Is there a danger that critiques of mainstream concepts of sustainable development might 'throw out the baby with the bath water'? How might this danger be averted, in your view?
Theory, Policy and Practice of Development
Is there a danger that critiques of mainstream concepts of sustainable development might ‘throw out the baby with the bath water’? How might this danger be averted, in your view?
Having the misfortune to discover black nasal mucus on your handkerchief at the end of a day out in London is not exclusive to 2003, in fact it would have been considerably worse in 1893. London today is a far greener and more pleasant place to live than it was 100 years ago, when the Industrial Revolution brought with it new and unprecedented health risks caused by air and water pollution. Today, clean air legislation has rendered much of this pollution invisible (apart from the handkerchief problem), the principle emitters of polluting gases are now cars, not factories, and Ken Livingstone got his congestion charge so with any luck cars are on their way out too. However, science is telling us that the world we live in is getting older and sicker. Pollution from the industrial ‘North’ has caused an enormous hole in the ozone layer and the world is heating up like a greenhouse - melting glaciers in the Antarctic and drowning small islands in the Indian Ocean. While, cosmetically, cities like London appear to be getting ‘greener’, cities in less developed countries (LDCs) are now confronting the age-old problems of industrialisation: apparently breathing the air of Mexico City for a day is equal to smoking 40 cigarettes a day (Kirkby et al; 1999, p.1). These kind of discoveries have led us to question the whole process of development through industrialisation (Woodhouse; 2002, p.142), as has been experienced by the West, and whether in terms of the best interests of the planet, it is conceivable that LDCs should proceed to develop in this way. Neither is industrialisation the only threat to the environment. The other cause for concern in environmental debate is usually resource depletion in the ‘South’, often attributed to exploding rural populations who overexploit their natural resource base as a means to survive. Our planet is witnessing destruction of its forests, desertification on a massive scale and extinction of certain plant and wildlife species. In response there has been a revival in Malthusian thinking and crisis narratives, ideas that overpopulation causes poverty (and subsequently famine, wars and pestilence (Hewitt and Smyth; 2002, p.132)) and not vice-versa.
Emerging from these concerns about pollution and resource depletion are debates centred on ‘sustainable development’, which have had multifarious outcomes - currently there are in the region of 70 different definitions of the concept (Kirkby et al; 1999, p.1). Many of these definitions have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to reconcile the apparent paradox inherent in the very term sustainable development: since development so often implies capitalist development and industrialisation, surely the reference to sustainability as a desirable objective is undermined by the contradictions that ‘development’ implies for the environment (Redclift; 1987, p.2)? According to Jackson, despite the tension over what exactly sustainable development should mean, most varieties share common elements, including: stewardship of natural resources, rights of future generations, food sufficiency, harmony with traditional cultures and greater equity between North and South (Jackson; 1994, p.119). This essay will first examine what is meant by mainstream concepts of sustainable development, before going on to looking at some of the principle critiques that the mainstream thinking has inspired. These critiques will be divided into the following categories: (a) a general critique (from different sources), (b) the North-South critique and (c) the ecocentric critique (comprising ecofeminism). Following the critiques will be reasons why there is the danger of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ - an expression which The Concise Oxford Dictionary (ninth edition) defines as meaning: to ‘reject the essential with the inessential’, or in common parlance: to destroy something good with something bad. This will lead to a conclusion which will incorporate suggestions as to how mainstream sustainable development can be salvaged from the bath water, suggesting at the very least that each party in the mainstream debate needs to be more honest as to their objectives so that the future of sustainable development and ‘global environmentalism’ (Gupta; 1998) can be viewed within a realistic political economic framework.
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II. Mainstream concepts of sustainable development:
The concept of sustainable development was absorbed into the mainstream development agenda with the establishment of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), otherwise known as the Brundtland Commission. This meant that for the first time the UN General Assembly was obliged to discuss environment and development as one single issue (Adams; 1996, p.211). WCED’s first report is often heralded as ‘the key statement of sustainable development’ (Kirkby et al; 1999, p.1), and in it was coined the official and most user-friendly 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).”
