Episode 2: Parks, plastics, and problem-solving

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In this episode, we’re looking at the idea of working across disciplines. What are some of the challenges, opportunities, and examples? Below are some notes from the show.

This episode was recorded on 5 August 2019. We had the honour of speaking to Kate Auty on 21 March 2019, Cynthia Burton on 6 April 2019, and Brett McNamara on 3 May 2019.

“Parks management is about people management”

  • Introducing Brett McNamara, Senior Manager at ACT Parks & Conservation Service
  • The values in a landscape and what is considered to be “well taken care of” are defined by whoever or whatever is using the landscape – management is in the eye of the beholder
  • Many of the problems faced in national parks, such as invasive species, resulted from human actions especially following European invasion of Australia. So the key to effective management is managing human behaviour
  • Aboriginal and First Nations people have cultivated, managed, and lived with the land for millennia, as written about by Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu, 2016) and Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth, 2012)
  • When Europeans arrived, their way of conceptualising the human relationship with Country was fundamentally different from Aboriginal people here

The fourth pillar

  • Apart from the social, environmental and economic pillars of sustainability discussed in episode one, there’s one more: culture. It’s a tricky thing to describe; it has to do with people’s beliefs, values, relationships, and paradigms
  • False dichotomies are a logical fallacy that is present in some discourses about sustainability, where the arts and STEM are pitted against each other
    • In fact, neither is closer to some objective “truth”, but instead build off of one another in interconnected ways
  • All knowledge – including that of sustainability – has to evolve with and adapt to new information
    • Brett: Parks needs to find a way to be and stay relevant to the people, as populations change and so do cultural relationships with conservation spaces
    • Cynthia Burton, then-vice president of the National Parks Association of the ACT: Creative outreach strategies across age groups and backgrounds, to build community, network, and empathy for national parks
  • Both the NPAACT and ACT Parks are facing a communication problem, which requires understanding human psychology, best practices in communication
    • In addition to knowing about conservation, people need to also believe in its value in order to care, and encourage others to do so as well

Working across disciplines

  • Introducing Kate Auty, then-Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment
  • Their staff is made up of a lawyer, water ecologist, environmental engineer, spatial mapping expert, a human ecologist … people from a number of disciplinary backgrounds, all with the goal of thinking across disciplines in the work the office does
    • Most people there are young, so there are fresh ideas and perspectives coming in, especially about communicating beyond dense reports that they’ve always done
    • Even so, still stuck beneath the grass ceiling, and like Cynthia’s and Brett’s work, having issues with communication
  • Defining working across disciplines
    • Multidisciplinary: Combining several academic disciplines to a single topic or issue
    • Interdisciplinary: Going between two (or more) disciplines (e.g. biochemistry)
    • Transdisciplinary: Across disciplines
    • The difference between these terms is confusing, but the spirit is similar; “bringing together multiple disciplines”. We may use all three interchangeably (multichangeably? transchangeably?)
  • Kate: Networking, forming relationships outside of one’s disciplinary bubble is key to working across disciplines
    • Perhaps this puts the onus squarely on the individual within a role, with little view to longevity of interdisciplinary relationships within institutions. Or, could baking it into the institution mean that there’s less flexibility for successive position-holders?
    • What kinds of relationships might one build, and how might the choices of relationships to foster differ between people based on their values, knowledge paradigm, existing networks?
  • Brett: Restorative justice for vandalism in ACT Parks
    • Exchanging values, mutual learning, and building empathy

Scale and focus

  • When tasked with coming up with a solution to plastic packaging on fresh produce for a uni class, some vastly different examples emerged
    • Nick’s group went with a global plastics convention, while Sumi’s came up with a soupermarket
    • Neither one is necessarily better than the other, but in fact have to work hand-in-hand in order to work
    • There’s a whole range of reasons why plastic is so pervasive in our lives
  • Prioritisation of responses: Top-down, or bottom-up? Global or local? Individual or institutional?
    • It may be a false dichotomy in some cases, but due to scarcity of time and resourcing, sometimes we do have to make a choice
    • Feasibility, affordability are key factors. Culture can play a huge role in the feasibility of a change (e.g. reducing meat consumption)
  • Innovation is a key driver of change, but the effects are not always clear from the get-go

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.

