Is Sustainable Development an Oxymoron?

In a post on the Athens Banner opinion page, Harold Brown, emeritus Professor at the University of Georgia, asks if sustainable development is an oxymoron. Development is a process and, in any living system, goes on forever or at least until life stops. He, as I do also, interprets sustainable development to mean that the present state of the world should last indefinitely. While not truly an oxymoron, the phrase is certainly a contradiction of terms.

I have noted in several previous posts that sustainability is a noun and refers to the possibility of flourishing far into the future. Cutting back, as Professor Brown says, is not the way towards a sustainable future. But he misses the point that, unless we do reduce the unsustainability of the present world, it will be problematic to attain a flourishing state even with his answers, "education, freedom and the inspiration to cope."

I have been arguing that it takes a different kind of actions to get us on the right road to sustainability:

1) Get the difference between the adjectival use of sustainable (as in sustainable X) and the noun sustainability straight.

2) Get the difference between reducing unsustainability and creating sustainability straight.

3) Do what works to reduce unsustainability, but recognize that all such actions are quick or temporary fixes.

4) Start to expose the underlying cultural beliefs and values that have produced the threats to our future and work to exchange them with a set that is consistent with and can begin to put us on the right trajectory.

Professor Brown says,

The notion [of sustainable development] is ridiculous that we can manage the resources of future generations. Thinkers of five generations ago would have wished for a better horse and buggy or a quieter steam engine.

Yes, we cannot anticipate what kind of world our children and further generations will face. But he makes a mistake is talking about managing in the first place. The world is a complex system and like other such systems it can shift into new regimes without much warning. We have seen the virtual disappearance of many of the world's fisheries from overfishng. Although we can't and shouldn't manage in the way he suggests, we should most certainly try to govern the present world such that those generations that follow ours have the resources they need to construct the world as they would have it.

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Martin Lehmann said:

Sustainable development is the challenge that we’re facing – and that we’ve always been facing. There’s really nothing new there. The challenge is of course to provide the opportunity for people to live a dignified life without compromising others’ abilities to do the same!
The challenge as I understand and present it is thus a systemic one, an interactive one. A challenge, where you can’t really rank the World’s 20 supposedly largest problems and then deal with them one by one – although that is what some people will have us believe and some people is in fact trying to do.

A couple of definitions, before continuing...

Sustainability
“… to provide to everybody, everywhere and at any time, the opportunity to lead a dignified life in his or her respective society.” (Spangenberg, 2005:89)

Development
"Application of new ideas to practical problems"

Governance
"A mode of social co-ordination or a negotiation method to solve contentious problems among political and non-political actors"

Management
"The process of leading and directing all or part of an organisation through the deployment and manipulation of resources (human, financial, material, intellectual or intangible)"

In my view, the only way we’ll get on the right path is through Management & Governance. Because the challenge is all-inclusive, physical, social, and economic development - of countries, regions, municipalities, neighbourhoods - aimed at providing everybody, everywhere and at any time, the opportunity to lead a dignified life in his/her respective society, through the co-ordination and negotiation between political and non-political actors, and by the process of leading and directing all or part of an organisation through the deployment and manipulation of resources (human, financial, material, intellectual or intangible)…
Keywords are thus:
Governance for Sustainability
Sustainability Management
and – taking development a little further - Sustainable Innovation and Sustainable Innovation Systems

To achieve sustainable development – and to stay in economic terms now - investments need to be done in four different but related types of capital: natural capital, human & intellectual capital, production capital and social capital. We depend on these capitals and without their maintenance and development, the ability of future generations to fulfil their needs is impaired.

It may be problematic to use the term ‘capital’ in the way I and colleagues have done since it often refers to a stock which can grow or decline. Because of the diversity, incomparability and complexity of the elements in these four stocks it is often impossible to measure the size and change of them in meaningful ways. For example, social capital, which is defined as a set of rules, habits and (cultural) norms is very difficult to imagine as a stock and how would one aggregate climate, oil and biodiversity into a single stock of natural capital? So, although the use of the notion of capital has become quite common in these connections, I will suggest we may think of them rather as a collection of different potentials or services than as a homogenous stock.

In short, the four potentials that make up the sustainable development of societies can be described in the following ways:
Ecosystem services (ES): refers to natural resources and ecosystems. In addition to renewable and non-renewable natural resources it also includes geographical factors like climate, disease ecology and distance to the coast (for example, if a country is landlocked or not) which recent empirical research has shown to be strongly correlated with development (Sachs & Mallaney 2002).

Human & Intellectual Potential (HIP): refers to the health, education, knowledge and competence of people.

Production Potential (PP): is the stock of buildings, tools, machines used in production of goods and services. This is what economists traditionally refer to as capital.

Social Potential (SP): is composed of the institutions, which form the language, trust and networks that make continual social interaction possible.

So, the challenge is thus the right balance of potentials, their use and deployment in order for us to increase the societal potential for sustainable development. Perhaps then, the linkages between the potentials/services/capitals are much more important to look at (and 'measure'). The linkages between the four different potentials may be described as follows (adapted from Gibson, 2001):

Integrity (ES-HIP); build human-ecological relations to maintain the integrity of biophysical systems in order to maintain the irreplaceable life support functions upon which human well-being depends.

Sufficiency (PP-HIP); everyone should have enough for a decent life and that everyone has opportunity to seek improvements

Equity (PP-SP); sufficiency and effective choices for all are pursued in ways that reduce dangerous gaps in sufficiency and opportunity (and health, security, social recognition, political influence, etc.) between the rich and the poor.

Efficiency (ES-PP); reduce overall material and energy demands and other stresses on especially ecological systems.

Democracy & Civility (HIP-SP); build our capacity through a better informed and better integrated package of administrative, market, customary and personal decision making practices.

Precaution (ES-SP); respect uncertainty, avoid risks of serious or irreversible damage to the foundations for sustainability, design for surprise, and manage for adaptation.

So... no, I certainly don't believe sustainable development is an oxymoron; in fact, I believe it's achievable but only through dedicated management & governance...