‘Sustainability’ is a topic that seems to come up a lot in my conversations. Not surprising, considering that I am a sustainability communications advisor by day and the token ‘greenie’ in my personal life. Perhaps a little more surprising however, is that for all the time I spend thinking and talking about ‘sustainability’, I still haven’t found a suitable one-size-fits-all definition for it. Intuitively, one might think that a communications professional would have found a snazzy one-liner that fluidly rolls off the tongue. I haven’t.
The challenge, of course, is that ‘sustainability’ is a notion that is constantly evolving within the context of our changing times, spanning across the realms of environment, politics, society, science, psychology, economics, ethics and beyond. How one defines it, therefore, depends largely on who you are, who you are speaking to, and what point about ‘sustainability’ you are trying to get across. Communications experts recognise the powerful, intensely personal and emotional nature of language. So, when you are choosing the words to describe an issue as important as ‘sustainability’, you want to get right.
You can imagine my pleasure, therefore, when I found an alternative way of reframing the ‘sustainability’ conversation. I came across it in a lecture entitled, “Sustainable Wellbeing – an Economic Future for Australia” that Australia’s Treasury Secretary, Dr. Martin Parkinson PSM, delivered this week at the University of Western Australia.
I am not suggesting that this is the silver bullet be-all and end-all of ‘sustainability’ definitions, but I do feel that Dr. Parkinson does a good job of encapsulating sustainability’s nuanced complexities. Using tangible examples to which people can readily relate, he offers a different way of illustrating the economic, social and environmental spheres so deeply entangled in the concept of ‘sustainability’.
In his lecture, Dr. Parkinson deliberately shifts away from defining ‘sustainability’ in purely environmental terms, instead describing the concept as ‘sustainable wellbeing’. Our personal finances, knowledge, skills, health, access to clean air and sense of community, among other things all factor into our ‘wellbeing’, he says. In fact, in an overarching framework, he identifies four forms of capital as the productive base for ‘wellbeing’: (1) physical & financial capital, (2) human capital, (3) environmental capital and (4) social capital. ‘Sustainable wellbeing’, therefore, occurs when one generation passes on as much of these four stocks of capital as it inherited in the first place. When we think about ‘sustainability’ in this light, its nuanced complexities become suddenly self-evident. Dr. Parkinson also makes reference to the Australian Treasury’s “Wellbeing Framework”, which describes Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as merely a “proxy” measure of wellbeing, insisting that we need to be measuring more than increased income and consumption rates to assess levels of social welfare.
Encouragingly, Dr. Parkinson is not alone in this line of thinking. The Kingdom of Bhutan is credited with coining the phrase Gross National Happiness (GNP) in the 1970’s, measuring its success based on its people’s happiness rather than GDP alone. Under David Cameron in 2010, the United Kingdom announced its intentions to start measuring its citizens’ psychological and environmental wellbeing. Numerous others, like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), France, Canada and Germany are following suit investigating various forms of happiness, wellbeing and progress indices. Add to that, the United Nations’ recent July announcement of an adopted resolution, acknowledging the need to place more importance on happiness and wellbeing in social and economic development policy.
I take these all as strong signs that the world is increasingly looking beyond just dollars and cents to assess success. How we will assuage our compulsion to measure everything in hard numbers and figures has yet to be determined. Quantifying the qualitative and assigning price tags to priceless necessities like air and social stability is a challenge sustainability professions have grappled with for years. Yet, the growing dissatisfaction with our current models and definitions, together with the mounting recognition of the value of life’s intangibles, reassures me that we will eventually get to a place where I will no longer have to struggle to find the right words to define ‘sustainability’, because its meaning and significance will be self-evident.