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?

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Emily Bell

Theory, Policy and Practice of Development

March 2003

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?

I.        Introduction:

        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 ...

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