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The problem with sustainability

By Jim Gall - posted Friday, 16 September 2011

Spasm 1

The other day I heard a lawyer talk about sustainability: "whatever that means". The implication is that we struggle to put a definition on it, and so it must be hard to understand. Then the lawyer trots out the 30-odd year old definition, which is… pointless. It was more rhetoric than content back then, but now it has all but lost it's meaning; faded and worn from over use.

The problem with sustainability is that it's a big, very simple idea. As a consequence it's largely misunderstood. We are enculturated and educated to not see and to not accept simplicity. We complicate big simple ideas, firstly by giving them some mystique and then by going straight to the details, the consequences, the impacts on law and economics and regulation and our established ways. We argue (for decades) about definitions and prudent, sensible approaches. All this because ultimately, we can't stand change: we actually crave a world where everything stays the same. So we try to squeeze, shaped, twist, even try to disassemble big simple ideas, so that they comply with what we know: the problem my lawyer friend was struggling with.

Why is sustainability simple? What are the simple dimensions of the idea?


Firstly, sustainability is about providing a future. Human existence and habitation has, effectively, always had a future. So it's probably fair to argue that we'd like to continue to have one. People tend to react irrationally and violently, or at least become very depressed, if they don't see much of a future.

In fact, most human endeavour is actually about designing our future, and the threats that sustainability aims to address are no different to any other threat that we need to plan for.

Sustainability says 'use less stuff' as a simple and obvious way of ensuring we have a supply of "stuff" for the future. We have awoken, whether we like it or not, to the realization that the resources of the world are not infinite: some can be renewed (if they're made out of sunlight) and some are slowly (or quickly) running out.

Related to the first two points, sustainability is about caring. This is a natural tendency, if often maligned, that keeps our society together. The demands of consumption and the industrial economy tend to overwhelm the instinct to care.

Sustainability argues that the point of it all is about us. It's not about saving the planet: the planet will be fine. Sustainability is deeply anthropocentric. To coin a phrase, God invented the economy for people. The economy is meant to keep us healthy, safe and happy: it is not an end in itself, as we have recently come to believe. For our own sake then, the economy has to be sustainable …and sustaining!

All this, the realisation that the way we live now could hurt us in the future, is, as they say a "game changer". And it asks for us to look for a changed way of thinking about things. This how we became agriculturalists 12,000 years ago, and how the enlightenment happened.


Spasm 2

What are the big and simple ways to become sustainable?

Sustainability is about learning about and, consequently, coming to value our environment, both economically and emotionally. Sorry, but we can't escape this element of human emotion because, as I said, the economy is meant to make us happy.

Tim Flannery talks about the disconnection between us and our biophysical environment. The way we approach the economy enforces and reinforces this disconnection. Learning simple things like where milk comes from, how old a tree is, how to grow things, reconnects (I've tried to think of a word less charged with hippie new-agedness) us: not only practically, but socially, intellectually and emotionally. It can attack that "work/life balance" issue by allowing you to see other priorities.

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About the Author

Jim Gall has over 20 years experience in architecture and design building on his background in environmental science.He is the principal of Gall Architects. Many of Jim's housing projects have been given architecture and sustainability awards by the Australian Institute of Architects and other organisations.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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