Why Sustainability Fails to Attract the General Public

Captured by my father near the station office.

Over the past season, we, in the south to south eastern Australia have experienced a short boom period and nowhere have I noticed it more than on my monthly field trips out to the Riverland region.

The environment around my monitoring station has undergone a radical transformation – exploiting the recent unseasonably wet conditions to explode with wild flowers, which in turn fed into the rest of the ecosystem. Yesterday, I spotted many breeding pairs of raptor birds and their messy accumulations of sticks dotted throughout the mallee trees. I even caught the tail end of the first snake I’ve seen at my site, as it crawled into a prickled patch of grass to avoid my intrusion. Grasshoppers nearly ten centimeters in length appeared out of the debris and flew by me – sounding more like a small bird flapping it’s wings than a buzzing insect.

Of course, the generic herbaceous weeds were just as prolific as well…

As much as it is a wonder to see so much life after a decade of near constant hardship, I couldn’t help but muse over my own perception of the landscape around me. For, if the annual rainfall persisted in falling bi-monthly, the region would be as altered by this increased rain as it would if the drought had worsened. For the mallee woodland, such high rainfall would have to change the resulting ecological expression.

But does it even matter?

As a student, I had been hard-nosed on conservation. Invasive species were my pet-peeve and my favourite report, after conducting a rather frustrating study was titled, “Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): an under-appreciated weed species in SA”. I was sick of the familiar licorice-sweet smell of fennel when I hiked through the remnant patches of vegetation of the Mount Lofty region. This is, after all, Australia – eucalypts should dominate the senses.

However, I’ve since relaxed in my attitude towards many weed species – more and more studies are demonstrating that the relationship between new species and ecosystems is a dynamic one and not always detrimental.

One of countless spiders at the site

Sure, the world is always changing, but applying it to the species loss of the recent century is about as sensible as the AGW deniers use in reference to climate change. Still what does it really matter if species disappear from a region or if the local climate changes so much that new assemblages dominate?

Although I’ve got my answers to such questions, I’m increasingly aware, as with my attitude regarding weeds or the unseasonal boom in the mallee woodland, that it isn’t necessarily right. There isn’t any right answer. Deep history is full of mass extinction events and changing climate, so why should any one of us care at all about the human pressure on a new mass event change?

In many ways, this is a follow on from my previous post, What is it Worth? Devaluing What Matters Most. Sure, there has been some excellent work done by many ecologists to explain the importance of species within ecosystems and economists to explain the financial value to ecosystems to human activity and I, myself, went to a fair amount of effort in producing The Human Island to stress the points of such research, but interest in such things is left to a minority of the global population – not something most would read up on rather than watch prime-time TV.

Aesthetics too is a lost cause. Firstly, such initiatives have spent millions on saving popular species, while less attractive species – even key stone species – are ignored at potentially greater detriment to the relevant ecosystem. Also, as certain boneheads have demonstrated, allowing people to rely on such value judgements for species protection leads to some incredibly stupid, short-sighted conclusions.

In short, there is no real reason, from the perspective of the natural world, to conserve species (hell, we could exploit all resources until nothing much bigger than a beetle could persist – including our species – and given a few million years, the world would likely be rich and diverse again) and applying value, whether scientific, economic or aesthetics is next to useless on the majority.

That’s the raw impassionate reality.

What does reach people, however, is the things that surround their daily lives. I’m sure, for instance, that someone who works in close connection to natural and cultivated landscapes would feel a greater appreciation for species than someone who lives and works deep in urban environments. That’s not to discredit the inner urban dweller, but simply the result of their experience. Tim Beatley discusses how this could (and should in my opinion) be countered by the increase in biophilic design (also increasing the avenues for local food production), but that’s not my real point here.

It’s that we too often approach the argument from the wrong direction. We like to tell people how important the natural world, as we’ve known it throughout the Holocene, with it’s species abundance, is to their life. Something over there is important to what we do here or Large scale fisheries are impacting food security to a developing community somewhere else; these kind of arguments are devoid of connectivity to most people, as I’ve discovered time and time again.

