Demystifying sustainability

Environmental scientist and author Haydn Washington just published a book called Demystifying Sustainability. Much has been said about sustainability, but what does it all mean? Haydn Washington aims to demystify sustainability, so that the lay person can understand what the issues are.

Listen on the ABC website


David Fisher: Some words become fashionable. They get overused. Usually in the wrong places, and completely lose their meaning. That’s awesome!…  Another overused word has to be sustainable. Well, our guest on Ockham’s Razor today is here to help. Haydn Washington from the University of New South Wales has 40 years’ experience as an environmental scientist and author. He’s written a book titled Demystifying Sustainability. Haydn Washington:

Haydn Washington: ‘Sustainability’ – we all talk about it, but what exactly is it? There are hundreds of definitions. Is it like the weather, where everyone talks about it – but nobody does anything? Is it the key concept of our Age, or has it become what Robert Engelman of the Worldwatch Institute has called ‘sustainababble’? This talk is based on my new book Demystifying Sustainability. Now ‘Our Common Future’ came out from WCED in 1987 and made the terms sustainable development and sustainability famous. Yet the environmental crisis – and the entwined social and economic crises – have become worse since then. What is going on?

Do we have a problem?

This is worth answering, as some commentators seem to think everything is just rosy.

During the 20th century:

Human population up 4-fold.

Industrial pollution up 40-fold.

CO2 emissions up 17-fold.

Fish catches up 35-fold.

Mining of ores and minerals up 27-fold

One quarter of coral reefs, a third of mangroves  and half of all wetlands were destroyed.


60% of ecosystem services are degrading

We have exceeded 3 ‘planetary limits’ – extinction, climate change and nitrate pollution

The Earth’s ecological footprint is more than 1.5 Earths and the Living Planet Index has dropped by 52%

Extinction is at least 1000-fold above the normal levels in the fossil record and Peter Raven et al (2011) estimate that without change by 2100 two thirds of life may be extinct.

Two thirds of life extinct by 2100 due to our actions. As Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech observes ‘The scale of what we are doing, the sheer moral evil, is almost unimaginable’. So ‘yes, the facts are in – we do indeed have a major problem. Society’s interaction with the world that supports it is fundamentally unsustainable. A responsible approach would be to ask ‘why?’ and ‘what can we do?’.

What are the key drivers of unsustainability? I discuss here the key ‘elephants in the room’ that few seem to want to see.


There are too many people on Earth – consuming at too high a level. When I was born in 1955, the world population was 2.8 billion, now it is 7.3. The UN indicates that by 2050 the population will reach a predicted medium figure of 9.6 billion, but it may be 10.9. Given that we know we have exceeded ecological limits, it would seem obvious that population increase is a driver for environmental degradation. Authors such as Paul and Anne Ehrlich of Stanford Uni argue that an ecologically sustainable world population is 2 billion or less. However, ‘overpopulation’ is still commonly ignored and even angrily denied. Such a denial remains a key barrier to reaching sustainability.


The Ehrlichs and others have observed that I = PAT, or impact equals population times affluence times technology. Just as we cannot forget population, we cannot forget the affluence and consumption of that population, or the technology it uses. Population and consumption are the two sides of a square, and when you multiply them together the environmental impact is the area in-between. As economist Paul Ekins has noted, a sustainable ‘consumer‘ society is actually a contradiction in terms.  Since 1960, population has grown by a factor of 2.2 while consumption has gone up sixfold. Consumer expenditure per person has almost tripled. If the entire world were to adopt American (or Australian) lifestyles, we would need at least 4 more planets to supply them. This can’t happen, hence why we are rapidly exceeding the Earth’s limits.

Erik Assadourian of the Worldwatch Institute argues that while the consumer ethic may be seen as ‘natural’ by consumers today, it is actually a purposeful social construct developed big-time in the 1950s. Today, ‘eco-efficiency’ and the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ are often the sustainability strategies promoted by business. However, these are not answers if they ignore the fundamental problem of urging people to consume way beyond their needs. A key driver is the $500 billion spent yearly on advertising to urge us to over-consume. Banker Pavan Sukhdev points the ‘finger of blame’ at the corporate world, which must be brought to the table as ‘planetary stewards’ rather than ‘free-riding their way to global resource depletion’. 

The Endless Growth Myth

If you ask most people: ‘On a finite planet, can we continue to grow physically forever?’ they will mostly say: ‘Of course you can’t!’ Why then do we as a society persist in doing this? Overpopulation, overconsumption and climate change also are really symptoms of a general malaise – the ‘endless growth myth’ or what Stephen Boyden of ANU has called ‘evermoreism’. Kerryn Higgs in a recent Ockhams Razor also discussed this fundamental problem. Many environmental scientists and scholars believe that the fixation on growth and increasing consumption is precisely why we have an environmental crisis.

