I have a confession to make. I don't understand the term "sustainable development" either. This bothered me for over 15 years but not any more.
In April of 1987 I participated in the "Only One Earth Conference on Sustainable Development" at Regent's College in London. Across town another meeting was taking place to launch the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) - the report that produced the most often quoted definition of sustainable development.
The paper I wrote for the "Only One Earth Conference" is not the one that appears in the publication of that meeting (The Greening of Aid: Sustainable Livelihoods in Practice. Conroy and Litvinoff, 1988) in that my opening remarks regarding the concept of sustainable development were edited out. I had said that the idea was an inviting one, but I also said that I did not understand it in a practical way and got into further trouble by questioning the relevance to development of something that was not clearly grasped. Likewise, in the discussion period, I voiced the opinion that the term was fast becoming the kind of "political babble" that could make a productive response to the needs for development even more difficult; it endeared me to almost no one.
On the return flight to Washington, D.C., I sketched out an essay given the remarkably straight forward title, "What are the Problems with the Term 'Sustainable Development'?" Although fairly widely read, the essay never officially saw the light of day because no "environmental" publication would touch it. It asked a number of still unanswered questions:
1. "How can we emphasize solving the inequity that could occur between generations when existing social and geographically based inequities are so pervasive?"Over the next five years the long list of national and international conferences, land meetings and the steady stream of books, articles, speeches, and other musings supporting the concept of sustainable development only added to my confusion. The concept was widely accepted, relatively unquestioned and, with notable exceptions, made little difference to development theory, let alone to development performance. As long as speeches on sustainable development were positive (accuracy of content did not seem to matter) they received applause. The term had only to appear, and the more times the better, to receive acclaim and approval. Yet, projects promoted as "sustainable" failed at the same rate and frequency as those that were "development as usual."
2. "Given the dynamic nature of nature (including the ways in which humans go about satisfying their needs), is there a place in the concept for land-use change?"
3. "If not, is there a place in the concept for 'subsidy?'"
4. "If the answer to either (or both) of these is 'yes', then how does that differ from what we have now?"
5. "If the answer is 'no' then what do we do about the fact of change?"
6. "How can we possibly foresee what future generations will require to improve their quality of life when our view of the future is based totally on a search for quality in our own lives? Is there not a conflict of interest here?"
7. "Are not isolation and a lack of opportunity for education and employment just as damaging to future generations as are fewer native forests and the loss of a certain percentage of the total gene pool?"
Debate was not encouraged, the phrase became one of the more "jargonized" in the history of the environmental movement, and seemingly everybody in certain circles noisily demanded that development be made sustainable (Other circles had no idea that anything at all was going on).1 For me, all of this climaxed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the so called "Earth Summit," which I declined to attend because, "I had been to circuses before and really didn't care to go to another one."
1Of six billion people on the planet, two billion may have heard the term in some form or another. Perhaps I a billion could have a vague newspaper idea of the concept. Sixty million may have attended conferences, workshops, meetings, or classes on the topic. These would represent but 1% of the total population.But I was wrong. Certainly the Earth Summit was, in many ways, a circus. However, the fact that most of the national governments of the planet accepted the concept changed the way things worked. This success launched several institutions and processes important to making development successful-national sustainable development councils, the sustainable development business councils, and local interest in taking the lead in local development are some of these. Equally important for me, though, was that once the governments signed on to sustainable development, they then asked a very valid question: "What is this thing that we have signed on to?" As a result of this question being asked by officialdom, there is now no stifling of debate, and the processes of consultation, argument, clarification, adjustment, and empowerment that it started are impossible to stop. While still costly in time, money and other resources, because we need to climb out of the hole we dug for ourselves, only good things can come of it.
Still, writing a piece, even a short piece, on sustainable development in 1999 that contains something new, different and relevant is much more daunting than I had originally thought. The number of pages written on the topic by others has reached the millions and anything "new, different and relevant" must already be out there somewhere. For those of you who wish to start out on a fascinating, somewhat time consuming, often confusing, and frequently entertaining journey into the labyrinth that is "sustainable development," three good places to begin are on the internet:
Despite the massive amount of material already written on the topic, something instructive and relevant - if not new and interesting - can still be said. Most readers familiar with sustainable development issues will note that little time is spent here on the normal litany of subsidies, carrying capacity, restoration, growth vs. development, measurement criteria, or the sustainability of specific sectoral activities. These topics are all important to development but a different, and no less important, route has been chosen for this discussion. Many other things of consequence in the sustainable development debate also need to be told and this is an attempt at one of them.
The next few pages, therefor, will: a) discuss where the concept of sustainable development came from (described many times before but not as accurately as could be), b) try to explain why the concept has had its difficulties (and why many of these difficulties remain), and, c) spell out the concept's validity for improving the human condition (in ways far beyond what may have been originally intended).
Many individuals contributed to the arguments presented here, others helped render them more or less intelligible, and others gave more than their share of encouragement. Special thanks go first to colleagues and friends at the Organization of American States, most especially to Dr. Richard A. Meganck, Director of the Office for Sustainable Development and Environment who could rightly claim that many of the best ideas in here are his. Most of the good ones that remain belong to Yadira Soto, of the Unit for the Promotion of Democracy, who taught me about the good, the bad, and the ugly of conflict in our societies and whose attempts to teach me the ways and means of conflict management are slowly sinking in. Appreciation also goes to Christi Jorge, whose comments on an early draft helped immensely.
Dr. Ramon Daubon, Director of the Caribbean Environment and Development Institute is appreciated for his numerous e-mails of encouragement and his upbeat way of life. Special thanks go to my wife, Gayle, tireless utility infielder of the family who handles my bad grammar and bad ideas with equal aplomb.
Richard E. Saunier
Environmental Management Cosultant Santa Fe, New Mexico