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It could well be said that ‘sustainability is the new black’. Everyone is talking about it and everybody wants to be seen to be sustainable. But what does it really mean and why is it so important?

The literature is full of different definitions of sustainability but the one we like to use at SCEC is: ‘something is sustainable if you can keep on doing it for ever and ever’.

The latest posts on sustainability


Understanding sustainability

There are elements to sustainability that are obviously environmental. For example if the logging industry were to chop down forests without ever planting new ones, it  would not be sustainable. Sooner or later we would have lost all forests (a traditional environmental issue) and the industry would not be able to continue doing what it is doing.

But sustainability is bigger than traditional environmental issues. For example a similar argument can be made about the oil & gas industry. If we continue to consume oil & gas there will be a point where we have used all the oil & gas on the planet (not a traditional environmental issue) and we won’t be able to continue doing what we are doing.

Both of these examples have important social and economic consequences. If we chop down all the forests, not only would the logging industry go out of business, but our society would not have access to timber products such as construction materials or paper. The same is true for the oil & gas industry. Without oil we would not be able to power ships to carry cargo around the world and would not be able to drive cars. We would also not be able to make a wide range of other products including detergents, plastics and polyester. Sustainability encompasses all these factors (environmental, social and economic).

The word sustainability is often used alongside the word ‘development’ which is another word that is difficult to define. At SCEC we define development as ‘improvements to the quality of life’. Based on these two definitions, sustainable development is ‘improvements to the quality of life that will last for ever and ever’.

As the examples above show, much of our current development is not sustainable as it is dependent on the ongoing supply of materials that will run out at some point in time. When we have run out of materials in the past our response has been to go and get them elsewhere. For example when Western European countries had cleared most of their forests they started importing timber from Scandinavia and the Baltic. The challenge that mankind faces today is that there is no place left to go. If we run out of materials this time, that’s it.

And we are running out of materials. WWF and the Global Footprint Network have been monitoring the amount of renewable materials that mankind uses each year in their Living Planet Report. Since the early 70s we have been using more materials in a year than the planet can produce. Or to put it differently, we would require more than one planet to produce the materials we consume in a year. It would take 3.8 planets to produce all the materials required if everyone in the world lived an Australian lifestyle.

There is also growing concern about peak supply of a wide variety of different non-renewable materials. Peak supply refers to a moment in time at which the global production of a certain material reaches an all time high. After the peak, supply of the material will gradually diminish as it becomes harder and harder to find new deposits of the material.

The best known example of this is peak oil – the moment at which global oil production is at its highest and after which global supply will decline irrespective of global demand. The International Energy Agency believes peak oil probably happened in 2006.

There is growing concern about peak phosphorus, a mineral that is an essential component of fertiliser for which there is no substitute. Without phosphorus fertiliser, agricultural production would slump, causing major food supply shortages. Peak phosphorus is expected to occur somewhere around 2030.

In order to achieve sustainable development we need to recognise that our ability to improve our quality of life is dependent on the planet’s ability to provide the materials required for this improvement. We can demand all the Zinc and Tin we like, the planet is never going to be able to supply more of these materials than what is currently in the earth’s crust. And we can build as many super trawlers as we want, ultimately our ability to catch fish will not depend on the size and quality of our ships but on the amount of fish in the ocean.

In other words we must recognise that the future of our society and our economy are constraint by the boundaries of our environment. If we damage our environment or exhaust its supply of resources those parts of our society and economy (for example fishing villages and the fishing industry) that depend on that resource will also collapse.

This is often represented using this diagram which shows that our economy is a sub-system of our society (e.g. without people you don’t have a labour force or consumers and therefore don’t have an economy) and that our society is a subsystem of the natural environment (e.g. without clean air fresh water and food to eat there are no people).

Sustainability is not just about traditional environmental issues (preserving forests, protecting species, avoiding pollution). These issues are important but they are only part of the sustainability story. Sustainability thinking puts these issues in a broader context side by side with material supply issues and questions around development. In doing so it provides new insights into why preserving the natural environment is important to human development and even why human development might be important to the natural environment.

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