Understanding Sustainable Development
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Understanding Sustainable Development

John Blewitt

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eBook - ePub

Understanding Sustainable Development

John Blewitt

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About This Book

A truly comprehensive introduction to the topic, Understanding Sustainable Development is designed to give students on a wide range of courses an appreciation of the key concepts and theories of sustainable development.

Fully updated, the third edition includes detailed coverage of the Sustainable Development Goals and their impact on global development. Major challenges and topics are explored through a range of international case studies and media examples which maintain the 'global to local' structure of the previous edition.

With an extensive website and pedagogy, Understanding Sustainable Development is the most complete guide to the subject for course leaders, undergraduates and postgraduates.

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1 Towards sustainable development

The aim of this chapter is to introduce the concepts of globalization and sustainable development, indicating the complex and often contested nature of various debates, actions and practices that have occurred in recent years. The significance of some key international agreements and the recent publication of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be discussed, as will the criticisms and comments they have stimulated. Sustainable development has emerged through political and environmental struggles, through a business, citizen and governmental engagement with the complexity of contemporary ecological and other problems, and a vast array of perspectives, values and interests that have been applied in seeking to understand and deal with them. The chapter ends with the suggestion that sustainable development is perhaps best understood as a ‘dialogue of values’ – a way of encouraging people to learn, to discover and to evaluate.

