Why is the concept ‘sustainability’ contested?

All members of my local Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) Community Group would agree that sustainability is their goal yet it has become increasingly clear that we are operating with a variety of views on what should be sustained and how. At one extreme are several active members who talk proudly of their Tesla electric cars and the anti-coal and “Save the Reef” protests they drive to attend. At the other are active transport advocates who walk, cycle, catch buses and when necessary drive their petrol-driven cars. The group cannot agree on whether to campaign against the proposal to build a 9km major highway (Brisbane City Council, 2020) through the centre of a wildlife corridor in their membership area. This issue has brought the contested views of sustainability and what should be sustained to the surface.

The Electric Car Argument

Cars are so embedded in most Australians’ lives that their necessity and value are rarely questioned. They are part of many Australians’ identity. Ownership and access to a private car is seen as a sign of status, power, freedom, independence, autonomy, caring and more (Waitt & Harada, 2012). This is shown and reinforced by advertisements which focus not on the attributes of the actual vehicles but on an associated emotive meaning and identity they invoke. Politics too displays the intrinsic cultural meanings attached to cars with campaigns like “war on the [voter’s] weekend” (Belot, 2019).

If private car ownership and the right to drive anywhere is seen as a right, even those who are committed to tackling climate change are likely to see private car use as an integral element of their sustainable future. To these committed motorists replacing their private cars with disgusting public transport meant for the poorer or lesser members of society (Waitt & Harada, 2012) would seem like an enormous personal loss and a descent into an unacceptable future.

For those who view cars in this way, electric cars provide a means of increasing environmental sustainability while also sustaining the culture and way of life of people like themselves. The aim is to remove an offending part of the car (emissions) while keeping everything else from the size and design of the cars to their ubiquity unchanged. The intrinsic value of cars in their lives remains unquestioned and unchallenged. If anything, the high cost of switching to electric cars in Australia makes ownership exclusive, further increasing the car’s value as a status symbol and imbuing its owner with the identity of being an environmentally responsible person.

It is no wonder then that, as the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels and the emissions that cars produce is becoming clearer, the main focus in the public discourse about sustainability is on new technology to replace the fuel source without threatening the economic and social systems that have come to rely on private car use.

This view of sustainability leaves out issues of equity, ignoring all those who can’t afford to buy a vehicle, let alone a luxury electric car. It also fails to examine the way cars have become entrenched in many of our social and economic systems and the vested interests that keep them there. This view would be seen as an example of weak sustainability.

The Active Transport Argument

By contrast, for those who aren’t part of the car culture, cars have a more instrumental value as just one form of transport with active transport (walking, cycling, e-scooters, e-bikes, and public transport) seen as sufficient in most cases to maintain personal mobility. In this worldview, a car-free lifestyle can be a preferred choice even though they can afford a car (Paijmans & Pojani, 2021) rather than just something for the poor (Waitt & Harada, 2012).

As well as reducing emissions, reducing the number or use of cars also reduces the surrounding infrastructure needed to cater for cars like roads and car parks. This is an example of stronger sustainability, however it could be said that the lack of intrinsic value this group places on cars means that they are not being asked to give up anything of personal or cultural importance. Indeed, the Paijmans & Pojani study (2021) found that “environmental concerns are not necessarily the strongest motivator” for this group and their car-free by choice lifestyle carried some of the same intrinsic values as the opposing view: status (as a maverick), power and autonomy (to make their own choices), freedom and independence (multiple ways to get around without the cost of maintaining a car).

This lack of emotional attachment and meaning given to cars allows for a much broader approach to transport, technology and sustainability and a more critical investigation of the far-reaching effect of the dominance of cars in our society.

Technology in this context is not to reinforce the status quo with new versions of cars but to expand options and find new solutions including e-bikes and e-scooters to overcome some objections like distance and hills. Data services and communications technology can be used to measure, plan and create integrated, safe, and equitable transport options that can be customised to individual needs.

This more critical view of car ownership also allows for a clearer view of the place cars have in many of our social structures and economic systems and the effect it has on those systems and the equity of citizens.

Economic Systems

Behind widespread car use are systems that cover the extraction of materials and industries to build and import cars, sales and maintenance, the roads and bridges to drive on, as well as fuel. This makes them part of the economy with all the related businesses,  jobs and taxes. Traffic congestion and delays are portrayed in economic terms as lost time and productivity (RACQ, 2020). Cars also require parking spaces on public land and in private homes, businesses, and destinations.

Many businesses like the large shopping malls, big box shops and tourist attractions rely on consumers having cars. Employers expect their staff to be able to drive to work and the days of the factory bus are long gone. Cars are even considered as an employment benefit although for some organisations this also means that the employee unwittingly provides overnight parking. There is an increasing number of car-based businesses from tradespeople to mortgage brokers operating out of their vehicles rather than commercial premises.

