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Paaora Puru.
Paaora Puru. (Photo: Supplied)

PartnersSeptember 7, 2021

How to think differently about sustainability and change

Paaora Puru.
Paaora Puru. (Photo: Supplied)

Sustainability is about a lot more than just environmental conservation. The Mind Lab’s new micro-credential, Leading Beyond Sustainability, helps students create meaningful change in their communities – change that challenges our understanding of what ‘sustainable’ means.

Over the last 18 months, the various lockdowns we’ve endured have benefited many parts of New Zealand’s natural environment. At one point the CO2 levels in the air dropped more than 41% and many of us noticed increased birdlife in our gardens and local parks. These forced pauses gave our environment a chance to start healing itself. Now we also have a chance to think about how we interact with the natural environment, the economy and each other in a way that learns from the impact of Covid-19.

The word “sustainability” refers to a lot more than just conservation. Its broader meaning encompasses social interaction, our communities, infrastructure and the economy. Without sustainability in each of these pillars, the others can start to erode.

At The Mind Lab, a postgraduate education provider, a new eight-week micro-credential aims to enable people to start creating change, and strive towards a future that’s not just sustainable, but regenerative and restorative. Hayley Sparks, the national academic manager at The Mind Lab, says that during the pandemic people have shown an increased willingness to look out for each other and come together as communities. 

“It’s really an opportunity to think differently about sustainability and some of those lessons we’ve learnt navigating the pandemic can also help us to think about positive change.”

Sparks says the new micro-credential was created to help people get a more complete view of sustainability, so they can understand how it applies to them. She says it’s important to think about more than just the natural world when considering sustainability.

“Challenging approaches and ideas of sustainability to incorporate the economy, society, the environment and culture and thinking about the interconnectedness of those different parts of ecosystems is crucial to understand how to go about transformation, innovation and regeneration.”

Hayley Sparks, national academic manager at The Mind Lab (Photo: Supplied)

It’s also about challenging what sustainability means. Pāora Puru (Ngāti Te Ata, Waiohua), co-founder of social enterprise Te Manu Taupua Ltd and cultural advisor for The Mind Lab, argues the term “sustainability” implies a resource is already at a point where it is thriving. Looking at the state of our rivers, he says, you can clearly see this isn’t the case.

“How can we ‘sustain’ a waterway that’s polluted and that has discharges going into it every day? How can you ‘sustain’ an ecosystem or a native vegetation system that has exotic trees and weeds and pests within it?”

In te ao Māori, there is no direct translation for “sustainability”. The health of the taiao is in its mauri, and Puru says there are many cultural indicators as to the mauri of an ecological tāonga. If that mauri is diminished, first we need to regenerate it.

“Looking at a waterway, what is the current mauri of it? An indicator would be if you could see your feet at the bottom, if it was clean, if there were fish species. We need to look at sustainability as restoration and regeneration.”

Sparks says The Mind Lab felt it was crucial that this indigenous knowledge underpinned their new course, utilising the idea that humans are not separate from their natural environment, but connected to it. 

“All throughout the programme we are tapping into key values and perspectives like kaitiakitanga – around guardianship and improving what we have for future generations – and the way that indigenous cultures see the environment and people as one.”

While sustainable and regenerative practices are largely mandated at a government level, and corporations’ impact can’t be ignored, there’s definite merit in individual pursuits, Sparks says. Change doesn’t have to come from the government to make an impact. 

“All change is important whether that’s in your backyard or in your child’s school or in the kitchen at your workplace,” she says. “We need to be thinking practically about what we can do and at the same time having an awareness of what’s going on around us and what decisions are being made on a global, local and national scale to contextualise the ways that we can actually have impact.”

This philosophy has led to a recent reimagining of traditional economic principles. Concepts like circular economies and doughnut economics, which seek to balance human needs and consumption with the burden it places on the planet, have started to challenge the idea that growth at all costs is the best way to run an economy. Saskia Verraes, programme lead on The Mind Lab’s Leading Change for Good course, says in order to thrive, we need to be “economically inclusive” – expanding the idea of what it means to be sustainable and who has access to that idea. 

“To be thriving, we are beyond ‘surviving’. We need to set everyone up so that they have fair employment terms, and access to  opportunities which are fair and decent and ethical,” she says.  

Reimagining how economic systems work also involves rethinking who benefits from those systems. Indigenous people and their knowledge are an essential part of creating a sustainable economy, according to Verraes. 

“It also includes giving value to those that deserve the benefit of local resources, like land or water. Ultimately it is about creating systems of value, where all stakeholders benefit, including community and earth,” she says. 

Puru has noticed a push towards accepting mātauranga Māori in the ongoing battle against climate change. He’s thrilled that western notions of sustainability are beginning to make way for indigenous ones, and says it’s been a long time coming. 

“I see that we’re becoming more aligned with the understanding that people are part of the environment and the environment is part of people. It’s taken a while to catch up but I think we’re getting there.”

To look beyond sustainability is to look towards regeneration and restoration, and emphasise our responsibilities as kaitiaki to create positive change – whether that’s on a whānau, local, regional or much larger scale. 

Puru says to create lasting sustainability, there needs to be education and action that takes into account not just the present day, but all the knowledge of our past and the hope for our future. Without looking at all three of these generations, he says, we risk becoming more unsustainable than ever.

“Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua. That means I walk backwards into the future, with my eyes fixed on the past.”

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