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Toward Sustainability

Sustainability: It's not a topic, its an attitude.

-Tern Meyer Boake

Sustainability: There are two parts to sustainable development: one is abstract, a guiding principle that all of us seem inherently attracted to. The other is much more worldly and complicated - so convoluted that we have spent the better part of 25 years trying to unravel its secrets. We have reached the point now where some of us stand eagerly awaiting a one time event that will reveal the full truth. A few blindly move forward to accept fact and fiction with equal ease, as if the truth were already known. And others have given up completely.

Obviously, none of these is a correct response. What does seem profitable, however, is to separate the two parts of sustainability for now, believe the abstract to be possible, accept what we know of the mundane, learn from the mistakes, be open, discuss it, organize, and do it. The alternatives, the ones based on what we suppose we know rather than on what we do know; or the ones that respond to pressures - be they from the despoilers, or from the conservationists - all lead us toward a future unknown. Try as we may, it is impossible to say what makes a development activity sustainable; whether the time scale is three, thirty, or three hundred years, it is out of our control.

For example, were one to ask which is the better illustration of sustainable development, the Aswan High Dam or extractive reserves, the response would be obvious. But two recent studies are instructive on the issue. After 35 years, the Aswan High Dam, one of the most vilified projects in history, shows steady and growing economic success and social equity with little of the negative environmental impacts originally predicted (Biswas 1992). On the other hand, after only three years, the extractive reserves of the Amazon Basin which many of us felt were a major step forward in saving the forested ecosystems of the tropics, were shown to be increasingly subsidy-dependent, socially imbalanced, and self destructive (Browder 1992).

Nonetheless, since the 1960's the environmental movement has made significant conceptual contributions to sustainable development apart from those initiated at UNCED. It broadened the development agenda to include air, water and soil contamination, biodiversity conservation, health in the work place, natural hazards, appropriate technology, cleaner production and the need for environmental impact assessments; it added systems thinking to the development process, and showed that integration of development actions was the proper and necessary response to working in integrated systems. Equally important is a somewhat newer theme, "environmental justice" which arises as a concern that the poor and disenfranchised suffer not just the wretchedness of their own environments but that they are threatened further by both economic development, and environmental improvement elsewhere (Pulido 1996).

The search for environmental justice - that all people are entitled to a healthy environment within which they can fulfill their potential - is a historic and acknowledged principle. Virtually all major international instruments on the rights of humans begin with essentially the same words. For example, the Stockholm Declaration: "Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being";16 and the Charter of the Organization of American States: "Convinced that the historic mission of America is to offer to man a land of liberty and a favorable environment for the development of his personality and the realization of his just aspirations;..."17

16Principle 1 of the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.

17First rationale in the Preamble of the Charter of the Organization of American States.

As always, there appear to be at least two opposite ways to approach justice. The first of these is oriented toward methods of "command and control" in which a centralized authority sets and enforces standards of environmental protection. It is heavy on science and regulations (EPA 1992). The second, and perhaps the more important to sustainable development, alters the development process to include such things as transparency and the participation of civil society in decision-making-both of which are the result of the environmental movement's questioning how development decisions were made.

That is, historically, development was a response to three "economic" questions: What are the resources available to improve life quality? How are they to be manipulated? and For whom? The environmental movement in particular insisted that a fourth question be answered that adds a new dimension to the development process: Who is to decide? Increasingly, therefore, development, to be sustainable, will require the participation of those who have a stake in what a development action is to accomplish and in what its side effects will be (Saunier and Meganck 1995).

Reconciliation: Obviously, something different from the normal style of development is required if the hope and potential of sustainable development are to be realized. Answers to the question, "Who is to decide?" are key to this effort. Even a cursory look at what is happening leads one to the conclusion that the winds are changing. The verbal contests held in international forums still reflect chauvinistic and combative concerns over funding and sovereignty; conservation NGOs and advocacy science remind us that resource loss cannot go on forever; and, with some adjustments, all of this is needed. But conversations among many inter-governmental and government bureaucrats, and the actions of citizens working together, reflect something else indeed.

Whether stated as such or not, that something else appears as reconciliation- an admixture of several different processes-none of which enters the confusing controversies about the trouble we can get ourselves into, or of which definition most accurately reflects sustainable development. Reconciliation pays attention to today, to facts, and to relevant concerns rather than to theory and special interests. It prepares for the future and it does so in large part by encouraging open discussion and debate far beyond what previous discussions of sustainable development were able to do (World Bank 1999).

Three methods which can lead to reconciliation are increasingly discussed in the sustainable development debate: Integrated planning, conflict management, and a more sympathetic look at humanity's relationships to the rest of nature.

