First published: March 19, 2017 for Woroni. Reworked in 2019 for The Grass Ceiling.
Here’s a question you’ve probably never considered: could cat memes be contributing to the likelihood of a mass extinction event not seen in the last 500 million years? It’s a serious question, and yet it’s taken about as seriously as cat memes.
To understand why that is, we need to return once again to the history of sustainability. Previous articles introduced the very basics of sustainability and looked briefly at some of the historical trends that shaped the movement; beginning as a largely environmental cause in the 1970s, and eventually morphing into the triple-headed beast it often remains today. This triumvirate of concerns is often referred to as the ‘three pillars of sustainability’: the social, the environmental and the economic.
Not much has changed since the 1980s. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently defined sustainable development as the ‘integration of economic growth, social justice and environmental stewardship’. The three pillars are explicit and obvious in his words, as they are in most places you see sustainability discussed and practised. The ‘triple bottom line’, in which a business may forgo additional profits (the economic bottom line) to reinvest in worker training (social) or improved efficiency that reduces resource waste (environmental), is another example of three pillar thinking at work.
Does this model go far enough, however, and capture everything that we need it to?
Firstly, there’s a lot to be said in the framework’s defence. For one, it includes a hell of a lot. There’s not much we couldn’t categorise into these three areas. A focus on environmental sustainability alone is doomed to failure, so the incorporation of other critical areas like social justice and equitable economic growth is a vast improvement. It has the additional advantage of simplifying horrendously complex problems, enabling a clear path forward that promotes tangible action.
Despite these strengths, and the enduring popularity of three pillar thinking over the last four decades, I’d argue that some important elements of this movement are still being left out. Australian Jon Hawkes helped start this conversation over 15 years ago, in his work The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability. Hawkes wants to add culture as a fourth pillar. He argues that without including it explicitly in the conversation, sustainability initiatives are doomed in much the same way that environmental-only programs once were.
Why is culture important, though? Consider as an example the culture of cat ownership in Australia.
In 2013 The Australian Geographic published statistics showing that 48 percent of Australian households own a cat, the highest percentage globally. These same cats are linked to the extinction of nine bird species in Australia, and the endangerment of over 30 others. The same story plays out elsewhere; in the US free-ranging and feral cats account for over 12 billion mammal deaths each year, many of which are native.
These cats aren’t usefully killing invasive species that disrupt ecosystems. They are the disruptive ones, undermining other native species footholds in an ecosystem in which they can play important ecological roles. Most of us aren’t aware of this reality, or we choose to sideline it. We pass around memes and aww-inducing gifs of our fuzzy, cute friends, struggling to imagine that these cats are also natural born killers going full Mickey Knox in our backyards .
It’s hard for us to grapple with the environmental consequences of cat ownership because we’ve normalized it within our culture.
These same themes play out in even bigger ways when it comes to other cultural norms. Ruby Smyth’s Start with your Plate tackled culture as it relates to the normalisation of meat-eating – a tradition even older and more ingrained than that of owning cats, and far more destructive. Not all norms need great amounts of time and tradition to become established, though. Modern mass consumption, for example, is a relatively new development, and yet one that has become profoundly entrenched and is particularly dangerous to our continued survival.
Now, imagine you’re a sustainability expert within the UN or a national government. You’re tasked with tackling these kinds of problems, and you’re armed with only the ‘three pillars’ framework. Where do you begin? You might argue that cat ownership, meat eating and consumerism are ultimately social problems (and consequently categorise them into that pillar). You’d not be completely wrong, of course, but what we’re really dealing with here is a cultural issue too, no?
This is a realisation embodied by the AAROH campaign and Oxfam’s work in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The problem they tackle is different, yet fundamentally similar. Approximately 160 million women living in rural India have agricultural jobs. Despite their huge contributions to agricultural productivity, only one percent of these women have access to agricultural training, only two percent have access to credit, and only six percent own the land they work on. Partly, this is because of cultural norms and tradition – women are not seen as farmers. To tackle this issue, the AAROH campaign and Oxfam spent years focusing on building social acceptance for women as farmers. Only then did they shift gears to advocating for land ownership. Before tackling the ‘three pillars’, they tackled a fourth – culture.
