Feature

Closing the sustainability loop

Sustainability has ecological, economic, political and cultural dimensions, and requires the reconciliation of all of these complex demands.

Just one extra person can produce enough waste to undermine the lifetime recycling efforts of 20 citizens.

William Bourke - President of the federally registered Sustainable Population Party.

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According to the United Nations, true sustainability is ‘development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. In other words, an ecologically sustainable population can endure indefinitely.

For humans, sustainability has ecological, economic, political and cultural dimensions, and requires the reconciliation of all of these complex demands. There are no silver bullet solutions, particularly in an increasingly globalised world. But we need to start with some fundamentals.

Ultimately, a population’s sustainability is underpinned by the carrying capacity of the land on which it lives. Carrying capacity is the maximum population size of a species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available in the environment.

To understand carrying capacity, we need to clearly differentiate between quantity (or ‘space’) and quality. For example, there is plenty of ‘space’ in The Outback or on The Moon, but for humans the carrying capacity is low. Remember this next time you see a simplistic comparison of the number of people per square kilometre in a region or country.

For a population to endure indefinitely, it needs to behave sustainably in terms of its impact on the environment. Importantly, the economy - so often prioritised in public policy - is fully dependent on the environment. It is the environment that provides the resources and underpinnings of our economy, and hence quality of life. Nothing can articulate this more clearly than the often-repeated phrase ‘there are no jobs on a dead planet’.

How do we determine our total impact on the environment?

Human impact (I) on the environment equals the product of population (P), affluence (A) and technology (T). I = PAT is the lettering of a formula put forward to describe the impact of human activity on the environment, and describes how our growing population, affluence (or consumption behaviours), and technology contribute toward our environmental impact.

Holistic sustainability

Holistic sustainability must therefore involve all three key elements: affluence, technology and population numbers.

Amongst other things: We need to invest in new technologies, so that we can transition to a clean energy economy; We need to invest more in rail and public transport, so that we provide incentives for commuters and freight companies to change transport behaviours; We need to reduce our waste production and disposal through better product longevity, repairability and re-usability; and, We need to deliver more ecologically sustainable town planning, with simple things like effective insulation, solar panels and water tanks.

But holistic sustainability ensures that improvements in technology and consumption behaviours are not undermined by population growth, or vice-versa. For example, just one extra person can produce enough waste to undermine the lifetime recycling efforts of 20 citizens. This is especially important here in Australia, where our per capita environmental impact is higher than many other countries.

Put simply, if you halve your per capita consumption, but double your population, you’re right back where you started. There’s no point in painting the titanic green. We need to close the sustainability loop by simultaneously addressing technology, consumption and population. We should also recognise that technology can be a double edged-sword, and won’t necessarily ‘save us’. Many technologies, like super trawlers and chain saws, can increase our per capita impacts.

We need a holistic policy framework that redefines growth in our finite world. Redefined growth means better, not bigger. In the context of global leadership, the primary moral responsibility we have as a sovereign people is to pass on a sustainable Australia.

William Bourke is President of the federally registered Sustainable Population Party.
www.VoteSustainable.org.au