Sustainability has become one of the most popular words in the worlds of politics and business. It literally means the capacity to endure. But what is it that we want to last and for how long? When looked at in narrow terms, say of a small business, the fundamental constraints to sustainability have traditionally been social and economic. How long will people accept to buy its goods and/or services at a price that is profitable? At larger scales, we have started to recognise environmental constraints. However, from a long term perspective, our social norms and economic systems are products of society and can, at least in theory, be changed. Therefore, when sustainability is looked at in its broadest terms – the endurance of human society – the only limiting constraint is the environment.
The environment contains resources which are absolutely finite, such as fossil fuels and minerals. Its ecosystems continuously provide renewable resources, although at finite rates, such as sunshine, wind and rain, and plant and animal biomass. Ecosystems also provide services such as the regeneration of the atmosphere and the transformation of waste products into nutrients. This understanding permits us to define a sustainable society.
A sustainable society is one that has adapted itself to operate in synergy with the ecosystems in its environment, in other words, to live in harmony with nature. It achieves this by:
- Phasing out the extraction of finite resources.
- Reusing those finite resources that have already been extracted.
- Consuming fewer renewable resources than the ecosystems can generate.
- Ensuring the health of ecosystems and protecting them from degradation.
History has taught us that ecosystems are subject to shocks in the form of earth quakes, extreme storms, industrial accidents, epidemic diseases, and even asteroid strikes.
Therefore a sustainable society must also help the ecosystems in its environment be resilient to and recover from damaging events.
By the above definition, it is clear our current society is unsustainable. Our economic systems and our dominant social norms, namely to promote growth and to value the acquisition of material wealth, tend to reinforce our unsustainable practices. In terms of improving our standards of living, they have served us well, but they ignore environmental constraints. They assume that the acorn of the global economy is planted in an endless field, whereas, in reality, our planet is a relatively small pot. If left to grow to its full potential, the economic oak tree would likely burst the pot, leading to its own destruction.
For Japanese bonsai experts, size is not the objective. They do not prevent growth of their potted trees, but they do direct them to create harmonious balance and trim off that which does not fit. Until we have transformed our economic systems and change our societal norms to produce this sort of growth naturally, we should at least measure the level of our own unsustainability and take steps to reduce it. We must harness our competitiveness to innovate technologies that use resources ever more efficiently. We must also courageously prune away those branches that degrade ecosystems and balance society by sacrificing some of our desires for the benefit of those who have less. Hopefully this will lead us all to cooperate together to regenerate ecosystems so that they become healthier and more productive for the benefit of future generations.
Clearly becoming a sustainable society must be the primary objective of a vision for the future of Mauritius. The rest of this document explores various possibilities of what sustainable society in Mauritius might look like and what it would take to get there. We cannot become more sustainable but we can become less unsustainable, hence this document also presents strategies for achieving this.