(Our Common Future, 1987. Haider, M., 2021)

 

Sustainability

Section
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
Page
3.2

“Sustainable development – development that is likely to achieve lasting satisfaction of human needs and improvement of the quality of human life.”

(Allen, R. 1980. Summarising the World Conservation Strategy1)

 

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

(World Commission on Environment and Development. 19872)

 

Sustainable development is “the second wave of modern environmentalism”…and has had success and influence beyond first-wave environmentalism (e.g. Limits to Growth) because of “its central idea that environmental protection is not necessarily opposed to development.”

(Beder, S. 19933)

 

Sustainable development is “slippery.”

(Moffatt, I. 19934)

 

 Sustainable development is “deliberately vague and inherently contradictory.”

(O’Riordan, T. 19935)

 

Sustainable development is a “thundering oxymoron.”

(Lines, W. 19946)

 

If the 1960s and 70s said there was an environment, that environment was limited, and we were damaging it, the 1980s-2000s said that skilful policy and political adjustment could accommodate this ‘problem’ while still delivering ‘development’. This ‘cake-and-eat-it-too’ belief was not necessarily a cynical or devious development, at least not initially, but more of a broad church that could, theoretically, get all people and countries involved and moving towards a more Nature-aware, more Nature-sensitive position, that, once reached, could – hopefully – be maintained, ‘sustainably’, forever.

However, one of the key problems with ‘sustainability’, or its applied form ‘sustainable development’, is that there are many, and interested, definitions. As mentioned, Beder3 thinks it has formed the cornerstone of modern environmentalism (for good or bad?), whereas Lines6 thinks it is a thundering oxymoron! To try to express both the breadth of meaning contained in the concept and the clusters of like definitions, it is possible to construct a continuum of characteristics – see Figure 1. Spectrum of Sustainability Definitions – divided between those that have an economic (financial) focus, a social focus, or an environmental focus. (I constructed this continuum to try to tease out this problem while doing a master’s thesis nearly 30 years ago. For our purposes, we don’t have to worry about the detailed numbering of over 30 definitions on the spectrum; it is sufficient for T10 that the general pattern be discernible).

Examination of Figure 1 reveals that there are five major definitional groups, namely:

  • Financially Sustainable Development

“The government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development. Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded.” (Thatcher, M. 19887. #21 on Fig. 1).

This group’s focus is financial growth. Its members consider this to be synonymous with development, and assume the infinite nature of human potential and resources. They see natural capital, such as soil or forests, as completely or largely substitutable for human capital. They believe that the power of the market, coupled with technological innovation, will overcome any minor environmental or social problems that growth may create.

  • Economic and Ecologically Sustainable Development

“Since raising real per-capita incomes must remain a major objective, though not the only objective, of development policy, the only way that growth with environmental quality can be achieved is by decoupling growth from environmental impacts.”          (Pearce, D. 19938).

This group of economists and definitions has been dubbed the ‘London School’ (many come out of the London School of Economics) and it represents the most thorough and sustained evaluation and development of the concept. Economists such as Pearce, Turner and Markandya, have constructed a particular bi-polar

definition of sustainable development that contains detailed economic and environmental prescriptions, but is much less comprehensive in its social stipulations (that is why it is split on the continuum of Figure 1). This group holds to the desirability of economic growth, but also to the limitations of the natural environment in providing resources and assimilating waste. The apparent contradiction of these two positions is overcome by two means: one, that growth be ‘de-coupled’ from environmental impact (primarily through technological advancement and economic incentives) and two, that most environmental functions can be properly valued and protected by rigorous application of current and evolving economic evaluation techniques, e.g. Travel-Cost Method.

  • Socially Sustainable Development I

“Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.”

(United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. 19929. #32 on Fig. 1).

This is the best-known group of definitions, containing the pre-cursor to the World Conservation Strategy10, The famous Brundtland definition2, and the Rio Earth Summit Declaration in 19929. As the quote indicates, the emphasis on people and societal relations is clear, and once this ‘centre’ is established most definitions contain references to the economic and environmental ends of the spectrum. A good example of this is the Brundtland Report’s2 ‘bet each way’ when it talks of the limitations of “ecological means” and the “ecologically possible”, but then says that “every ecosystem everywhere cannot be preserved intact”. The UN’s Millenium Development Goals (2000) and Sustainable Development Goals (2016), although developed later, would fit squarely within this human-centric, ‘weaker’, sustainability group.

  • Socially Sustainable Development II

“Sustainable development encompasses…the notion that people-centred initiatives are needed; human beings, in other words, are the resources in the concept”.