Norman Lindsay wrote the Australian children’s classic The Magic Pudding about a pudding that could never by fully eaten. This is the stuff of playful fantasy, yet it is also the mantra of neoliberalism and most governments and businesses around the world. They seek always to ‘bake a bigger cake’, rather than share the cake we have more equitably. Those who question this are castigated in the media and much of academia. Yet the premise of endless growth on a finite planet is actually absurd and impossible. Past civilisations discovered this through collapse, as Jared Diamond notes in his book of that name. Yet many academics now regularly talk about ‘green growth’, ‘sustainable growth’ or ‘good growth’. No physical growth today is either ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘good’ (except perhaps rapid growth in renewable energy that replaces worse systems).

Is sustainability the same as sustainable development?

This is a key question rarely asked. ‘Our Common Future’ in 1987 made famous ‘sustainable development’, but this was based on a 5% GDP annual growth rate – it assumed growth was the only way to reach sustainability. The history of the word ‘development’ within the UN and much of academia similarly has been about growth. Yet the reality is that endless growth is actually the cause of unsustainability when one has exceeded the Earth’s ecological limits  – as humanity has. So if one means ‘growth’ by the ‘development’ in ‘sustainable development’, then this cannot be the same as any meaningful ‘sustainability’. So I think we must speak of sustainability, rather than a ‘sustainable development’ that has become an oxymoron. The reason why we have gone backwards and become less sustainable since 1987 is because so many in government, business and academia still believe in the ‘magic pudding’ of growth. ‘Sustainable growth’ is a con that has been used to justify continuing unsustainable business-as-usual.


Of course, some will deny everything said so far. Humanity could arguably be called Homo denialensis not Homo sapiens, for we are very good at denial. Denial is common and has a long history (DDT, smoking, acid rain, CFCs, climate change etc.). As Naomi Oreskes of Harvard uni illustrates in Merchants of Doubt, denial often comes from an ideological basis. For example, the denying of climate science as it may lead to further regulation of ‘the market’ deemed sacred by neoliberals. Denial is also not just due to the denial industry, for ‘implicatory denial’ is rife in ‘we the people’. We are sadly very good at fooling ourselves and ignoring the implications of what we (en masse) do. However, the denial dam can be broken, and this is a requirement for sustainability.

So what is it that ‘sustainability’ cannot be?

If ‘sustainability’ is to be meaningful, then:

It cannot be sustainababble , it cannot mean all things to all people. It cannot remain delightfully vague.

It cannot be a denial of reality, it has to be about ‘realism’. That means we accept the problems we have and solve them. Sustainability and denial are mutually exclusive.

It cannot ignore the ecological limits of the Earth.

Thus it cannot be about endless physical growth on a finite planet. Any supposedly ‘sustainable’ project based on continuing physical growth is a delusion. Our wisdom and ethics can keep growing, but our physical impact cannot.

Hence, if we mean growth by ‘development’ (and most people do), then sustainability cannot be the same as ‘sustainable development’. Growth is now the cause of unsustainability.

Sustainability cannot be about a ‘weak sustainability’ that believes we can substitute money for ecosystem services, for this breaks ecological reality. At a minimum it should be about ‘strong sustainability’ which retains functioning ecosystem services.

Sustainability cannot be ethics-free. It cannot be based on an anthropocentric ‘human supremacy’ approach, where humanity always seeks to be the ‘Master’.

So how to demystify sustainability?

Sustainability has to first and foremost mean solving the environmental crisis, and the entwined social and economic crises. The key task is to break the denial dam and accept reality. We have problems, we need to accept and solve them. Sound easy? Well of course it isn’t, but it is still possible and so very necessary. It means accepting that endless physical growth is impossible. That means an endless growth economy cannot be sustainable. We need what economist Herman Daly calls a ‘steady state’ economy, where population is stable and sustainable, while throughput of resources is minimised. We thus need to stabilise and then reduce population, we need to reverse overconsumption, control advertising, and re-learn the ‘thriftiness’ our grandparents understood. We have to accept that sustainability is the key ethical issue, both in regard to what we owe future generations, and also what we owe the rest of life we share this wondrous planet with. We need to drop our narrow anthropocentric modernist worldview for an ‘eco-centric’ worldview and what Holmes Rolston of Colorado State Uni calls an ‘Earth ethics’.

There are solutions to all of our environmental problems that time does not permit me to cover here (the book does!). There is also great urgency involved. The key is abandoning denial and accepting we have created major problems we must now solve. Sustainability – to be meaningful – must now become what theologian Thomas Berry has called the ‘Great Work’ of repairing the Earth. What task could be as challenging – but also as necessary, ethical and exciting?


David Fisher: A call to action from Haydn Washington from the University of New South Wales, whose book, just published, is Demystifying Sustainability.



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