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The physical environments that make up Australia have been protected and managed by Aboriginal people for at least 40 000 years. In the past two centuries the competition for space and resources has resulted in ecological destruction. Today, the impact of this on Australia's biodiversity motivates attempts by governments and non-government organisations to manage ecologically sustainable development (ESD). Australia has been declared one of the world's top twelve 'megadiverse' countries and is particularly responsible because it is the only country of these twelve that has the degree of development, national wealth and knowledge to maintain and conserve its level of biodiversity. Further, because of its unique position as an island nation, it has the sole responsibility for this. Australia's reliance on manufacture and farming industries as well as medical developments that draw on these resources also makes sustainability an important issue. This chapter will discuss ESD policies and methods as applied to Australia's future economic and environmental concerns.

Reasons for sustainability

Changes have occurred in Australia's social, political and economic way of life and subsequently its attitude towards the environment. This is due to growing concern for survival in a region which has undergone the worst effects of ozone depletion and increasing amounts of ultraviolet radiation, particularly over Halley Bay in Antarctica since 1970 and in pockets of ozone-depleted air that have moved over the south-eastern parts of Australia since then. The deterioration of land and population pressure along coastlines are also a concern, as well as commercial and suburban household waste and the need to manage these at community, council and government levels.

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Aboriginal and early European approaches

Australian Aboriginal people relied for their survival on the quality of water, soil and vegetation which today are still Australia's most fundamental resources. The first inhabitants survived landform and sea-level changes, and created gradual environmental changes over periods of time with the controlled burning of vegetation for hunting purposes. The arrival of European settlers saw more rapid changes with the aid of technology in soil erosion due to grazing, the logging of forests and the pollution of waterways. Since then the pattern and scale of Australia's highly urban development and concentration along coastlines has further emphasised the need to preserve its water, soil and vegetation resources.

Current approaches

Australia's current ecologically sustainable development (ESD) involves the conservation of its ecosystems for future generations while attempting to meet its current economic needs. It is argued that the future negative environmental impact of industrial and other development may be reduced by following such a path. Australia's government has sought to do this through its National Strategy on Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD) (1992). NSESD enacts policies that seek to:

  • integrate economic and environmental goals in policies and activitie;

  • properly value Australia's environmental assets;

  • provide for equity within and between generations;

  • address environmental risk issues;

  • recognise the global context of ESD.

Its policies also seek to underpin development with improved levels of education and community participation. In a broader global context, NSESD has drawn on three internationally recognised principles for sustainability. These principles include:

  • Intergenerational equity: 'Act to protect so that future generations have the opportunity to benefit from the Earth's resources.'

  • Precautionary approach: 'Act to ensure that if there is doubt about the environmental impact of a development process act cautiously. If there is a significant environmental risk, do not do it.'

  • Biodiversity conservation: 'Act to ensure that other species are able to live indefinitely on this planet and are not endangered by development and production, and where possible replenished if populations are low.'

This combination of approaches has attempted to encourage both wider and longer-term views of the economic, social and environmental implications for decisions being made in Australia on a regional and global level. Methods for applying these have been adopted at such levels with overarching support coming from the Department of the Environment and Heritage and its sustainability strategies through NSESD and other agreements. These have included the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment, which brings environmental issues to the attention of government departments and local governments, while other sustainability projects are aimed at non-government industry groups, businesses, academia, voluntary conservation organisations, community groups and individuals. Australia is also involved with international agreements and agencies such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.

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1. Which of the following best refers to the principle of intergenerational equity?

The attempt to act cautiously if there is doubt about the environmental impact of a development process

The attempt to give future generations the opportunity to benefit from the Earth's resources

The attempt to ensure that other species are able to live indefinitely and are not endangered by development and production, and where possible replenished if populations are low

The attempt to ensure economic development


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