Closer to home, ANU’s Kioloa coastal campus houses thousand-year-old middens on the beach, which I had the immense privilege of standing before on a field trip. ANU preserves these sites and is clearly dedicated to providing the lessons they teach well into the future. What is the significance of these to us? Well, it depends to an extent on who “us” is! ANU has their own management plan and it is admirable.
But from the perspective of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, middens like these are living history – a connection to their ancestors, and their culture. Their main value is not derived from potential economic gain, environmental importance, or social impact. Their primary value is in offering a connection to this country’s oldest cultures – ones that practiced sustainable ways of living for tens of thousands of years.
While modern sustainability is doing good things, the framework we’re often using is decades old. It needs serious updates and expansions. Until we start integrating other ‘pillars’ such as culture, we’re going to leave some important things out and struggle to affect positive change as a result. What these middens show – what Indigenous perspectives so often show here in Australia – is that we need to broaden our understanding of “culture” as we do that, too. Rather than compartmentalize things into society, economy, and environment, the lessons here exemplify a need to embrace holism and interconnectedness, exactly the kind of approach the world urgently needs more of right now.
 Blood, N. (2017, March 19). The Three Pillars and Culture. Woroni.
 Hawkes, J. (2001). The fourth pillar of sustainability: Culture’s essential role in public planning. Melbourne: Common Ground.
 Smyth, R. (2017, March 12). Start with your plate. Woroni.
 Oxfam. (2017). An Economy for the 99%. Oxfam International.
 “The campaign focused on the social acceptance of women farmers as farmers in its initial years.” (Oxfam, 2017, p. 14)
The way we speak and think about sustainability can be further informed by the discipline of environmental sociology, which focuses on the ‘reciprocal relationship between the environment and larger society’. This field offers a history of thought on many core ideas of relevance to sustainability and provides well-developed terms and definitions. Given this, it’s worth including summaries of some important ideas that illustrate the relevance of environmental sociology to sustainability.
The powerful lens provided by environmental sociology is important not only to understand the current environmental problems and challenges, but also to devise solutions for a sustainable earth’.
The narrative of ‘man versus nature’ is a good example of an idea that environmental sociology has explored at length. This separation of ‘human’ and ‘nature’ is still today embedded in much of our thought and actions, even when it comes to sustainability, and therefore is an assumption that is worth questioning. The idea that we are separate from nature is contentious to some environmental sociologists, who argue that it has helped humans rationalize the destruction of nature, by considering themselves as its master – a belief that necessitates “othering”; separating ourselves from the object of our subjugation. This idea is referred to as metabolic rift.
‘Metabolic rift is an important neo-Marxist theory as explained by John B. Foster and Karl Marx. It describes how society and ecology should not be classified as two different entities. Instead, they should be seen as one metabolism as one cannot function without the other. The theory explains that man started to view society and ecology as two separate entities with the rise of the capitalist system, creating a “rift” between humans and earth.’
The Treadmill of Production
One important relationship between society and the environment relates to resource extraction and production. The growth-focused model of capitalism often implies infinite growth, creating ever-greater resource extraction which obviously unsustainable on a long enough timescale. This idea of endless growth is known as the treadmill production theory.
In his book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity, Allan Schnaiberg, who coined the term, described what he saw as a never-ending cycle of production, arguing that it was the central characteristic of capitalism.
This idea is built upon by Alier who argues that endless economic growth is not compatible with sustainability. Looking at recent history, he notes that the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 is the only time in which global emissions reductions were sustainable. This suggests, according to Alier, that alternative economic models which do not rely on growth are more sustainable. This the idea of degrowth economics.
Economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability. The effort to push up the rate of growth by increasing obligations to repay ﬁnancial debts is in direct conﬂict with the availability of exhaustible resources and with the capacity of waste sinks. The economic crisis of 2008–09 has resulted in a welcome change to the totally unsustainable trend of increasing carbon dioxide emissions.
These ideas will be explored in future episodes, when we look more closely at economic theory, and alternative, non-mainstream economic models like Alier’s ‘degrowth’.
Modernization and Risk Society
We often talk about how we live now in the Anthropocene. The idea behind this word is that the -cene suffix represents a geological era, and the anthro- prefix denotes us – humans. In other words, the era of humans. This idea can be viewed in terms of the humanity’s geological and ecological impacts. In many areas, human impacts now exceed the natural cycles of the planet. The rising global temperature, most famously, is now a cycle driven more by human impacts than it is by natural processes.