(Tolba, M. 198711. #22 on Fig. 1).

This group has a similar, but more intense, focus on social factors than Socially Sustainable Development I. Whereas the previous group loosely clustered economic and environmental concerns around the construct of human needs, and hoped that better communication and co-operation, and subsequently sustainability, would follow, this group believes this to be “pious”, “benign”, “weak”, and “disastrously naïve”12.

Comprising a diverse group of neo-Marxists, eco-feminists, sociologists and political scientists, they attack equally aggressively the definitions of the Economic and Ecologically Sustainable Development Group (2) and Ecologically Sustainable Group (5). They feel that the overly ecocentric position of Group 5 (Ecological Sustainability) lacks a theory of society and has no sense of historical processes. They rail against the attempts of ecologists and neo-classical economists to pass off their theories as organic, and believe that such blinkered and reductionist approaches are “ultimately self-defeating”13. For this group, only radical structural reform of the economic system and attention to international factors, such as trade, debt and poverty, will get to the true ‘texture’ of sustainability.

  • Ecologically Sustainable Development

“1. Sustainable use of renewable resources means that the pace should not be faster than the rate at which they regenerate.

  1. Sustainable use of non-renewable resources means that the pace should not be faster than the rate at which their renewable substitutes can be put in place.
  2. Sustainable rate of emission for pollution and wastes means that it should not be faster than the pace at which natural systems can absorb them, recycle them, or render them harmless”. (Daly, H. 199014. #31 on Fig.1).

This group can be distinguished from its nearest neighbour, Group 2, by its stance on growth. Whereas Group 2 believes in the necessity of, at the very least, ‘moderated growth’15, and that this is necessary to alleviate poverty, as well as to satisfy an ‘innate’ human drive, Group 5 believes that sustainability and growth are ultimately exclusive, that the earth is finite, fragile and already over-extended. They make a clear distinction between ‘growth’ (as quantitative expansion) and ‘development’ (as qualitative unfolding14).

While Group 2 looks to a landscape scale as the key ‘unit’ of sustainability, and persists in using discount rates to account for preference for the present, Group 5 proponents adopt a far larger ecosystem to global spatial scale, and an eternal time horizon with no discount rate. They argue that such an all-encompassing and holistic approach is essential if sustainable development is to be truly embraced, and that this will prevent the deceptions that occur when unsustainable consequences are displaced in space and time, such as when salinity problems from irrigation are displaced forward in time for future generations to deal with.

In 2021 we can see that the hopes for ‘sustainability’ of the 80s and 90s were – sadly – naïve, and that the very creation of the concept of sustainability and sustainable development was as often used as not to cover, excuse or legitimise destruction of the natural environment, as it was used to protect it. This is not necessarily the fault of the concept itself, but its broad vagueness – at best – and deliberate denial of environmental limits and responsibility – at worst – left a very obvious ‘open door’ for growth interests around the world who used the term as a signal that there really wasn’t a problem, and they co-opted the term and moved on to expansion and exploitation at an even greater rate.

The question then becomes whether to abandon it altogether, or to salvage and rescue its worthwhile components. Most definitions have at least something to offer, and I am a strong supporter of the work of Group 5 Ecologically Sustainable Development and am therefore loath to jettison their contributions, but I think that sustainability has now become so abused a term that we must abandon it. There has not been a subdivision, city plan or growth policy in my state of Victoria in the last 30 years that has not been badged with ‘sustainable’ and the egregious use of this ‘magic dust’ has made it impossible to apply properly and honestly. I am guilty, you will say rightly, of using the term occasionally in T10, and my defence is that sometimes it is very hard to find any other term, but as much as possible I will try to avoid it from now on. Instead of being part of the solution, it has become part of the problem, and as such I think we have no choice but to move on.

 

1 Allen, R. 1980. How to Save the World. Kogan Page, London, UK.

2 World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future. OUP, Oxford, UK.

3 Beder, S. 1993. The Nature of Sustainable Development. Scribe Publications, Melbourne, Australia.

4 Moffat, I. 1993. The Evolution of the Sustainable Development Concept: a perspective from Australia. Australian Geographical Studies, 22, Blackwell Publishing.

5 O’Riordan, T. 1993. The Politics of Sustainability. In Turner, K. Sustainable Environmental Economics and Management Principles and Practice. Belhaven, London, UK.

6 Lines, W. 1994. In Cosgrove, et. al. Restoring the Land – Environmental Values, Knowledge and Action. MUP, Carlton, Australia.

