A Conversation with the Future

by Terence Jeyaretnam

The National Sustainability Council was established by the Australian Government in October 2012 to provide independent advice on sustainability issues to the government. The council’s remit includes reporting against the sustainability indicators every two years and highlighting key trends and emerging issues for policy and decision makers and communities in Australia. Chaired by Prof. John Thwaites, the Council’s first report, released in May this year is titled ‘Conversations with the Future’.

The report paints a picture of where we have come from, and more importantly, our choices and paths ahead as a country, states, regions and cities. ‘We live better than earlier generations because we stand on their shoulders, benefitting from their decisions, discoveries and achievements…we must do our best to make sure that those that come after us...have choices, options and opportunities to meet new challenges and secure their wellbeing’ (Sustainable Australia Report 2013, page 6).

One way of determining sustainability is to look at the quantities or stocks of the resources (or 'capital') on which wellbeing depends and measure their change over time. This is the approach adopted in the report, which measures indicators across five themes of social and human capital (skills and education, health, community engagement, employment and security); six themes of natural capital (climate change, atmosphere, land, ecosystems and biodiversity, water, waste and natural resources) and four themes of economic capital (wealth and income, housing, transport and communications and productivity and innovation). In addition the report provides additional information on key contextual indicators of population, cultural diversity, regional migration and land use.

The report also makes international comparisons on a number of these indicators. Australia performs very well on measures that emphasise social and economic dimensions of wellbeing. Australia also ranks second in the world on the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index, which measures education, health and income and first in the world on the OECD's Your Better Life Index that ranks quality of life and material living conditions.

If statistics capture your imagination, here are some surprising numbers revealed by the report, which speak to the opportunities and challenges ahead:

  • Ninety per cent of the Australian population lives on just 0.22% of land and 80% live within 50 km of the coast.
  • Almost half of Australia's population are immigrants or the children of an immigrant, making it one of the nations most influenced by migration in the world.
  • Between 1981 and 2011, life expectancy at age 50 increased almost seven years for males and five years for females. Over the next 20 years, the number of Australians aged 65 and over is expected to increase by 84%. This places significant budgetary pressures on the age pension, health costs and age care facilities.
  • By 2012, 80% of people aged 20 to 64 had completed Year 12, a vocational qualification or higher qualifications, up from 60% in 1994. Yet, only 74% of young people in the most disadvantaged areas have completed Year 12 or basic vocational qualification compared to 94% in the least disadvantaged areas.
  • Almost all biodiversity indicators examined by the 2011 State of the Environment Report were rated 'Poor' or 'Very-poor' with deteriorating trends.
  • Food waste is a significant sustainability issue. In Australia, households waste approximately 15% of the food they purchase each year. This amounts to an estimated 361 kilograms of food waste per person each year, with an estimated annual value of $5.2 billion
  • Real household incomes rose overall by 57% between 1995 and 2010, but low income households rose by 47% while high income households rose by 67%. In 2010, the poorest 20 per cent of households held just 1 per cent of household wealth, while the wealthiest 20 per cent held 62 per cent.

Our conversation with the future is lacking in mainstream political discourse. Economist John Maynard Keynes noted that humans are prone to discount the future, but this I believe largely reflects the lack of political leadership on long-term issues.

Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (terence@netbalance.com), 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Terence is based in Melbourne.

Twitter: TerenceJey

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