SCIENCE AT THE SHINE DOME canberra 1 - 3 may 2002
Symposium: Transition to sustainability
Friday, 3 May 2002
Professor Ian Lowe
Emeritus Professor, Griffith University
Ian Lowe is now an emeritus professor at Griffith University, where he was previously Head of the School of Science. He directed the Commission for the Future in 1988 and chaired the advisory council that produced the first national report on the state of the environment in 1996. He was named Australian Humanist of the Year in 1988 and delivered the 1991 Boyer Lectures for the ABC. In 2000 he received the Queensland Premier's Millennium Award for Excellence in Science and the Prime Minster's Environmental Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement. He writes a weekly column for New Scientist.
What would a sustainable city or community look like?
The 1996 State of the Environment report concluded that progress toward sustainable development requires integrating ecological thinking into all social and economic planning. A recent study by Raskin et al. encourages the belief that a transition to a future sustainable society is entirely possible; it concludes that the 'great transition' is technically feasible, economically achievable, and clearly socially preferable to the alternative. The modelling shows that the transition will only occur if there is political will and purposive action, based ideally on a vision of a future sustainable society, or at least on an understanding of which present activities are not sustainable and need to be changed. The analysis also concludes that the transition will not be any easy one. Even with fundamental shifts in desired lifestyles, values and technology, it will take decades to make poverty obsolete, realign human activity with a healthy environment and ameliorate the deep fissures which divide the human family.
In resource terms, a sustainable society will have made a fundamental transition from the current energy system, which transforms fossil hydrocarbons inefficiently into a range of energy services, to a new regime based on efficient conversion of natural flows of energy from the sun, wind, the Earth's internal heat, natural water movements and biomass. It will also be using its productive land sustainably, probably producing less food and fibre than we do in 2002. Strategic decisions will have been taken to reserve key mineral deposits for applications which enhance our capacity to meet other goals; for example, lead will be used as plates of batteries rather than in applications which irrecoverably dissipate the metallic atoms, such as paints or fuel additives. More efficient water use in homes, factories and on farms will have reduced demand to levels that can be sustained. Several studies have shown that improvements in resource efficiency of at least a factor of four can be achieved now, using technology that is economically viable today, while it is reasonable to expect that future technological development will allow further gains.
A future sustainable community will have stabilised both the size of the human population and the environmental pressures resulting from its lifestyle choices. It will have stopped destroying natural areas for expansion and required developments to be biodiversity-positive. It will have curbed its emissions of pollutants into the air and water by achieving the goal of becoming a zero-waste society, in which products are routinely reused or their materials recycled at the end of their useful life. Legislation in the European Union and Japan has already moved well down the path toward these goals. The switch to clean energy supply technologies and dramatically improved conversion efficiency will have reduced carbon dioxide emissions to about 10 per cent of the 2002 level. Changes to both vehicle technology and the scale of urban transport will have removed from urban air the human contribution to the precursors of photochemical 'smog'. As discussed below, the goal of meeting our needs without damaging our environment will have been achieved through a large investment in understanding complex natural systems and our effects on them.
A sustainable community of the future will have promoted equity by its social policies and by rejecting the recent rush to embrace global markets. It will have become more socially secure by promoting a more equitable distribution of wealth. It will have become more healthy by encouraging better diet and more exercise, notably by providing the facilities that make it safe to walk or cycle short distances. It will have developed a new and durable cultural or spiritual basis, probably based on having regained respect for the natural world. A sense of community will have been developed by conscious policies, such as encouraging the sharing of such facilities as pools and laundries. It will have developed structures and processes that respect and sustain cultural diversity.
A future sustainable community will have a secure economic base, produced by using natural resources sustainably and in innovative ways to produce goods and services which are in demand. It will be economically secure as a result of having invested heavily in the education and skills development of its workforce and the level of innovation in its commercial sector. While the details of its economic organisation are not clear at this stage, a sustainable community will need to have developed a steady state economics rather than basing its economic organisation on the unattainable goal of perpetual growth. Advances in economic analysis will have made it possible for prices of goods and services to include social and environmental costs.
Achieving the goal of sustainability will require a significant investment in improving our understanding of the complex interactions between social and natural systems. Just as much of the damage done to natural systems in the past has been done through ignorance, we are still doing needless damage through our lack of understanding. A future sustainable society will have developed a much better understanding of complex natural systems and the effects on them of human activity. Most importantly, this will have involved the development of detailed understanding of the links between global processes and local variables. This will involve working closely with people who know the land, land-holders and indigenous people.
The characteristics needed can be summed up by the acronym of a HEALTHIER future society. The HEALTHIER future is one that is Humane, has an Ecocentric Approach and a Long Time Horizon, is Informed, Efficient and Resourced.
It will be Humane in the sense of being committed to the development of technologies and social approaches that can be extended in principle to the entire human population, rather than being limited to a privileged minority in a minority of countries. This is an enormous challenge to a world in which the number of people with access to the internet is smaller than the number of people without clean drinking water, and in which half the human population have never made a telephone call or ridden in a car. It will have an Ecocentric Approach because it will recognise that our future is bound up with the future of the natural systems of the planet, its biodiversity and its ecological integrity, so it will have accepted that social and economic planning need to be ecologically rational and cognisant of the limits of natural systems. Again, this represents a fundamental change from the assumption that economic progress will allow any environmental problem to be solved. It will have a Long Time Horizon, recognising that our decisions have impacts stretching many decades into the future; it will routinely ask what its choices will look like in fifty or a hundred years, rather than being obsessed with this year's budget outcome or next year's election. Ideally, it also should have a vision of future development on a longer time scale. It will be Informed because it will have invested enough effort in sustainability science to be aware of the likely impacts on natural systems of alternative policy options. It will be more Efficient in its use of resources and energy because much of the technology we use today is still alarmingly primitive, from the light bulb to the car, and is both wasteful of resources and needlessly damaging to the environment. As argued above, efficiency improvements of at least a factor of four are now in prospect, but the long-term goal must be at least a factor of ten if the legitimate material expectations of the developing world are to be met at acceptable environmental cost.
Finally, it will be Resourced because we will have planned ahead for smooth transitions away from those resources which are running short (most obviously oil) to those which are abundant (most obviously solar energy and its derivatives). It is not clear at this stage what mix of energy supply technologies will be used to power the future sustainable society, though the most likely approach is hydrogen fuel cells for transport and a variety of large-scale renewable energy options for both electricity and production of the hydrogen used for transport.
Achieving the goal of sustainability requires a fundamental change of course. We need to take account of the resource demands of our choices, to be aware of the impacts on natural systems through investing heavily in improving our understanding of those impacts, and to take the hard decisions in our personal and professional lives that will produce communities which are sustainable in social terms. A sustainable future society is technically possible, economically feasible and socially desirable, but we need the political will to manage the transition. Our science gives us better understanding than ever before of the natural world and our impacts on it. Our technology gives us unprecedented capacity to change the world to meet our needs and suit our desires. Our humanity requires us to use that scientific understanding and that technological capacity to develop a sustainable society. That is our moral responsibility to future generations, as well as to the other species with which we share the planet.