Shaping A Sustainable Future

--Professor Ian Rowe

What does sustainability mean?

There is now a widespread view that we should be aiming to achieve sustainability or sustainable development, but equally widespread confusion about the process for achieving such a goal. In discussions of the issue at conferences, meetings and informal gatherings since the 1980s, I have been struck by two things: the enormous support for the principle of sustainability and the considerable uncertainty about the steps toward it. If we accept as a minimalist position the Brundtland view (WCED, 1987), that sustainability involves meeting our needs in ways that do not reduce the capacity of future generations to meet their needs, there are clearly three dimensions to sustainability: resources, environment and social stability. We should not be eroding the resource base, since that reduces the resources available to future generations. We should not be damaging the natural environment in ways that affect the capacity of future generations to meet their needs for potable water, breathable air, food that is adequate in quantity and quality, the spiritual sustenance we obtain from the natural world, and so on. In those terms, changing the global climate in substantial ways is clearly problematic. Finally, we should bear in mind that sustainability requires a stable social system. So we need to ensure more equitable access to the material benefits of modern society, since real or imagined injustice is always a source of tension and social instability.

The 1996 report on the state of the environment (SoEAC, 1996) concluded that progress toward sustainable development requires integrating ecological thinking into all social and economic planning. Traditional thinking is still based on the pig-headed model, which sees the economy as the main game, with social and environmental issues peripheral (Lowe, 1994; Kelly, 2001). A more appropriate way to see the world is the concentric rings model. This recognises that the economy is an important part of society, but only a part; we all expect from society important things which are not part of the economy, such as a sense of cultural identity, security, a sense of place and so on. Similarly, our society is totally enclosed within natural ecosystems, on which we depend for essential support services of breathable air, drinkable water and food as well as less tangible benefits. So economic planning should be seen as a part of social planning, meaning that such social goals as reducing poverty cannot simply be assumed to follow inevitably from economic growth, and our social planning must be contained within a context of the sustainability of the natural systems of our region. That is the basis of sustainable development. Australian studies (Krockenberger et al, 2000; Yecken & Wilkinson, 2000) and global analyses (UNEP, 1999; NRC, 1999) conclude that a transition to sustainability will involve significant changes.

The resource base

We are clearly eroding the resource base of future generations. As one extreme example, our transport system is almost totally dependent on a non-renewable resource which is now expected to decline in availability from a peak in about twelve years time (Fleay, 1997). There is room to be sceptical about our ability to model something as complex as the amount of oil we will eventually extract, as it is affected by technology and the price people are prepared to pay, but there is no realistic prospect of ever again finding oil deposits like the massive fields in the Middle East which have fuelled our transport this century. We should be planning now for the transition out of the age of cheap and abundant oil, as is recognised by some oil majors and leading motor vehicle companies. This will be both a physical and a mental transition. Remarkably, we have such little concern for this that there is active competition between major political parties to guarantee lower prices for petroleum fuels, at a time when those prices are already lower than anywhere in the OECD except North America. In fact, Australians pay less per litre for petroleum fuels than they pay for beer, or cask wine, or orange juice, or milk - all of which can be produced sustainably at present levels. There is no absolute shortage of energy resources. The solar energy hitting Australia in one summer day is of the same order of magnitude as the total world energy use for a year (Lowe, 1993). There is, however, a limited stock of the energy resource which has unique properties as a transport fuel because of its very high energy density. Our profligate use of oil is quite irresponsible and is certainly closing some options for future generations.

Another significant resource issue for Australia is water. The current level of approved extraction from the Murray-Darling system is over 80 per cent of the average annual flow to the sea (SoEAC, 1996). Because Australia has both the lowest rainfall and the most irregular rainfall of any inhabited continent, we have an unusually low level of run-off. The Murray-Darling Basin is roughly the same area as the Mississippi and Amazon basins, which have respectively about ten times and about one hundred times the flow of the local river system. A large fraction of Australia is dependent on groundwater, but the peak of extraction from the Great Artesian Basin was reached more than eighty years ago, and we now only extract about one-third of that peak level (Ibid). So many of our inland communities do not have sustainable water resources.

There are other significant resource issues. While Australia is currently a large exporter of food and fibre, the production process is not sustainable. We live in an old and heavily weathered continent with very low rates of soil formation, but past practices of using the land have caused high rates of erosion. With about 5 per cent of the world's land area, we account for about 20 per cent of the world's soil loss (Ibid). To express the same problem another way, we are losing soil at about one million times the rate of soil formation. As well as losing soil, we have also degraded a significant fraction of our rangelands by over-grazing and the introduction of exotic species (Ibid). In that sense, we are not using our productive land sustainably.

Broad environmental issues

Australia has some very serious environmental problems that require urgent attention (SoEAC, 1996). Probably the most fundamental is the loss of biological diversity, mainly caused by the destruction of habitat. We have a very bad record of mammal extinctions, and significant fractions of other kinds of native plants and animals are endangered. This is not just a local problem but also a global issue, as an unusually high proportion of our native species are not found anywhere else on the planet, so the local loss of biodiversity is also a global loss. The health and resilience of local ecological systems is now seriously threatened, as is especially clear in the case of our inland rivers (Ibid).

Our serious environmental problems do not have simple causes. They are the combined effect of the growth and distribution of the human population, our lifestyle choices, the technologies we use and the demands they make on natural systems (Ibid). That conclusion could be paraphrased by saying that our communities are not interacting in a sustainable way with the natural systems of this country. The problem is getting worse because we are not just expanding the size of our population but also increasing the resource demands and environmental costs per person, causing a compounding cascade of impacts on natural systems. For example, water use per person is much greater now than it was thirty years ago, as is the level of waste produced per person; in the case of Sydney, these flows increased 25-30 per cent from 1970 to 1990 (Ibid). So we are putting inexorably increasing pressure on natural systems that are already clearly under stress.

Energy supply and use is associated with a range of environmental impacts. The most serious include the local consequences of mining and combustion of coal, the hazards of transporting petroleum fuels and the air quality implications of their use in urban areas. The use of nuclear fuels poses environmental risks on an enormous time scale, hundreds of times the life of any human civilisation. Arguably the most serious environmental problem the world now faces, global climate change, is a direct result of the massive use of fossil fuels. The science shows that stabilising the global atmosphere would require the reduction of emissions of carbon dioxide to about 40 per cent of the present level. There is no obvious way to achieve this scale of reduction in the foreseeable future, given the legitimate development aspirations of poorer parts of the world and the less legitimate consumption patterns in the world's affluent nations [including Australia]. The approach of successive Australian governments to the climate change issue has been based on the assumption that taking action can only be justified if it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt to produce economic gains as well as environmental benefits. This is not a test that is applied to other areas of policy such as changes to the taxation system, reduction of tariffs, sale of public assets, forcing households into private health schemes or reducing the national investment in research, so it is difficult to make a rational case for applying it to the issue of climate change. Although the Australian government obtained a uniquely generous target at the Kyoto conference by effectively threatening to sabotage the entire process, and negotiated further concessions in the recent Bonn meeting, we appear unlikely to meet even our revised target. There is neither a sense of urgency in Canberra nor a coherent strategic approach to the problem. A more responsible response is discussed below.

Social issues

Many of our communities do not appear to be socially sustainable. A sustainable community would be secure, healthy and equitable, with a clear sense of place. Our human settlements are often inequitable, insecure and unhealthy, with no sense of place. These are very serious problems.

One hundred years ago, Australia was one of the most equitable societies. I was shocked to see that a recent inequity index ranked us as the fourth worst in the developed world. The change has been achieved by the steady but systematic erosion of public education, health care and other services. The old system was not completely equitable, because the standards of such services as education and health care varied from place, so that Jones (1982) was able to observe that the best indicator of an Australian child's life chances was the postcode of its parents. The recent erosion of public provisions in favour of a private-purchaser model has systematically and inevitably increased inequity.

Insecurity is manifest in higher levels of crime, calls for greater levels of public spending on police services, and higher levels of defensive expenditure on alarm systems, guard dogs and private security officers. The extreme evidence of insecurity was the growing level of ownership of guns, eventually leading to political pressure to curb the worst excesses of the move to an armed society.

