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(en) Britain, SolFed*, DA #30 - The meaning of Sustainable Development

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 19 Nov 2004 07:27:05 +0100 (CET)


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Sustainable development is apparently everywhere and it is on everyone's
agenda. Sadly, the fact it has become ubiquitous has coincided with it
becoming a practically meaningless term in many people's eyes.
The term sustainable development is used prolifically, and appears to
have entered our everyday language. It seems that practically every
international agency, government and organisation is keen to show that
they have embraced and are working towards sustainable development.
Globally, that radical environmental body the United Nations has
organised several 'Earth Summits', the last of which
was in Johannesburg in 2002, where members from over 70
countries met to discuss sustainable development. In addition to
this, there have been a series of conventions and agreements that
are supposedly designed to address aspects of sustainable
development, including The Framework Convention on Climate
Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and Agenda 21.

In the UK, for example, the Government has developed a national
Sustainable Development Strategy, and in almost every new
document that the government produces there are references to
sustainable development. Local Authorities too have
responsibilities placed upon them by central government to
address local sustainable development (either through Local
Agenda 21 Strategies or Community Strategies).

So, sustainable development is apparently everywhere and it is on
(almost) everyone's agenda. Sadly, the fact it has become
ubiquitous has coincided with it becoming a practically
meaningless term in many people's eyes, at least as far as
describing any sort of environmentally sustainable future is
concerned. We will look at what is 'really' sustainable
and what isn't, but first, let us look at the origins of the
term.
origins

Sustainable development is the culmination of several concerns,
and these are agreed by academics and activists alike. Firstly,
there has been a development crisis in the southern hemisphere;
secondly, the earth's environment is rapidly deteriorating;
and thirdly, the earth's capacity to support an increasing
global population has been reduced because of the unsustainable
rate of resource use and the degradation of resources.

While the roots of the term can be traced back to the
1970's, the World Conservation Strategy (published in 1980
by the International Union for Nature Conservation) was the first
document to actually use the words 'sustainable
development' in the modern sense. The prime focus was on
ecological sustainability, and the aim of the strategy was to show
that sustainable development could be achieved through the
conservation of living resources. It concluded that
'conservation is entirely compatible with the growing
demand for people-centred development', which could be
achieved by maintaining ecological processes, preserving genetic
diversity and through the sustainable development of species and
ecosystems.

There were at least two main problems with the Strategy. The
document was primarily theoretical and it did not give any
practical guidance on ways in which sustainable development
could be achieved. In addition, it failed to address the critical
economic and political issues involved.

Bruntland
Next came the report of the World Commission on Environment
and Development, Our Common Future, in 1987 (more
commonly known as the Brundtland report, after its chairwoman),
which was more successful in drawing attention to sustainable
development. Indeed, this report is credited today with the
most-used and agreed-on definition of sustainable development:
'Development that meets the needs of the present without
compromising the ability of future generations to met their own
needs'. Clearly, here at least there is some recognition of
economic and political factors.

A key theme was the idea that 'development and the
environment can not be separated, many forms of development
erode the resources on which they must be based, and
environmental degradation can undermine economic
development'. The report argued that the difference
between the capabilities of the natural systems of the earth and
humanities ability to fit its activities into this framework has led to
an series of environmental, developmental security and energy
crises. It also, more controversially, pointed at dramatic
population growth, particularly in third world cities, accelerating
rates of global economic activity, and increasing poverty in the
third world as being key culprits in causing deterioration of the
environment.

Instead of making apocalyptic predictions of resource shortage
and environmental disaster, as was the tendency of environmental
reports in the '60s and '70s (e.g. the Club of Rome
report, and various books including and following Rachel
Carson's 'Silent Spring'), the Bruntland report
went on to argue that the catastrophic clash of the environment
and development could be averted through sustainable
development.

The Brundtland Report has it roots in concerns for people. It has a
strong people-centred approach, rather than the protection of the
environment in general, and is based on two main concepts;
needs and limitations. Needs are what we should be giving
overriding priority to in development - in particular, those of the
worlds poor. Needs are socially and culturally determined, and
sustainable development requires the promotion of values that
encourage consumption patterns that are ecologically possible.
Limitations is about the environment's ability to meet
present and future needs, however, clearly, limits are also
imposed by technology and social, political and economic
organisation.

Also contained within the Brundtland report are concerns with
equity of resource use, both within generations (intragenerational)
and between generations (intergenerational). In general, the
means advocated to address all these issues is to integrate
environmental polices and development strategies, through
incorporating the concept of sustainable development. Here, we
come to one of the reasons for the enduring nature of Bruntland;
it argued that environmental protection can be achieved without
damaging economic development. This meant that the forces of
capitalism could afford to allow it to persist.

Once again, a major weakness lay in practicalities, where it fell
back on generalities, stating that there is not a blueprint for
sustainable development, since economic, social and ecological
conditions are different in individual countries. It got no further
than outlining sustainable development 'objectives'
for subsequent environmental and development polices, which
were around the need for 'quality' economic growth,
jobs, food, energy, water and sanitation, 'sustainable'
population levels, and reorienting technology by merging
environment and economics in decision making.

where we are
Despite the fact that the terms 'sustainable
development' and 'sustainability' have entered
into the public (and corporate) consciousness, there is a great deal
of divergence over the meaning of the term and its implications.
Basically, there are as many interpretations of what it means as
there are agencies, commentators, and so-called
'stakeholders'.

Criticisms of sustainable development can be divided into two
extremes. The first comes from those whose believe that
sustainable development is an oxymoron, because
'sustainable' implies consumption at a level that does
not harm natural systems, and 'development' implies
increased levels of consumption, whereas current consumption is
already causing wholesale destruction. At the opposite end of the
spectrum is the cornucopian view, that there is an abundance of
natural resources, natural systems are durable, and anyway, new
technologies and human ingenuity will effectively counter any
problems related to the needs and impacts of a growing
population.

anarchism & SD
I personally would argue that anarcho-syndicalists could (at least
theoretically) be either cornucopian or deep green, or anywhere in
between. If you think this is crazy because cornucopianism is the
language of the rampant right and free market zealots, then please
bear with me for a paragraph or two...
The reformists would argue that sustainable development is
something that can be achieved within the current system, with
just a little tweaking and slight greening of the current
development model. However, there are many who see
sustainable development as only possible following a paradigm
shift through fundamental change in economic, political and
social structures

Direct Action is published by Solidarity Federation, the British
section of the International Workers' Association.
==============================
* Solidarity Federation is of the anarcho-syndicalist spectrum


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