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Sustainable development requires a mature appreciation of our needs

By Jill Finnane - posted Friday, 15 March 2002

Development implies moving towards maturity. If our communities, our country and our world move towards maturity then they can be more environmentally sustainable.

When I think of maturity in individual human beings I think of people who are able to balance their needs with the needs of those around them. I think of people who are capable of selfless love. I think of people who can see the need to delay the attainment of certain wants in order to achieve more important long-term goals. I think of people who are striving to be better, yet are contented with who they are, who have become whole, accepting and integrating their strengths and weaknesses. Though maturity seems to be lurking there in the future I think of it as founded firmly on the wisdom, and nurturing of past generations. And I see a mature person as one who has thought through, and tries to live by, their own values and ethics.

Key indicators of processes that harm the environment are: the production of domestic refuse, hazardous wastes, greenhouse gases, ozone depleting substances, roads, freight transport and cars, and the consumption of aluminium, cement, steel and energy. The rich countries are responsible for 85 per cent or more of each of these. The only two indicators that are produced in any significant amount in poorer countries are domestic refuse (about 30 per cent), and freight transport (about 20 per cent). The rich countries have not accepted and integrated their strengths and weaknesses. Rather, they are caught up in an unbalanced way of living that is destroying the environment around them. This can only be described as immature behaviour.


According to the New Internationalist, Nov 1998, the earth can absorb about 13-14 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. In communities that display the kind of maturity I have described above, no individual would exceed 2.3 tonnes per year.

What therefore can we say about the maturity of America where the average person discharges 20 tonnes of CO2 per year? Or of Germany where the average German discharges 12 tonnes? Or of Japan where it is 9 tonnes? Countries like these do not seem to see the need to delay the attainment of certain wants in order to achieve more important long-term goals. Development and maturity do not sit comfortably for me as descriptions of the paths they have chosen.

Looking globally, the richest 20 per cent of the world's people consume 90 per cent of the world's cars. The countries responsible for this seemingly uncontrolled car explosion are simply not balancing their needs with the needs of those around them. They lack maturity. They need to look carefully at how they are developing.

March 8, 2002 was International Women's day. To celebrate this I attended a function organised by Muslim women. Several women read out poetry they had written and some sang traditional songs from their homelands. A thirteen-year-old girl told a warm and courageous story about her grandmother.

After the celebrations I chatted with a young woman (let us call her Rana) who told me about life when her family returned to live in Lebanon during her primary school years. In recent times she has been discussing with her mother the meaning of that experience. Weekends in Lebanon were often spent at her grandparent's place in a small, somewhat remote village. There, her grandparents lived in close contact with nature, making compost, growing a huge range of leafy greens, vegetables, figs, olives, almonds, and other fruit and nut trees. There were a couple of cows so her grandmother made yoghurt, cheese, butter and always, her own bread. While living there the family was in close and easy touch with their traditional culture.

Some, looking at the life of Rana's grandmother, would describe it as a life of drudgery but that is not how Rana and her mother see it. They wonder about what they have lost by moving to a unit in Sydney. Today her grandmother is still active and healthy, producing all the food she needs from the soil around her. Rana's mother, on the other hand, living in Australia with its modern conveniences has poor health at the age of 40. They wonder whether leaving the simple life with that close connection to the earth as a source of nourishment for both soul and body was in some ways a step backwards for the family.


I listened carefully to Rana, and as she talked I wondered whether our society could organise itself so that efforts to gain better employment and education need not be at the expense of the earth and culture. I wondered whether we have developed an affluent and materialistic lifestyle at the cost of hiding away the earthy connections of our forebears and ignoring the wisdom and culture of the indigenous people whose relationship with the land was generated over thousands of years. I wondered whether maturity can come from reconnecting with our collective traditions and rediscovering our connection with the earth and its ability to nourish us.

Last year I worked in Sri Lanka for three months. During a field trip for one of the permaculture courses I was conducting we visited the museum at the Agricultural Research Institute at Peradenya. There, we were able to see examples of traditional farming methods, water and pest management strategies, grain storage and the huge diversity of traditional rice varieties with their different characteristics and climatic adaptations.

We learned that many clever and creative agricultural strategies had been linked to festivals and celebrations. We heard researchers talk about their recent discoveries of the scientific and ecological wisdom behind many of these traditions and of their concerns about the damage that modern chemical agriculture has done to the environment and to the long-term productivity of the land. Most of this thinking was new to the researchers who had learnt, and in some ways still believed, that modern agricultural methods would develop their country.

I wondered whether a country like Sri Lanka can rediscover its understanding of the land and develop a synergistic relationship between traditions, modern science and demands of the market place. I pondered my experiences of the rich cultural heritage of song and dance, of poetry and art, and of delight in parody and debate. I wondered whether they would survive the onslaught of television and consumerism. I wondered whether they might even be able to lead communities to be selective in choosing the kind of development that will preserve the bounty of their land for future generations. It seemed to me that these are the kind of things that would contribute to wholeness and maturity.

If development can be linked then to this concept of maturity, I believe we need to reflect at the deepest level on our values and ethics. Indeed we need explore our values and ethics regularly if we are to make conscious decisions about the kind of world we want. We need to see how our values are reflected in the future we are shaping. We need to reflect on what development means to you, to me, to Australians, to Sri Lankans, to trans-national companies, to those who have little, to those who have a lot. And we need to make sure we have the power to bring about the kind of development we truly deeply value?

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About the Author

Jill Finnane is a consultant in permaculture.

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