Holistic Sustainability

G Davies, 2018. Published by Create magazine (Engineers Australia’s official publication)


Can our society in its current form last 100 years, let alone 1000 or 10,000 years? When asked this question, most people answer no to even 100 years. Intuitively, people feel that our current lifestyles are not sustainable – but what does this mean and is this not concerning. In its simplest form, sustainability means being able to continue indefinitely or at least a lengthy period. There are many existential threats to humanity, and probably the greatest is the degradation of the environment on which we 100% depend, because this can lead to a collapse of society and conflict.

This is not a political left/right debate. In 1989, Margaret Thatcher provided gravitas to the issues of deforestation, climate change and fossil fuels in her 4000 word address to the United Nations with “Of all the challenges faced by the world community …. one has grown clearer than any other in both urgency and importance—… the threat to our global environment”. Her speech is significant because of her scientific and conservative background. Most importantly, it is consistent with CSIRO, BOM, NASA, UN, IMF, but not the Flat Earth Society!

So with the evidence suggesting greater urgency than ever is required, why has progress been so slow over the last 30 years?

First, it is necessary to explore the overarching principles around sustainability. It is not possible to have infinite growth (population, materials and waste), and endless extraction and on a finite planet. We need to live within system limits (also known thermodynamically as steady state or dynamic equilibrium). Everything (elements, medicine, CO2, body mass) exists in a finely tuned balance – not too hot, nor too cold. (courtesy of Goldilocks).

It is natural for all species to want to improve their situation by making a better and safer burrow, nest or home. Humans became the masters of inventing tools, which led to mechanisation, industrialisation and automation and in turn our high standard of living. However tools in themselves would be ineffective without an energy source other than human labour. Abundant energy has allowed food and material production rates to far exceed that which was previously possible. This has led to the exploitation of earth’s natural resources, consumption and waste generation that threatens the longevity (sustainability) of our civilisation.

Engineers can be proud of achievements such as aeroplanes, buildings, refrigeration, communications and appliance, which have led to our modern lifestyle, however these artefacts have inadvertently led to depletion and contamination of the ecosystem. As a result, it behoves engineers to have to carefully consider the Code of Ethics: “to use our knowledge for the benefit of the community and for a sustainable future ahead of sectional interests”.

It is said, that if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it. In the natural and social world, this can have limitations, nevertheless, its worth considering a few approximate metrics1 against what existed 300 years ago:

  • 20% of natural forests remain;
  • Large fish stocks are down to 20%;
  • 25% of fish have ingested plastic
  • Global warming has increased by around 10 C
  • Extinctions are over 100 times greater than would occur naturally.

This should be alarming to all – imagine if this were your bank balance.

‘Free’ abundant energy has driven this state of affairs and so requires a greater understanding. 35% of Australia’s energy is used in transport, 45% in industry and 10% in homes. Electricity makes up 40% of energy consumption, of which 15% is from renewable sources. ‘Embodied energy’ (the total energy required to make products) accounts for the bulk of our energy usage. As an example, a computer uses 5x as much energy to make as it uses in its life of operations. Thus, when you throw away products, you throw away energy. The increased trend towards shorter product life is increasing company revenues, but also energy and waste. “Multinationals have to take the long view. There will be no profit or satisfaction for anyone if pollution continues to destroy our planet”2.

Company directors and CEOs are legally bound to maximise financial returns for shareholders. However, their financial statements do not necessarily attribute a fair cost for stock (ie shared natural resources), emissions, waste and social disruption; externalised costs which will ultimately be borne by society.

The global effort to ensure sustainability is often referred to as a wicked problem and/or the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which requires everyone to pull their weight. Unfortunately, Australia lacks the leadership to address the fact that we produce 1.5% of the world emissions yet have only 0.3% of the world’s population.

So what can be done? I’d suggest that we recognise the problem and risks, engage all stakeholders, ensure a transparent and fair system, replace GDP (which only measures economic activity) with value metrics, ensure all externalities are paid by the proponent in a whole of life cycle analysis and work towards greater prosperity for all.

There are a number of encouraging signs…. The community are overwhelmingly in favour of positive action. A mix of distributed renewable energy, demand management, storage and energy efficiency will produce the most affordable, reliable and quality electricity. Engineers are at the forefront of waste management, recycling and climate adaptation. It is possible to have a sustainable society and also improve our well-being.

– G.J. Davies (FIEAust, GAICD)

  1. –              Implementing Sustainability: Principles and Practice by Engineers Australia, 2017. https://www.engineersaustralia.org.au/News/creating-sustainable-solutions-benefit-community
  2. Margaret Thatcher, 1989 UN address.