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November 29, 2022

Business as usual is not the path to sustainability

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Sustainability is a powerful way of thinking about the impact of our activities. In spite of attempts to trivialise the idea, it has deep roots which spread into many parts of our lives. We use it to rate tangled interactions over time, such as our daily needs and their relation to soil or water. As catastrophic change happens, such as flooding and other impacts of climate change, we size-up the situation in terms of what I call emergency resilience: what’s needed for a community to bounce back again. We also need to ponder what I call deep resilience: sustainability across decades and generations.

Scenarios are imaginative ways to picture various options about sustainability and both types of resilience. A number of scenarios were presented by Donella Meadows and her colleagues in their famous 1972 book Limits to Growth. The trends in growth for world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion were all examined as different scenarios projected a hundred years into the future.

The ‘business as usual’ scenario showed that when limits in these five areas were ignored, the result was a ‘sudden and uncontrollable decline in population and industrial capacity’. Sustainability specialists J. Nørgård and colleagues, who reviewed the book and its impact thirty eight years later, found that critics of the 1970s concentrated entirely on this one example. The radical free market ideologists tried to discredit the entire work by insisting that economies must always focus on more jobs and unlimited growth.

  1. Nørgård and colleagues double-checked that growth scenario from 1972 and found that it is now playing out much as the book predicted. In all this time, vested interests continued with ‘business as usual’ and fobbed off looking ahead. Other scenarios that were ignored for so long offer ideas that we might finally take more seriously.

One trend that was clearly troublesome in 1972 was the growing inequities in wealth. These were predicted to pick up momentum in the 21st century, destabilizing both ecology and human societies. Meadows and her colleagues had ideas to counter that unsustainable trend. They were optimistic about what they called steady state economies. They wrote ‘the state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.’

What could that mean? Consider water, one of the basic material needs of not only people but all life. Here in the dry Australian continent, the limits to the quantities and qualities of fresh water are generally fobbed off with a ‘business as usual’ attitude. The quality of marine water, coastal and beyond, are not regularly well-monitored. Useful growth plans for an abundant coastal and marine life are non-existent.

In Byron and the neighbouring Richmond and Tweed regions, the quantities of tap water used daily are reckless. A practical appreciation of limits would change that. Just as a household or business might budget their money and make savings, they can also calculate how to conserve and reduce the use of tap water. They can clamour for recycle water to be piped into all the toilets in town and residential areas. Call for upgrades and improvement of stormwater and sewage systems. Clean-up stormwater pollution. Bulk buy urban rainwater tanks.

Coastal rural areas face more challenges. Individual interests in organic permaculture and regenerative farming are important, but the abilities to advance these are often thwarted along the waterways. The waters run true to their ancient purpose and flow to the lowlands and the sea. Ignoring legal titles, surveyed boundaries and other aspects of private property, they act in a stubbornly collective way.

That the Richmond waterway rates an F in overall health and the Belongil creek a D are results of the ‘business as usual’ scenario. Soil washes down into the waterways of every size. Cattle trample the banks of drains and streams. They are more relaxed standing in the water, which encourages them to defecate and urinate more. Pesticides and fertilizers add to the water pollution.

Some farmers might receive grants to replant the banks of the water and fence out the farm animals. But after the funds are used, the upkeep continues, on top of the other farm work. The pressures are increased when other properties along the waterways are not all rehabilitated. The erosion and pollution continues in its collective ways and can overwhelm individual repairs that are started. The toll on aquatic creatures continues.

A sustainable design would be to manage the banks of waterways as a new type of commons. The strips, of suitable widths, would be restored and maintained by the new generation of bush regeneration, permaculture and environmental science graduates and community volunteers. Facilitators and accountants can join the collective of workers and landholders developing new processes, assessments and records. Government may use rates rebates and other incentives.

Artists and other creatives would explain and promote these commons, integrating the collective efforts about both urban and rural water. Finally, sustainable jobs would exist, solving urgent difficult problems. Growth over decades would be in deep resilience which aligns with cycles of nature.

These new commons would be where aquatic animals have their turn to act on their own growth plans. With the help of people, oyster reefs can be restarted. Other aquatic habitats would repair. In turn, the coastal economies would support what I call a renewed fisher farmer community.

This diversification supplements the current economy featuring real estate and tourism. Using this design to meet people’s material needs about water helps realise human potential and assist with animal potential too. Sustainability? Maybe just in the nick of time.




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