For most people employed in these industries giving up their cars would mean giving up the instrumental value that cars play in providing their livelihoods. For an economically sustainable future, cars can’t be given up by any participants in their economic system without a ready alternative.

Urban Development

Widespread private car travel enables urban sprawl by making commuting long distances more acceptable and normalised. This undermines attempts to adapt our cities by increasing urban density to a level where most services are within the range of active transport and thereby more sustainable and resilient (Whitzman, 2017). This adaptation would reduce the environmental footprint per person in the size of their homes as well as reduce the need for car ownership, storage and usage.

Private car culture affects home design by reinforcing the “Australian dream” of a single-family, detached home with a backyard (Withey & Stevenson, 2018) with parking for one or two cars the standard. This combines with protests from residents wanting to discourage a diversity of affordable housing options for households in inner city and middle suburbs (Branco, 2019) in order to maintain the culture and status of their suburbs. The less well-off are pushed into car-dependent, outer-suburbs to find “Australian dream” homes they can afford.

The debate then descends into what people want to sustain and for whom. We had calls to protect a small patch of urban greenspace in my suburb under the banner of environmental sustainability (Rendall, 2020) at the expense of larger greenfield areas cleared for sprawling development 10 to 20 kilometres further out. For many residents the issue was more resisting townhouses than saving koalas and their aim was to maintain what they saw as the current culture of their suburb. Like the participants in the Waitt & Harada (2012) paper the style of homes and the multiple luxury cars owned by the residents combined with their proximity to greenspace have intrinsic value to them. Those well-off suburbanites will go on to complain about the increasing commuter traffic coming through their suburb and advocate for more roads to reduce congestion,  including the proposed highway under discussion in our ACF group.

For residents in urban and suburban dormitory suburbs with little active transport infrastructure having a car is essential for getting to work, study, shopping, and services. Cars for some will have the intrinsic values as described by Waitt & Harada (2012, p. 3322) but all will have the instrumental value of providing their only means of transport.

Moreover, the importance of cars for cultural and economic sustainability is only for those who are able to own and drive cars. Those who can’t drive because of age (too young or old), income, disability, gender, illness or injury are not part of the discourse. This has social justice implications with the carless often stranded in car-dependent suburbs which require one or more cars per household to access employment and other services.


That our small group of people who have all expressed commitment to sustainability and are motivated enough to be active within their local group can have such disparate views on what sustainability means shows how contested the concept is. The ACF promotes its Community Groups as providing the opportunity to “meet like-minded community members” (Australia Conservation Foundation, n.d.) but this local issue has brought the different core values and “unlike-mindedness” of members to the surface.


Australian Conservation Foundation (n.d.). What are ACF Community groups all about? Retrieved May 2, 2021, https://www.acf.org.au/community_groups

Belot, H. (2019, April 8). Coalition attacks on Labor's electric cars goal hide a bipartisan commitment to boost sales. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-08/campaign-politics-masks-bipartisan-electric-car-policies/10981902

Branco, J. (2019, February 26). Brisbane City Council ban on townhouses and apartments no way to tackle city’s biggest problem: Urban sprawl. Domain. Retrieved May 2, 2021, https://www.domain.com.au/news/the-townhouse-apartment-ban-is-no-way-to-tackle-brisbanes-biggest-problem-urban-sprawl-803861/

Brisbane City Council. (2020, December 22). North west transport network Retrieved May 2, 2021, from https://www.brisbane.qld.gov.au/traffic-and-transport/roads-infrastructure-and-bikeways/bridges-tunnels-culverts-and-transport-links/north-west-transport-network

Paijmans, H. & Pojani, D. (2021). Living car-free by choice in a sprawling city: Desirable and… possible?. Case Studies on Transport Policy.

RACQ. (2020). The $156 million traffic burden Queensland can’t afford Retrieved May 2, 2021, from https://www.racq.com.au/Live/Articles/MR-250720-The-156-million-traffic-burden-Queensland-cant-afford

Rendall J (2020, 22 July). Plan to build in core koala habitat sparks local anger as developer challenges council rejection. ABC News. Retrieved May 2, 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-22/queensland-koala-habitat-under-threat-development/12476108

Waitt, G. & Harada, T. (2012). Driving, Cities and Changing Climates. Urban Studies, 49(15), 3307-3325. Retrieved May 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26144148

Withey A. & Stevenson A. (2018, June 8). Brisbane council's ban on townhouses, apartments in low density areas is ‘backwards' ABC News https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-08/brisbane-future-housing-blueprint/9848494

Whitzman C. (2017, August 7). A 20-minute city sounds good, but becoming one is a huge challenge Retrieved May 2, 2021, from https://theconversation.com/a-20-minute-city-sounds-good-but-becoming-one-is-a-huge-challenge-80082


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