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Sustainable Development

November 26, 2006

 

Sustainable development: Big not boring

 

Jonathon Porritt (Image: Sustainable Development Commission)

VIEWPOINT
Jonathon Porritt


Sustainable development is not a “boring catch-phrase for sad gits with nothing better to do with their lives”, says Jonathon Porritt. In this week’s Green Room, he explains why it holds the key to a better future, and why politicians ignore it at their peril.

Forest (Image: Science Photo Library)

Until we learn to pay a realistic price for all the benefits and services we derive from nature, we will never get ourselves on to a truly sustainable path

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“If you want to keep your guns, your property, your children and your god, then sustainable development is your enemy!”

I just love that quote from the American Policy Centre.

It reminds me that sustainable development is not some boring catch-phrase for sad gits with nothing better to do with their lives, but a rumbustious, ideologically charged “big idea”.

If America’s die-hard, red-neck fundamentalists are now likening sustainable development to earlier threats to the American way of life (such as communism, presumably), then shouldn’t we all be taking it a lot more seriously?

I may be biased (it would be very odd if I was not as chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, the UK government’s independent watchdog), but I cannot help but wonder how much longer politicians will go on ignoring the overwhelming benefits of using sustainable development as “the central organising principle for the whole of government”.

All talk

It is not that sustainable development does not already feature in government processes today. It does – and not just in terms of the UK government’s overarching Sustainable Development Strategy, “Securing the Future”.

Tony Blair playing cricket in Downing Street (Image: PA)

Tony Blair talks a good game, but has not bowled over campaigners

Indeed, there has been an absolute explosion in the language of sustainable development (as in the Sustainable Communities Plan, sustainable procurement, sustainable housing, the decade of Education for Sustainable Development and so on and on).

And whilst it is true that language almost always precedes any commitment to action, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are now persuaded, in this instance, that linguistic usage has become not so much a precursor to action as a substitute for it.

Such cynicism may be a little premature. NGOs may give little credence to this, but the UK has an excellent international reputation for the way it has set about mainstreaming sustainable development across government and the wider public sector.

Every government department, for instance, has to produce its own Sustainable Development Action Plan; has to deliver against a number of environmental and social targets every year; has to account for sustainable development in its policy-making processes.

Most of the UK’s regulators now have a formal sustainable development duty, as do our Regional Development Agencies. These things may not as yet be delivering the goods, but the architecture is at least there to enable things to happen more effectively in the future.

On some issues I would argue that the private sector is already miles ahead of the UK government

In terms of the private sector, UK-based multinational companies also have an excellent international reputation – in terms of promoting ideas like socially responsible behaviour and corporate community investment.

Campaigners and activists are driven (necessarily) by the need to hold companies to account for their failings, as they aggressively prioritise the private interests of shareholders over the public interests of society at large, but that does not mean we should ignore all the good corporate practice initiated and developed here in the UK.

Indeed, on some issues I would argue that the private sector is already running miles ahead of the UK government. On climate change, many leading companies have been investing in energy efficiency and reducing CO2 emissions for many years.

It is good that the government has now set a target for total carbon neutrality in central government buildings by 2012, but I am not sure the same combination of sticks and carrots exists in the public sector as is already being displayed in the private sector.

This is one small reflection on the substantial gap here in the UK between the impressive international leadership the UK government has been engaged in, and the less than impressive – indeed, downright mediocre – delivery here in our own backyard.

Climate shadows

The publication of the Stern Review must surely change all that. This blockbuster piece of work – commissioned by the Treasury, and launched by Gordon Brown, as well as Tony Blair – removes any residual vestiges of the kind of Nimto (Not In My Term of Office) thinking that we have seen too much of over the last few years.

Sir Nicholas Stern

At-a-glance: Stern Review

Analysis: A stark warning

Analysis: Stern’s impact

The review put the costs of not dealing with climate change at anywhere between five to 20 times as much as the costs of getting serious about it; the economic case has now been made out as robustly as the scientific case.

Beyond all this, there is of course a danger that the much broader sustainable development agenda – in all its complexity – may be overshadowed by climate change.

That would be unfortunate. After all, climate change is just one symptom (albeit a very big one) of what happens when the pursuit of economic growth as we know it today leads to the inexorable liquidation of the natural capital of which we are all still totally dependent.

Sir Nicholas Stern was right to describe climate change as “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen”, but the whole global economy represents a massive market failure in those terms.

Until we learn to pay a realistic price for all the benefits and services we derive from nature, we will never get ourselves on to a truly sustainable path.

But there is no need to get too gloomy about this. Things are changing; our politicians are competing to see who is the greenest of them all; leading companies are already repositioning themselves to compete in a carbon-constrained world. We just need to push it all along about 10 times faster!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. S.D.C. permalink
    January 1, 2007 12:46 am

    Indeed, if God is real and by one means or another intends on making all life on earth unsustainable, then God is the natural enemy of Agenda 21.

  2. S.D.C. permalink
    January 1, 2007 12:47 am

    philosophical instrumentality of a global power grab
    Agenda 21 acts upon the presuppositional theories of our modern culture of scientific elitism, which not only rationalizes arbitrary and generalized aborion (vaccuuming unwanted unborn childeren) policies but pretends to know how evolution theory can give arise to genetic machines that actually manufacture living cells by means of DNA. This relatively new study, genetics, has revealed how little we knew about living organisms just 100 years ago. Darwin himself had not guessed at the extraordinary complexity at work within living cells. Sustainable development relies upon evolution theory as its polemic and philosophical foundation but how do we tell the emprorer that he has no clothes on. Evolution theory will not last beyond the next 2 decades where upon the theory shall come crashing down leaving a schismatic intellectual vaccuum, wherein deities and creation would make an unforeseen comeback. Unless of course, agenda 21 can slow down economic activity fast enough to completely halt intellectual and scientific development. All this to say that saving the planet for all life is not the ultimate ace card of all morality as the agenda 21 ideology insinuates. While we are all enfranchised together as life on earth, no one rationality can self-effectualize and by its on sense of immediacy trump all other freely held beliefs and freedoms and enterprises. There is no intellectual foundation by which one party may neutralize the rights of other parties even in the name of ‘saving the planet’.
    Further more, how long will it take for people to realize, skeptically, that agenda 21 is just repackaged communism.

  3. S.D.C. permalink
    January 1, 2007 12:52 am

    Indeed, if God is real and by one means or another intends on making all life on earth unsustainable, then God is the natural enemy of Agenda 21?

  4. January 1, 2007 12:29 pm

    1.It won’t be a godly act but a devilish one. And the Devil will come in the guise of Man.

    2.S.D.C.’s thesis underlined what was stated in the article:

    “If America’s die-hard, red-neck fundamentalists are now likening sustainable development to earlier threats to the American way of life (such as communism, presumably), then shouldn’t we all be taking it a lot more seriously?”

    You need not either take shelter in the fortress of evolutionary theory or conversely, try to storm it in order to see the sense of sustainable development. It is not for nothing that the term “sustainable” has not only become fashionable but is also widely employed in several fields. The reason is that it neatly and adequately expresses what is needed to be done when anything, concrete or abstract, has to be pragmatically conserved(a natural,physical object or say, a way of life). Sustainable development simply means,to insure what you use, consider,and enjoy as essential, indispensable,and beautiful do continue to be available to your children so that they are not deprived of those things, due solely by your thoughtless acts. Agenda 21 merely lays down some guidelines to to ensure this. One can have quarrels with any or many of those specfic steps,but then it’s another matter.

    For people it is socially responsible behavior and for corporates, it is community investment.

    In twilight shadows will lengthen; have more light and they will disappear.

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