Sustainable development is a priority for anyone who truly cares about the environment.
Unless we as a society rethink our use of global resources, life as we know it will one day cease to exist.
The United Nations has made this an international imperative and set a series of 17 broad sustainability goals that it hopes can be achieved by 2030.
Business has also come on the scene, with an ever-growing number of companies developing their own green reporting standards and committing to a sustainable future. Achieving these goals is now a trillion dollar industry.
The problem is that there is no agreement on what “sustainable development” really means and how it should be measured.
Some researchers believe that it is little more than corporate “greenwashing”.
While others see it as a misplaced ideal that can exacerbate – rather than ward off – social and environmental destruction.
Is sustainability possible at all?
Academic Christopher Barnatt, from the website ExplainingTheFuture.com, describes sustainability as a “dangerous” concept.
“It gives the impression that we could all live, just as we live today, but sustainably – with this kind of magic stuff wrapped around it,” he tells ABC RN’s Future Tense.
Sustainable development can be “politically practical”, he argues, but it has no real significance in a world driven by exponential consumption and driven by unlimited extraction.
“As a physical concept, [sustainability] is impossible. Life itself is a physically consuming process.
“The only way we can actually preserve things for the future and take care of the environment is to change the way we live, to use fewer resources, to value things in a different way.”
Climatologist Chirag Dhara agrees. While a focus on reducing fossil fuel consumption is commendable, he says, we must be careful not to ignore the greater threat posed by the exponential consumption of resources.
“Our economy is very extractive, whether it is agriculture [or] manufacturing. What is happening is that our use of raw materials, our material footprint, is growing in congestion with GDP growth, our economic growth. “
And that, says Professor Dhara, an assistant professor at Krea University in India, cannot continue forever.
Even renewable energy technologies will eventually have to be replaced, he points out. While they may be better for the environment, they are not cost-neutral. They consume resources over their lifetime and through the systems designed to distribute the energy they generate.
“All this technology is made possible through the principles of physics and chemistry and mathematics that allow them to happen, but the same principles inevitably limit them.
“This means that if we want to preserve the current paradise of unlimited economic growth,” he says, “it must be completely decoupled from the use of material resources.”
And under the current system of global consumer capitalism, he warns that it will never happen.
A sharing tool
For Melissa Checker, the concept of sustainable development evokes very different ideas – those about displacement and social inequality.
“The way it plays out undermines its stated intention,” she says. And there are contradictions in its application.
Building a perfect building with a Green Star character loses all sustainable credentials, she says, if the land it is built on is a rebuilt wetland.
Dr. Checker, an associate professor of urban studies at City University of New York, believes that true sustainability and environmental justice are incompatible with dominant forms of urban development.
“Sustainability became a very useful concept in an effort to market New York City to more affluent residents and promote the redevelopment needed to attract the exclusive residents.”
But again and again, says Dr. Checker, the end result has been an increase in property values, which in turn has forced residents from lower socio-economic groups out of their homes and neighborhoods.
It has also led to a growing inequality in the provision of services and opportunities, she argues.
“As some neighborhoods turn green, other neighborhoods become more brown.
“Neighborhoods that are not intended for gentrification or redevelopment will have more toxic facilities, more industrial facilities and no green facilities. They will be sacrificed for the sake of redevelopment elsewhere.”
No consistent measurements
Dr Checker argues that the concept of sustainable development has been hijacked by corporate interests. In the case of New York, she cites the powerful real estate and development sectors.
Her suspicions resonate with new research from Renard Siew, a climate change adviser at the Center for Governance and Political Studies, headquartered in Malaysia.
Dr Siew, who also advises the World Economic Forum, says the lack of global consistency in the way sustainability standards are measured has allowed companies to play the system by picking and choosing the assessment tools that best suit their business interests.
“It is not surprising to see common indicators, common criteria such as CO2 emissions reported differently. Which means it is very difficult to make an apple-to-apple comparison.”
Dr Siew says that lack of standardization is also a problem with the assessment systems used to assess environmental credentials for new and renovated buildings. But at the heart of the problem, he says, is the voluntary nature of reporting.
“It should be made mandatory with really detailed requirements as to what is expected in terms of certain criteria, to avoid situations where a company can cherry pick indicators that they will report on to put them in a good light.”
He notes that both the EU and the UN are now taking steps towards mandatory sustainability reporting measures. But development is slow.
Back to the Future
Design expert Stuart Walker of Lancaster University is in favor of returning to the original concept of sustainable development.
The UN Brundtland Commission developed the term as a way of structuring international aid to developing countries. It provided a framework to ensure that future developments in countries did not inadvertently destroy human livelihoods and the environment.
It was a multifaceted approach, says Dr. Checker.
“They called for the prioritization of ecological, economic and social sustainability.
“European cities really took it up. Even environmental rights activists really embraced the term as a way of thinking about the kind of calls they sent out for racial justice and social justice along with environmental justice.”
But according to Professor Walker, the embrace of sustainability ethos was quickly destroyed and is now seen predominantly through the line of business and finance.
“If you separate them, you do not get the holistic picture.”
For Christopher Barnatt, the elephant in space is modern capitalism and the theory of planned obsolescence, in which objects are deliberately manufactured for single use to maximize the potential for future sales.
“Economics basically tells us to consume as much as we want, and it does not cost the consequences: the recognition that there is not an infinite amount of resources and that there are consequences for the planet and the environment.”
The answer, he says, is not only to consume less, but to appreciate more.
“We don’t have to go that far back to find generations of people who saved up to buy items that in many cases they kept for a lifetime. They valued the things they had.”
“Consuming less does not necessarily mean having a smaller material world,” says Dr. Barnatt. “It just has to be a material world where we have the things we have for an extended period of time.”
A world where disposable products are again considered waste, not a virtue.
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