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“Sustainability”? Yeh, sure, I know what that means! I think…

By Alison Mitchell, Friends of Willow Park and Wodonga Urban Landcare Network

My sustainability journey has been running for about 30 years now.  I didn’t really have a name for it back then, but the terms “sustainable development” and “sustainability” came into view in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

 In researching these terms I found a wonderful place to hang my hat, so-to-speak.  I found that the definition for “sustainable development” is commonly accepted as that given in the “Brundtland Report” (also known as “Our Common Future”) published in 1987 following the United Nations recognition and concern that our environment was being rapidly degraded by human activity. 

That definition is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  It is important to note that not only our lives depend on fresh water, clean air and nutritious food, but our economy is equally dependent on natural resources although in a slightly different way.  Our economy depends on destroying or deteriorating natural resources.

 In Australia, we refer to “sustainable development” more commonly as “sustainability” and our National Action Plan for Ecologically Sustainable Development (1992) is globally unique in that it gave explicit recognition to our environment with the term “Ecologically” added in.  So, in essence, “sustainable development” and “sustainability” are interchangeable terms that suggest that humanity now and future generations should be able to enjoy a similar quality of life.  It’s not surprising then that the concept of “sustainability” incorporates and considers equality, human rights and poverty issues alongside maintaining environmental and economic integrity.

I commonly attend conferences with the term “sustainable” in their titles and I also commonly hear people using the term incorrectly and even abusing it.  It is irresponsible to lecture audience members on economic sustainability without also using the term “economic”.  Many times I have seen people walk out of these lecture theatres not only believing they understand what “sustainability” is, but that they are well on the track to actually doing it and doing it well. 

So, the next time you hear someone talking about economic sustainability and leaving out the critical term “economic” politely correct them and let them know that “sustainability” incorporates not only economic, but also social and environmental elements.  The best definition I have seen is “enough, for all, forever” which was spoken to Charles Hopkins by an African man when he was asked what he thought it meant.  And, of course, unsustainable practices and process, by definition, must end.

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