Environment, Natural resource management

2 – Sustainability

“Sustainability” is not a word I like. Of course the general sentiment that lies behind the word is very much a good thing, but word itself is very much a confusing thing. Given the topics I am interested in and the circles I mix in, I hear it constantly.

In practice the word is sometimes used in either a very narrow ecological sense (in which use it may have some relevance to policy or management, but is too narrow to use as a decision criterion) but usually in an incredibly broad, catch-all sense, sometimes meaning nothing more specific than “good”, and sometimes the very slightly more specific “good in the long term”.

It is quite amazing the outcomes or objectives that people try to bundle under the banner of “sustainability”. Most recently I read a research paper in which some people were arguing that animal welfare is an important component of sustainability. Now, I think animal welfare is very important – it certainly qualifies as something “good” – but I have to work pretty hard to construct a thought process where it seems meaningfully linked to the idea of sustaining something. Perhaps it could be, but even so, that is not the reason we should be concerned about it. We should be concerned about it because cruelty to animals is bad. Whether it is unsustainable is largely irrelevant.

Another paper I read on “sustainable agriculture” a while back included the following as components of sustainability: “Revitalize rural areas”, “Decrease complexity of food processing and distribution system”, and “Improve the health and well-being of rural people”. Quite bizarre, but not particularly unusual if you read much of the massive literature on sustainability.

Of course these components and numerous others are relevant topics for public debate and government policy, but we should see them as related to other social objectives, such as social welfare, rather than sustainability. I guess it is because “sustainability” has such a momentum as a policy objective that people hope they can advance other things they care about by embedding them within the “sustainability” concept, Trojan Horse style. That might be a canny political strategy (though I doubt it) but it does not reflect clear or rigorous thinking about the concept. It just muddies the waters.

Some critics of the term have argued that its use is thoroughly bad, and should be stopped entirely. Wilfred Beckerman of Oxford University, certainly a clear and rigorous thinker (and a straight talker), offers the following assessment of the woolly thinking behind sustainable development.

“The concept of ‘sustainable development’ is not only logically incoherent and hence incapable of providing any clear guidance to policy or measurement but, if interpreted as literally as possible given its vagueness, could even prejudice the standards of living of future generations or add to inter-generational inequalities.”

And he’s right. But is it worth worrying? Should we be so literal minded as to attempt to take the advocates for sustainability at their word? He says we should.

“Such slogans are dangerous as they can be invoked to justify all sorts of policies that are bad for society, both today and in the future.”

Personally, I’ve managed to learn to live with one common use of the term: as a very general signal about concern for the environment or natural resources in the long term. If you try to get any more specific than that it collapses under the weight of contradictions, but at that very broad level it almost works. For example I can read “the sustainability of agriculture” and translate it into “the set of long term impacts on the environment and the natural resource base from agriculture”.

However, I still feel traumatised when people try to use the term as if it means something well defined, specific and measurable. Its use in legislation (which is disgracefully common around the world) implies that it is well defined, specific and measurable, and that is bad enough. But sometimes people get completely carried away and set targets for themselves like, making an industry 20% more sustainable. (I could give an Australian research example where this was done, but I will spare those responsible.) This is the ultimate in woolly thinking. It can only detract from achieving worthwhile environmental outcomes by wasting our time and effort in puzzling about what it might mean and how we might tell.

The other great sin in the sustainability world is to prepare an overall index of sustainability, typically by lumping together a whole lot of “good” variable with various weightings intended to reflect their relative contribution to sustainability. This is so monumentally unhelpful and time wasting that I would be fully behind Wilfred Beckerman, supporting any appalling insults or punishments that he might devise for the perpetrators. I was sad to learn that a group of postgraduate students at my university has recently been given the task of developing such an index.

If we actually wish to devise or evaluate policy or management, we have to get much more specific about what we are trying to achieve and why. Which specific environmental resources are we trying to protect? Why are they important? What level of protection are we seeking? Without this sort of clarity and specificity, our policy and management objectives for the environment are completely impossible to monitor or evaluate in any meaningful way, and that can only be bad for the environment.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. and Schilizzi, S. (1997). Sustainable agriculture: A question of ecology, economics, ethics or expedience? Paper presented at the 41st Annual Conference of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society, Gold Coast, Queensland, Jan 22-24 1997.


Revised version published as:

Pannell, D.J. and Schilizzi, S. (1999). Sustainable agriculture: A question of ecology, ethics, economic efficiency or expedience? Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, 13(4): 57-66.