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2009 graduation ceremony address – Vanessa Guthrie

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Chancellor Michelle Dolin, Vice Chancellor Professor Jeanette Hacket, members of Council and staff of the University, distinguished guests, graduates, family and friends… thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this evening.

Firstly, I would like to add my congratulations to all of this evening’s graduates.

For some of you it will be the achievement of your life’s dream. For others, it will be a release from the binds of study and a step towards your career. And for others again, it will be another stitch in the tapestry of your life.

But for all of you, it is a turning point in your ability to shape the world. A world that is constantly changing and vastly different to that of 1 year ago, 5 years ago, 10 years ago or even 50 years – a lifetime for some of us.

In the last year we have seen the global financial crisis literally wipe out the wealth of whole nations and plunge the developed economies of the world into the deepest recession for 70 years.

This in light of the fact that many developing world economies are already there – including almost half of the world’s population who live below the poverty line today.

We have also watched the emergence of greenhouse and climate change as the issue for our world and our future. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth has focused our attention on a matter that could otherwise have remained the realm of academics and scientists.

Interestingly, throughout this time, our communities have remained strong, the world’s population has continued to grow, generations in Australia have been able to sustain and even improve on our quality of life. But the question that lies ahead for all or us is

Can we maintain this quality of life for ourselves and our children? Or have we, as a race of people, reached the stage where the Earth can no longer sustain life as we know it, and not everyone can share in it?

In contemplating the answer to this rather dire state, I believe we must first understand 3 things:

What is sustainability?

How does it affect each one of us?

How can we affect it?

So firstly, let’s turn to the enigmatic question…What is Sustainability?

When you say the word sustainability to most people, the common interpretation is to think of the environment – how we live, what natural resources we use, the pollution that is caused by man’s activities, and lately, how much energy we need to sustain our way of life. It would not be surprising to think that sustainability – or sustainable development – is a recent concept, realized perhaps since the recognition of the consequences of global climate change.

However, sustainability has its roots in the environment movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Indeed, one can in fact say that the sustainability movement was ignited in 1961 through Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Carson passionately believed that people had to understand their relationship with nature not only to understand the natural world but to save themselves. The book speaks of human society standing where two roads diverge…

“The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth super-highway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.”…”The other fork of the road, offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

This rather frightening analysis was the first challenge by a scientist that mankind’s “control of nature” to sustain our way of life might in fact lead to our ultimate destruction.

Now it is important to recall that this was 1961. Carson was discounted as “an hysterical woman” and a vitriolic campaign was launched against her from industry and government alike. In 1963, after much controversy, President John F Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee supported her findings. The environmental movement had begun.

Within ten years, the relationship between the environment and social development was being further explored and in 1972, the scientific paper “The Limits to Growth” extended the original warnings of Carson, arriving at the key conclusion that:

“…the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity3.”

It is daunting to think that this prediction was made in 1972, almost 40 years ago, and yet global economic development and consequent environmental damage has continued at an increasing rate.

The concept of sustainable development was really first expressed in the United Nations Brundtland Commission report of 1987 “Our Common Future”.

In this report, the Commission defined sustainable development as:

“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Two key concepts are critical in this definition: firstly, the concept of “needs”, in particular considering the needs of the world’s poor today; and secondly the idea that the natural environment has limited ability to meet society’s present and future needs.

The Commission also stressed that overriding priority should be given to the needs of the poor, highlighting for the first time that “sustainable development” must contemplate the social and economic inequity that exists between people today as well as conserving resources for future generations.

This report has motivated global leaders to adopt sustainable development in two world summits since that time – balancing the economic and social needs of people with the environmental constraints of the Earth.

Sustainable development has now really become a movement focussed on poverty alleviation and the inequitable distribution of the Earth’s dwindling resources, global climate change and the impact that a loss of biodiversity has on economic development.

Despite the many ways in which sustainability has been defined before and since, it is the definition of Brundtland Commission – the interdependence between the carrying capacity of the natural environment and the social and economic challenges that face humanity, both today and into the future – that endures.

I have yet to find a better way to express the dimensions of sustainability that must be considered in decision-making on either a local, regional or global scale.

Given this definition, we move to the second question…How does sustainability affect each one of us?

It is easy to talk about sustainability, but much harder to identify how it affects us. In effect, sustainability is not something that we actually do, but rather it is an outcome that we strive to achieve.

For those of you graduating with degrees in the health science areas – biomedical sciences, nursing, midwifery and particularly international health – the impact of sustainability on your chosen career to improve the human condition can clearly be made.

You may find yourself working in a developing country delivering health services to children and mothers that help to reduce the effects of poverty. Or you may find yourself in an Australian Indigenous community, helping to close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

In biomedical sciences, your work may lead to new diagnostic technologies, drugs or medicines that will also improve the quality of life for people.

Here, sustainability clearly affects you – working in the social dimension, you are looking for ways in which to address the inequity between people today.