The road to sustainable development

Until the industrialization of Europe in the mid-eighteenth century, wood was the primary material used for fuel, construction, smelting and shipbuilding. World trade and the great navies relied on a ready – and what some believed to be an inexhaustible – supply of timber. However, these people were wrong. Although timber is a renewable resource, European nations were harvesting more trees than were being planted and nurtured to maturity. Governments in Britain, France and particularly Germany slowly recognized that such a rate of timber consumption was becoming unsustainable. As Ulrich Grober (2012: 88) writes in Sustainability: A Cultural History, a number of foresters and enlightened government ministers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe of Weimar believed that, ‘the true capacities of the forests’ should become the basis for their use and exploitation. The science of ecology, the concept of sustainability and the practice of sustainable development was emerging. Closely aligned to its sister concept – namely, conservation – sustainability became a key term for a growing body of environmentalists in the new and the old worlds. For Aldo Leopold, an American citizen of German descent and a key figure in the environmental movement in the US in the first half of the twentieth century, land use was far more than an economic problem. It was a moral and ecological issue, too. ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise’, he wrote (Leopold, 1970: 262). Some years later in the mid-twentieth century, the publication of Rachel Carson’s (Carson, 2000) Silent Spring in 1962, which forensically, but with great emotion and sensitivity, analysed the devastating ecological impact that chemical pesticides had on the American country side, marked the beginning of what became known as Earth politics and the modern environmental movement.
In Europe and America, the 1960s and 1970s witnessed a growing concern that economic growth, development consumerism and related lifestyle demands were under mining the ecological balance, economic stability and security of the planet. These concerns were intensified with the publication of a single image, the lonely and luminous planet Earth, taken by an astronaut from the Apollo 8 spacecraft in 1968, which revealed the beauty and fragility of the world as never seen before: Earthrise as seen from the moon. In 1972, a further image from the Apollo Project, Blue Marble, quickly became the most published image in history and an icon of, and for, the new sustainability advocates and the wider environmental movement. World-famous pressure groups were formed, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. A number of ecologically minded writers following in Rachel Carson’s footsteps came to prominence such as Charles A. Reich who wrote The Greening of America (1970), Theodore Roszak and The Making of a Counter Culture (1969) and Where the Wasteland Ends (1972), and E.F. Schumacher’s game-changing Small is Beautiful (1973). In 1966, Kenneth E. Boulding wrote ‘The economics of the coming Spaceship Earth’, in which he stated that there were no unlimited reservoirs of anything and that humanity would have to recognize and find its place in a cyclical ecological system capable of continuous reproduction, but which continually needed inputs of energy to maintain itself. Also at this time, the microbiologist René Dubos highlighted the impact of the environment on human health and was an influential critic of unreflective technological development and unrestrained urbanization continuously stressing the necessary connectivity between human well-being and a protected natural world. In So Human an Animal (Dubos, 1968: 160) he wrote:
Men will continue searching for significance by relating himself to other men, and to the totality of the universe that he may identify with God. But while pursuing significance outside of himself he should not forget that he is still of the earth. Like Antaeus of the Greek legend, he loses his strength when both his feet are off the ground.
With Rachel Ward, Dubos wrote Only One Earth (Ward and Dubos, 1972) predicting that the burning of fossil fuels combined with then current rates of deforestation would lead to an increase in global temperatures of around 0.5°C by 2000. Only One Earth served as the basis for the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972.
In 1970, the first major environmental event to have any real social, public and cultural impact was held in the US. Thus, following an earlier discussion in the United Nations that there should be a global holiday, Earth Day drew attention to environmental degradation in a manner never seen before. In 1972, the editors of The Ecologist issued a call to action, writing, in A Blueprint for Survival:
The principal defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable. Its termination within the lifetime of someone born today is inevitable – unless it continues to be sustained for a while longer by an entrenched minority at the cost of imposing great suffering on the rest of mankind.
(Goldsmith et al., 1972: 15)
The same year, 1972, saw the publication of the landmark study Limits to Growth by a global think tank known as the Club of Rome and the first serious international discussion of global environmental issues at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm.
The Club of Rome (Meadows et al., 1972) report attempted to combine optimism concerning human potential to innovate and transcend environmental and demographic problems with a well-evidenced warning that if contemporary trends continued, there would be dire economic and ecological consequences. Their global model was built specifically to investigate five major trends – accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of non-renewable resources and a deteriorating environment. The authors looked to the future too, posing some key questions: What do we want our world to be like? Can we continually keep expanding production and consumption? The answer was a clear No. Achieving a self-imposed limitation to growth would require considerable effort, however. It would involve learning to do many things in new ways. It would tax the ingenuity, the flexibility, willpower, moral sense and self-discipline of the human race. Bringing a deliberate, controlled end to growth would be a tremendous challenge, not easily met. Would the final result be worth it? What would humanity gain by such a transition and what would it lose? Thirty years later, three of the authors published an update (Meadows et al., 2005). They reviewed the debates and criticisms, analysed new evidence, amended their position, but firmly and clearly demonstrated that their theory of necessary limits to growth still remained vital and significant. Jackson and Webster (2016) in their review of the various responses to the original report conclude that an uneasy balance exists between the optimists who believe that creativity and technological progress will enable economies to overcome limits and the pessimists who believe that resource constraints are real and with us today. The authors themselves argue that the economy is both a product of physical and creative processes, but that business-as-usual assumptions and unrestricted economic growth are no longer a viable option for humankind. The dynamics of resource overshoot or collapse does not stem from a total exhaustion of resources, but from a steady decline in resource quality, which is clearly evident today.
