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Tricky navigation: guiding Australia to a safe, sustainable future

How do we get to the Australia we want? Calsidyrose/Flickr

Future generations can no longer be assured of being better off: it’s a challenge to traditionally held beliefs in the value of progress. Australians face threats from climate change, reduced biodiversity, increased population and flagging economic growth. How might we reasonably move towards creating a world in which we would like to live? How might we consider pathways to an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable Australia?

The Australian Academy of Science has sought to answer this question through the Australia 2050 project. Phase 1 has just been published as “Negotiating our future: Living scenarios for Australia to 2050”.

It’s not an insignificant question: how do we reach the Australia we want? We must characterise the challenges and issues we face, not as a series of disjointed factors, but in a more inclusive and systemic way.

We must chart an uncertain future in the face of our different values and perceptions. Changes to social structures and communities’ ability to respond and adapt to new environments will also be important. To achieve desirable change we need to better understand social perspectives, and use these to understand how to keep our society within a safe space for achieving both environmental sustainability and social equity.

The concept of a “safe operating space” has been applied to biophysical systems. It is a set of planetary boundaries that if breached by human activity risk environmental change that is both irreversible and sudden. But it hasn’t been applied to social dimensions. We don’t understand where the limits for social breakdown might be.

The social system is adaptable and resilient, and people’s perceptions about what is normal and acceptable also change. Notions of acceptable social conditions have varied dramatically over human history. Slavery was seen as acceptable within some regimes, but is not considered to be safe or acceptable now.

We also risk making value judgements about what aspects of the Australian community might be perceived as “safe”. Many sections of our community live with pressures such as poverty and the threat of violence, but that does not necessarily mean they live without joy and love. It does not mean they necessarily tip over an irreversible threshold of safety.

Even if we have trouble identifying specific thresholds, it seems possible and desirable to monitor indicators of social relations and processes to detect trends. Increased unemployment, homelessness, mental health problems and crime, loss of food security and growing inequalities – and political instability – are all warning signs of real pressure on the social (and economic and political) system. Shifting social indicators could act as a warning sign that society is moving towards unsafe operating spaces.

When we consider some of these indicators in association with the pressures on the biophysical environment, the picture becomes already especially worrying. In peri-urban and regional areas, exposure to climate change effects and existing social stresses are high. Adapting the fringes of our cities to become healthier and more sustainable places to be is complicated by ageing or inappropriate housing stock, and infrastructure that limits transport options and opportunity for social connection.

There may be clearly desirable zones for achieving social equity and environmental sustainability. But it is harder to say where thresholds for social disarray might occur. Social factors, system dynamics and individual perspectives are just too complex.

Instead of focusing on boundaries for social collapse, we can expand our view by shifting to building social capital. Stronger social capital can provide a buffer against social collapse. Social capital includes communities’ understanding of the bigger social ecological system, whether individuals are able to express opinions, and whether governance systems have mechanisms in place for difficult decision-making. Examples of initiatives include sustainability education programs, access to an open media and community engagement in place-making and resolving contentious issues.

We can describe social and economic processes, but the roles that individuals play in creating change are important for understanding how things might happen. Our personal values and how we view input from our trusted networks will affect the success of initiatives steering us towards the desired future. Effective change depends on how people perceive their individual agency, their role in creating that future.

Addressing the future, and selecting strategies to ensure we can live within a safe operating space, requires increased attention on how we characterise the systems in which we live, and how we engage our communities to in shaping those systems for the future.

Social perspectives are important in creating futures. They allow us to better understand the processes of change and how people make decisions about the future. They add context about pathways, and about drivers for change that might be missed by approaches that concentrate solely on biophysical and economic considerations. Including social perspectives helps incorporate multiple worldviews into the process of envisaging Australia’s future.

Kristin Alford was lead author for a group exploring social perspectives as part of the Australian Academy of Science project “Australia 2050: Towards an environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living”.

The Australia 2050 project for the Australian Academy of Science has just published Phase 1 Negotiating our future: Living scenarios for Australia to 2050 which emerged from 35 scientists working together to explore social perspectives, resilience, scenarios and modelling as pathways towards environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living. Phase 2 of this project on creating living scenarios for Australia is underway.

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