I had a short conversation
online a couple of days ago, where the others arguing against me were asserting
that it was more important to indulge in innovation than to have
sustainability. I tried to convince them that sustainability was all that
mattered and without it, any innovation or anything else would be pointless.
They could not be convinced. This got me thinking about the meaning of words
and how people’s understanding of words varies.
It was nearly 20 years
ago when I bumped into the use of the word ‘sustainability’ as an almost
meaningless buzzword by a precursor of Price Waterhouse Coopers (i.e. Coopers
and Lybrand, CL), when they came up with a ‘mission statement’ for an organisation,
when that organisation had to go through a review to save face for a halfwit Labor
minister (Alan Griffiths) who had made a fool of himself. Griffiths was later
found to have misused taxpayer funds to bail out a business partner in the ‘Sandwich
Shop Affair’1. Plus ça change… Anyway, for part
of the mission statement, one of the idiots in CL came up with this oxymoron: ‘To
sustainably develop Australia’s non-renewable resources’. When the assembled
staff burst out laughing, the CL person seemed puzzled until someone explained
the meaning of the words to them; then they looked embarrassed.
often used as a ‘buzzword’ these days especially when people who are completely
lacking in knowledge want to appear to understand what they are talking about. In
reality, something is sustainable only if it is able to be carried on in
perpetuity. That doesn’t mean for the next six months, or until the next
election, of for a decade or a century. It means forever, in perpetuity, until
the Sun becomes a red giant and swallows the Earth in a few billion years. Seriously,
though, the only way to have a sustainable world is to have what they call a ‘circular
economy’. A circular economy is one in which there is no waste and all
resources are used in a continual flowing loop2. A circular economy
is needed to replace what is called a linear economy, where resources are extracted,
used and thrown away3.
The linear economy is often
referred to as the ‘take, make, dispose’ economy and is based on two basic
assumptions4. Firstly, that there will always be resources that can
be extracted, and secondly, that there will always be somewhere to which our
discarded waste can be sent. Both of these assumptions are false5. A
linear economy cannot continue indefinitely, because we live on a finite
planet. Whether it be steel, aluminium, zinc, lead, silver, lithium, or any
other element, the raw materials of which have to be dug up; those resources
are finite and their use is unsustainable unless they are recycled completely. The
resources we currently use for much electricity generation (i.e. coal, gas,
uranium), and as a transport fuel (oil and gas) are also finite, and their use
is unsustainable, quite apart from the damage some of these are doing to the
climate. In addition, where we send our rubbish ‘landfill’, if it continues,
will become landcover, as more and more area will be required.
Currently it is estimated
that about 90% of the resources we use are not cycled back through the economy6.
This is in part covered up in wealthy countries by our export of recyclable waste
to poorer countries. This was brought into stark relief when China refused to
accept any more of 24 categories of solid recyclable waste from Australia7.
disadvantage of the linear economy is that the production of goods is at the
expense of the productivity of our ecosystems8. At base, productivity
of ecosystems refers to the amount of solar energy that is used by plants for
their metabolism and growth9. This is what almost all other living
organisms depend upon to survive. Each step in the extraction of raw materials
leads to high energy and water consumption, emissions of toxic substances and
disruption of natural capital such as forests, grasslands, rivers and lakes.
Product manufacture is also often accompanied by high energy and water
consumption and toxic emissions. Eventually, when these products are disposed
of, space is taken up from the ecosystem and toxic substances are often also
emitted8. All these deplete the productivity of the various
ecosystems on the planet, upon which we depend. As
former US Senator Gaylord Nelson said: “The economy is a wholly owned
subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around”.