One obvious cause of this development is modernization. This study of modernityin sociology examines a range of historical developments including The Enlightenment, where the importance of science and rationality became embedded in Western society, through to the Industrial Revolution, when machinery allowed for vast increases in production, through to the current Information Age, an era of computerization and global interconnectivity. Modernization represents a broad sweep of time, with some considering even earlier events, such as humanity’s first attempts at agriculture, as the beginning of our technological progress.
The scientific method, the discovery of oil and fossil fuels, the invention of automobiles and the atomic bomb, the rise of international trade, globalization, capitalism, factories, pollution, and climate change – these are all ideas related to our increasing trend globally towards modernization. Industrialization, computerization, globalization, militarization, democratization, and many other -zations suffixes can be said to also fall under this area!
And, as some examples like climate change and the atomic bomb represent – modernization comes with risk. How society manages risk is an area of interest to sociologists in particular, who described the modernizing world as a “risk society“.
‘According to Beck, as cited in Adam, Beck and Van Loon (p. 5), a risk society can be understood as “a particular mode of organization as a response to new challenges enforced upon the world by technologies and practices”. Present society is said to be fraught with risks as a result of modernization where there has been a rapid increase in the advancement and employment of new technologies. While such technologies have brought about increased convenience, productivity and benefits, they are not without risks.’
This idea paints human society against the backdrop of increasing risks, many manufactured from our own increasing production and consumption.
‘The danger here is that as Beck has claimed, there is no form of insurance against the kind of risks that emerge out of risk societies, yet societies continue to take deliberate risks in the name of modernization.’
How a society is structured affects these dangers, according to some analyses. In the capitalist model, according to the treadmill method of production an unsustainable hunger for growth (and through that, modernization) will create increasing amounts of risk. This idea is supported by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who differentiates natural from anthropogenic risks, arguing that we now face an era dominated by the latter:
Humanity has survived what we might call natural existential risks for hundreds of thousands of years; thus, it is prima facie unlikely that any of them will do us in within the next hundred … Empirical impact distributions and scientiﬁc models suggest that the likelihood of extinction because of these kinds of risk is extremely small on a time scale of a century or so. In contrast, our species is introducing entirely new kinds of existential risk —threats we have no track record of surviving. Our longevity as a species therefore offers no strong prior grounds for conﬁdent optimism. Consideration of speciﬁc existential-risk scenarios bears out the suspicion that the great bulk of existential risk in the foreseeable future consists of anthropogenic existential risks —that is, those arising from human activity.
THE RISE OF THE APEILICENE?
Evident in these perspectives is the idea of the Anthropocene and human-created risk. Perhaps more accurately, we are in the Anthro (human), apeili (threat), cene (era). Anthroapelicene may not have the same ring it, granted, but it arguably captures this era of modernization and its consequences better than the often ecologically-focused concept of the Anthropocene.
The Grass Ceiling seeks to push beyond definitions of sustainability that are purely ecologically-focused, and this reconceptualization of our geological era is an example of under-explored idea want to shed further light on.
Some elements of sociology and other disciplines have a more optimistic view of human progress, and of capitalism specifically. The idea that we can reconfigure capitalism to be compatible with sustainability is known as ecological modernization and is another concept worthy of further exploration. For now, it’s important to note the existence of a seemingly contradictory idea, captured bluntly by Alier who proposes an alternative economic model known as degrowth:
Economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability.
Our approach to sustainability emphasizes inclusiveness, but this was only introduced previously in the context of including ideas. What about the concept of including people?
This would seem important at this current moment in history. For one, it has been argued we live in an era where identity politics has fractured us, and driven us apart into different groups based on our ideologies and demographics:
‘New waves of social justice activism have led to a dramatic change in the meaning of solidarity. Classical solidarity was about unifying humanity by bringing everyone into the same tent through the expansion of universal freedoms and rights. Contemporary solidarity is instead: we are all different, and the only way to be an ally is to shut up and vacate the tent.’