We have systematically improved community health by eliminating the infectious diseases which were the major cause of death a hundred years ago, and dietary changes in the last thirty years have significantly reduced the problem of coronary heart disease among middle-aged men (Hetzel and McMichael, 1985). But a new range of health problems has arisen - accidents and suicide are killing large numbers of young people, while cancers are now a serious problem among older people (Baum, 1998). It has been recently suggested that as many as 70 per cent of deaths under the age of 75 are preventable, being due to lifestyle choices such as aggressive driving, drink-driving, smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise (Tobias & Jackson, 2001; McElduff & Dobson, 2000). Mass media actively promote the lifestyle choices which impose these needless health risks.

Globalisation has directly caused the withdrawal of many services once routinely provided in local communities, such as banking and postal services, reinforcing a spiral of decline. It has indirectly eroded the sense of Australian identity as media outlets dispense a crass Californian materialism, the effects of which are evident in the dress, the speech and the values of young people. The decline of traditional religions has left a moral and spiritual vacuum, which can hardly be a secure foundation for sustainable communities. A new moral and spiritual base may be developing around our growing respect for nature (Lovelock, 1988), but that certainly does not yet have a secure place in our society. Luyckx and Cleveland (1999) argue that the world is in transition to a "trans-modern" way of thinking that combines intuition and spirituality with rational analysis. This suggests that the crucial conflicts of this century will not be between cultures but within them, between the pre-modern, modern and trans-modern views.

Finally, a sustainable community needs economic security. Some areas of economic activity have disappeared [whaling], declined [forestry] or are in decline [some types of agricultural production] because they used natural resources unsustainably. Other activities are in decline because of changes in world demand [wool] or ideological choices by governments [textiles, clothing and footwear, electricity supply, provision of telecommunications]. Technological change has dramatically reduced the labour demands of some types of economic activity, obviously including farming. All these changes have reduced the economic security of many rural communities.

The economic base

As discussed above, the economic base of many rural communities has been eroded by a combination of technological change, unsustainable resource use and ideology. As a fundamental point, a secure economic foundation will only be possible if it is based on sustainable use of natural systems. While that is a necessary condition, it is not sufficient to ensure a solid economic base. A community that used few natural resources and produced nothing of economic value could be living within the limits of its natural systems, but would not have a secure economic future. The most important economic resource for any community today is the education and skills level of its workforce. I therefore believe that the best investment any community can make in its economic future is to educate its young people to the full extent of their abilities. This is a principle we abandoned some time ago in Australia. A related requirement for economic security is innovation, a product of a solid research and development base and a culture of innovation. We are not seriously committed to either (Jones, 1996) and recent calls to change our approach (Batterham, 2000) have produced only a superficial political response (Howard, 2001).

Australia's enduring economic problem is the trading pattern of a Third World country, exporting raw materials and importing value-added goods and services. The inevitable direction of technological change is that steadily smaller and smaller quantities of raw materials are transformed by increasing amounts of ingenuity and inventiveness into more and more expensive products. Those firms and countries which sell raw materials and buy the products are swimming against the economic tide of history. If we were serious about our economic future we would be trying to become what a former Prime Minister called "the clever country" by investing in education and innovation, as well as providing incentives for the sorts of economic activities that might be sustainable. Instead we are steadily running down our universities and research organisations, while continuing to provide large public subsidies for activities that are not sustainable. It is hard to see how that could form the basis for a sustainable community.

Planning a sustainable future

If we want to have sustainable communities, we need to take conscious steps to achieve that goal, rather than hoping it will be produced by the magic of market forces. The notion of planning has fallen into disfavour as a result of a particularly blinkered view of economics, essentially a naïve infatuation with market forces. The allocation of limited resources by a market leads to economically efficient outcomes. However, there are serious limitations to this approach. Markets take no account of ability to pay, so they take no account of equity; indeed, the allocation of any scarce resource by a market is almost certain to increase inequity. Markets take no account of the social impacts of the distribution of resources, unless the social impacts are severe enough to influence consumer behaviour. Market economics systematically discounts the future, for the economically rational reason that a dollar today is more valuable than a dollar in five years time. The problem that results is that costs and benefits ten, twenty or thirty years down the track are systematically discounted, leading to resource allocations that are not optimal. As an extreme example, it has been seriously argued that it made economic sense to hunt whales to extinction rather than killing them [or "harvesting" them] at a sustainable rate because the net present value was greater! Even if this anthropocentric argument were morally acceptable and we saw whales solely as an economic resource to be "harvested", it is a ludicrously short-sighted conclusion.

