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Aboriginal principles for sustainable development as told in traditional law stories


  • Karl-Erik Sveiby

    (Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland)


Sustainable development has become an arena where people bring already existing political and philosophical outlooks to a debate characterized by fundamental dichotomies. This paper presents an analysis of ten Australian Aboriginal law stories to derive a range of principles for how the Nhunggabarra people of Australia sustained their society against three such dichotomies: holism versus fragmentation, 'strong' versus 'weak' SD and growth versus no-growth economy. The Aboriginal sustainability model is possibly the oldest we have some evidence of, with a successful track record of several tens of thousands of years. It is a surprisingly 'realistic' model: neither representative of strong SD, nor giving arguments to no-growth proponents. The paper argues against a common perception that modern industrialized societies cannot learn from indigenous societies: it is a matter of perspective. Although many practices and solutions are not viable for our time, we can learn from the principles and the governance models as a whole. The Nhunggabarra society model provides a set of such principles, with a sustainability track record. Australia, therefore, has two models, the Aboriginal and the industrial, both implemented on a continent, which can be seen as a bellwether for the planet as a whole - a unique learning opportunity for the discourse on sustainable development. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.

Suggested Citation

  • Karl-Erik Sveiby, 2009. "Aboriginal principles for sustainable development as told in traditional law stories," Sustainable Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 17(6), pages 341-356.
  • Handle: RePEc:wly:sustdv:v:17:y:2009:i:6:p:341-356
    DOI: 10.1002/sd.389

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Geoffrey Lamberton, 2005. "Sustainable sufficiency - an internally consistent version of sustainability," Sustainable Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 13(1), pages 53-68.
    2. Leonardo Osorio & Manuel Lobato & Xavier Castillo, 2005. "Debates on Sustainable Development: Towards a Holistic View of Reality," Environment, Development and Sustainability: A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Theory and Practice of Sustainable Development, Springer, vol. 7(4), pages 501-518, December.
    3. Antoni Skowroński, 2008. "A civilization based on sustainable development: its limits and prospects," Sustainable Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 16(2), pages 117-125.
    4. Ali Bagheri & Peder Hjorth, 2007. "Planning for sustainable development: a paradigm shift towards a process-based approach," Sustainable Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 15(2), pages 83-96.
    5. Judith E. M. Klostermann & Jacqueline Cramer, 2006. "The contextual meaning of sustainable development: the case of the Dutch drinking water sector," Sustainable Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 14(4), pages 268-276.
    6. Jonnalagadda Rajeswar, 2001. "Conservation ethics versus development: how to obviate the dichotomy?," Sustainable Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 9(1), pages 16-23.
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