Perhaps sustainability can bring us closer together, unite us once again under a bigger tent? Or perhaps not? Many sustainability issues transcend specific identities – climate change threatens us all, for example, and yet other issues almost require us to accept specific identities; economic equality is a challenge that demands we recognize different classes of people, indigenous rights is similarly specific and identity-based.
Looking at certain areas such as activism on the ground, one can see an intersection of many groups. A survey of the Canberra High School Strike 4 Climate Action for example saw people of all ages coming together, but especially young people. They were joined by Indigenous advocacy groups, refugee advocacy groups, socialists, and countless other identity groupings, all converging on the one issue – each drawing specific meanings from the rally, and each affected in different ways by climate change, but all united in agreement that something must be done.
Moments like these, and elsewhere, such as the #metoo movement, suggest that sustainability causes can still draw disparate groups of people together.
Part Two: Fighting for queer issues in a dying world
A Personal reflection on intersectionality
As a student of sustainability, and as a queer person, I’m often presented with a problem: How do we reconcile the pressing urgency of sustainability concerns with the need and desire for progress in other areas like queer rights? To put it more simply, and in the context of the Australian same sex marriage debate, how could I campaign for marriage equality when the evidence suggests my world is dying? Surely, I think, we need to prioritize here? What good are things like marriage equality if future generations will inherit a dying world?
One argument is that we can deal with these challenges sequentially: that we can focus on easier single-issue policy gains like marriage equality, build momentum and social capital, grow our activist base, and then pivot towards the larger challenges ahead of us like climate change.
Although this is a good argument, this approach requires the one resource climate scientists and other sustainability scholars say we do not have an abundance of: time. What is the opportunity cost of a year spent as an activist on marriage equality, in sustainability terms? What kinds of emissions reductions might have been possible, if similar attention were focused instead on the enormous challenge of climate change? Many experts say that time is against us on climate change. The IPCC warned we have only 12 years and yet others say we’ve already squandered the time and opportunities we had; that the best we can do now is prepare for global collapse.
During Australia’s own struggle with the issue of same sex marriage, the mainstream media became almost singularly preoccupied with the issue. At the same time as the discourse around marriage equality (and queer rights more generally) dominated conversations, I watched another year of inaction and tokenism on climate change, and I watched that criminal indifference slide by without anywhere near as much as attention or calls for civil resistance. In my own darker moments, this was a cause for defeatism and even antagonism towards my queer friends.
Climate change is only one existential threat our species faces, and while easily the most notable issue, even it took a backseat to the question of whether a gay couple should be allowed to marry. In this country, on this country’s media and social media, there was not – for a time – anywhere near the level of outrage, activism, and agitation for change on sustainability more broadly as there was for queer issues specifically. It dominated, in other words.
Certainly, one driving factor in how to understand this is the sheer complexity of sustainability. As a movement incorporating environmental, social, and economic considerations (to name a few), it cannot be easily distilled into single-issue campaigns that result in single-policy solutions.
The myriad Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which focus on a range of outcomes from poverty elimination, to clean water, to gender equality serve as a good example of the breadth and scope of sustainability in practice.
We need to advance especially the human rights and cultures of Indigenous peoples, women, queer* people and others, protect the Great Barrier Reef, stop the Adani coal mine, reduce global emissions, fight for gender equality, fight against economic inequality, unwind corporate capture of government, improve the way media engages, empowers, and informs its citizens, increase afforestation, reduce deforestation, reverse biodiversity loss, reverse ocean acidification, manage modernization safely, ensure peace and avoid conflict…and on it goes.
Looking to the rest of the world and its achievements, Australia was framed as a laggard falling behind the global community on issues like marriage equality, and yet, we are lagging on so many of the SDGs too – and on so many other sustainability problems the SDGs themselves don’t identify. Where has the urgency been on those fronts? I often wondered this in silence, as my friends dived headfirst into the next great marriage equality campaign. I didn’t attend the rallies or the sit-ins. I disengaged in a terrible way. Mired in depression and disillusionment, I must shamefully admit that I didn’t even vote “Yes”. A perverse outcome for a queer man, but one borne of what, at the time, was a deep sense of being lost.
When it comes to sustainability, the “To Do” list is literally endless, and will always remain so. To understand sustainability is to understand what a “wicked problem” is – one that can never be solved, and whose solutions invite only more problems. That is the miserable lot of a sustainability advocate and practitioner.