7 Thatcher, M. 1988. Speech to the Royal Society. September 27th, London, UK.

8 Pearce, D. 1993. In Turner, K. Sustainable Environmental Economics and Management Principles and Practice. Belhaven, London, UK.

9 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. 1992. The Rio Earth Summit. June, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

10 IUCN. 1980. World Conservation Strategy. Gland, Switzerland.

11 Tolba, M. 1987. Sustainable Development – Constraints and Opportunities. Butterworth, London, UK.

12 Adams, D., Carwardine, M. 1990. Last Chance to See. Pan Books, London, UK.

13 Redclift, M. 1992. The Meaning of Sustainable Development. Geoforum 23/3, Elsevier, UK.

14 Daly, H. 1990. Towards Some Operational Principles of Sustainable Development. Ecological Economics, 2, Elsevier.

15 Turner, K., (ed.). 1993. Sustainable Environmental Economics and Management. Belhaven, London, UK.

Explore Other Replace the God of Growth with the God of Quality

3.1 Introduction

“The ‘economy’ became a god such as never before, and a happy, successful society was one that could please this god – sometimes by sacrificing beautiful things, to keep the deity from getting angry and harming people by withdrawing favours. And, ...

3.2 Sustainability

“Sustainable development – development that is likely to achieve lasting satisfaction of human needs and improvement of the quality of human life.” (Allen, R. 1980. Summarising the World Conservation Strategy1)   “Developm...

3.3 De-coupling Growth from Environmental Impact

After sustainability, the second and more recent prop for eternal growth, has been the notion of ‘de-coupling’; that growth does not, or need not, lead to environmental impact. Below are three responses to this assertion, starting with Ross Gittin...

3.4 Growth, Happiness and Diminishing Marginal Utility

Age economics’ journalist, Leon Gettler, nicely introduces the topic, below. He explores why “Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have become richer, their people are no happier than they were 50 years ago. In ...

3.5 The Slow City Movement

3.1-3.3 concentrated on our growth obsession and how it has been fostered and bolstered. 3.4 begun to undermine its hegemony with questions about its links, or lack thereof, to happiness and wellbeing, and now it’s time to turn our attention to an...

3.6 The Slow Food Movement

The Slow Food movement got underway before the Slow City movement and thus is, perhaps, more developed at this stage than the latter. Their website is a mine of information and they offer a range of services, networks and chapters. For instance: ...

3.7 The Slow Fashion Movement

Slow fashion is a more recent development than Slow Food and Slow Cities, but is based on the same idea – quality, not growth (quantity). The term arose in 2007 when textile consultant and author Kate Fletcher shone a light on the issue in The Eco...

3.8 Arts and Crafts and Artisan Movements

In many ways the modern ‘slow’ movements can be said to have come out of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th and early 20 centuries, which in turn had roots in medieval craft guilds. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London...

3.9 Hooked on Growth

Dave Gardner is the perfect heretic: softly-spoken, mild-mannered, unflappable and with a sense of humour; very hard to demonise and marginalise as ‘crazy’, ‘eccentric’, ‘dangerous’, ‘racist’, or ‘anti-people’. Heretics are, at best, dismissed - a...

Explore Other Sections

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
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1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship

This section is designed to foster appreciation and insight that will – hopefully – lead to novel ways to build a better relationship between human beings and Nature. This section is also atypical ...
2. Reduce Consumption
2. Reduce Consumption

2. Reduce Consumption

I hope Reneé Descartes would forgive us for saying that, at least for the modern world, he was wrong.  When, in 1637, he said: “I think, therefore I am”, he could not have anticipated that the majo...
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

In a supposedly secular age there has arisen a global religion and god like never before, a religion whose reach and power makes every other belief system before it seem pitiful and insignificant: ...
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

What we do in our day-to-day lives can have great impact. Section Four divides up these actions into three groups – Work (4.2 & 4.3), Volunteering (4.4), and Action, e.g. voting, protesting, et...
5. Reduce Population
5. Reduce Population

5. Reduce Population

Even on top of Mt. Everest, in one of the remotest, most difficult places on earth, there is a great traffic-jam of people jostling for position. And yet, ever more vociferously, we deny that overp...
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond...
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be...
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming...
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

Just as with the previous section – ‘Energy’ – which is, inescapably, all about fossil fuels so pre-eminent and extraordinary has been their dominance and transformation of the world in the last 20...
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

Section 10 will attempt to organise this enormous topic by addressing the context and status of pollution in 10.2, before focussing in on air pollution; particularly greenhouse gas pollution and cl...