Integrated Development Planning. The theme from Agenda 21 to be emphasized by the UN Commission for Sustainable Development in the year 2000 is integrated land use planning. The interest arises from "Action 10" which looks to "...resolve conflicts and find more effective and efficient ways of using land and its natural resources" (Keating 1993).

All development planning has essentially two purposes: a) to meet the stated objectives within the fixed limits of time and budget; and b) to minimize the conflict that accompanies all efforts, large and small, for change initiated with the design and execution of a plan or strategy. Methods have been designed to do these things efficiently and effectively. They include a spatial emphasis, integration, and iteration and within these, civil participation, transparency and a search for equity-all of which are very much related. An example of integrated planning that now carries with it ample experience is "integrated regional development planning" (OAS 1984, Asian Development Bank 1986).

The products of integrated regional development planning (IRDP) are equitable and have a large degree of consensus. Its methods help to confront and overcome the conflicts encountered in the design and implementation of the strategies, programs and projects required to meet a development objective. More broadly, these procedures help to formulate spatial development strategies that contain projects and programs that are compatible with one another as well as with the socio-economic, cultural, political and historic realities of the region of interest. Negative impacts are reduced to a minimum because of the consensus built up during formulation of the development strategy and its associated projects and programs (OAS 1987).

Spatial Emphasis is one of the methods. Historically, most development planning has been sectoral and performed to meet sectoral objectives. IRDC makes the cut spatially rather than sectorally and allows each sector having an interest in the region to take part as equals in the planning exercise. Emphasis today leans toward a "watershed" as the preferred piece of space to study and manage. But a region can be anything; it depends on the objective of the effort and the potential sources of information. For example, in planning a region where water is of primary importance, the space of interest may well be a watershed or river basin. But a region may also consist of all or part of a state, department, province, or nation; all or part of a river basin, defined ecosystem, or biome. How one distinguishes a region's borders matters less than does an understanding of what happens within those borders. However circumscribed, that space must be treated as a system where inputs and outflows, as well as its contents and internal processes, are understood and considered (OAS 1978). In this way, the demands of individual development sectors and specific interest groups can be cared for with more balance and precision.

Integration is the key to all of this. Although integration is a concept that often receives a bad press because it is thought to bring with it a loss of control, compromise, and central planning, it is none of these. It is true that consensus strategies must be reached by the affected parties - the "stake-holders" as they have come to be known - but these are most often public agencies. The causal chain is fairly simple: Humans have needs and wants (demands) which they attempt to satisfy. Groups of individuals that have the same or similar interests organize themselves for their own promotion and protection. As groups become stronger and more organized, pressures are brought to bear on governments to promote and protect these interests as well. Eventually, if a group becomes strong enough, a public agency is created. Done correctly, integration can attend to individual sector needs without creating problems that the project itself cannot handle.

The process also encourages participation by those normally left out of sectoral planning: the poor, native peoples, women, elderly, and young among others. Though planning is generally done for governments' IRDP invites participation and input from citizen's groups both within the region and elsewhere. All such interests, regardless of size or location, are important for two reasons: the information and ideas they can supply; and the power they can engender to make the development activity inoperable if it conflicts with their own ideas about what should happen in that given piece of space.

A region is a system and all the actors in a region share it as a system. The smaller the region the more closely related the demands its residents make on its resources. Relationships take the form of competition for the same service and of interference with one another's activities to appropriate different services. Other relationships can be positive and supportive. Activities prescribed by a strategy, program, project or policy must be designed to minimize the negative impacts on any affected parties and make the development action equitable. Marginalization of the poor, for example, creates inequities. Such policies are known today to be self-defeating (Annis, 1992).

Obviously planning cannot be done by a large committee, even if sufficient time and funding are available. Iteration substitutes for this committee. It is a process whereby the needs and ideas of many are considered, evaluated and reduced to only a few that are significant to the stated objectives of the exercise. With iteration, planning proceeds in phases-each phase more specific and detailed than the last. In addition, iteration keeps decisions from being sealed too early and helps focus the final stages of planning. At the end of each iteration, decisions are made to proceed to the next phase, revise the work plan, or even cancel the process. These methods help to bring about equity and consensus in development activities within a region shared by individuals and groups having a variety of conflicting needs and values.

Conflict Management. Conflict. With it we go nowhere, without it we go backwards. A necessary evil, an irreverent good. A requirement for progress; a costly way to clarify anything. We live in a world of inequities in information, finances, organization, abilities, and opportunity. Conflict is a simple, if disagreeable, way to find out where, and how profound, these inequities are.

