SD for the next generation

6th October 2013


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Jerome Baddley says it is time to update the Brundtland commission's 1987 definition of sustainable development

It was more than a quarter of a century ago when the Brundtland commission defined sustainable development as: “Development that meets the needs of the current generation without undermining the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Given that we are on the cusp of the future generations to which the commission referred, this is a good opportunity to look again at the underlying principles of sustainable development (SD) and ask: Are we succeeding? Is the language right? And has the world has changed sufficiently to require a new assessment of our common future?

Against the tide

For the past 10 years, I have included the Brundtland definition of SD in almost every presentation I have given. It is a small stand against the tidal wave of misuse and abuse of the language and theory of sustainable development. As corporations, politicians and salespeople clothe themselves in many shades of green there is a need to reassert the original message of SD, lest it drift off into a dilution of meaninglessness.

At a recent workshop for public health registrars, one delegate pleaded that we find a new word for sustainability, arguing that the term is “so overused that it is confusing”. This was not the first, and certainly will not be the last, time that view is expressed.

The Brundtland commission’s call in 1987 for humanity to take a long-term view has become deeply eroded by terms like sustainable economic growth, sustainable urban extension and sustainable urban drainage systems. “Unsustainable” is now more likely to mean too expensive in terms of short-term cash flow, rather than permanently damaging to the planet’s life-support systems, be they ecological, environmental or natural resources.

Three generations

I find it increasingly useful to view sustainable development as a process in three generations. The first generation of SD, from the 1970s to the 1990s, saw academic awareness of the environmental limits to growth evolve against a backdrop of international crises related to the extinction of species, resource scarcity (1970s oil price shocks) and the management of toxic waste. An intrinsic tenet of the understanding of SD was that everything is connected to everything else.

Books such as Donella Meadows’ The limits to growth (1972) put numbers on an environmentally degraded future, based on business-as-usual scenarios and potential global responses. Meanwhile, Small is beautiful, written by economist E F Schumacher in 1973, was well ahead of its time in proposing neat social solutions to a consumption-based economy.

Through the first generation of SD the biggest changes were driven by price shocks or crises; each time these arose, the “green” movement gathered credibility. The Centre for Alternative Technology was established in response to the oil price shocks of the 1970s. That decade also saw the US introduce the first feed-in-tariffs in a bid to encourage wind power after rapid fossil fuel price rises.

The poisoning of Bhopal in 1984 forced controls on the international chemical industry. Meanwhile, toxic waste incidents, such as that of the Khian Sea – the cargo ship that travelled the world in the mid-1980s looking for somewhere to dispose its load of toxic waste before dumping most of it in the Atlantic and Indian oceans – led to international legislation on transborder movement of waste. Agenda 21 was spawned by the 1992 Rio Earth summit and looked ahead to the challenges facing the world in the next century.

Now we’re in the second generation of sustainable development – 2000s to the 2020s – we need to ask whether humanity has a reduced capacity to meet its own needs? This is the acid test for the success or failure of the first generation of environmentalists in achieving the goal of sustainable development.

The simplest, yet most powerful way to examine this is through basic economics. What has happened to the cost of limited natural resources? While we may have been able to churn out cheap energy and cheap food to support fast growth in the last generation, can we maintain this into the current generation?

The answer is no. Since 2000 there have been rises in the cost of most core natural resources and commodities. The impact of these has been dramatic. Oil price increases from 2005 were partly responsible for the financial crash in 2008, for example, while the rising cost of food has been cited as one of the key reasons for the social unrest that fuelled the Arab spring.

The change of pace in commodity price inflation since the beginning of the new millennium is a clear demonstration of the failure to adequately address SD.

The next step

The weight of evidence on man-made climate change and resource scarcity is now firmly on the side of the environmentalists and there is a growing arsenal of legal levers and a wealth of financial drivers to instigate and sustain necessary change. However, questions are now being asked about whether the Brundtland definition of SD remains the right definition for sustainability.

In the 1980s, environmentalists had a concerned vision of the future. This future is now a lot closer and uglier, and we appear destined to enter the third generation of SD still having achieved very little. Yet, the current generation has all the tools, evidence, moral leverage and financial motivation it needs to develop effective strategies to prevent future generations suffering a painful decline through resource shortage. As resources become constrained, there are two simple options: cooperate or compete.

Rising costs and the threats of resource shortage provide an opportunity to push for green growth and build a more sustainable future. The role of the second-generation environmentalist is one of building and nurturing investor confidence and steering investment away from fossil fuels, for example, towards permanent structural changes in demand reduction, social expectations and resilient local supply chains.

Perhaps the Brundtland definition could be better worded as: “Development that ensures realistic growth and consumption expectations in the current generation, while ensuring the capacity of future generations to thrive without conflict.”

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