Director, Policy and Strategy
Green Innovations Inc.
Tel & fax: +61 3 9486 4799
|28 August 2000 - Version 2.e-w:ii||
.GIF graphic by Martin Powell
(1) Although if species extinctions exceed the process of species creation for more than a short while we can be certain that society and the economy will suffer eventually.
(2) Although if social equity systematically declines for more than a short while we can be certain that the environment and the economy will suffer eventually.
People often talk about things being "more sustainable" or "less sustainable".
Something should be referred to as being sustainable if it is being managed so that it is indeed sustained (restored and maintained over time).
Sustainability is like being pregnant or alive or dead. You either are or you are not. So relative sustainability is a not a valid concept. Something is either sustained or sustainable or it's not.
So when people say something is "more sustainable" or "less sustainable" they probably mean one of the following things:
For example, there is something slightly ludicrous about saying that as a result of a new policy or practice a species or ecosystem is "more sustainable" if in fact the most likely outcome is that the decline of the system or species will now be merely less fast. Something that is continuing to decline is hardly sustainable!
So if we put in place a new environmental practice or policy and we don't know exacly what the result will be we should just say that we expect an improved environmental outcome.
Being clear about what sustainability means is a critical step towards making it possible to actually achieve a sustainable environment and society. So getting the ideas clear is not an academic or semantic indulgence but an intensely practical need.
What happens if something is not sustainable? It will cease (at some point) to exist. So unsustainability is the state of a thing or condition prior to its actual or expected extinction.
If the thing/condition that ceases to exist is of no great consequence then we need not worry too much about the earlier state of unsustainability. But if the extinction of the thing/condition actually matters - morally, ecologically, economically or socially - then its earlier state of unsustainability also matters.
In an evolving/developing/dynamic system things are constantly changing, which means that there is a constant flux of things/conditions ceasing to exist. We can't try to sustain every thing or condition otherwise we would have to freeze the world at a particular moment in time. However it makes sense to try to sustain some things/conditions - for practical or moral reasons eg. life support systems, economic productive power, social capacity for nurturance and problem solving (for practical reasons) or species (for moral and/or practical reasons).
If these things/conditions are worth sustaining, then their unsustainability matters. And therefore, for these things, the notion of treating the pursuit of sustainability as a journey not a destination is highly inappropriate ie. where the pursuit of sustainability is treated as a process of going through the motions to achieve minor gains [eg. some things are saved and the rate of decline in the rest is reduced somewhat] but where there is no expectation that sustainability, at a big-picture level, will be or can be achieved).
So for the things/conditions that matter, sustainability must be a destination, not just a journey. For things that don't matter we can please ourselves how we approach the sustainability effort (ie. as a destination, journey or both, or an issue of total disinterest!).
It is worth noting that treating a sustainable state as a destination doesn't mean that society cannot revise or refine its idea of what sustainability is at a future date. Even with everyday destinations an initial intention to go to the the fruit and vege shop doesn't preclude a later decision to go to the bank as well or to go to the supermarket instead!
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