Do we really understand The Future we Want?

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Apparently, "November 2012 saw the launch of a UK dialogue process to explore the future of education for sustainability in the UK", or so EAUC reports.   "At the invitation of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) in collaboration with the Education Dialogue Group (EDG), 25 organisations and agencies met at the University of Westminster to explore the commitments of Rio+20 and how to put them into action."

The report on the meeting continues ...

With participants ranging across schools, university-level education, NGOs, faith-based organisations and bodies such as the NUS and UCU, each was invited to articulate a response to a collaborative discussion paper identifying our responsibilities within the Rio+20 outcome document “The Future we Want” and to share ideas about individual and collective next steps.  The meeting opened with a short address from the Rt. Hon David Heath MP, recently-appointed Minister of State in DEFRA, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He opened by referring to the Millennium Development Goals, posing the question:

Our ambitions on the environment have not been met.  How do we grow our economy and lift people out of poverty without depleting resources, while thinking of people below voting age and those yet to be born?  While Rio was the start of a process and the Sustainable Development Goals a significant outcome, there is more work to be done.”

How I wish I'd been there!   Although the report went on, I gave up at this point, brought to my metaphorical knees by the text which followed the minister's words of wisdom:

The SDGs aim to balance sustainability and development objectives

This is tosh, and thankfully the UN website says no such thing.  Although it's not really clear whether this is what the hapless Heath actually said, or whether it's just what his EAUC interlocutors are saying, I rather hope it's the former, and that Defra's briefing can be blamed for such crassness.  The alternative is even less comforting.

Let me just ask: how can "sustainability" and "development" be balanced when the latter is an integral part of the former?

The balance in question (for sustainable development) is between human economic and social development, on the one hand, and the quality and integrity of the biosphere and its services, on the other.  Of course, the very idea of balance is not particularly helpful, with its images of static scales and acrobatic poses.  What we're taking about here is a dynamic, edgy and inherently unstable business – more like riding a unicycle.

All this is SD 101.  Why doesn't everyone know it?

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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  • Thanks for this reflection Bill. Although I actually was there, I'm not entirely sure whether David Heath said "balancing sustainability and development objectives" or not but it's about right for the tenor of his presentation.

    Leaving aside who the original author might be, clearly they're using sustainability as a shorthand for the bio-physical environment rather than, as you suggest, a state of balance, dynamic tension or whatever.

    It happens a lot because in common parlance 'sustainability' = 'environment' whereas you're reminding us that 'sustainability' = human development integrated effectively with the environment.

    On the bright side, until ten years ago, any member of Government using words like 'sustainability' to a domestic audience would have been taking their political life in their hands so we have moved on - but it needs constant reminders like yours to keep the thinking sharp and not to allow 'sustainability' to be reduced to the status of green tinsel (hope you're appreciating the seasonality).

    So you're right, it is basic stuff but it will take vigilance to ensure the integrity of 'sustainability' and senior people should know better. Then again, is this like senior people and IT in the early 90s? i.e. They sort of get it but unless they're enthusiasts, they don't use it well - a few basic errors and the potential is lost.