Questioning the sustainability paradigm

I was recently asked, on behalf of the Australian Centre for Environmental Law, to contribute a submission to the Australian Capital Territory’s Commissioner for the Environment Act 1993. The Office of the Commissioner was particularly keen to incorporate the concept of sustainability within her sphere of concern. In addition to proposing a number of amendments to the Act I challenged what I thought was a problem with sustainability in the following way:

We note that no objects currently exist in the Act: a gap that should be filled through this review. These objects should be descriptive and meaningful. They should use plain language and be capable of being understood by all Canberrans in a common way. We do not think that you need to incorporate the concept of ‘sustainability’ into your sphere of concern. Indeed, we caution you against doing this. We do not think that you should frame your objects around this principle either.

In Australia, while the Council of Australian Governments has attempted to define ecological sustainable development, it is commonly interpreted and applied using different understandings. A recent Federal Court decision adopted the triple-bottom-line approach to the principle so popular with business, giving equal weight to economic, social and environmental matters in an application of the principle to the dredging of Port Phillip in Victoria.

‘Sustainability’ is a contested term and an ambiguous concept. A lack of clarity and the employment of the term by government and business to suit their goals have resulted in the term becoming so malleable that it now means different things to different people and is used in different ways in different contexts. In a sense the concept was always intended to be used in this manner. Its origins date to before the Brundtland Commission issued the popular (but still not agreed) definition of sustainable development. At the international level the concept has always been primarily directed at development in developing countries. It was offered as a compromise by developed countries concerned with environmental degradation but realising that they could not unduly impede economic advancement in developing countries. Development activities were to proceed, sustainably, mindful of poorly defined ecological principles. Each nation could define and interpret the concept for their purposes.