A practical view of sustainability

If 2015 was a year that sustainability issues came in to sharp focus, then 2016 is the turning point for taking action on the many issues.

Three pillars of sustainability are commonly advocated – environmental, social and economic.

These pillars are reflected in the Cherished Earth initiative of the Anglican Diocese of Auckland. This is about taking actions that “strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth” (matching the environmental pillar), and to “respond to human need by loving service and to work to transform unjust structures of society” (the social pillar).

The first pillar, environmental, is about enhancing and maintaining the ecological systems that sustain all life on Earth. In so many areas has our environment suffered because of man’s economic activities, with devastating consequences for many. This pillar is reflected in the Anglican Church’s focus on Caring for Creation.

The second pillar, social sustainability, is about equity between sections of today’s society. One example is between the things our generation take for granted compared to what future generations will likely inherit. Another example is between developed and developing nations. This pillar is reflected in the Anglican Diocese of Auckland’s initiative on climate justice.

Economic sustainability is about the financial success of notional entities including the firm, the farm, the town or city. Competitive advantage and continual growth are at the core of economic sustainability and the goal for most is to maximise shareholder profits.

The order in which we think about the three pillars is important.

Figure 1. Traditional view of Sustainability

The traditional view (figure 1.) is of three overlapping circles with sustainable development occurring only in the area where all three intersect

This implies that some economic activity can occur without environmental or societal implications. Whilst it is the case that some societal or environmental activity can occur independent of economic impacts, the reverse is not the case. All economic activity has some social or environment impact and so, to me, this model of sustainability is not itself sustainable.

Figure 2. Neoliberal view of Sustainability

A few see a model (figure 2.) that places economics in the outer of three concentric circles. This is the neoliberal view of sustainability – resources in the environment and workers in our society are there to serve the economic needs of the firm. For many, and by unstated implication, increasing shareholder wealth is more important than social or environmental impacts.

A more widely held view of sustainability (figure 3.) inverts the three concentric circles, putting the environment in the outer position, surrounding and constraining society which in turn encompasses and constrains economic activity. In this model, economic activity is for the benefit of all the people in a community rather than for only the owners of the capital invested.

Figure 3. Sustainable view of Sustainability

Of all the sustainability issues we face, climate change induced by global warming, is the greatest.

Our government seem to be following the neoliberal model of sustainability – that of economics over-riding the other two pillars. Hence, they are not actually planning for a reduction in our gross green house gas emissions, and instead are looking to buy their way out of future trouble through cap and trade financial instruments.

Given that our political leaders appear to favour economic imperatives ahead of people and the environment, it falls to the people to take climate actions, both collectively and individually, that will give expression to our caring for creation.

The Diocesan Climate Change Action Group are planning a number of new climate action projects that add to their earlier work around energy efficiency and conservation. The first of these is a practical project to establish communal food gardens, or food forests, in as many churches as have space available and want to participate.

Whilst the Diocesan Climate Change Action Group continue the planning work for this project, what other actions do you think parishioners might take? Please leave your comments below.