Environmentalism and the Panacea of Sustainable Development

by Antoine Cerisier

Izaak Walton

Environmental issues have gained salience over the past decades due to greater awareness of ecological degradation and growing scientific research on climate change. The latter issue has been particularly present in the media in the last ten years. Numerous scientific reports on global warming and sea level rise have been made public; a recent World Bank publication observed a 4 degree rise in global temperatures by the end of the century “would push some countries or regions to the brink of collapse”. US politician and activist Al Gore even won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, along with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But environmentalism did not start with Al Gore and his emphatic coverage of climate change: environmental concerns lie far back in time.

Greek philosopher Aristotle, Arab polymath Al-Kindi and 17th century English writer Izaak Walton were all concerned with ecological issues such as pollution and conservation. Modern environmentalism developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe. It remained philosophical until its emergence as a social movement in the United States. John Muir – born in 1838 and founder of the prominent grassroots organisation Sierra Club – is often considered as a key contributor to the environmental movement. This American author and naturalist fought for the preservation of national parks and condemned man-made environmental degradation. In his acclaimed book Our National Parks (1901), Muir writes: “this most influential half animal, half angel is rapidly multiplying and spreading so that soon, it would seem, we may have to go farther than Nansen to find a good sound solitude”.

John Muir

Environmental issues only gained salience in civil society and international politics several decades later. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm in 1972 and is often considered as the first example of international cooperation on environmental matters. It was largely inspired by Garrett Hardin’s influential article titled “The Tragedy of the Commons” and published in 1968. Hardin used a compelling metaphor to illustrate the cross-border nature of environmental issues and warned against the over-exploitation of common resources; he argued that “mutual coercion must be mutually agreed upon”. However, the link between environment and development was largely ignored until the late 1980s and the emergence of new economic powers in Asia and elsewhere. Industrialisation and modernisation had severe environmental consequences in emerging economies, as the most rapidly growing industrial sectors were also the most polluting ones.

Air Pollution in Beijing, China

A few years ago, China even surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. However, under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility”, developing and newly industrialised countries like China, India and Brazil have often refused to commit to strict emissions targets. Indeed, they rightly argue that Western states are historically responsible for CO2 emissions as greenhouse gasses are believed to stay in the atmosphere for more than 100 years.A solution had to be found to break the development-environment deadlock. In 1983, Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland was appointed by Javier Perez de Cuéllar, then Secretary General of the United Nations, to chair a commission focusing on development and environmental challenges. The Brundtland Commission report was published in 1987 under the title Our Common Future and officially adopted by the UN shortly thereafter. Its main contribution was the sustainable development concept – defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The report highlights three main pillars: economic growth, environmental protection and social equality. Sustainable development has since developed into a very mainstream concept and was integrated by the World Bank and other national and international institutions. Nevertheless, it has been subject to growing criticism for a number of reasons. The report’s focus on economic growth is highly questionable; indeed, if economic growth has no positive impact on environmental protection – quite the opposite – it should not be an operational objective of sustainable development. Besides, the concept may appear too simplistic and consensual. The relationship between development and the environment is not an easy one and sustainable development often ignores major tradeoffs experienced by developing countries. For example, the Ugandan government had to make difficult policy choices regarding fish stocks in Lake Victoria: a large number of species have been fished to extinction by the local population whose income depends on it. Other developing countries – especially in Sub-Saharan Africa – face similar dilemmas with forest-related resources. One cannot solve such dilemmas with “magic” buzzwords such as sustainable development.

Ugandan Fishermen on Lake Victoria

Despite its flaws, the Brundtland Report introduced an interesting concept which acknowledged both the development imperative and the need for environmental protection. Unfortunately, sustainable development has lost most of its original meaning since it reached the mainstream. Like democracy or human rights, it has become a principle which no one would dare questioning. Everyone loves it, including some of the worst polluters on earth. It could even be argued that the sustainability trend has encouraged cosmetic environmentalism on the part of both governments and business. British Petroleum’s homepage has a “sustainability” subsection, despite the company’s poor record on renewables and environmental preservation. The company even changed its name to Beyond Petroleum, even though oil and gas make up almost 95 percent of their energy mix. This PR gimmick, commonly known as greenwashing, has been used extensively by fossil fuel corporations and other business sectors. In the acclaimed documentary film Bottled Life – which I highly recommend to anyone interested in these issues – Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck insists water is “pivotal for sustainable development”. Meanwhile, his company is constantly buying up groundwater resources at the expense of local communities in the United States, Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere to create dependence on bottled water. The documentary illustrates the need for a paradigmatic shift in environmental discourse. Other commentators have called for a more radical approach to sustainable development. Degrowth scholars such as Serge Latouche argue the very term is an oxymoron since growth economics relies heavily on high output and thus environmental degradation. American geographer Jared Diamond holds a similar view in his acclaimed book Collapse, published in 2005. He points to climate change, energy shortage, deforestation and poor water management as some of the major environmental problems faced by the 21st century world. All of these, he argues, have historically contributed to the collapse of past societies and civilisations – including the Maya, the Greenland Norse and the Ancestral Pueblo peoples.

Beyond Petroleum?

In Greek mythology, Panacea was the goddess of Universal Remedy. With conceptual flaws and green hypocrisy, sustainable development has become just that – a trendy but rather void analytical concept which claims to solve the unsolvable and fails to capture the complexity of economic and environmental issues. Pompous words and concepts will not solve the problems at hand. Instead, citizens and policymakers could – and should – rethink global environmental policy in a number of ways: by questioning ever-increasing trade and the ecological cost of transporting greater volumes of goods across large distances; by assessing the role of multinational corporations which are often responsible for environmental degradation in the global South; by finding viable alternatives to fossil fuels; and by changing consumerist behaviours in the West – as Jared Diamond observed, the average American consumes as much as 32 Kenyans annually. In many ways, sustainable development as it is currently conceived perpetuates the disease by treating only the symptoms.

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