This article was submitted by Larissa Fedunik-Hofman, a PhD student in Chemistry.


There’s no denying that ‘sustainability’ is one of the hottest terms of the 21st century.

Although there’s no clear consensus its definition, the majority of  interpretations along the theme of ‘sustainability’ involve a consistent focus on the future, and how today’s actions will shape tomorrow’s outcomes. It’s a relatively new concept (it was first used in the context of humankind’s future in 1972 [1]) but in the last few decades, its usage has  exploded in popularity across a myriad of platforms:  academia, government, industry and across social networks. Some members of the blogosphere even worry its usage is escalating to the point of near meaninglessness. (CC BY-NC 2.5)


Broadly speaking, environmental sustainability aims to counter the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. Dr Bonnie McBain, sustainability researcher and UON fellow, was recently at the Press Book House Café on Hunter Street for a Q&A session organised by the Newcastle Women’s Alliance. She told the audience how she’s not a fan of the title “sustainability scientist”, and that “complexity scientist” is probably a better description.

So does sustainability = complexity? You only have to look at our current environmental struggles to hastily agree. Climate change, pollution and species extinction are examples of environmental “wicked” problems, so-called because they are complex and resistant to resolution. So is sustainability a metric? An environment public policy? Or a lifestyle choice?


Measuring sustainability: who is winning the planet-depletion race?

Environmental groups, such as the Global Footprint Network, often measure sustainability using metrics such as the Ecological Footprint (EF).

The EF can be applied to a city, state or nation. It measures i) the demand on nature and ii) the supply of nature. On the demand side, the EF measures the ecological assets that a population requires to produce the natural resources it consumes, as well as the requirement of waste absorption, such as carbon emissions. On the supply side, a region’s ‘biocapacity’ represents the productivity of its ecological assets [2].

Comparing a population’s EF to the region’s biocapacity lets us know if a region has an ecological reserve or is running on an ‘ecological deficit’. Crunching Australia’s numbers for 2013, we have a biocapacity of 14.67 global hectares (gha)/ person, compared to an EF of 8.8 gha/ person. Not too bad, right? Well, before we get too complacent, it’s important to note that since 1961, our biocapacity has been decreasing by a yearly average of 0.28 gha/person, while EF has been increasing by 0.025 gha/person. Assuming constant rates of supply and demand, Australia will hit an ecological deficit in 2036. Furthermore, our EF is more than three times the world average – and the fourth largest in the world [2]. It sounds like we’re in dire straits. Luckily, sustainable policies are here to save us.

Or are they…?


Sustainability in public policy: setting targets to prevent imminent doom

According to Dr McBain, most of the work of a sustainability scientist occurs in the realm of public policy. In 2015, COP21 (the Paris chapter of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) put the focus once again on public policy and how it needs to be instrumental in the face of “wicked problems” like climate change.

Dr Bonnie McBain is a sustainability researcher at UON’s School of Environmental and Life Sciences

In signing the Paris agreement, Australia committed to reducing our emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2030 [3]. This is particularly timely, because although Australia is only responsible for 1.4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, we have the highest per capita emissions of the 35 OECD countries [4].

However, many argue that our sustainable policies are not stringent enough. The CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation described the targets as “very weak” against global standards and also unachievable with current climate policies [5]. The government’s continuing investment in coal mines, the abandonment of the carbon-cutting emissions intensity scheme and the failure to implement a plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef from threats posed by shipping traffic are just some of the examples where our public policies can do better.


Sustainable living: how green is your smartphone?

Sometime in recent years, sustainability has come to be associated with smaller scale acts of sustainable living: a decision by a consumer to reduce waste and avoid unnecessary energy expenditure. This runs the gamut from installing solar panels to buying locally sourced produce, avoiding unnecessary packaging and supporting businesses with sustainable practices. All good things. But there is a concern that sustainability is used more like a marketing tool than an environmental target.


“Sustainability” – a commitment to ethical practice…or a thinly veiled marketing ploy?


Peruse any major corporation’s website and you will find a section laying out their commitment to sustainable practices. For example, Apple’s new California campus claims to be the greenest building on the planet – it aims to be powered by 100% renewables. While this is admirable, you could argue that their endless iterations of iPhones persuade consumers to needlessly upgrade, which is hardly a sustainable practise in itself. And although Apple does have a recycling policy for its devices, it isn’t viable to recycle or extract many of the device components [6].

So it’s clear that we have to take the responsibility of planning for a sustainable future into our own hands. If you (or any flatmates who are yet to learn that leftover Macca’s is not recyclable) need some refreshers, I highly recommend the WWF’s tips. They even have an ecological footprint calculator (full disclaimer: if everyone was like me, we would need 2.3 Planet Earths).


What does it all mean?

And that elusive definition of sustainability? I asked Dr McBain myself. She told me that choosing the direction of action based on the “right” definition of the term was the wrong way to go about it. She instead encourages her students to begin with a vision of an economically, socially and environmentally desirable future – and to work backwards from there.


  1. Kidd, C.V., The evolution of sustainability. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 1992. 5(1): p. 1-26.
  2. Lin, D., et al., Ecological Footprint Explorer. 2017, Global Footprint Network: Oakland.
  3. Department of the Environment and Energy, Plan for a cleaner environment. 2016, Canberra: Department of the Environment and Energy.
  4. The Climate Institute, Australia’s emissions: what do the numbers really mean? 2015, The Climate Institute: Sydney.
  5. Brancatisano, E., The Paris Agreement: Is Australia going far enough?, in The Huffington Post. 2016, HuffPost Australia.
  6. Minter, A., How effective are Apple’s recycling programs?, in Macworld. 2013, IDG Communications.
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