The Truth of Sustainability

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green labyrinth with the shape of a question mark at its centre

As humanity struggles to get to grips with the issues before it in the 21st century, a range of ‘sustainabilities’ are being defined and spoken of – however all fall into two broad categories:

Safe Sustainability

The ‘safe’ species of sustainability, of which the intent is to maintain current human activity with a few green tweaks – namely promoting energy efficiency, purchasing greener products, and mitigating the worst aspects of the existing modus operandi that has brought us to where we are today.

It is typified by a focus on the ‘T’ element of the IPAT equation (where (Human) Impact = Population x Affluence, aka consumption x Technology, aka efficiency).

Resource efficiency through technical (T) improvement is the focus of ‘safe’ sustainability, despite the fact that overall expansion will negate any efficiency gains.

It treats sustainability as a technical and engineering challenge, not a social and cultural challenge.

It focuses on addressing the symptoms (like climate change), not causes of social and ecological disruption.

It does not dare to have an open, robust discussion about population and consumption issues in all countries.

It will not face the contradiction between its ‘eat more’ message of economic growth – increasing the numbers of people and the resources they need and want – and the ‘eat less’ message of use less energy, materials and water and create less waste.

‘Safe’ sustainability is a double headed monster, with each head trying to drag the body politic in opposite directions.

The result is inertia.

Savvy Sustainability

Then there is the sustainability which is prepared to face and tackle the uncomfortable, the contentious, the politically dangerous.

The sustainability that recognises we need systemic and political change as well as individual action.

The sustainability that acknowledges that climate change, which itself remains unresolved, is merely a symptom of the biggest conundrum facing humanity: the assumption that we can sustain the current 7 billion people on the planet on western industrial lifestyles when the planet – according to every scientific source from the IPCC to Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – is saying its not coping now.

The 21st century question is how to ensure that everyone has a good quality of life – of which material living standards are only a part – within the biophysical limits of one planet. Many people will need to raise their material standards of living to secure their basic needs and ensure their quality of life.

We cannot end extreme poverty unless we tackle this.

We cannot address climate change unless we tackle this.

Efficiency will buy us time, but will not address the other two elements of IPAT, the consumption and population issues which are so politically sensitive.

The discussion of limits challenges the policy position of all governments – economic growth. It would be tantamount to political suicide right now to question this consensus.

We must abandon safe sustainability and break these taboos before decision makers (not just politicians) will have the legitimacy to address it.

This is the sustainability ‘road less travelled’ right now – but it is the only way to effectively and fully address this great challenge we face.

Why do we need to keep growing?

Is the new challenge for humanity how to grow better, instead of bigger?

‘Safe’ sustainability might be politically palatable and allow us to stay within our Wizard of Oz poppy field – at least for what remains of a rapidly closing time frame in which to wake up and get on with it – but it won’t be able to override the physics and biology of ever greater numbers of people and consumption levels across the planet.

We need to be brave, admit that ‘safe’ sustainability isn’t going to cut it, get savvy, and begin the task of reinventing the operating code of our human endeavours.