By Ramsha Khan.
‘Sustainable Development’: a pair of buzzwords that have been ringing in our ears for the last twenty or so years. It has reached the point where they have developed into a mantra by those passionate to do their part in creating lasting relief for the billion and more people living in poverty, and in the safeguarding of our planet’s finely balanced eco-system for generations to come. Coined in the Brundtland report, sustainable development was outlined as ‘development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.’ It is an admirable movement indeed, rooted as much in moral and ethical considerations as practicality, as we argue that the choices we make today must not be detrimental to those who live with the consequences tomorrow. But while it is a noble venture, the point has come where a thorough look at our ability to ‘put our money where our mouth is’ begs for consideration: is the concept of Sustainable Development nothing more than a high-minded gesture that, in reality, the global community cannot deliver on?
All eyes turn to Rio De Janeiro, as the countdown to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) finally reaches its culmination and the largest conference in history takes place, with over 50,000 participants coming together to assess how far (or indeed, how little) we have come in the twenty years since we so gallantly coined the words ‘Sustainable Development’ and took it upon ourselves to achieve the ‘triple win’: environmental preservation, economic prosperity, and social development for all. It is this aim that throws the concept into troubled waters, because there exists a significant conflict between respective attainment of these three, the overcoming of which has proven elusive up to the present day.
When looking at empirical evidence of how far we have come on these three issues, the result of the last two decades of effort is by no means in the negative. Significant achievements have been made in social and economic development, as the world GDP increased triple-fold up to 2010, and the GDP per capital increased by 222%. This is coupled with increases in life expectancy, literacy and income. However, it is simply not enough to take two out of three and consider that as a success; the issues presented by environmental unsustainability can have drastic effects on the future successes of the other two facets of sustainable development.
Possibly the most frequently voiced concern is that of the conflict between economic growth and environmental preservation. Within the current neo-liberal paradigm of global institutions like the World Bank and IMF that are entrenched in development-oriented initiatives in Less Developed Countries (LDCs), the priority given to economic growth finds its way to the forefront of projects such as PRSPS, and the HIPC debt relief initiative. This is often at the expense of environmental preservation, as industries are cultivated with polluting effects, large areas of land are cleared to make way for agrarian ventures, and the usage of non-renewable resources in production and otherwise is ever on the increase. And before champions of liberal values cry in protest, it must be mentioned that both ends of the left-right spectrum stipulate the importance of industrial growth. And so the conflict rears its head for Liberals and Marxists alike; is there no synthesis between the sustainability of our eco-system and our economic prosperity?
All this points towards a need for change, as well as greater awareness of the disparities currently present, and this may be exactly what Rio+20 will achieve. But awareness is not enough and, in colloquial terms, ‘talk is cheap’. It is simply not enough to debate the issues and sign agreements with the best of intentions. The same was done 20 years earlier and the results do not match up to what was promised; the state of environmental degradation has increased since, and we are worse off in terms of carbon emissions, threatened species, biodiversity and species preservation, and mountain glacier mass balance. This means that what is lacking is the direct action needed to staunch the negative flow, and simply put, more dialogue on the issues at Rio+20 will not be enough to achieve it. The concept has been grasped; it is now the execution which is critical in bringing about the change we seek.
Unfortunately, there is a sense of a tragic short-sightedness in this regard. As long as the tangible effects of climate change and environmental degradation are not within our direct line of sight, there always seems to be enough room for more depletion, more pollutants, for the sake of a little more economic prosperity. But the negative results of such trajectories are no longer just possible, they are practically inevitable and there will come a point when they can be no longer ignored. The key is getting there before it is too late.
All these points accumulate to paint a dire picture indeed, and, when considering the potential consequences of the failure of sustainable development, one can go as far as to imagine an image where the ecological balance of the earth fails us (or rather, we fail it). But I propose that we still have cause to hope. While a greener, eco-friendly trend is critical to issues like food security and the amelioration of poverty, I believe that the relationship runs as deep in the opposite direction, ‘from people to preservation’; the ecological safeguarding of our planet lies with efforts to strengthen the social structures that are the foundations of mankind. This is a concept that has been embodied in the United Nations Development Programme’s key messages for Rio+20: “If it’s not about social development, it’s not sustainable.”
Consider the distance covered in social empowerment, and the renewed importance given to the development of civic communities and democratic participation based on justice and inclusion. With democracy and civic participation comes strength in numbers and the power of collective action can be harnessed to achieve that which up till now we are failing to do so adequately. This may be through the inclusion of individuals and groups in environmental impact assessment procedures, as well as through giving them a say in those decisions that directly affect their communities. This is something clearly outlined in Agenda 21 and goes to show that the importance of social empowerment is no longer side-lined or second to that of economic development. With such vested interests, communities will have an incentive to use whatever collective resource they possess to counter the problems we face with issues like resource depletion or climate change.
While the paradox of sustainable development is, and will continue to be debated, there is no more leeway to ignore hard truths like environmental degradation. With universal recognition of the need to change our current path, what is needed now is for communities to come together to produce this change, and I have faith in the ability of social empowerment and collective effort to overcome the obstacles that have hindered us in the past. If such a movement is something that Rio+20 can solidify and implement, it may have the impacts that the advocates of Sustainable Development envisage.