I have just read, with some despair, an academic's post-UK budget posting to the SHED-ACT [Sustainability in Higher Education Developers Act Network] list serve. This is what it said:
I'm sure by now many of you will have picked up the latest use of 'sustainable development' in the UK Budget to mean industrialisation and economic expansion: "we will expect all bodies involved in planning decisions to prioritise growth and jobs, and we will introduce a new presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that the default answer to development is yes." (George Osborne) Last week there were strong comments on this list about the document "Manstreaming Sustainable Development: the Government's vision", particularly bits of it like this: "Our long term economic growth relies on protecting and enhancing the environmental resources that underpin it, and paying due regard to social needs ... We ...will outline how Government will seek to maximise economic growth, whilst decoupling it from impacts on the environment." (UK Government Feb 2011)
It's worth tracing this back, because it echoes Brundtland's discourse from so long ago: "Sustainable development involves more than growth. It requires a change in the content of growth, to make it less material- and energy-intensive and more equitable in its impact." (Brundtland 1986) Except that Brundtland was talking about "developing" countries, not "developed countries". Taking the term 'sustainable development' from genuine efforts to improve the lives of people in poor countries through economic growth and environmental protection and applying it to rich, over-industrialised and over-consuming ones instead was a sneaky rhetorical move. It could be argued that it makes no sense at all to talk about 'sustainable development' of a university campus, a business, or a country in the already 'developed' world. Instead, the overriding priority is on contraction (i.e., contraction and convergence) - or more precisely on finding ways to give people employment and fulfil people's needs which still 'work' while the economy is shrinking, which it will undoubtedly do anyway because of peak oil and ecosystem destruction. I know the conflation of SD with economic growth makes people involved in 'Education for Sustainable Development' uncomfortable, and we try to sidestep the issue by calling it 'Education for Sustainability', usually abbreviated to ESD none-the-less. I wonder if it's time to stop and to say that Sustainable Development is for developing countries, and for people in already developed countries the priority is something different. In the end there aren't and never will be perfect terms or concepts for what this 'something different' is - we had 'development' but it was flawed and we moved to 'equitable development', which was flawed and we moved to 'sustainable development'... if we feel that 'sustainable development' in the context of developed countries is also flawed then we may need to embrace other concepts, while recognising that they have their time and place and will undoubtedly need to be moved on from too.
For me, the 'Transition' movement looks much more like 'Sustainable Development for already developed countries'. It emphases reducing consumption, energy descent and fulfilling people's needs in ways that are less dependant on the global economy. And it's a bottom up movement, so the concept is less open to appropriation by dominant forces. That's why I've become involved in my local transition movement, but I'm very well aware of it's flaws, recognise the need for a diversity of approaches, and the need to move on from the concept of transition at some point. Anyway, this email is just to distance myself from some of the concepts of sustainable development there are out there, because a permanent 'yes' to any kind of development of the countryside on the grounds of 'sustainable development' isn't where I'm at!
Where to begin! I was tempted not to begin at all, as smarter people than me have noted that to comment is to condone something as worthy of comment, and hence to acknowledge its value. However, let me run that risk as there is hardly anything in this egregious outpouring of angst with which I agree.
1. The idea of sustainable development doesn't have to be read as an oxymoron, although many are determined to do this, and some academics have made a career out of it.
2. Brundtland saw socio-economic development as [i] necessary and [ii] having to occur within environmental limits. So, if it can take place within such limits, and without exploiting others, where's the problem? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (for which I do a little bit of work, let me declare) is actively exploring this through the idea of the circular economy.
3. This bipolar division into developed and developing just won't wash: How do the lives and lifestyles of the middle classes in India and Brazil compare with the poor in the UK and Ireland – very well indeed thank you.
4. Who's going to vote for economic contraction? What a miserable idea. Only the comfortable could ever begin to think of it. This is not inevitable. To pretend so is tendentious and rather sad.
5. Who is going to be doing the "finding ways to give people employment and fulfil people's needs ..."? Clearly, not a market economy.. Then what ...?
There is one good thing though: it reminds me why I have nothing whatsoever to do with the beggar-thy-neighbour economics that the transition movement represents and the dominant force it would like to become.