Sustainability Definitions – why off the shelf doesn’t work

28 Feb

Intuitively the concept of sustainability has been taken up as an aspiration across the world. Try to find a definition and you’ll come across thousands of variations. The lack of consistency has contributed to making the concept highly contested. It is incorrectly assumed that we must choose the ‘right’ definition of sustainability and this will provide us with direction for action. The reverse is closer to the truth.

Definitions vary because they are influenced by values and the context for which they were developed. A key part of defining sustainability must therefore involve a negotiation between differing values and aspirations specific to a particular context.

It is this negotiation or conversation that begins the process of building a meaningful definition of sustainability to inform actions for change. Collaborative learning underlies the entire process of creating a vision, acting on it and reviewing it. Therefore, defining and enacting ‘sustainability’ cannot be separated from the learning process.

Essential to this learning is an understanding of who is affected by decisions and how, what is valued by whom and who has power and who hasn’t etc. This learning is undertaken in parallel with a clarification of our own values and how they colour our own version of how sustainability ‘should’ be done. Without such reflection, sustainability cannot be based on a foundation of social justice and equity.

Learning can result in a change of values and worldviews if those participating are able to reflect on information that challenges the assumptions they hold. It is only once we have a willingness to be open to other versions of ‘how things should be done’ that we can begin to negotiate a more robust vision and actions that build on more than our limited perspective. This phase of the learning process can be guided by more traditional principles underlying a definition of sustainability such as interdependence, needs and rights of current and future generations, diversity, quality of life, equity and justice, carrying capacity and limits (see UNESCO).

Defining sustainability, therefore, cannot be separated from doing sustainability and this, in turn, involves participation in learning for sustainability. Such a process for defining sustainability is never static but co-evolves over time without any particular endpoint. The ongoing process of questioning current paradigms and exploring new possibilities requires critical thinking and reflection, creativity, courage and a healthy dose of realism to know what is feasible.

It is in the spirit of this approach that I offer you a sustainability analysis by Ajenta Conrad. Ajenta’s essay questions the current paradigm of Indigenous governance in Australia. Her argument for a co-developed definition of sustainability can galvanise support for challenging and changing actions for an alternate, more desirable future for and by First Australians.