What Is Sustainability Research?
Sustainability is not only about minimising environmental damage caused by human activity. It is also about maximising societal benefits, equitably to all participants, arising from economic, social and environmental activity. Ultimately, sustainability is about trade-offs and adapting while seeking continuous improvements in natural and human systems. The Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI) highlights and promotes sustainability research that connects and brings together researchers from different sustainability disciplines to develop and advance beneficial solutions in contemporary society.
Opportunities in the challenge of change
Sustainability is now a well-known concept, but how to get there is not. Identifying and acknowledging the problem and issues is one-half of the sustainability equation, the other half is coming up with and implementing viable, sustainable solutions.
It is well documented that human actions variously impede, disrupt and destroy natural systems. Such actions inevitably interfere with the ability of natural systems to maintain, regenerate, and evolve their own processes. For several decades, researchers worldwide, including researchers at the University of Melbourne, evaluated whether the contemporary set of human practices that form and constitute our way of life can be sustained over time. Importantly, the focus of researchers, practitioners, community leaders and policymakers has now shifted to the challenging question of how to maintain and improve our environment while delivering positive consequences for our economic and social systems.
The challenge for our researchers is to devise and develop cost-effective, integrated and equitable ways to prevent, minimise and reverse societal-induced damage in our natural and human environments. The Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI) recognises that research, especially cross-disciplinary research, is the key success factor to the achievement of a sustainable future for society and communities. Research can help to make ongoing improvements in sustainability measures, products and policies. It can also help to encourage and induce societal efforts and opportunities in bringing about sustainability changes to our natural and human systems. Such research inevitably crosses the traditional divide between the sciences and engineering, humanities and law, and education, to produce new and refreshing possibilities in research and its outcomes.
Continuous improvement through interdisciplinary research
If human systems produce environmental problems, they also need to and can produce solutions to counter the complex array of negative impacts arising from human physical developments and demand excesses of populations. Interventions by compensating and ameliorative measures can be technological, social or economic, or as is becoming more prevalent, in combination. It is evident that combinations of measures from different disciplines, working in concert, are more likely to be successful in effecting change and adaptations, than measures from single disciplines acting individually.
Explaining sustainability by metaphor
If a human activity is shown to undermine the natural, local or global systems in which it occur, this tells you that the action is not sustainable to us, society, and in the long-run itself. By most standards, many of our societal practices are clearly not sustainable. The combined spectrum of human activities, from agriculture and mining, through to industrialisation and urbanisation, while delivering economic benefits, are fracturing, imperceptibly but inexorably, our quality of life and long-term prosperity. Ultimately, such practices hurt us individually, population-wise, and as a species. This is because they are harming the natural systems on this planet, systems on which all life, including our own, is founded and depend on.
Unsustainable practices include:
• large-scale deforestation and associated land degradation;
• industrial pollution of environments, poisoning our land, water, or air; and
• overpopulation of cities and countries, placing pressure on finite natural resources and liveability of cities.
A vivid way to understand the un-sustainability of many aspects of human activity is to consider the footprint metaphor. Each one of us has an ecological 'footprint'. Its size depends on two factors:
• how many natural resources we each consume; and
• how much pollution and carbon dioxide emissions it our own lifestyle produces.
The 'size' of the collective human footprint is now bigger than the Earth itself.
Another way to explain sustainability is to think of humans as now living on the capital of nature, and not merely on the interest that nature generates for our consumption and use. As in household budgeting, so with the Earth: this way of living beyond our means is unsustainable. We are taking more and more by exploitation and degradation than giving back in careful resource management, conservation and environmental protection.
The two metaphors convey a startling message. On current trends, humankind faces ecological bankruptcy, poverty, and social disruption. Working out ways to achieve a smaller ecological footprint and tighter resource budgeting are sustainability outcomes worth pursuing in our research agenda.
What Do We Owe to Future Generations?
The idea that we have some long-term obligation to future generations has not resonated in the human discourse and is rarely enshrined in any substantial body of behavior, practice or law. Despite the fact that most thinking people understand this, it seems that taking any meaningful action is extraordinarily difficult.
Professor Peter Doherty, Laureate Professor, Microbiology and Immunology, University of Melbourne, attempts to answer this key question in his paper, attached below, published in Future Justice (2010), edited by Dr Helen Sykes of the Future Leaders initiative.