Sustainability and culture

First published: March 19, 2017 for Woroni[1].
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[2]. 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[3] 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[4] 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[5]. Only then did they shift gears to advocating for land ownership. Before tackling the ‘three pillars’, they tackled a fourth – culture.

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ANU’s Kioloa Coastal Campus. Image from (ANU, 2019). Watch a YouTube flyover. 

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[6].

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.

Img Middens
Learning at the middens (Photo: Nick Blood)

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.


[1] Blood, N. (2017, March 19). The Three Pillars and Culture. Woroni.

[2] Hawkes, J. (2001). The fourth pillar of sustainability: Culture’s essential role in public planning. Melbourne: Common Ground.

[3] Smyth, R. (2017, March 12). Start with your plate. Woroni.

[4] Oxfam. (2017). An Economy for the 99%. Oxfam International.

[5] “The campaign focused on the social acceptance of women farmers as farmers in its initial years.” (Oxfam, 2017, p. 14)

[6] ANU. (2019). Kioloa Coastal Campus Final Draft 2030 Master Plan. Retrieved from Kioloa Coastal Campus: