• sustainable society;
  • sustainable development;
  • strong sustainability;
  • weak sustainability;
  • steady state;
  • story telling;
  • indigenous knowledge;
  • Australia;
  • Aboriginal people;
  • holistic


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.