Sustainable Development Essay, Research Paper
Sustainable development is arguably the currently dominant environmental discourse, especially at the global level. Should environmentalists accept the terms of the discourse and make the best of it, or push for more radical alternatives to sustainable development?
The concept of sustainability reflects the widespread acknowledgment that present levels of per capita resource consumption in the richer countries cannot possibly be generalized to people living in the rest of the world and cannot be continued into the future. The concern for sustainability has become global, reflecting the serious deterioration in the quality of life in even the most affluent of societies, as the present design of productive systems and consumption patterns threaten the continuity of the existing social organization. Sustainable development is often hailed as the only credible solution, and has accumulated a huge global support base from wealthy nations around the world. In the period around the Earth Summit in 1992, discussion of sustainable development evolved along a trajectory which soon brought it into alignment with market capitalism. When the UN established its Commission in the wake of the Summit, their constitution assumed from the beginning that solutions to sustainability could be found within the context of multinational business and markets. The economy and ecology, in the worlds of the Trilateral Commission, could be meshed .
The process of drawing up international treaties, like those of the Earth Summit in Rio, has established new standards for global politics in the area. Although environmentalists remain largely skeptical of the methods proposed by sustainable development, such criticism fails to recognise the finer points of the post-industrial discourse. The strengths of sustainable development lie in it s conservative and realistic manner. The discourse, being open to input from scientific experts and environmental activists, has established a network for discussion and political implementation. Although we have achieved little from an ecological perspective, we must not underestimate the capacity for social and political evolution. Environmentalists must work within the broad framework established by sustainable development and redefine the human relationship with planet Earth.
Numerous attacks have been leveled at sustainable development, as opponents maintain that first and foremost capitalism must be abolished in order to solve the large-scale environmental problems that it created in the first place. Many criticise economists for not understanding the severity of environmental problems, and having a blind faith in scientific and technological solutions. Taking it a step further, Herman Daly, in an essay titled, Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem , writes that it is impossible for the world economy to grow its way out of poverty and environmental degradation. He argues that, as the economy grows, it incorporates an ever greater proportion of the ecosystem into itself and is therefore, inherently limited.
Such critique of the concept has clearly not been groundless. Admittedly, the entire concept of sustainable development lies within its rhetoric. But there has been a general lack of willingness, particularly on the part of environmental activists and the academic supporters, to give the concept its due in an ideological and ethical context. As William Lafferty explains, Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the idea was launched at a time when environmental concern was peaking in the West, and there was a feeling that the gradualist, managerial approach was inadequate. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that the idea emerged from an official United Nations commission, and commissions are hardly popular sources of ideology. Whatever the reason, the idea has clearly not been adopted as a focal symbol for political change. Its potential remains largely within the realm of rhetoric, and the follow-up from the Earth summit is less impressive that anticipated in Rio. Much of this comes from a lack of analytic attention to the concept s ethical and political possibilities.
Sustainable development establishes standards for environment-and-development which have been given specific expression in numerous treaties, documents, declarations, and plans of action. The idea provides a core set of values, norms and goals which has the potential of engaging and mobilising citizens, at the same time that there are specific programmes for integrated action at the local, national, and global levels. Though there may be clear differences in opinion as to the internal ordering of sustainable development, the importance of the discourse lies in its ability to engage and evolve. This is the basis for viewing sustainable development as a new standard for political action and change.
The international support for sustainable development suggests clear moral support for the discourse as a consensual norm. There can be no doubt that a social and political ideology must be discussed through rational argument, and any sanctions to be implemented should de democratic; the stronger the potential for consensus the better. It is clear that the concept of sustainable development has been the subject of very real and widespread agreement. Regardless of differences of interpretation, the worldwide acknowledgement of sustainable development gives credence to the claim of a global ethic. In this light, the idea and its documentation can be said to have the potential of fulfilling an ideological and mobilising function. William Lafferty writes of sustainable development, There is a theoretical foundation describing the relationship between man and nature; there are a limited number of integrated guiding principles; there is a clear identification of problems to be solved and the actors who must take responsibility for solving them; and there is a multifaceted and relatively specific agenda for change. The process is unique in its wide ranging representation; unique in the specificity of both its prescriptions and advice for change; and unique in the scope and purpose of its mechanisms for implementation.
An important concept in the consideration of such large scale social processes, are the social dynamics behind such a change. Interestingly, although the environmental problems we face today are scientific in nature, what seems to be a scientific debate is actually a debate decided not by facts but political clout. Scientists are routinely ignored by national governments, despite national and international support for the quality of their research and conclusions. It is known, in the study of social evolution, that neither science nor research leads social and political change, but rather both will always be a product of the economic direction at the time.
Although capitalism is often blamed for the present environmental crisis, we must not look for the easy scapegoat. In fact, the market mechanisms and economic instruments vital to capitalism are also essential to a free democratic society. Being the most effective means for coordinating and allocating resources in a decentralised economy, capitalism places power in the hands of citizens. Every dollar we spend is a vote for democracy. The problem is, presently, almost every dollar we spend is also a vote for environmental degradation. One must understand that this is not a problem within capitalism, but a problem concerning global consumption patterns.
Sustainable development concerns the active participation of people in the redesign of systems that will allow them to be productive while conserving the planet’s ability to host uncounted future generations. Participation is essential, we have learned, to monitor and control economic direction. Multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund create global policy with input mainly from multinational corporations and very little input from grassroots citizen groups. We need to ensure that all global citizens must be democratically represented in the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of all global social and economic policies of the WTO, the IMF, and the WB. Although most of our experience shows that the state is an instrument for building a destructive economic apparatus that impoverishes the masses and concentrates wealth, under special circumstances, the state itself may be forced to play a creative role in encouraging or “liberating” creative participation to promote local development and social justice, moving the society in the direction of sustainability. Have we forgotten that shareholder activism is the best tool for challenging corporate behaviour?
Such initiatives, for example were covered at the Earth Summit in Rio. Quoting from the Rio report, Non-governmental organizations…possess well-established and diverse experience, expertise and capacity in fields which will be of particular importance to the implementation and review of environmentally sound and socially responsible sustainable development…The community of non-governmental organizations, therefore, offers a global network that should be tapped, enabled and strengthened in support of efforts to achieve these common goals. Therefore, in an immediate sense, citizens need to play an important role in the implementation of sustainable development policies. As government leaders become bound up, and carried away by the momentum of international environment and development processes, they return from the international meetings with a wealth of publicly recorded statements and documents which clearly can be used for domestic political compliance. It thus becomes increasingly important for citizens to objectify and analyse sustainable development politics. The slogan Think globally, act locally can only be given meaning if voters become better schooled in the intricacies of the environment-and-development relationship.
Sustainable development requires effective democratic participation in design and implementation, which will entail the combined experiences of local groups throughout the world. The role of environmentalist has evolved, and as the new auditors and monitors of environmental policy implementation, it is essential that they stay with the process through the writing of regulations and provisions for monitoring and compliance. Sustainable development, in the final analysis requires challenging not only the self-interest of the wealthy minority, it requires a redefinition of not only what and how we produce but also of who will be allowed produce and for what ends. This broad-based democratic participation will create the basis for a more equitable distribution of wealth, the fundamental prerequisites for forging a strategy of sustainable development. This is the real challenge we face today.