If the journey is endless and its challenges equally so, then it can be easy to lose faith in even trying. But just as importantly from that perspective, the idea of taking on easier goals can make sense. Not only are they more readily achievable, but achieving these milestones can rejuvenate people, and demonstrate that civil action makes progress possible. If marriage equality was a battle, then its victory in the larger war for sustainability was perhaps an important one. How much of the work done there helped drive interest and engagement for later civil actions on climate change and other sustainability issues?
Perhaps the problem isn’t that we are failing in the act of triage; that we are failing to prioritize what’s most important. Instead, perhaps the problem is that many of the movements we see in the modern era are localized, isolated, and to use a piece of corporate jargon, operating in “silos”. History suggests that perhaps we don’t need to choose between two options like saving the planet and uplifting our queer brothers and sisters. In response to these kinds of concerns, a queer friend of mine who is also active in sustainability circles suggested that “intersectionality” offered a kind of perspective on activism that I hadn’t yet fully appreciated. Building on that, more recently another friend made me aware of a stunning, beautiful moment that happened long ago; a moment that demonstrated just what intersectionality can encapsulate, showing how queer activism and sustainability activism aren’t in competition, but instead a fertile ground for collaboration and collective power.
‘Pits and Perverts’: When miners and queers banded together to help each other.
In 1984, there was a movement in Britain known as “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners” (LGSM). In recognition of the fact that there are big battles to fight across a range of areas, the queer folk of Britain rallied to campaign for miner’s labour rights. This alliance proved fateful. Because of the support they received, miner’s labour groups began to attend to gay pride events, to provide their support, and their collective institutional endorsement of gay rights.
Two different groups with two very different concerns came together in recognition of their shared humanity and their desire for a better world. It is a powerful example of what activism can, and should, be. Reflecting on the lessons of history, perhaps one problem with modern activism is how it at times specializes; how single-issue NGOs and special interest groups focus on single-issue campaigns, to the detriment of broader progress. It is sadly a rarity to see queer groups on campus at the university I study galvanize support for causes beyond their own. It is equally sad the way that environmental or sustainability groups operate largely in isolation from other marginalized groups, be they queer, Indigenous, those with disabilities, or people of colour. Too often, these groups are fighting their battles alone.
Much hay is made over the word “intersectional”, and much is said about its virtues, but little of that is reflected in the way I have seen us as a campus community practice civil resistance, and the way we as groups push and agitate for a better world. Recently, with the school strike rally, I have begun to see that change – and for what it’s worth, I’ve been one of many key players in organising the university student contingent, one of the larger university rallies in recent years.
My motivation, partly, is to ensure we don’t let the lessons of history fall into obscurity. Perhaps the way NGOs, think tanks, and research institutes are structured today is problematic, and perhaps many other things can account for why we don’t see today what we saw for one brilliant moment in 1984. But it’s also clearly possible for us to do more, and if sustainability is “the next big tent” then perhaps the near future is more promising than I first realized.
The truth of our capabilities is etched in time. History has given us a blueprint for a better kind of success.
While we celebrate marriage equality – as we damn well should – we should also take a moment of reckoning, all of us, to appreciate the ways in which that victory rings hollow while so many other problems remain. Perhaps we can take a moment to imagine even bigger gains achievable through even greater alliances. When it comes to sustainability, it is easy to become defeatist or turn a blind eye to its unfathomable, protean challenges. I certainly succumbed to this defeatism, but through love, patience, and the prevalence of wiser, cooler heads, I’ve started to see a better way.
FEMINIST CAUSES KEY TO REVERSING CLIMATE CHANGE, DATA SHOWS
First published: March 6, 2018 for Woroni. Reworked in 2019 for The Grass Ceiling
What if I told you that one of the best ways to tackle climate change is to be a good feminist?
Well, that’s what the data shows us.
In March 2018 I attended an ANU Climate Change Institute event where project leader Paul Hawken, the editor of Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, presented his book and its findings.
The book examines 100 different ways to reverse climate change and ranks them according to their effectiveness. Many of the results from the research are surprising, like the one I opened this article with – educating young women (ranked #6) and providing them with access to family planning (#7) represent two paths to lower global emissions that are individually more effective than solar farms (#8), afforestation (#15) or mass transit (#37).