The approach needs to start with the audience.

What is important to them? Where does that come from? What about that – where do it come from? How important is it that it is available to their children? What about their children being able to provide it to their children? etc…

Being deep in the urban environment severs this connection to landscape, the resource chain and to the fate of our waste. You cannot be convinced of a problem when it’s largely hidden from you daily existence!

Not only should education start from the personal experience and spread out to the largely hidden natural and human processes on which this all relies upon, but so should policy.

Another local captured by my father at the site

Taking the ecological, the economical, the passionate path or a combination of these simply fails to attract the support they require to provide effective management in the real world. The wider community is largely uninterested and unaware of biodiversity targets or the discussions regarding climate change – for it doesn’t play a role in their day-to-day lives.

To convince them that we need to avoid events that could occur in a century or more from now or that we need to reduce open water harvest of countless fish species is so divorced from their personal life that they’ve already changed the channel.

Starting with personal questions, such as;

  • What do we expect as an acceptable average standard of living and how much disparity around that average?
  • How much access to resources per-capita do we think should be available; at what cost and for what time span?
  • How much access to open space should be normal?
  • What do we accept as the maximum congestion on transport corridors?
  • What balance between commonwealth and private interest would we accept (ie. high taxes – lower input more frequent – or bills – higher input less frequent?) and what services in either case?
  • etc.

From here we can then start to branch out and ask how human activity can meet those targets.

To meet food and energy security targets and possibly the costs in association, would naturally feed into how and where we do things (many of the arguments already floating around, being discussed in small circles) while also placing an emphasis on research and development. To meet more of the social desires would also require us to balance population size with per-capita space access (ie. more people, greater commonwealth/public transport/density living or less people and the opposite).

This is far less abstract to the average citizen than discussing new urban design, global biodiversity and climate change, based largely on research. This also allows for useful social control knobs which shift, allowing more or less of certain aspects – increasing connectivity and balance between the various factors – focusing on opportunity within these targets rather than restrictions that are often poorly understood or appreciated (an example of this would be the rallies in response to the carbon tax or, on a smaller scale the farmer on a hunger strike, I talked about over a year ago, because he wished to employ farming techniques deemed unsuitable for his land).

It would also increase certainty on what the public feel should be protected by the commonwealth for greater community access and what they believe should be a private enterprise.

Much of this could be collected on a regular basis, like census data, allowing changing community focus to assist with adjusting the control knobs behind policy, also helping governing bodies to better understand the community.

The approach wouldn’t be perfect, but none ever could be. It would instead remove the abstract basis to such policies (ie. Why is there is biodiversity protection plan? Because biodiversity is important; would be replaced with; To increase potable water and food security, to increase storm surge protection, to improve air quality and natural harvest into the distance future, local environments are protected, with research and development leading to better integration between ecosystems and the urban landscape) and it would encourage positive think, opportunity and a sound basis for community input. Acting like control knobs would also allow in many cases minority views to also play a role; all of which would make sense to the average citizen.

Many of the more engage are already talking and some are already acting. However, this approach continues to fail to attract larger interest in the general public. Instead, we must start by asking what matters most and also to redevelop a greater sense of community – we should be able to take pride and ownership in where we live, work and socialise. The urban environment is, for most of us, our home. By strengthening what matters most to us, we can start to make informed decisions on how best to secure and improve on these values in turn strengthening meaningful policies in how we interact with the natural world for long term sustainability.


2 thoughts on “Why Sustainability Fails to Attract the General Public

  1. A well considered piece, especially on invasive species and aesthetics. I the suggestion to take a “personal approach” in communications.


  2. The things that surround our daily lives. Now that we’re moving from our very large suburban block to a smaller one in an entirely different area, the thing I look like missing most is magpies first thing in the morning. At some seasons they’re followed an hour or so later by the kookaburras.

    The new place has a park literally across the back fence, but the bird sounds I’ve heard during the middle of the day are completely different from the usual offerings here. We will get used to it, but magpies morning (and occasional midnight) warbling is something special. I’ll treasure the memory.


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