Following the Sustainability Festival in Wonthaggi on Sunday, here are a few thoughts about what it may or may not mean.
When it’s been clear, for a couple or 10 decades now, that human exploitation consumes way more than one planet’s worth of resources, does the word “sustainability” have any meaning anymore?
Did it ever have any meaning? Where did it come from? In 1987, ‘Our Common Future’, also known as the Brundtland Report, in recognition of former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s role as Chair of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, was published.
‘Sustainable Development’ was the Brundtland concept, and when she described it, she did not use the word “sustainability”.
The widespread use of the word “sustainability” only occurred after it dawned on many that the concept of “sustainable development” as spelled out by Brundtland might not suit leaders of the Western World.
Since, if you read the fine print, Brundtland’s “sustainable development” involved multiplying the shape and size of the developed world by a factor five or 10, many condemned the concept as an “oxymoron”.
Could developing and developed world ever become equal?
The problem most critics then faced was they had no alternative vision. Hence they quickly seized on the word “sustainability” which did not have a detailed plan associated with it that anyone could read about.
Anyone could then pretend they had a solution. The key was to make sure nothing was spelled out. Hence the lack of meaning “sustainability” has always had.
At its roots, was a plan to stabilise global population.
It was believed that the only politically acceptable way to stabilise population was to elevate the living standards of the then 4 billion poorest people on Earth, where population was expanding dramatically, to the level of the then 1 billion people living in the developed world, where population was stable.
Demographers and economists were consulted. It was held that population would not stabilise until living standards were raised and it was obvious that living standards could not rise unless economic growth, especially in poor countries, accelerated and was sustained for a number of years. So the plan became for “policy makers” to somehow direct most of target 5 per cent annual global economic growth to the developing world, for decades, so that the global population would stabilise around 10 billion.
All these 10 billion people, expected by 2050, were to enjoy the then (1987) current living standard as experienced by North Americans, Australians, Japanese, and Europeans.
Main problem with the plan was it happened in competition with neo-conservative politics and economics, economic rationalism, the whole never ending growth fantasies, the sacredness of our standard of living depending on bigger economy, bigger population, bigger infrastructure and bigger military, still fashionable with PM Abbott and Co.
While some in the developing world have been raised out of poverty, we don’t appear to have made much progress – so much civil war, massive refugee populations, climate change crisis, extreme weather catastrophes, crop failures and feeble political leadership, with neither vision nor plan for any kind of conservatism, just blind faith in more, bigger, faster, better.
The word “sustainability” has never had any meaning which might be why it’s so popular with our leaders today.
Nearly 30 years on, how much longer will it take to get back to Sustainable Development?
Bernie McComb, Cowes.
What is sustainability?