Who saw that one coming? I’ve been studying the intersection of feminist causes and sustainable development for years – across a range of subjects at ANU – and even I was floored by this.
Those of you doing Gender Studies: ask yourselves just how much of that field dedicates itself to promoting its cause as a core part of sustainable development? I’m guessing, as in my own studies, that sustainability doesn’t quite have the prominence it deserves. For those of you who identify with or work to advocate for feminist causes, ask yourself the same question:
How often do we talk about female empowerment in terms of emissions reductions? I’m guessing it’s not a common discourse, yet the data shows it clearly should be.
That’s the beauty of a book like this and the research it’s based on – it’s pure number-crunching. As Hawken stressed at multiple points in his presentation: “We do the math: We map, we measure, we model. We are not advocates. We don’t engage in advocacy”.
When you have that approach; when you dive into the numbers without an agenda, the results are often surprising. The #1 ranked solution to reverse global warming is refrigeration management – making our fridges and air conditioners more sustainable. This is because hydrofluorocarbons warm the atmosphere some 1,000-9,000 times more than CO2 – and we use a whole lot of air conditioning and refrigeration.
“Refrigeration is number one?!” Hawken recalled, feigning the disappointment he must have felt when his team discovered it was the leading candidate for climate change reversal: “That’s so unsexy. Nobody cares.”
And that’s what sustainability can be at times – the difficult task of trying to make people care about utterly mundane, everyday things; the clothes we wear, the products we purchase, and the refrigerant chemicals we use to keep us cool in the harsh Australian summers. This is part of the problem when it comes to sustainability challenges like climate change, and certainly part of the explanation for our profoundly dangerous lack of progress so far. It’s not sexy enough, so nobody cares.
And yet with this new list of 100 solutions, we have something very topical and potentially very engaging. Solutions #6 and #7 in the list – educating young girls and empowering them to choose their own family planning outcomes, both clearly fall under the broader feminist agenda. Feminism is a topic students and countless others are already engaging with right now, in a big way. It’s sexy in a way that HFCs are not.
The #metoo movement represents another part of the broader feminist movement – this time against sexual assault and harassment. At face value, it may have little to do with educating girls, giving them access to contraception, or focusing on emissions reductions, but it remains a powerful example of modern feminism’s reach and profile.
What might the future of feminism look like when the incredible sustainability gains it offers become more commonly known – and are eventually integrated into campaigns of comparable size and scope to the #metoo movement? From a sustainability student’s perspective, that future looks very bright for all of us – for feminism especially. Perhaps the recent climate strikes and rallies – many of which focus on empowering women to have a voice – are a sign of things to come?
I have spent over a year working for the ANU Men’s Network – trying to create a community where issues like feminism could be discussed. And I can tell you that for some men, including those we share a campus with, feminism is a hard sell. Listing the myriad reasons for this goes beyond the scope of this article, but one prominent challenge lies in helping men recognise the value of feminism to them – that it’s a liberating, and not oppressing, force. Hawken’s findings suggest a way out of this seemingly intractable debate.
Making feminism unassailable
With this data now present to bolster decades-long arguments about the benefits of empowering women, it seems to me that feminism has a golden opportunity to further increase the strength of its position, and to demonstrate its relevance and benefit to all. It can do this by embracing the truly enormous role feminist causes can play in the realm of sustainability. If we can unite under that banner and create a movement like #metoo, we could make a genuinely massive impact in reversing global warming. Indeed, Hawken noted that the combined effects of achieving solutions #6 and #7 would outweigh that of #1. Who could argue against such a thing?
Of course, in many ways these campaigns and arguments already existed. Topics like sustainable development and international development have long argued for the sustainability gains of feminism. What’s needed is more action and amplification of that message. If we can continue to reframe feminism as a movement that will save our planet and our species, it becomes much harder for reticent men and other critics to dismiss its relevance, or to argue that only some of us benefit. When that framing is grounded on number-crunching and cold, numerical calculations, it becomes even harder to disregard.
As Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote way back in 1912: ‘You cannot lift the world at all. While half of it is kept so small.’ This is a long-running argument, and now we have access to some incredible new data to show just how relevant and important it is. So why not capitalise on that opportunity?
 Fabian, M. (2017, March 21). How identity politics gets inclusiveness backwards. Woroni.