The critiques given below will refer principally to the WCED/Brundtland Report (also called ‘Our Common Future’) and the follow-up United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) conference in 1992 - also known as the Earth Summit. However, it is worth mentioning that along with ‘Our Common Future’, Adams identifies two other documents which together constitute the mainstream of sustainable development; these are: the ‘World Conservation Strategy’ (WCS) and ‘Caring for the Earth’. Both were produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), in 1980 and 1991 respectively. It is interesting to note Adams’ comment that the earlier document, the WCS, starts with the environment, whereas ‘Our Common Future’ starts with people (Adams; 1996, p.211). Both approaches are critiqued below, which to some extent shows that an attempt to please everyone in this debate is a lost battle.
In her foreword to ‘Our Common Future’, the chairman of WCED, Gro Harlem Brundtland, proposes a much needed ‘global agenda for change’ (WCED; 1987) to confront the disparity between the earth’s capacities and the human race’s activities, and also the disparity between the rich and poor nations of this earth. She goes on to explain how this will be achieved through the WCED: through recommending ways of achieving international co-operation, considering how best to tackle international environmental concerns and creating a long-term agenda for action (WCED; 1987). The title and contents of the report call for global unity; the emphasis is on the increased local and global interconnectedness of economic and ecological changes, which have consequently increased the interdependence of nation-states. There is the idea of the world being one family, with different countries representing family members who should act in each other’s best interests - an analogy frequently employed in global environmentalist discourse (Gupta; 1998, p.302). At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the ‘family’ - consisting of 117 heads of state and government - all met up to compare notes and discuss major environmental concerns, including: biodiversity, climate change, forests and desertification; some of the outcomes are considered below. In this sense, mainstream sustainable development is a ‘global environmental management view’, with international environmental treaties agreed upon and enforced by international agencies (Woodhouse; 2002, p.160). The integration of environment and development concerns is a key objective of mainstream sustainable development, and this objective necessarily entails a consideration of economic forces. One of the most important features of mainstream sustainable development is that it is deemed to be possible within a context of economic growth, in fact economic growth is positively advocated in all countries, as a means to tackle poverty and achieve environmental objectives (Adams; 1996, p.211).
(a) General Critiques:
The mainstream concepts of sustainable development have been criticised by many different groups, including Indian farmers’ protest movements, Northern environmentalist groups, Marxists and the so-called ‘zero-growth’ school of thought. Much disagreement has arisen from the Brundtland definition, its simplicity is deemed deceptive and designed ‘to maximise consensus rather than clarity’ (Sachs; 2001, p.293). It is unclear as to whose needs and what needs the definition refers to - whether they are basic needs or luxury needs (Sachs; 2001, p.293); if the consensus is basic needs then this would still be problematic - a Western European’s definition of basic needs would differ to a West African’s. Redclift points out that a commitment to basic needs implies that only a subsistence-level economy is possible, in which case the reduction in fertility that usually only occurs in countries with a high level of economic development is unlikely to occur (Kirkby et al; 1999, p.2). The definition has been criticised for concentrating too heavily on human needs rather than human wants, as a Canadian politician once remarked: ‘Where are the lollipops in sustainable development?’ (Kirkby et al; 1999, p.2). Conversely, the zero-growth school of thought claims that mainstream sustainable development is too indulgent in its emphasis on economic growth, and that instead we should seek to halt growth completely and revert to living in subsistence-level communities; similarly, some Northern environmentalists have criticised Brundtland for putting the needs of people first and not the environment.