Some people have an overpowering presence while others of us have little or no representation at all. Our world is one of hidden agendas and unarticulated, though strongly felt, needs. Human values are as diverse as personality, and all of them are important. Memories are long; history carries more weight than it should. Conflict is everywhere and, though often insane, it tells us that inequities do exist, that noise makes problems easier to identify, that the warring fields must be leveled, and that despite all this, there is value in debate. Hence, conflict management is not just a means to resolve disputes. It also includes an effort to use the relationship uncovered by a conflict to engage in productive debate, to better understand just where the winners and losers will be, and to look for new and different solutions to the problems that have been discovered. Conflict management may well be the single most important ingredient of sustainability that we know of.

I have a friend who is a labor relations attorney and I once asked him about conflict management. He said "For something so difficult it is really very simple. It's like a stepladder where if the problem is taken care of on the lower rungs, the more the parties win and the less there is to loose. Each step up the ladder changes that equation. The first step is cooperation. If that fails, the next is coordination and then it goes to negotiation. If they provide no progress you move on to arbitration. If that fails, the two sides look for allies, go to war, and nobody wins. It's a long way down when you fall off the top of a step ladder and it doesn't matter which side lands first." Oversimplified, but instructive nonetheless.

Further, according to Dudley Weeks (1994), Professor of Conflict Resolution at American University, conflicts are seldom what they seem. He lists four perceptions of conflict that need to be changed: a) that "conflict is always a disruption of order, a negative experience when in fact it is an outgrowth of diversity that can be used to clarify a relationship and additional ways of thinking; b) that conflict is always a battle between competing and incompatible self-interests while forgetting the presence of needs or goals that the two parties might actually share; c) that a conflict defines the entire relationship when the reality is that it is only one part of a complex relationship; and d) that the conflict involves two absolutes, between right and wrong or between good and evil when, many "values" are really subjective preferences. Conflicts that are understood and well managed can help lead us out of the maze of unsustainability.

How does this happen? One way is through the development and use of traditional, culturally based institutions to "build a culture of negotiation" which allows a reduction in the level of tensions through education as to the basic reasons for conflict- inequities, differing needs and values, and an inadequate information base from which to work; where local capacity can be created to support local mechanisms and institutions that contribute to reconciliation; where space can be granted for "dialogue and the strengthening of relationships between representative bodies;" and, where the "institutionalization of joint problem solving processes and techniques can be taught so that the representatives of different interest groups can mutually explore their respective interests, basic needs and aspirations" (Soto 1995).

Calling it Home. It is remarkable what you can learn from students. I asked a group of them once to develop a common list of human needs. They discussed the idea for two hours and gave me an inventory not unlike those of the experts who had spent a considerably longer period of time working up their list (McHale and McHale 1977). But one of the items was stated in a way that I will always remember: "There is a need for individual humans to find his or her place in the Universe." It is the old "Where did we come from?" "Why are we here?" and "Where are we going?" questions dressed up in student's clothing. Discussions on sustainable development suggest a variety of answers that may or may not last for all time. Most of them call for a scientific and spiritual reconciliation with nature.

Science has its perspective. Very simply it is that humanity obeys nature's laws, but the description of how depends on the scale of analysis. For ecology, we are an element of our community, a link in a food chain, a sink in a pattern of energy flow; one part of an intricate set of increasingly larger ecosystems. For biology, we are born, we live, we die, we decay - just like every thing else. For physiology, there is a chemistry of memory and thought just as there is a chemistry of rocks. For astronomy, the universe is one and we are but a very small part of it. For physics, there is no "we" other than a few atoms arranged a bit differently from an infinite number of other atoms in time and space. Of course, there are times when scientists single us out as different, but that is only for study and not for belief. It all sounds very cold to the non-scientist.

But science does not speak for the spiritual. That is for us, as individual humans, to do. It is we who must find our place in the Universe. Within the numerous groups that work for sustainability, some will say that they have an ethical as well as a biological relationship to Earth and all of its inhabitants. The Earth is our home, nature our family, and, like our family, all the elements of nature have intrinsic worth (Nash 1989). Others of the community (MacCleery 1994) will say that the elements of nature have value only as they are useful to humans, and that the difference between a house and a home is a bit of chaos; a home is a lived in thing. Both of these views show us something about our spiritual relationship to the rest of nature though they are at opposite poles. That is, both can reflect restoration if they acknowledge interdependence and demonstrate responsible stewardship; and if there is respect and admiration, if not reverence, for the creativity of evolution. Apparently, any and all of this is material to sustainability.

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