 Not necessarily according to traditional concepts of class (lower, middle, upper), but certainly recognizing the various groupings of people, including the poor.
 Groch, S. (2019, March 15). ‘More effective than UN’: Student climate strike draws thousands. The Canberra Times.
 Watts, J. (2018, October 8). We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN. The Guardian.
 Turner, G. (2014). ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’. Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.
There are many definitions and frameworks of sustainability out there, many of which are provided by bodies like think tanks, governments, businesses, intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations. Some focus on specific areas, like the Three Pillars framework (examined earlier here and in more detail here). This framework represents sustainability as a movement with the three specific concerns:
Elsewhere, the concept of Sustainable development (one way in which we practice sustainability – the conversion of these ideas into actual, real-world projects) aims to tackle each of these three pillars in an integrated, interdisciplinary way that focuses on societal and economic development, attempting to ensure that progress made in one area does not cause regress in another. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are an excellent example of this conceptual framework of sustainability being applied to real-world projects.
Another conception of sustainability takes a different, time-focused approach. The concept of intergenerational equity repositions sustainability as the challenge of ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (courtesy of the Brundtland Commission). In this framework, we must consider sustainability across different scales of time; the present and the future.
Each of these, and many other, definitions aims to capture certain elements of the concept of sustainability, but none of them alone capture it all. The three pillars focuses perhaps too tightly on its chosen areas, whereas intergenerational equity narrows our considerations to the lens of time scales. That is why, for this project, we are using a stipulative definition of sustainability that is far broader. For the purposes of our work, sustainability is defined in the most basic way possible:
Sustainability is the ability for humans and their environments to persist over time.
Persist? That’s it? What about flourishing, the supervisor of our research project here asked. It’s a good question, and one that shows how any definition – even one as broad as our own – will always be imperfect.
 “A declaration of a meaning that is intended to be attached by the speaker to a word, expression, or symbol and that usually does not already have an established use in the sense intended” (Mirriam Webster).
First published: March 5, 2017 for Woroni. Reworked in 2019 for The Grass Ceiling
Although there are elements within sustainability dating back to the Ancient Greeks and even earlier, the idea has risen in prominence greatly since the 1970’s, spurred into public consciousness then by the broader momentum building within the environmentalist movement.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, often credited for kick-starting modern environmentalism, had been released in the early 1960’s and done much in the intervening years to raise awareness within the U.S and abroad that human activities were not only harming the planet, but also humans themselves. ‘Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves,’ Carson told a Senate Subcommittee, not long after the book’s publication.
A decade after Carson’s best-selling book had helped launch modern environmentalism, the UN held one of the first conferences relating directly to the idea of sustainability: The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, 1972. The result of the conference, among other things, was the Stockholm Declaration – a list of 26 principles intended to guide a new kind of development that was more sustainable. A taste of the first five are included below.
1. BOTH ASPECTS OF MAN’S ENVIRONMENT, THE NATURAL AND THE MAN-MADE, ARE ESSENTIAL TO HIS WELL-BEING AND TO THE ENJOYMENT OF BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS THE RIGHT TO LIFE ITSELF.
2. THE PROTECTION AND IMPROVEMENT OF THE HUMAN ENVIRONMENT IS A MAJOR ISSUE WHICH AFFECTS THE WELL-BEING OF PEOPLES AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT THROUGHOUT THE WORLD…
3. MAN HAS CONSTANTLY TO SUM UP EXPERIENCE AND GO ON DISCOVERING, INVENTING, CREATING AND ADVANCING…
4. IN THE DEVELOPING COUNTRIES MOST OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS ARE CAUSED BY UNDER-DEVELOPMENT…
5. THE NATURAL GROWTH OF POPULATION CONTINUOUSLY PRESENTS PROBLEMS FOR THE PRESERVATION OF THE ENVIRONMENT…
United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 1972
A few things are immediately noticeable: Gendered language referring to all people as “man”. A focus on economic development, suggesting that capitalism is the answer. The labelling of some countries as “developing”. The suggestion that “underdevelopment” is the major cause of environmental problems in those countries.The suggestion that population growth is an issue
Many – if not all – of these narratives are challenged today. Flawed as it is here, this idea of ‘sustainable development’ was gaining traction. Reading through that list of principles, the influence of the environmental movement is evident too. There are perhaps only three principles that do not explicitly mention or concern themselves with the environment. The focus of early sustainability here was narrower than it is today, and yet it remains nonetheless heavily fixated on the environment all the same.
