Sustainability is one of the new themes of governments around the world, and expressed as sustainable development it has been extensively promoted in the UK. Our present government has made it a key aim for the Environment Agency, and English Nature have developed a position statement recognising that biodiversity (that other new environmental priority) is a key test of sustainable development.
I was intrigued by a recent article by the well-known freshwater scientist and angler Mark Everard, currently working as Director of Science for international charity The Natural Step. This article, Aquatic Ecology, Economy and Society: the place of aquatic ecology in the sustainability agenda was published in Freshwater Forum (the journal of the Freshwater Biological Association) Volume 13 in February 2000. Fascinating as the content was, the language used was equally mesmerising; I cannot hope to produce a summary which does justice to the content, but I would like to convey a flavour of the language.
As population grows and natural resources diminish, the “environmental headroom” in which people live and businesses operate is constantly diminishing ? Collectively, the various regulations, reputation issues, planning controls and other factors constitute a “licence to operate” granted by society to businesses and other enterprises. This “licence” is increasingly tightening due to declining headroom.
The nett result of [these] unsustainable uses of natural capital – the goods and services produced by nature – is that they are in decline, and their capacities for renewal are breaking down. There is hard evidence that the very life support systems that provide the goods and services upon which society depends – economically, socially, spiritually and as a matter of survival – are unravelling ? 25% of global fish stocks are currently depleted and a further 44% are being fished at their biological limit.
If a successful business can be defined by its return on financial capital it must, in a future sustainable world, be measured by its return on the natural and human capitals that it exploits in addition to the financial capital. No business that depletes the financial capital upon which it runs can be sustained in the longer term; in a world of diminishing natural and human capitals, the same principle of unsustainability will also apply.
In the light of the current vast overspend of natural capital, allied with the pressure of a growing global population, the process of sustainable development will not merely have to stabilise consumption of primary resources. It will be necessary to move beyond stasis into restoration of primary resources.
And so it would appear we have to adapt to change. It is not sufficient to modify our sport to cope with diminishing catches and sizes, and to modify our lives to cope with less fishing and more campaigning. Now we also have to modify our vocabulary to communicate with our political masters.