The Sydney Morning Herald recently posted a great article for thought on sustainability and water resources. While it pertained to terrestrial environments and fresh water (or more to the point a lack of it) the article points out the difficulties of finding 'balance' between social, economic and natural systems. The use of the word 'sustainability' has permeated the discourse on environment and resources for decades, and has strived to achieve balance between competing concerns. As stated in the article, sustainability is a dangerous word, but one to which politicians are irresistibly attracted. It has a wonderful ring to it and drips with virtue. Can you think of anyone who would admit to supporting anything that wasn't sustainable? Yet when it comes to the crunch of actually delivering on sustainability, its meaning can evaporate as decision makers struggle in attempts to balance competing views, conserve the environment, or both. Usually it is easier to stick your head in the sand, make a few token gestures and hope the whole thing will go away.
While the article explains the complex and passionate debates surrounding water in Australia, the lesson is the same for the marine environment. How far can we push its limits? Many resources such as fisheries are degraded as are coastal ecosystems - reducing the capacity for those systems to sustain human economies. While this may seem drastic, the evidence is clear - take for example the ruinous state of the Firth of Clyde (in Scotland) a once productive ecosystem that supported multiple whitefish fisheries - now degraded system that supports limited dredge and trawl fisheries for prawns and scallops.
The sustainability of the ecosystem is, in the end, is non-negotiable. It's not a question of being reasonable, of politicians splitting it down the middle and everyone going away grumpily satisfied. It's not even a question of imagining we can put the interests of communities ahead of the ecosystem. Communities are the ecosystem - they link and flow to each other and their fates are bound together. For radical and necessary measures to work, we must take communities with us, but the choice is not a three way race between ecology, society and economy. It lies in the recognition that natural systems have limits, that those systems are important to our wellbeing, and that we must look for long term and bold solutions that restore the ability of those systems to support biodiversity and coastal communities. While we can wax and wane about sustainability as much as we like, the important thing is doing something tangible about it.