As a graduate of Management or Marketing, you might be sitting back right now thinking that while this is mildly interesting, none of it is really relevant to you. In fact, you might be wondering what sustainability has to do with you and your career.

Well for all of us, there are really two responses.

Firstly, irrespective of your chosen career, sustainability affects you in how you live your life as an individual – that is, how much food, water, energy you need to maintain your lifestyle.

Of course, every person’s needs are different. So as a test, I used an ecological footprint calculator to determine what my personal footprint is – and how this might compare to others.

Now I think that I am relatively aware of the resources it takes to sustain my lifestyle. I was disturbed to find that to sustain my lifestyle takes 7.5 global hectares. This compares to the 2.1 hectares per person that the Earth has available to sustain the human population.

So what about the rest of the Earth’s population? How much of my individual benefit from the environment comes at the expense of others who cannot live the same way today, or in fact in the future? For every person like me who demands more to maintain our lifestyle, another person in the world must go without. If every person lived like I do, it would take 4.2 planet Earths to provide enough resources to meet this need. The sad reality is…we simply do not have 4.2 Earths to go around.

Secondly and connected to this individual impact, we are increasingly impacted in how we need to think differently in our work if we are going to be able to maintain our quality of life for all people. This is where your career becomes important.

If sustainability is the outcome that we are trying to achieve, then it will be critical that in your work you contemplate not only the economic outcomes of business decisions, but that you also take the ecological and social outcomes into account. The outcome cannot be an either/or, but to be sustainable, it must be an and.

There is no better example of this than the effect of the global downturn on the Australian economy. In hard economic times such as today, it is easy to believe that we simply cannot afford the environmental or social dimensions of business. However, can we really afford to not consider global climate change, or how many people live below the poverty line today, or into the future? Can we in fact, as part of our jobs, look for ways in which to reduce the environmental emissions of our business, or increase the social benefits that are delivered to the local community while at the same time increasing the economic returns to shareholders? Challenging, but all three pillars of sustainability can affect how we make decisions and therefore how we do our job.

The effect of sustainability on each of us then is to change our way of thinking, of making decisions, to lead to a different global outcome. In effect then, sustainability only affects each of us insomuch as we affect it, by applying it in our chosen field.

And so, this is our third question tonight…how can we affect sustainability?

Ironically, the answer to this question is the mirror of that above – sustainability affects us by forcing us to make decisions differently, and we affect the outcome that is sustainability by taking those different decisions.

Perhaps the most poignant reminder of our role in sustainability can be found in Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” published in the journal Science 1986.

Hardin’s most famous essay highlights the role that each of us has to play in ensuring that the way of life we enjoy today is also available to both those who currently share our world as well as those generations who are yet to come.

The tragedy of the commons is defined by Hardin as the opportunity that each individual has to maximise his gain from the use of a shared resource – such as the Earth’s resources. However this benefit comes at a cost. Whereas the benefits go to the individual, the cost is shared with all who wish to use those common resources both now and in the future.

Again, this is not unlike the world today, where each country seeks to develop their own economy to its fullest extent, based on the natural capacity of the Earth to absorb the effects of that development. It is not unlike each of you, graduating from University with a desire to draw the greatest value to yourself that our economy can generate.

Up until now, this arrangement has worked reasonably well, as many other factors have kept our demands well below the natural carrying capacity of the Earth. This has certainly been so for the natural environment, including our waterways, atmosphere, oceans and land, although less so when one considers the distribution of wealth across the globe.

However, we are starting to see signs that the capacity of the Earth might be exceeded. For example, the crisis that we see in the Murray-Darling river system in Eastern Australia can be attributed, at least in part, to Australia’s desire to extend the productivity of the land through irrigation beyond its natural carrying capacity.

Even more critical to our capacity to sustain our lifestyle are the increasing effects of global climate change. In our resistance to change our consumption patterns in the developed world, we are now turning to adaptation as a key response. In other words, as Carson identified in 1961, we continue to attempt to control our environment instead of responding to its limitations.

Examples are not limited to the natural environment. In the current global financial crisis too, we have seen examples of where people have increased their own gain, to the ultimate detriment of the global economy.

Adding such components together, Hardin argues that the only economically rational course is for each person to continue to increase their own gain. But when this is the conclusion reached by every individual sharing Earth’s resources, then tragedy occurs as those resources run out. Hardin states;

“Therein is the tragedy… Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

How do we stop the tragedy happening then and instead arrive at a sustainable outcome?… By making decisions differently, and taking into account the environmental, social and economic outcomes that might result.

We would all do well to be reminded of Hardin’s caution. Too much freedom to pursue our own best interests might in fact result in ruin for all.

This is the challenge ahead of you in your careers – to think differently about the inputs to your decisions and deliver an outcome that is more sustainable – both for our current society as well as future ones.

In conclusion, John F Kennedy said:

“Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

I urge each and every one of you from here on, to make decisions and choices which create a world that is sustainable. Not only for your own benefit, but for our future generations, for whom you hold the key.

Thank you.