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.
Sustainability is 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.
The ecological 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”.