Beware, the term 'sustainable development' has been hijacked
By Sadruddin Aga Khan
Sustainable development has become a mantra for big business and multinational corporations. Worse, it has unwittingly opened the door to the gradual hijacking of the environmental movement by so-called 'corporate realists'
The dogma of 'sustainable development' is inherently misleading, and is now deluding us in much the same way as the flat earth theory once did-but with implications that are infinitely more dangerous to our future survival.
The irony is that those who promote sustainable development often do so under the guise of providing benefits to the poor nations of the South. The fact remains, however, that 80 countries now have per capita incomes lower than they were a decade ago, and the number of people living in poverty (those who earn less than $1 a day) is stuck stubbornly at 1.2 billion, while those earning less than $2 per day number almost three billion.
Someone on a daily wage of $1 would take 109 years to earn what French footballer Zinedine Zidane is currently earning per day!
The time has come to end what Kofi Annan has aptly described as 'business as usual'. He is right in his analysis that 'as our attention has been focused on conflict, on globalisation, or most recently on terrorism, we have often failed to see how these are connected to the issue of sustainability. That word has become a pious invocation, rather than the urgent call to concrete action it should be.'
Accordingly, I will attempt to highlight how the once-noble notion of sustainable development has been diverted.
Business has made sustainable development synonymous with sustainable growth-an oxymoron which reflects the conflict between a trade vision of the world and an environmental and social vision.
Sustainable development has become a mantra for big business and multinational corporations. Worse, it has unwittingly opened the door to a green backlash-the gradual hijacking of the environmental movement by so-called 'corporate realists'.
Even terms like 'environmentalist' or 'conservationist' are now frequently used to describe those who indiscriminately clear-cut forests or kill animals for their skins. Such activities are now clouded in dubious euphemisms such as 'yields' or the 'harvesting' of wildlife resources.
The term 'sustainable use' has evolved from the concept of sustainable development. Sustainable use is an anathema conjured by the 'wise use' movement to mask activities which are exactly the opposite. It is the alibi which facilitates lethal consumptive use and which has regrettably infiltrated key international fora. Sustainable use of marine resources means killing whales and sustainable use of native wildlife has spawned a multi-million-dollar bushmeat industry, particularly in Africa.
Sustainable users hope to convince poor Africans and Asians that they should not kill wildlife to collect the equivalent of several years' wages, while rich trophy hunters kill the same animals for fun.
In a speech to International Whaling Commission (IWC) delegates the Assistant Director-General of the fishery agency of Japan revealed that his country had fishing agreements with eight countries and has spent large amounts of money in aid-literally 'fishing for votes'.
We have moved from a prudent, precautionary approach to a situation whereby our natural heritage has to 'pay its own way' and not form 'an impediment to free trade' if it is to have any chance of being preserved.
The sustainable development mindset indirectly fosters corruption. For instance, the trade in banned animal parts is second only to the trade in illegal narcotics. It has become a lucrative and low-risk sideline for international crime syndicates, especially as enforcement is relatively lax and discovery rarely involves more than a cursory fine.
The trade has already pushed species such as tigers to the verge of extinction. Recent figures indicate that the population of wild Asian elephants has been decimated by 80% during the last decade.
Sustainable development fosters the corporate takeover of governance. Has the new hymn indeed become 'He who pays the lobbyist calls the tune'? Just look at the corporate quid pro quo exacted after George W Bush's election as President of the United States.
Richard Parsons, head of Time AOL, speaking at the World Economic Summit meeting in New York, has been cited as declaring (without a hint of irony): 'Once the church determined our lives, then the state, and now it's corporations.'
Everywhere we hear about the advantages of an essentially market-based response to the world's ills-philanthropy, self-regulation, corporate social responsibility and voluntary codes of conduct. None of these can be deemed an acceptable proxy for state responsibility, policy and control.
Even the UN system has been jumping on the bandwagon through initiatives such as the 'global compact' with 50 of the world's biggest and most controversial corporations. As The Guardian commented, the UN 'appears to be turning itself into an enforcement agency for the global economy, helping Western companies to penetrate new markets while avoiding the regulations which would be the only effective means of holding them to account. By making peace with power, the UN is declaring war on the powerless.'
Everywhere the emphasis seems to be firmly on money and conspicuous consumption. This brings me to a side effect of sustainable development philosophy which has fostered a wholly abhorrent notion of 'sustainable consumption'. This in turn illustrates just how far the concept of sustainability has been allowed to stray down the path of Orwellian newspeak.
Sustainable development, as defined following the Brundtland Report, calls not for a continuation of present growth patterns but a five- to 10-fold acceleration thereof! But, surely, growth during maturity is either obesity or cancer.
More than 200 treaties of the environment exist today-three-quarters of which have been ratified during the last 30 years. But, for the most part, the commitments made with such a media splash in Rio and elsewhere remain a dead letter. Worse still, the effectiveness of these agreements is all too often undermined by vague commitments and lax enforcement.
Must we be doomed to proceed by 'Catastrophism'? To limit ourselves to dealing with symptoms rather than addressing the causes? Perhaps the time has come to impose a moratorium on new scientific or technological innovations that have potentially negative implications for the planet and society.
Indeed, science-or what I fear we should increasingly term 'corporate science'-always seems to be on the verge of some major new breakthrough which, however ominous it may sound, is inevitably accompanied by reassuring noises regarding its ultimate potential to cure cancer, reverse climate change or end world hunger.
If the nations of the European Union are prepared to surrender part of their sovereignty to promote economic unity, why can't the nations of the world do the same to safeguard the ecological capital on which our survival depends?
Can't we identify a new direction? One which places greater emphasis on 'regeneration' rather than 'sustaining' an untenable status quo, on sound 'stewardship' rather than 'development' and relentless pursuit of growth? On quality of life rather than living standards? On being more rather than having more? About living more fully rather than faster? About multiplying our values rather than our possessions?
Stewardship has the advantage of going beyond mere economic values by restoring the equilibrium and giving parallel emphasis to the environmental, ethical and spiritual values that are vital ingredients of any viable civilisation. But even stewardship, whilst already a significant improvement, could be criticised for its anthropocentric connotations.
And besides, I wonder if any term-however nobly conceived (like sustainable development)-could not ultimately be diverted in the pursuit of human greed. Perhaps the world has had enough of slogans, soundbites and spin doctors, especially in an age when everything seems to have become urgent except for the essential.
We must strive towards a new mindset-one that restores our sense of balance, moderation and humanity. What is needed is a new renaissance-on a par with that which moved us out of previous dark ages into a new spirit of enlightenment.
If globalisation has any positive merits, the creation of a universal social consciousness must be the greatest among them. Thanks to global communications, we are instantly aware of the slightest outbreak of injustice, hardship or abuse, wherever it may be occurring on the planet. This has facilitated the emergence and global organisation of alternative movements exemplified by the Porto Alegre initiative. Here lie the seeds of hope.
Just as the key to human sickness is often in the mind, so the key to the planet's ills may be in our collective mindsets-the priorities we give to our lives and our lifestyle choices. In the final analysis, change can only come from within ourselves, and the only truly 'sustainable' progress must be that of the heart.
Source: Third World Network Features, January 2003