(b) North-South Critique:
Gupta saw two positions emerging from the 1992 Earth Summit. The first was the idea of the family of nations as discussed above, with the emphasis on the environment as a global commons, with everyone on the planet working together towards common solutions. The second position was the idea that instead of being a common heritage for all mankind, the environment is instead ‘a staging ground for conflict between the rich countries of the North and the poor countries of the South’ (Gupta; 1998, p.300) - it is this position that informs the North-South critique of mainstream concepts of sustainable development. By reading between the lines of some of the rhetoric employed at the Earth Summit, and examining the agreements reached, Gupta claims that each convention signed ensured that the best (business) interests of the North, not the South, were served. So for example the global warming convention: while it required industrialised countries to freeze emissions of carbon dioxide and other harmful greenhouse gases at 1990 levels, restrictions would be imposed on developing countries at a later date, which would ‘permanently institutionalise global inequalities’ by preventing LDCs from ‘developing’ in the same way as the West (Gupta; 1998). The United States opposed the 1990 targets and refused to sign the treaty, but was keen to push for the forest convention – which advocated the management of (mainly tropical) forests with minimum damage to ecosystems. According to Gupta, this could be interpreted by sceptical governments in the South as the United States’ attempt to ‘kill two birds with one stone’: tropical forests make good carbon ‘sinks’ and therefore reduce or reverse the impacts of global warming (caused largely by the North), and they also store genetic diversity (the demand for which exists largely in the North). The United States also refused to sign the convention on biological diversity, which called on countries of the North to share results and profits from their bio-technological discoveries with the providers of the raw materials.
This barely concealed hypocrisy by the world’s superpower – pressurising the poorest nations of the world to manage their resources more sustainably whilst refusing to do so themselves - angered (and continues to anger) many parties. How meaningful can an international treaty be without the backing of the United States? This question is especially pertinent in this context since the United States has 5% of the world’s population and produces one quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions. Inherent in the attitude of the United States is the implication that sustainable development is intended only for poor countries, and that if the Third World would only develop ‘sustainably’ then developed countries could continue to develop in the manner to which they have become accustomed. If the Earth Summit represented mainstream concepts of sustainable development, then for many it represented a conspiracy plot by the North, a form of ‘ecological imperialism’ (Gupta; 1998, p.300).
(c) Ecocentric/Ecofeminist Critique:
Ecocentrism, and its subset ecofeminism, are characterised by a fundamental concern for nature above all else, and they hold romantic, utopian views of what the world was like before the scientific revolution and colonialism ravaged Mother Earth, upsetting the harmonious relationships between the indigenous people (above all women) and their environments (Jackson; 1994, p.127). Those arguing from an ecocentric position critique the Brundtland definition for being people-first, not environment-first, and mainstream sustainable development generally for its technocentric approach. Technocentric environmentalism takes a scientific approach to nature (abhorred by the likes of Shiva) and focuses on issues of regulation and management. Ecocentrics concentrate on the coercion that can result from such an approach - from armed militiamen patrolling the forests in Indonesia (Peluso; 1993) to imposed sterilisation on women in India (Shiva; 1999).
Throwing the baby out with the bath water?
These examples of different critiques of mainstream concepts of sustainable development show the improbability of ever finding a definition and an approach that pleases everybody. However, if each group separates to form antagonistic subsets, there is definitely the risk of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’, and undermining the usefulness of having created a mainstream body (the Brundtland Commission) to address this issue in the first place. It would be more helpful for each party to acknowledge the common ground between their own opinions and the mainstream thought instead of focusing on differences; critics are more likely to have their voices heard if they are ‘in on it’, rather than ‘out of it’. This is demonstrated by the fact that what were once ‘alternative’ approaches to development issues, as advocated by Chambers, have now found an important voice in the mainstream paradigm. Radical movements such as ecofeminism are unlikely to find a place on the world stage in their current form, not least because they reject science and economism, however with some compromise their suggestions will be heard.