Concurrent with the work of the Club of Rome, the General Assembly of the IUCN (World Conservation Union), a body established in the wake of the Second World War, met in New Delhi. With the newly formed WWF (World Wildlife Fund, later renamed World Wide Fund for Nature) the IUCN was concerned to develop new strategic thinking for animal and habitat conservation and human well-being. The concept ‘quality of life’ became the centrepiece for IUCN thinking and policy development, intelligently linking cultural diversity with ecological or biodiversity. In 1980, the IUCN published its World Conservation Strategy and so launched into the global public sphere the seemingly new concept, and potential future practice, of sustainable development. Humanity’s relationship with the biosphere, the Strategy states, will continue to deteriorate until a new international economic order and a new environmental ethic is established. Prefiguring the more famous Brundtland Declaration of seven years later, the IUCN carefully defined its terms:
Development is defined here as: the modification of the biosphere and the application of human, financial, living and non-living resources to satisfy human needs and improve the quality of human life. For development to be sustainable it must take account of social and ecological factors, as well as economic ones; of the living and non-living resource base; and of the long term as well as the short term advantages and disadvantages of alternative actions.
(IUCN, 1980: 2)
Conservation is defined here as the management of human use of the biosphere so that it may yield the greatest sustainable benefit to present generations while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of the future. Thus, conservation is positive, embracing preservation, maintenance, sustainable utilization, restoration and enhancement of the natural environment. Living resource conservation is specifically concerned with plants, animals and micro-organisms, and with those non-living elements of the environment on which they depend. Living resources have two important properties, the combination of which distinguishes them from nonliving resources: they are renewable if conserved and they are destructible if not.
In 1980, the Brandt Commission published its North–South: A Programme for Survival, placing the responsibility for human survival firmly in the political arena at a time when leaders seemed more concerned with Cold War ideological posturing than addressing pressing issues of global poverty, social inequality, justice, self-determination, human rights and the depletion of natural resources. The Commission did not redefine development, but duly noted:
One must avoid the persistent confusion of growth with development, and we strongly emphasize that the prime objective of development is to lead to self-fulfilment and creative partnership in the use of a nation’s productive forces and its full human potential.
(Brandt, 1980: 23)
In other words, development strategy should not be predicated upon ever-expanding economic growth or GDP. The whole world should not use as its model for future prosperity what has occurred in the West. The standard of living is not the same as the quality of life. Development should focus on enhancing the latter, should be more about well-being than the relentless accumulation of material products, and each region with its own ecological and cultural heritage should be able to chart its own distinct and distinctive path. In many ways, the Brandt Commission Report echoed the work of the International Foundation for Development Alternatives (IFDA) which published, also in 1980, Dossier No. 17, Building Blocks for Alternative Development Strategies, stating:
The development problematique can thus be defined in an objective way: the society, its economy and polity, ought to be organized in such a manner as to maximize, for the individual and the whole, the opportunities for self-fulfilment. Developing, as the etymology suggests, means removing the husk – that is overcoming domination; liberating; unfolding. Development is the unfolding of people’s individual and social imagination in defining goals, inventing means and ways to approach them, learning to identify and satisfy socially legitimate needs … To develop is to be, or to become. Not to have.
(IFDA, 1980: 10)
Thus, wealth and development took on a qualitative as well as a quantitative aspect. Material and spiritual poverty both need to be addressed. In 1983, work started on a major study by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) that would firmly establish sustainable development as the most significant concept and practice of our time. In 1987, the results were published as Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report). More than half of the Commission were representatives from developing countries, ensuring that global environmental concerns would not overwhelm the desire to eradicate problems of human need and poverty. Unlike Brandt, Brundtland did offer a definition of sustainable development: ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (WCED, 1987: 43).
This definition is still commonly used, despite it attracting serious criticisms for suggesting that economic growth, industrial modernization and market imperatives should be key drivers and goals for all nations. Whereas the industrialized North seemed to be, and in many ways still is, concerned with environmental impacts, the issues confronting the majority South included poverty, health, income, agricultural sustainability, food security, educational opportunity and achievement, shelter, sanitation, desertification and armed conflict. Nevertheless, the Brundtland Report did tacitly recognize the internal contradictions within the concept when it stated:
[Sustainable development] contains within it two key concepts:
1 The concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which over-riding priority should be given.
2 The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.
(WCED, 1987: 43)
Although acknowledging that its analysis and recommendations were specifically rooted in the 1980s, Our Common Future concluded its outline of sustainable development by stating that its realization also required:
a political system that secures effective citizen participation in decision-making;
an economic system that is able to generate surpluses and technical knowledge on a self-reliant and sustained basis;
a social system that provides for solutions for the tensions arising from disharmonious development;
a production system that respects the obligations to preserve the ecological base for development;
a technological system that can search continuously for new solutions;
an international system that fosters sustainable patterns of trade and finance; and
an administrat...

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