The same logic makes it appear sensible to impose huge financial costs on future generations, for example by producing nuclear waste which will have to be stored for hundreds of thousands of years, by discounting those costs to negligible present values. This discussion illustrates the fundamental flaw of the market approach to natural resource decisions. There are two groups crucially affected by our choices that cannot even in principle express their preferences in today's market: all other species and all future generations. Leaving the use of natural resources to the market implicitly presumes that the wishes of this generation are more important than the needs of all future generations and all other species. That is a morally untenable position - and clearly in conflict with even the Brundtland definition of sustainability. If we go further and define sustainability either in fundamental terms, as the ability to be sustained, or in such operational terms as meeting the needs of the human population while maintaining the life support systems of the planet (NRC, 1999), the market approach is ludicrous.

Refining the knowledge base

As many of the present problems we face are the direct consequence of applying what had previously been expert knowledge, it is clear that the transition to sustainability will require improved understanding of the interactions between natural and social systems. The need has led to the emergence of the new field of sustainability science.

"A growing body of evidence and experience suggests that the needed understanding must encompass the interaction of global processes with the ecological and social characteristics of particular places and sectors. The regional character of much of what sustainability science is trying to explain means that relevant research will have to learn how to integrate the effects of key processes across the full range of scales from local to global. It will also require fundamental advances in our ability to address such issues as the behaviour of complex self-organising systems, the responses, some irreversible, of the nature-society system to multiple and interacting stresses, and the options for combining different ways of knowing and learning so that social actors with different agenda can act in concert under conditions of uncertainty and limited information." (Kates et al, 2001).

The recent Friibergh workshop on sustainability science developed an initial set of core questions. They call for new approaches to scientific inquiry, such as inverse approaches that start from outcomes which should be avoided and work backward to identify relatively safe corridors of action, or semi-qualitative representation of entire classes of dynamical behaviour. The crucial point is that our present knowledge base does not enable us to identify with any confidence courses of action that are certain to be sustainable, so the goal of sustainability will require a significant investment in improving our understanding of the complex interactions between social and natural systems.

A sustainable energy strategy

The achievement of sustainable energy supply and use requires two fundamental changes in the medium term: a move away from supply technologies that are based on limited resources or impose unacceptable environmental costs, and a commitment to improving the technologies which transform energy to produce the goods and services that are needed or desired by a modern society. Thus we should be developing a strategy for transport in the coming post-petroleum age, steadily reducing our dependence on coal for electricity generation and moving to much greater use of renewable energy supply technologies. More importantly, we should set targets for improving the efficiency of energy use in appliances, transport vehicles, buildings and industrial production. Only the energy-intensive industries, for which energy is a significant cost, have made serious efforts to use energy efficiently, and much of our present technology is almost laughably inefficient. Many of the domestic appliances on the Australian market could not legally be sold in many European countries, while the fuel efficiency of our vehicle fleet is very poor by world standards - and being worsened by the 4WD fad. A series of case studies uniformly suggest that economies in resource use of a factor of four are achievable now, with factors of ten being reasonable "stretch targets" in many areas. This is the most urgent priority for technological improvement in the early decades of this century. There is no doubt that we can move toward a much more sustainable pattern of energy use, if there is the social momentum and political will to do so. It is a moral choice.


