Sustaining development – what future for it?

by Joseph Markus

Much ink has been spilled—some usefully, some less so—on how we might react in response to the challenge posed by the problem of climate change.

The Earth, from Apollo 17

Some highlight the collective action problems that blight attempts to improve the situation; others point out how various legal and political concepts may need to be rethought in the wake of global warming.

I find most interesting the paradigm within which the majority have approached the issue.

Sustainable development is the dominant narrative in tackling the two perceived imperatives of human existence: to grow and to survive. However, the idea privileges only one of these two goals. Growth is the predominant focus of sustainable development; the purpose of sustainability is to maintain an unimpeded capacity for development in perpetuity. So the concept makes an important assumption in the first two words of its existence: this is that development is a good that must be preserved.

In this light the leaking of the agenda for the Rio+20 Earth Summit is worrying. It continues to view ideas of development per se—encapsulated within the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—and sustainable development as separate ideals. The first and most important of the twin goals is development: the MDGs came first. The new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be enunciated at Rio do not attempt to forge any kind of linkage between the two regimes.

This is my worry, that the two regimes highlight conflicting tendencies. The question, really, is which will win out? Developing countries and the BRICs are strongly attached to the promise of development, as are a generation of idealistic youngsters, whose ambition is to go out into the world to ‘do’ international development. Developed countries have grown used to the lifestyle associated with being in the end-stages of development. By keeping matters of climate and development in a form of institutional isolation do we not risk bias towards one of these concepts at the expense of the other?

The eschatology of development is a world of equally developed, (post-)industrial and modern nations. This will fail to align with the vocabulary of sustainability.

If the promise of development, of sustainable development, is development for all for ever, then we need to rethink what we mean when we speak of it.

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