Sustainability: a model for the future

Bender, Helena and Judith, Kate ORCID: and Beilin, Ruth (2012) Sustainability: a model for the future. In: Reshaping environments: an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability in a complex world. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, pp. 305-334. ISBN 978-1-107-68866-7


In the classic story the 'Time Machine' by H.G. Wells (1895) a 19th C adventurer creates a machine that can travel into the past and the future. At the start of exploring what is possible with this new creation the character is caught up in the excitement of discovery. What was the past like? What does the future hold? As the plot progresses there is an awakening to the realisation that each action that the adventurer takes, intentional or not, has implications for the future.

Sustainability is widely used as a guide to a more desirable future. It continues to increase in popularity as an ideal underpinning decision making, but there is still no agreement in the usage of the term. In part this is because authors writing on sustainability make a choice between thinking of sustainability as a theoretical concept, and thinking of it as a practice, or way of life. This chapter considers sustainability to be both of these things, and that both are important partners in understanding and acting responsibly in the world. Practice needs to be underpinned by, and respond to theory. The theory is rooted in observations of, and reflections about how humans want to act in relationship with the Earth’s systems, and as a theory needs to be critically revised. There is an extensive literature around how to practice sustainability, while it is harder to find accessible discussion of the theoretical concept. Thus, this chapter explores the theory, and to a small extent, the practice of sustainability as a concept that links past, present and future and offers a model to all adventurers on the planet Earth.

This chapter starts by taking a broad view of how to define and evaluate the concept of sustainability using five different techniques First the linguistic roots (etymology) of the idea are investigated. Secondly the concept is considered from a systems theory perspective, revealing the importance of boundaries and scale in the meaning of sustainability. Next, a historical view is taken, tracing the usage of sustainability as a concept, followed by an exploration of the similarities and differences between sustainability and sustainable development. Lastly, the relationship between sustainability, ethics and human behaviour is considered.

The chapter then explores the challenges of working with the concept of sustainability, some of the core issues and limitations of working with models of sustainability are outlined; substitutability across systems both in space and time; the relationship between reductionist and holistic methods of measuring sustainability and the challenges of dealing with complex adaptive systems and their necessary uncertainties.

Lastly, the chapter reflects upon the usefulness of the concept for creating a better future.

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Item Type: Book Chapter (Commonwealth Reporting Category B)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information: Ch 14. © Cambridge University Press 2012. Print copy held in the USQ Library at call no. 304.2 Res.
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Current - USQ Other
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Current - USQ Other
Date Deposited: 04 Dec 2012 03:09
Last Modified: 23 Aug 2017 03:21
Uncontrolled Keywords: sustainability
Fields of Research (2008): 05 Environmental Sciences > 0599 Other Environmental Sciences > 059999 Environmental Sciences not elsewhere classified
22 Philosophy and Religious Studies > 2202 History and Philosophy of Specific Fields > 220206 History and Philosophy of Science (incl. Non-historical Philosophy of Science)
Fields of Research (2020): 41 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 4199 Other environmental sciences > 419999 Other environmental sciences not elsewhere classified
50 PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES > 5002 History and philosophy of specific fields > 500204 History and philosophy of science

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