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A sustainable footprint

By Barney Foran - posted Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Australia’s embrace of the real sustainability debate is something akin to the one-day cricket season. There are two teams, one for and one against, a rowdy crowd, many notable experts and some blokes out in the middle dressed in black pants who run the show.

We all have a good day, the scoreboard gives a mob of meaningless statistics, and then we go back to our normal lives.

We read about it in the paper next morning but nothing really changes. Next week there will be a different team, probably wearing green. Perhaps this time we’ll win.


Sustainability is a bit tougher than one-day cricket. Many worthies strut the stage telling us that sustainability is a journey, we just don’t know enough, we’d better be cautious or action might harm growth or interfere with business confidence.

In science, we now know enough to have good ideas on what sustainability is all about. We talk about long-run physical sustainability, for without clean air, good water and healthy agricultural soils, all the dollars in the world and the widgets they buy, count for little.

To harden the debate, to make the great game more of a contest than the normal walkover for the home team, we propose six principles of physical sustainability. Not quite 10 commandments, and not yet chiselled into stone tablets, but they form a working hypothesis of what we’ll have to do, once we’ve finished talking about it.

The six principles are: stabilising human population number and age structure; reducing the use of the grand global elements; basing economy and society on flows rather than stocks; shortening the supply chain; engineering society for durability and resilience; and developing a new economics where taxes tell the truth.

Like a good cricket team, these principles work together. Each has its place. Stabilising long-run population, just by itself, without working on the others in concert, would be like having the Baggy Greens composed entirely of Steve Waughs perhaps all talking simultaneously.

Stabilising human population numbers in Australia is relatively simple. We’ll hit somewhere between 25 and 27 million by 2050 if we continue with our present policies. We can keep in place all the population policies that have given us the Australia we have today.


The best population structure is to have even numbers of people in each 10-year age cohort. This stops us booming and busting at the edge and in the middle of cities. It means we concentrate on quality of life rather than rolling housing booms.

The grand global elements are carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur. Throw water (H2O) in there as well, though it is a global molecule rather than an element.

Since the start of the industrial revolution, human society and its financial flows have been driven by the increasing capture and release of these elements. On a global scale, the big-numbers people are increasingly perturbed by their increasing use that is well outside the globe’s long-term equilibrium position.

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First published in The Canberra Times on December 18, 2004.

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About the Author

Barney Foran is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre for Research and Environmental Studies (CRES) at the Australian National University in Canberra. Until September 2005 he was a senior analyst and formerly the leader of the CSIRO Resource Futures group in Canberra. His most recent whole economy work is the study Balancing Act: A Triple Bottom Line Analysis of the Australian Economy, released in May 2005 in collaboration with the University of Sydney.

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