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Good reasons to hope we can become sustainable

By Eric Claus - posted Wednesday, 10 June 2009

In my previous article in On Line Opinion (“Good reasons for not wanting to be sustainable”) I identified factors deeply rooted in the brains of most Australians (and most of the rich world) that keep us from wanting to act sustainably. I divided these into two categories:

  1. the factors biologically implanted in our brains through a million years of survival and evolution; and
  2. the lessons we learned as children growing up.

Although it might seem that these factors make ever being sustainable impossible, we have already seen some hopeful shifts and perhaps some of these trends will continue.


Biological programming

Fight or flight

A safer world has turned down our urgency for fight and flight. As living standards improve, more people become secure and educated. That means more people will be able to think about the future, rather than just scrambling to put food on the table each day. Sustainability is complicated, but as education becomes more widespread around the world, there will be a greater understanding of environmental issues. This could lead to a better understanding of the need for sustainability.

Protect the tribe

Never in history has it been easier to get information than it is today, and information technology is still improving. As we learn more about our world and its people, we realise that our tribe isn’t as narrow as it was when we lived in caves. More and more people are seeing their tribe as all of humanity. As this trend continues there will be less concern about small local tribes and more about our big tribe of all humans.

Conquer the environment

When today’s business and political leaders were growing up, there was a very limited environmental movement and certainly no environmental education in school. Today’s leaders didn’t grow up with the idea that protection of the natural environment needs to be considered in all the decisions about how we shape our world. The only consideration was, what is going to make us richer?


Since the mid 80s and accelerating in the 90s, environmental education has become an integral part of the primary and high school curriculum in most countries. Environmental issues like global warming, recycling and water shortages are in the news almost every day. The next generation of prime ministers and CEOs will have grown up knowing that protecting the environment is just as important as protecting the economy, democracy and the justice system. Understanding the importance of protecting our environment is the big step. The next step to sustainability is much smaller.

Lessons learned as a child

Everything is great and always will be

The notion that everything is great, is relative to what we expect and what we expect is based on what we are used to. We are used to things getting better and we expect things to get better. If things change gradually, we hardly notice. We might think traffic wasn’t this bad 20 years ago, but there was some bad traffic 20 years ago and our memories aren’t that specific anyway. When some greenies say that life expectancy is now dropping in Africa or fish stocks have been significantly depleted, it’s all just statistics. It doesn’t really have an impact.

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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