It is also important to keep referring back to the ideals and objectives of sustainable development as represented in the Brundtland report, as opposed to only referring to the results achieved by what is a relatively new concept. Gupta, for example, draws upon the unsatisfactory outcomes of the Earth Summit in order to justify his dismissal of mainstream concepts of sustainable development as serving the interests of the North to the detriment of the South. In fact, the outcomes were a source of disappointment to many, and in this respect the Earth Summit was not the best flag bearer for a desirable manifestation of mainstream sustainable development. The discrepancies between the Brundtland Report and the Earth Summit, the latter intended to a be a coherent follow-up to the former, have been widely identified:
The real Northern concerns of trade, economy and foreign policy wormed their way into the environmental and development agenda constructed by Brundtland (Kirkby et al; 1999, p.11).
However, this is no reason to abandon the ideals of the mainstream concepts, and the positive outcomes of the Earth Summit should not be neglected. Despite the non-cooperation of the United States, many countries made serious, long-term commitments - the global warming convention was signed by 153 countries (Gupta; 1998, p.295) and an international Committee for Sustainable Development was recommended. If nothing else, summits such as Rio and Kyoto have raised awareness amongst the global community of America’s blatant hypocrisy as concerns environmental matters, in response there have been demonstrations and the formation of social movements. One can only hope that popular unrest will eventually oblige the American government to become more accountable in the future. Gupta himself admits that North-South dichotomies are not particularly helpful in this era of ‘global environmental governance’, and that instead we should be looking, as much as possible, to ‘one world’ positions (Gupta; 1998, p.300), which will involve compromise from all directions.
Clearly there are many conflicting arguments within the sustainable development debate; some parties are so busy being censorious of the way that the mainstream has treated the concept that they are neglecting to notice the positive side, and thus are at risk of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’. The very fact that sustainable development has been incorporated into the mainstream at all means that it is now being debated on the world stage for all to see. The recognition of the need for action at the international level represents a significant step forward (Kirkby et al; 1999, p.13), and the proof already exists that the international community is capable of reacting swiftly and efficiently at the prospect of an environmental crisis, as the rapid banning of CFCs showed. Sceptics would undoubtedly respond by saying that the only reason this happened was that the business community stepped in quickly with the CFC alternative, which was patented by the West and proved vastly more expensive than CFCs for countries like India, thus stifling their development (Woodhouse; 2002, p.143). This example shows the impossibility of disassociating the environment from capitalist growth (Redclift; 1987, p.14), which is not the intention of the mainstream concepts of sustainable development. Business interests, more than the threat of the world being swallowed up by the hole in the ozone, were behind the rapid conversion from CFCs, and business interests are behind the latest developments in recycled paper, organic farm shops, electric cars and solar and wind power. Similarly, livelihood interests determine the relationship between people and their environments in the developing world (Woodhouse; 2002, p.162), thus it cannot be assumed that certain groups (e.g. women, indigenous people) are ‘naturally’ more environmentally friendly than others. Thus Chambers calls for ‘sustainable livelihood thinking’ (Redclift; 1987, p.35), and Bernstein for the recognition that in the developing world, as much as the industrialised world, there are social hierarchies and processes of commoditization which have consequences for the environment.
Thus the development of capitalism is integral to the environmental debate, and this is not underplayed in mainstream sustainable development thought wherein economic growth is encouraged and deemed necessary. However, much of the disillusionment with the mainstream in this context has arisen from its failure to address wider political economy questions, not least the fact that many developing countries have difficulty addressing questions of survival, let alone sustainability, as a result of policies imposed upon them by the North. Gupta expresses his astonishment that issues such as Northern agricultural protectionism and Third World debt were avoided at the Rio Summit (Gupta; 1998, p.307), thus limiting the applicability of the discussions to countries of the South. Mainstream concepts of sustainable development are by no means perfect, and they will do well to listen to and learn from their critics and sceptics. Although many divergent voices exist under the umbrella term of sustainable development, there is much common ground (referred to in the introduction), and this should be the basis for constructive dialogue. One thing is clear, that any discussion of environmental problems and their relationship to the development process necessitates a comprehensive understanding of the economic framework , both within individual countries and globally; this requires less hypocrisy and more honesty. Since the mainstream necessitates the collaboration of world actors there is bound to be tension, but this is an opportunity that should not be lost.
Statistics taken from BBC News website