The over-greening of sustainability
Environmental motifs sampled from the same Google image search. “Sustainablity” seems to be about gardening, or having the world (almost literally) in our hands. Being mindful of this framing is important.
If you Google beyond cursory image searches and explore different organisations, you may notice that many sustainability-related projects in government are overseen by, or somehow related to, their environmental departments. Within education, you’ll notice the subject is usually taught by environmental departments too. Here at ANU, my own sustainability degree revolves around courses taught by the Fenner School of Environment and Society. Sustainability has its roots (forgive me) in the environment, and it is usually out of those same departments – once focused exclusively on that domain – that sustainability is beginning to emerge.
It can take quite a bit more digging beyond first impressions to realize that there is more to modern sustainability than just environmental concerns.
The history of sustainability, with its roots in modern environmentalism, has undoubtedly “greened” sustainability. This could be placing harmful boundaries on the concept by focusing it too much on environmentalism. The name of our project, The Grass Ceiling, represents our desire to transcend historical preoccupations with environmentalism.
For over 40 years now the UN and associated bodies have been expanding the earlier environment-focused definitions of sustainability to be more inclusive of other equally important factors. By 1987, the UN’s Brundtland Commission – another famous milestone in the rise of sustainability – was speaking about the idea in terms of the ‘three pillars’; the social, the economic, and the environmental.
The ‘three pillars’ idea has remained popular since Brundtland, and cemented itself into much of the research, discourse and practice of mainstream sustainability. Corporate sustainability over previous decades has often used what’s known as the Triple Bottom Line – a framework that encourages focusing on social and environmental outcomes in addition to the economic ‘bottom line’. The three pillars idea is explicit here, as it is elsewhere.
In subsequent articles, I implicitly and explicitly critique this idea of the ‘three pillars’ in more depth, demonstrating that there are more ways to think about sustainability beyond these three core concerns. For right now, however, they represent a good first glance at sustainability – a more comprehensive idea than the “green” that a quick Google search suggests, and therefore a good first glimpse beyond the grass ceiling.
The Three Pillars: Social, Environmental, Economic.
What are these three pillars, then, and what is sustainability as it relates to them? The idea is relatively simple: societies cannot achieve sustainability by focusing on the environment alone. We could, for example, achieve all the environmental goals laid out by the UN and others, such as carbon emissions reductions, and yet still be living in an unsustainable world destined for collapse. A reduction in ocean acidification, or the complete halt of biodiversity loss would only be a partial victory for sustainability so long as women around the world remain disempowered, poverty continues to destroy lives, and economic inequality heightens to dangerous and unprecedented levels.
These lingering, unresolved issues would also risk creating situations that unwind progress made elsewhere. If countries with alarming levels of economic inequality fall into civil unrest and even conflict, then the progress made on the environmental front is almost certain to slip.
This framework suggests that achieving environmental outcomes depends upon taking a holistic approach. The social and economic impacts of environmental policy are often so significant that tackling just one ‘pillar’ in a vacuum dooms any such process to failure. Consider how much of the pushback against environmental policy is framed as an economic argument. In Australia, for example, environmental policies are often challenged on economic terms – as too expensive, or economically unfeasible. As the arguments go, achieving environmental targets is no good for Australia if the cost is economic turmoil (and implicitly, the social upheaval that entails). The argument is not without merit and echoes the complex interrelationship between our society, the economy, and our environment.
To wrap up then, and keep things simple for introductory purposes, sustainability can be considered as a movement with three core concerns: environmental responsibility, economic equity, and social justice. Sustainable development (one practice of sustainability) aims to tackle each of these three pillars in a holistic, integrated, and interdisciplinary way that ensures progress made in one area does not cause regress in another.
This idea sounds good on paper, and indeed much progress has been made under this framework. As we’ll see in future discussions, however, there is more to sustainability than these three areas, and even within just these three, there remain many challenges ahead.
 Blood, N. (2017, March 5). What is Sustainability? Woroni.
 Carson, R., & Darling, L. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.