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Sustainability, What Do We Mean?

By Martin Dickens, Wodonga Albury Towards Climate Health (WATCH) and Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC)

In the context of the twenty-first century, the term “sustainability” has become ever more prevalent both in popular advertising material and organisational objectives. Whilst many readers are likely to associate the idea of sustainability with protecting our natural ecosystem from depravation, recent years has seen its manipulation to become an important marketing tool for an audience more aware of human induced degradation than ever before.

In terms of ecology, the idea of sustainability can be traced to popular environmental literacy that evolved largely from the 1960’s and 1970’s. During this period, the development of new eco-philosophies such as Deep Ecology helped to challenge and reform the dominant ethics held in relation to the natural environment. In particular, the rise of Deep Ecology and other eco-philosophies also worked to position humans and nature as equal, refuting the liberties many humans held when choosing to exploit natural resources for their own economic gains.

Since the earlier stages of green movements, practices of sustainability have continually drawn on different spiritual and religious affiliations, particularly from the Far East. An example of this spiritual understanding is found in Buddhism, whereby meditative practices encourage individuals to be “at one” with nature. To an extent, adopting these rituals and understandings has been effective, both in overcoming a utilitarian view of the environment as well as expanding the cultural capabilities of societies across the world. However, with the recent release of the Australian Government’s Asian Century White Paper along with institutional reforms across sectors, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the wider populace to effectively understand exactly what is meant by “sustainability”.

According to the recent White Paper, Australia’s growth in the Asian Century will require broad and “sustainable” growth that develops our own national economy in an environmentally ethical manner. Whilst these objectives sound promising, the context in which these goals are written should be viewed with caution. As a young person, I become increasingly disillusioned by the ways political and economic interests alike seek to use the catch-term “sustainability” for personal leverage. For young environmental activists, the lack of commitment by State and Federal Governments to invest in renewable sources of energy before even further natural degradation stands in stark contrast to much of the rhetoric spoken by our nation’s leaders. Therefore, I urge all readers to be mindful about what we truly mean by the term “sustainability” and to ensure that its importance to protecting the environment is not clouded by the advertising rhetoric of politics or marketing.