1 April 2010


Sustainability and unsustainability are opposites, so are social inclusion and social exclusion. In theory, if we can define one, we can define the other and if we can measure one, we can measure the other. But in practice, who knows how to precisely define or accurately measure sustainability or social inclusion?

Defining elements of social exclusion and unsustainability, on the other hand, is more straightforward. If a growing number of people say that they are lonely, we are unlikely to be achieving the goal of social inclusion. If more and more cars are using more and more petrol, it is unlikely that our transport system is becoming more sustainable.

The logic behind such an approach is simple. It’s hard to believe a society is moving forwards if there is strong evidence that it is moving backwards. If fewer people say they are lonely, if our greenhouse gas emissions are falling, if our cities stop gobbling up the countryside and if there are fewer cars on the road, the odds are we are moving in the right direction.

While it is important to set long-run goals like ‘making Sydney’s transport system sustainable by 2050’, it is virtually impossible to measure progress towards such goals. We can’t really plan the transport for a city in 40 years time if we don’t know what its population should be and we can’t really choose between transport modes when we don’t know what will be invented in the next 40 years.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t plan. If we plan to reduce transport fuel use, if we plan to reduce congestion and travel time and if we plan to reduce the amount of air pollution, we can do some very important things.

  1. We can develop simple and meaningful measures of performance. If fuel use and travel times are rising, our governments are failing to deliver on their promises.
  2. When new options are put on the table, we can be clear about how we will choose between them. Proponents of new tollways would be free to explain why, for example, their proposal is the best way to reduce transport-related fuel use.
  3. We would be able to assess a broad range of government policies, such as population policies, urban planning policies and even school and hospital location decisions in terms of their stated goals for a problem such as transport. It would be up to departments and developers to explain how, if at all, their proposals are consistent with clearly stated government targets.

Of course, it would be nice if we could simply navigate our course by looking to the clearly defined light of sustainability and social inclusion glowing on the hill, but without clear and widely agreed definitions it is impossible to plot such a course. Developing simple indicators of the things we want to avoid is no substitute for developing creative visions of where we want to get to, but it will certainly help to make sure that we are not sinking into the swamps while we are heading for the hills.   To read more on this issue go to www.tai.org.au/index.php

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