ImgFeature Kioloa
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: https://services.anu.edu.au/business-units/facilities-services-division/kioloa-coastal-campus

Four definitions of sustainability

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[1] 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[2] 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.


[1] https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

[2] “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).

The history of sustainability

First published: March 5, 2017 for Woroni[1].
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[2], 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[3].

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[4]. A taste of the first five are included below.






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[6].

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.


[1] Blood, N. (2017, March 5). What is Sustainability? Woroni.

[2] Carson, R., & Darling, L. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[3] Carson, R. (1963, June 4). Statement of Rachel Carson Before the Subcommittee on Reorganization and International Organizations of the Committee on Government Operations. Retrieved from Rachel Carson Council: https://rachelcarsoncouncil.org/about-rcc/about-rachel-carson/rachel-carsons-statement-before-congress-1963/

[4] United Nations General Assembly. (1972). United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Stockholm: UN. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/apps/njlite/srex/njlite_download.php?id=6471

[5] As above.

[6] World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press.

Episode 1: How did we get here?

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Full transcript available here. 


There are many ways of looking at this idea of “sustainability” and we’re here to take you on a guided tour of some of them. Below you can find some extra show notes, resources, and other goodies.

This episode was recorded on 21 and 24 January 2019.


  • Different ways of looking at it
    • Often defined narrowly: As environmentalism. Conflicting studies or viewpoints. Less often a conversation happening with everything taken together: Integrative, interdisciplinary, or multidisciplinary.
    • Trying to bring together different ideas, voices, perspectives, practices.
    • Especially marginalised ideas or voices
  • Our coming together was in an interdisciplinary class: physical geography + human geography = “the geography of sustainability“.
  • Our university school specialises in integrative studies: The Fenner School of Environment and Society.


  • Using history in understanding why we have so many different approaches. Started with environmentalism.
  • Out of the green movement comes these conferences on “sustainability”
  • 1972: Stockholm Declaration: Majority are environmental, but some important non-environmental concerns (freedom, dignity, etc).Starting to see, even from the outset, that it is something about more than environmentalism. Sustainability is about more than the environment.
  • Brundtland Commission: At this point talking about environment even less, and when considering humanity does so intergenerationally, from the perspective of current and future “needs”.
  • Sustainable Development: “Sustainable Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
    • Sustainability as a concept tied to time.
    • Tied to more than just our environment: tied to concepts of justice, equity, and society.
    • As a uniting term.
  • MDGs (2000 – 2015): Goal #7 only mention of sustainability – sustainable environment.
  • SDGs (2015 – 2030): Great shift here to focus on this idea. Mentioned in their very name / suggesting a much broader aspiration to sustainability: for example “Sustainable consumption and production”.
  • If we achieve these goals we are closer to achieving “sustainability”?
  • Advanced cross-sectoral work, a more multidisciplinary perspective to each of these challenges. Greater coalitions of voices lending greater plurality of voices, once marginalized or sidelined.
  • Seeing a trend over time here of an increasing body of work being built up around sustainability – covering a range of concerns beyond (but always related back to) the environment.


  • Literal definitions: Sustaining over time (a certain period of time)
    • Time-based conceptualisations:
    • Physical / Structural sustainability
      • Cyclicality (and continuity), stable systems, feedback loops (Ouroboros), circular economy
The Ouroboros!


  • Three Pillars theoretical framework that is practised explicitly: Triple Bottom Line
    • To what extent does it mirror sustainability? To what extent is this a good framework for practicing sustainability? It depends: corporate social responsbility varies according to the case you’re looking at
      • True Believer CEO vs. Greenwashing Interface (product to service) vs McDonalds Filet-O-Fish in New Zealand. Profit motive frequently conflicts with sustainable outcomes
      • A great deal of discourse around whether capitalism (or the profit motive) is compatible with sustainability or sustainable development.
      • Similar debate over growth. Related to capitalism, but not always.
      • Individual action as consumers? Structural change? Broader questions here about how to best achieve sustainability: Who practises sustainability? Is it just environmentalists? What about intersections between other progressive causes?


  • Do a simple Google search of the word “sustainability” and see what you find. A sea of green: plants, leaves, the famous motif of the hand holding the plant. What we’re trying to challenge here is the dominance of an environmental perspective when it comes to sustainability.
    • Because we want to embrace complexity. Because we want to learn about other perspectives, especially those outside the mainstream.