonviolence’ is a way of life

Like the Industrial Revolution, the ‘Environmental Revolution’ some are seeking would be dependent on a shift to a new energy source (Brown 2001:93). Although a mammoth task, it is more possible than the current discourse by the black energy industry, and the politicians who are heavily subsidised by them, would have us believe:

If the money spent on oil in one year were invested in wind turbines, the electricity generated would be enough to meet one fifth of the world’s needs” – and “these ‘wells’ will not run dry” (Brown 2001:94).

Also, as energy sources such as sunlight and wind are widely distributed, rather than concentrated in a handful of oil and coal rich countries, the move to renewable energy would mean a considerable stabilisation of the world’s curent political situation (Brown 2001:84).

In the discourse of peace studies, ‘nonviolence’ as practiced by Gandhi and others, is a way of life, a peaceful journey rather than a destination called ‘peace’ – as it requires continual engagement with the inevitable conflicts encountered in life, by nonviolent means.

At many levels of the sustainability debate, the interdependence of the environmental and social dimensions are well recognised – with many agreeing that “most of all, combating global warming needs to be a process of facing up to our relations with one another” (White 2008:16).

Also, in keeping with the attempt to keep these spheres firmly linked (social justice and environmental sustainability), many advocate that climate change policies need to place equal value on indigenous rights to access (Worth 2009:4-5). This again aligns with theories of peace and nonviolence, as “perhaps prison is anything that severs and alienates; paradise is the reclaimed commons with the fences thrown down; and so any step toward connection and communion is a step toward paradise” (Solnit 2007:8).

Furthermore, rich countries’ ineffective responses to climate change are an injustice – to those least responsible (in developing countries, and future generations), who will be most affected (Worth 2009:5-6). Reaching sustainability, like building a peaceful society, will therefore be a journey, with an emphasis on sustainable means or processes, not just on the end itself – since we will never be able to say we have ‘reached’ sustainability.

The journey is best made on a path involving life-enhancing, life-affirming, inclusive, respectful, transparent processes which create space for possibilities; leadership which is accountable, empowering and visionary; a paradigm change within education and industry; and efforts to create surroundings that afirm the spiritual and creative layers, and community spaces.

This would result in a way of life where each step is life-affirming and generous (giving, outward-focused), rather than inward-looking and self-serving; and ideally it would become a self-sustaining system, like a healthy ecosystem, where all give as much or even more than they take.

The specific expressions or means by which to make this journey will need to be envisioned, discussed and implemented by various nations and communities in ways that suit their particular needs and interests – therefore enabling this transition requires dialogue first, to ensure the inclusion of many and varied people groups and worldviews.

(Bibliography and References available on ‘further reading’ tab)

Comments and discussion welcomed

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s