If you were booked on the Titanic and knew what was going to happen, you would have had two rational choices. One option would be to live well, eat expensive food and drink the best vintage champagne on credit, secure in the knowledge that your cheque would never reach the bank. A more ethical choice would be to try to persuade the captain to change course, enlisting the support of other passengers if the captain resisted your argument. In ecological terms, we are booked on the Titanic and heading for the iceberg. Some people who understand this are simply enjoying the good life while they can, while others are effectively urging the engine room to move us faster forward. If we accept that we have a responsibility to future generations to try to achieve sustainability, we need to change course. We need to take account of resource demands of our choices, to be aware of the impacts on natural systems, and to take the hard decisions in our personal and professional lives that will produce communities which are sustainable in social terms. I believe we should aim for a HEALTHIER future.

The HEALTHIER future is one that is Humane, has an Ecocentric Approach and a Long Time Horizon, is Innovative, Efficient and Resourced. It will be Humane in the way it treats the ten million or so other species with which we share this planet. It will have an Ecocentric Approach because it will recognise that our future is bound up with the future of the natural systems of the planet, its biodiversity and its ecological integrity. It will have a Long Time Horizon, recognising that our decisions have impacts stretching many decades into the future; we should routinely ask ourselves what our choices will look like in fifty years! It will be Innovative because our current technology is not good enough to supply at acceptable cost the needs of a population that is still growing. It will be more Efficient in its use of resources and energy because much of the technology we use today is still alarmingly primitive, from the light bulb to the car . Finally, it will be Resourced because we will have planned ahead for smooth transitions away from those resources which are running short [most obviously oil] to those which are abundant [most obviously solar energy and its derivatives.

The HEALTHIER future is a utopian vision, but so was a world without slavery 200 years ago, so was voting for all adults 100 years ago, and so 15 years ago was South Africa without apartheid and Berlin without the wall - as was, for that matter, good coffee and civilised licensing laws in Brisbane! Many things we take for granted today, from social rights to technical services, were once utopian visions. Since we are creating the future, we should be striving to make it sustainable. Our science gives us better understanding than ever before of the natural world and our impacts on it. Our technology gives us unprecedented capacity to change the world to meet our needs and suit our desires. Our humanity requires us to use that scientific understanding and that technological capacity to develop a sustainable society. That is our moral responsibility to future generations.


R.Batterham (2000), A Chance to Change, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra

F.Baum (1998), The New Public Health, Oxford University Press, Melbourne

B.Hetzel and A.J.McMichael (1985), The LS Factor, Penguin Books, Ringwood

J.Howard (2001), Investing in Innovation, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra

B.O.Jones (1982/96), Sleepers, Wake!, Oxford University Press, Melbourne

R.W.Kates, W.C.Clark, R.Correll, J.M.Hall, C.C.Jaeger, I.Lowe, J.J.McCarthy, H-J.Schellnhuber, B.Bolin, N.M.Dickson, S.Faucheux, G.C.Gallopin, A.Gruebler, B.Huntley, J.Jager, N.S.Nodha, R.E.Kasperson, A.Mabogunje, P.Matson, H.Mooney, B.Moore, T.O'Riordan & U.Svedin (2001), Sustainability Science, Science 292, 641-642

P.Kelly (2001), pers. com.

M.Krockenberger, P.Kinrade & R.Thorman (2000), Natural Advantage: Blueprint for a Sustainable Australia, Australian Conservation Foundation, Melbourne

J.Lovelock (1988), The Ages of GAIA, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Lowe, I. (1993) 'Towards a new sunrise - Prospects for renewable energy', Consuming Interest January, 1993: 11.

I.Lowe (1994), Performance Measurement, Proceedings of the Fenner Conference, Canberra, November 1994

M.Luckyx & H.Cleveland (1999), The Trans-modern Hypothesis, submitted to Futures

National Research Council[of USA] (1999), Our Common Journey - a transition toward Sustainability, National Academy Press, Washington

State of the Environment Advisory Council (1996), State of the Environment Australia 1996, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood

M.Tobias & G.Jackson (2001), Avoidable Mortality in New Zealand 1981-97, Australia and New Zealand J.Public Health 25, 12-20

United Nations Environment Program (1999), Global Environmental Outlook 2000, Earthscan Publications, London

World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford

D.Yencken & D.Wilkinson (2000), Re-setting the Compass: Australia's Journey Toward Sustainability, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood