STUDENT 1: So I think for me, sustainability is how I can do things in my life without harming somebody else, or providing someone to achieve things in their life. And even if it’s someone that be born a hundred years from now …
STUDENT 2: For me, I probably thing sustainability is that whenever we do an activity, or use up our finite resources in the world, making sure that we’re not wasting resources we have and we’re not using up all of them so that we don’t have any left for future generations …
STUDENT 3: I’ve been trying to reduce my waste at home, and I just save lots of money …
STUDENT 4: For me, sustainability is my chickens. you know. They take all my scraps and everything, and they give eggs, and they give compost for the garden. Yeah, they’re great!
SUMI: This is The Grass Ceiling, a guided tour of sustainability. Sustainability is ever-changing and complex, so join us as we break it down and figure it out. Welcome to our first episode of The Grass Ceiling. I’m Sumi, one half of the TGC team.
NICK: [Laughs] Is that my cue? I’m Nick, the other half of the TGC … team.
SUMI: … team. We started this project because there’s this really big word, and it’s a loaded word as well. And that word is –
NICK: – sustainability!
SUMI: Because there’s so many ways of interpreting it, and so many different ways of practising it.
NICK: So many different contexts that it’s used in, so many different products being sold with “sustainable” or “sustainability” in the title.
SUMI: And so, what is sustainability really depends on what questions you ask, and who you talk to …
NICK: … what they’re trying to sell you … So that’s really the goal, I guess, of this podcast – and the website, the resource more broadly – is to provide, as you said, something of a guided tour around all these different ways of looking at it. Because we both often feel – and I think one of the reasons why we’re doing this, is – that sustainability is often defined pretty narrowly.
SUMI: Whenever you and I have conversations about anything to do with sustainability, one thing that I find is: we rarely get the answer to a whole conversation from one document, or from one paper.
SUMI: It often comes with, you know, I’m looking at five different articles, and then you’re talking about five other articles. And we’re going back and forth, and we’re saying, “But this author says this … and that author says that,” and sometimes we realise there’s not necessarily a conversation that happens with everything taken together.
NICK: Yeah that’s so true, yep.
SUMI: And so that’s basically what, I guess, we’re trying to do here, with this project.
NICK: If we were to use jargon, we’d describe it as “integrative”, or “interdisciplinary”, or “multidisciplinary”, or something like that. But, yeah, in very simple terms, what we’re trying to do is bring together all those different conversations, different ideas, different definitions, different practices …
SUMI: ‘Cause being a uni student, you’re kind of in this middle ground between being given a fair number of resources to read, and to try and break down and analyse and understand … but at the same time, you have to come up with your own understanding of things and you need to present it, when you produce things like essays or projects or whatever.
Basically that’s kind of how we met, right, like, we met as first-year uni students, a couple of years ago, in a class …
NICK: … sitting in a tutorial, angrily debating – often on the same side of things. But yeah, no, absolutely, we met in that context of being exposed – particularly in that class, which we might mention later in the podcast – to definitions of sustainability and ideas of it from multiple perspectives. It was taught by two academics, not one. One was an environmental scientist, and the other was a geographer – so we got those two perspectives.
SUMI: And I think he had a sociology background –
NICK: – that’s true, yes, he did –
SUMI: So, a human geographer as well.
NICK: Yep … Human geographer, I like that, I’ve never heard of that, that’s good!
SUMI: Yeah, so, in high school, if you’re a geography student, you’d learn physical geography, and you’d learn human geography, and they both had two teachers. Which sometimes frustrated me a lot, because, we’d be learning about the impacts of volcanoes, and how people are building their lives back up – but this has absolutely no conversation about the stuff we’re learning in the other class about urbanisation and how an increased urban population means that more people are vulnerable to this very same volcano, that may have erupted like 500 years ago.
NICK: [laughs] Yeah.
SUMI: Which I found so weird!
NICK: Yeah absolutely. And I think that’s one of the benefits of being a student here at ANU, at the Fenner School of the Environment and Society, because we do get that integration, at least on some level, between what you’re describing as maybe earth systems science and sociology. And human geography, as you call it.
So! One of the questions that we’re kind of answering – or trying to answer – here, then, is, “What is sustainability?” If we’re going to be making a podcast about sustainability – and a website, and other resources and essays and so on – it seems to be a good first step to define what sustainability is. And as we’ve been saying, it’s very multifaceted, with many different definitions, some of them competing, and so on. So, to understand, perhaps, why we have so many different approaches to sustainability, it helps to track quickly through the history of it.
SUMI: So what was one of the first times that sustainability was prominent?
NICK: Right, so, a quick and nasty history of sustainability is … to begin with environmentalism, which begins in, sort of, roughly the ‘60s, ‘70s. One of the key influential works during that time would have been Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which focused on the use of pesticides and DDT. But it took a more broad aim: to illustrate to people that humans do harm to the environment, and that harm comes back to visit us as well. That book was hugely popular, and it started to spawn, in a lot of people’s minds, this idea of environmentalism and thinking green and taking care of the earth and so on.
And so, out of that movement, out of the green movement, a decade later we see one of these earlier conferences on sustainability – still called, you know, a conference on the environment. For example, in 1972, we had the Stockholm Declaration, which outlines 26 different principles. The majority of those are environmental, but there are three of them which are very clearly not. They start with language like, “Man must be free and live a life of dignity,” and so on. So we’re starting to see – and this is maybe one of the first features of sustainability, and helps us answer “What is sustainability?” – we’re starting to see that it’s more than environmentalism.
SUMI: Even looking at the full name of the Stockholm Declaration, it was: The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.
NICK: Okay so, “Human Environment”, then, is what you’re kind of teasing out there? Same way as “human geography”, I guess. Yeah, okay.
SUMI: And so it places the person, or the society, in a physical place, and it already implies this interplay between the two.
NICK: Absolutely. And that first principle that I was sort of alluding to, is the embodiment of that idea of mixing the two. So talks about – it opens up with this idea that humans should have dignity and freedom and so on, but it contextualises that within a duty and responsibility they have to nourish the planet. Because they finish by arguing that you cannot have that dignity and that freedom without a health planet. Definitely interrelations between that.
And so this is, sort of, the early insights in ’72, in that kind of era, coming out of environmentalism, of what sustainability is. Or at least, what it isn’t, which is environmentalism – you know, it’s more than environmentalism.
And this becomes even more obvious when we hit about 1987. For example, we can look at the Brundtland Commission. And they very rarely make specific mentions of the environment and of the planet. At this point, they’re talking about the needs of the next generations and so on.
SUMI: So the Brundtland Report was also called Our Common Future. And so it talked about humanity as a whole, and it wasn’t about the earth dying and things like that. The focus of it seemed to be a lot on: how can every person live a good life, and life a life that is free of the struggles of basic human survival.
This is one of the most famous uses or definitions of sustainability, and is within the context of sustainable development. And this is the exact wording from the report: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
NICK: And so another word for that is “intergenerational equity”. It’s not another word for sustainability, sorry, but it’s the idea that’s being teased out here. The idea of equity between generations. So we’re not just caring about humans today, but future generations to come.
SUMI: Well that ties into sustainability itself being a concept that is tied to time.
SUMI: You can’t have sustainability without looking at the past and future of a certain act, or a certain situation, or point in time. And even within that Brundtland Report, in the conclusion, they highlight that it is not purely enough to just achieve physical sustainability, because social equity within each generation is necessary in order for there to be equity across generations. So once again, you have this interplay of these two concepts of the physical environment and resources that the natural world gives us …
NICK: And notions of justice and fairness and equity being just as important as ideas of carbon emissions and biodiversity loss and resource constraints and so on.
SUMI: And so the word sustainability itself becomes this very important term, as a –
SUMI: Uniter, yeah. It’s something that everybody says yes, we agree, we need it. And now the question is, where do we go, where do we take it? And it’s also clear in some other – we’re drawing a lot from the United Nations here, but – in the Millennium Development Goals, which were these goals that were presented at the turn of this century – this millennium, actually – that aimed to end poverty and things like that. And it was great, a very noble thing that they wanted to achieve. But the only time that sustainability was mentioned in those was, in goal number 7 of 8, “To ensure environmental sustainability”.
The successor of the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals, has the word “sustainable”, in the name of all the goals themselves! And that’s a pretty big statement to make, to say that. Even though – in some ways – if you compare the SDGs to the MDGs, the former may seem like a rehashing or sometimes a breaking down of the latter, except for slight changes. They seem to have pretty similar things they want to achieve, like gender equality, like no poverty, like good education for people and things like that. But the SDGs explicitly state that sustainability is inextricable from achieving all of these goals; if we achieve all of these goals, we are closer to achieving sustainability. And I think that’s a pretty big and important statement that they’ve made, by naming them the Sustainable Development Goals in themselves.
NICK: Absolutely, and I think what we’re seeing here in the difference between the Stockholm Declaration in ’72 and the Brundtland Commission in 1987, in the difference between the MDGs in the early millennium and the SDGs which we have now, we’re seeing this trend of an increasing confidence in the idea of sustainability, and an increasing body of work being built up around it.
So, on one hand, you can say the SDGs are a rehashing of the MDGs, but they also represent a growing sophistication of the ideas around sustainability. And also, I think, what’s happening is, we’re getting more of a coalition of people involved. So we’re hearing from more voices, hearing from more marginalised groups, or alternative theories of economics and politics. Once more, people are starting to come to the table, and it’s starting to become a more fleshed-out idea.
SUMI: So even with the shift from the MDGs to the SDGs, according to the UN Development Programme, one of the key reasons why they moved away from the MDGs’ model of it to the SDGs, was “to advance better understanding of cross-sectoral work, and the interrelatedness of goals and targets”.
NICK: … which is sustainability in a nutshell. I think all of this is – everything we’ve said so far perfectly illuminates the multifaceted-ness and ever-shifting nature of sustainability, and the challenge that we have, in our podcast, and the other work ahead in trying to cover all of those different facets of it. But I think it also captures why we’re doing this, because sustainability is, kind of, the great, uniting theme – the umbrella term which brings a lot of really good and interesting and fascinating ideas together. And so that’s why we want to explore it.
SUMI: So if we take it back to the literal definition of the word sustainability, where the root word is “to sustain” … What do you think that that – what’s the significance of that root word, and what are some other interpretations of sustainability, or other ways that people could be practising it?
NICK: Right, so, to go back a little bit, to what you were saying earlier about time, because, when you talk about sustaining something, it implies “over a certain period of time”. One of the big things with sustainability, one of the differentiating points between conceptualisations of it is time-based. For some people, sustainability means persisting over time, sustaining something over time, potentially for thousand, hundreds, millions, indefinitely sometimes, even. But then for other people, you have what the Brundtland Commission called “physical sustainability”, which is just: can the system that you’re looking at continually feed back into itself, and remain either indefinitely or effectively, virtually, lasting forever? Do you have a feedback loop in the system, is it sustainable in that sense?
So you have two different ideas there: one of something persisting over time, and one of something being kind of … like an ouroboros. Have you ever heard of the ouroboros, you know, the snake that eats its own tail? It’s this idea in Greek mythology, a representation of the infinite or the sustainable, and it’s the snake eating its own tail. That’s the circular economy, maybe. Not the best conceptualisation of the circular economy –
SUMI: No offence to the Greeks, but I have a very disgusted look on my face right now.
NICK: [Laughs] We’ll revisit the ouroboros and the idea of the circular economy later. So, we have some idea now of the different ideas of sustainability, the different definitions, some of which are competing and so on. But how is it actually practised, you know, out in the so-called real world? What does sustainability actually look like?
One of the ways that it’s practised, or one of the things that we can look at, is this thing called the “three pillars”, which is a theoretical framework of sustainability, and it explicitly goes beyond the environmental. The three pillars are: the environmental, the social, and the economic. The idea there, obviously, is to be integrative, like we’ve been talking about. You get this practised explicitly in business, with this idea of the triple bottom line, which again looks at the same things – it’s “triple” because it’s looking at the three pillars: society, economic, and environmental. So, to what extent does the triple bottom line embody sustainability, I guess, is the question. And a related question of that is: to what extent is the three pillars a good framework for operationalising sustainability?
And, it sounds like a bit of a cop-out to say this, but, it kind of depends. It depends on what you’re looking at. I mean, there are different examples of the triple bottom line, and, more broadly, of corporate sustainability and corporate social responsibility – all ideas we’ll discuss more as we delve into this in later episodes.
But two quick examples. You can look at a company that has a true believer in a CEO, somebody who genuinely believes in ideas of sustainability. Maybe there’s a personal reason for that, or maybe they’re just, you know, a real hippie type. And the way that their company might practise sustainability and the triple bottom line is very fundamental – they’ll reshape how their whole company works. For example, they might shift from providing a product, for example carpet. Interface Carpets stopped providing a product, and instead now provide a service. Instead of selling you the carpet, they rent you the carpet, they come in and take that carpet out when it gets old, then they recycle it and turn it into new carpet. So they’re trying to approach this whole system systematically, for want of a better phrasing.
Whereas you have an example like McDonald’s. In New Zealand, with the Fillet-o-Fish, they were marketing it as “sustainable”, supposedly embracing this triple bottom line and not just chasing profits, but also social good and environmental good. And in that case, McDonald’s wasn’t farming the fish sustainably, and the New Zealand government new this but they were conflicted because, you know, McDonald’s fishing in their waters brought in a lot of revenue. And paying them to be able to say it was fished sustainably also brought them in a lot of revenue. So there was this profit motive there, motivating the government, but they also have this mandate, by the people, to care for the environment and care for their constituents.
So it really depends on what specific area you’re looking at, whether or not the “sustainability” that you’re looking at is being practised. And that applies to more than just the triple bottom line or corporate social responsibility; it applies to anything you’re looking at. You pick up a can of tuna, and it’ll say “sustainably-sourced”, which might be true of one brand, but it’s not true of the next brand, two centimetres over on the shelf. It is a cop-out, but it all depends, I would say. And as I said, we’ll delve into this more, later, in other episodes.
SUMI: Even more than government and companies and corporations and stuff, there’s also so many other people, and groups of people, who are involved in the pursuit of sustainability. To go back to the whole environmental focus in the beginnings of the sustainability movement, environmentalists obviously have a part to play – whether it’s lobbying or voting with their dollar as consumers. Or even people who may not necessarily seem to be explicitly doing things will the goal of sustainability in mind, but achieving sustainability through the things that they pursue. Such as feminists.
SUMI: If you look at the Sustainable Development Goals, gender equality features a fair number of times in the goals listed on there, because the UN recognises the importance of empowering women. You basically have 50% of the world population that are, maybe, less educated and therefore not in a similar position to make choices in the same way as the other 50%. You also have things like contraception, lifestyle, and all these other things – and that inequity in itself leads to a lot of –
NICK: – unsustainability. Yeah, a hundred percent. And to kind of add to that thought, all the data – raw figures, not anybody trying to make a point, not advocacy but the data itself – says feminist causes directly help in reversing climate change, for example. I think that’s an excellent point to be making, because a lot people don’t realise that they’re practitioners for sustainability or that they’re contributing to sustainability. You talk to your average feminist who’s at a rally for empowering women to have access to their own family planning and choose the size of their own family and be in power of that. But a lot aren’t making the direct link themselves, to their actions and the broader environmental and social contexts.
SUMI: Like even if you think about something that you’ve done today, where you might not have had sustainability in mind of that … Just give me an example, off the top of your head.
NICK: Well I’m a terrible case study here, because I think about sustainability constantly, so it’s never in the back of my mind. I’m sitting there, analysing my every little act and deed in terms of sustainability. But I think for a lot of people … they might, you know, ride a bicycle to campus because they felt like doing so that day. Because they didn’t take the car, they might have done something more sustainable. And they may not ever think about that, it may not have ever been a conscious act –
SUMI: – maybe it was just cheaper –
NICK: Yeah, even just an economic decision. I’m pretty broke right now, and I’ll be riding my bike in probably next week, rather than paying for buses all week. Even with me, sometimes there are things I do when I think, “I’m doing this for economic reasons,” but it has this co-benefit of being more sustainable. That’s a great point to make. Often when we think about the practitioners of sustainability, we might be tempted to look just at the experts and the academics and the businesses and the NGOs and whatever. But it’s everyday people, it’s groups and communities too.
SUMI: So, to our listener – you, the person who’s got your headphones in your ears and is desperately listening and trying to understand what is sustainability – think about what it was that you were doing at, say, 11am this morning. (Or, if it’s before 11am, then 11am yesterday.) What were you doing at that point in time? And if you didn’t have sustainability in mind in that act, see if you can find a link, because there’s a chance that it’s going to have something to do with how it affects the future, how it affects other people, how it affects the physical world, how it affects the economy, politics … really, whatever it is. Whether it was just what article you were reading online, because that’ll influence your choices, that may influence where you’re putting your ad money, you know, everything. It’s all interrelated. And I think that’s kind of the essence of sustainability. It’s …
NICK: Complex! It’s everywhere, it can be anything. It can be the application of any discipline or any area to this idea of sustaining or persisting over time.
SUMI: So sustainability is more than just the green things, and yet there’s such a strong green bias that still exists about it. Like, you do a simple Google image search of the word “sustainability”, and you just scroll down –
NICK: – we would encourage people listening, just multitask out, open up Chrome and type “sustainability” in there, and just see what happens.
SUMI: You’ll see a sea of green.
NICK: A sea of green, you’ll see plants … There’s this famous motif of the hand holding the plant – you’ll see that about ten times. You’ll see a lot of leaves –
SUMI: – the earth –
NICK: You’ll see the earth a bunch of times, yeah –
SUMI: There’s a lot of nature motifs, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to challenge here. Which is why this podcast is called “The Grass Ceiling”. Because the word “grass” implies this environmental lens or environmental barrier –
NICK: – that holds us back from achieving what sustainability at its best can be, which is an embrace of complexity, and an embrace of going beyond a single discipline. We both share that belief that sustainability should totally be about more than just environmentalism. And so that’s how this all began, and that is what we will be focusing on: trying to take you beyond the environmental. Obviously we’ll be talking a lot about it, but we want to give you as much of an insight into the rest of it all as we can.
SUMI: For sources on stuff that we’ve talked about in this episode, and cool links and essays relating to today’s content, go to our website www.thegrassceiling.net.
A big thank-you to our wonderful supervisor, Edwina Fingleton-Smith. And also, to the ANU Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, for letting us use their awesome studio. This project was made possible thanks to the support of the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society. Our theme music was composed by Jackson Wiebe.
We’ll catch you next time, and this has been The Grass Ceiling.
SUMI: By the way, from all of these recordings, anything that’s funny, I’m going to make a blooper reel.
NICK: Okay, awesome.
SUMI: So we’re going to have little bloopers at the end of each episode. This one, I’m thinking probably Nick going, “My essays are great and I love when people write like me.”