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  • Writer's picturekarri winn

Sustainable Development - Concept Expansion

The adjective-noun sustainability has a bevy of meanings depending on the context and person using it. As an adjective it is describing the rate of use of a natural system versus a system’s natural rate of renewal. This is a very practical measurement, i.e., “the ability to maintain balance of a certain process or state in any system.”[1] As a noun, sustainability characterizes a perpetuating condition or state of being usually in reference to another concept like financial, economic or cultural. In the context of geo-politics, it takes on yet another set of meanings.

In modern usage, sustainability is at once development praxis and critique on economic globalization. In terms of development, the concept of sustainability is attempting to resolve the contradictions between meeting basic [sic] needs and adverse impacts on the environment and society. As economic critique, the concept posits that the carrying capacity of the earth is being irrevocably strained by neo-liberal economics perpetuating business practices that denigrate ecological life-support systems and systematically deteriorate human living conditions around the world.

In modern vernacular, we arrive at to the adjective-noun sustainability as a colloquial distillate of sustainable development. In 1989, Brundtland Commission (World Commission on Environment and Development) published their seminal report, Our Common Future. Commissioned by the OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) in 1983, this group was charged with resolving apparent contradictions in development policies and a collective realization that situations in the so-called developing world were worsening overall despite billions of dollars of investment.

The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future (1989).” There are a number of possible ethical critiques of this definition, e.g., development is a post-colonial Western hegemonic agenda done to people against their will; development is a tool of economic globalization, which results in wealth accumulation among the elite; the needs and definition of needs that development methodologies address are defined outside of the people who are receiving the intervention and therefore are culturally inappropriate and/or culturally destructive; needs from a development perspective are typically material in quantification and fail to address the needs of whole beings; and, sans intragenerational equity, intergenerational equity – the fabled promise of sustainable development - is not feasible.

The term sustainable development itself suffers from what Hobbes and Daly refer to as misplaced concreteness (see For The Common Good, 1989). The reason sustainability is not easily defined is twofold. First, it is a misnomer for a problem set of complexity that cannot be resolved into a single concept. Second, the entire construct of development is rooted in a Victorian consciousness that propagated a specific view of civilization and reified itself as the standard of developed against what the rest of the world should aim to achieve. From an ethical perspective, this was entirely problematic as this worldview espoused by a small elite formed the social rationale of the last wave of Western colonial expansion through the middle of the 20th century. A cognitive attitude of Social Darwinism characterized the mind-set of this time with a kind of gross sentiment to “Make The Savages Like Us!” in the name of progress and bringing civilization to the undeveloped world. The Victorians unilaterally and dogmatically applied their belief of the purpose of humanity on the world without invitation.

Indeed, what would development look like if all human cultures had the opportunity in crafting the purpose of humanity? To what ends might diverse perspectives on human progress shape economic, social or ecological decision-making? At this point, I add in one more small meaning-making detail. Interestingly, and in contrast, the original definition of development circa 1850 was the “biological unfolding toward maturation.” When we think of a flowering plant, for example, this definition makes sense when we see the daisies petals unfold.

However, it is much more befuddling to imagine a human being’s maturation cycle – while we can find parallel patterns across cultures, we can also find so much variation that we cannot say definitely one person to the next how exactly their unique self-actualization horizon should be expressed. This means we cannot programmatize development. We cannot achieve development through adherence to the Scientific Method. Development programs are not replicable.

The moment the biological meaning of development was co-opted as part of an expansionary colonial and imperial ideology, a great toxicity infected people the world over that we have not recovered from. This term was errantly applied to the concept of civilization within also a religiously imbued teleological idea that there was a preferred end-state for human settlement and 19th Century Western society elites arrogantly assumed that they were the best exemplifiers of this ideal.

Development of human beings, social and ecological communities is inherently complex and therefore not subject to any single truth, set of needs or “best practice”. The hegemonic practices of Victorian colonialism-cum-neo-liberal economics post-WW2 massively undermined diverse cultures around the world severing traditional governance, land, food and wealth systems causing rampant poverty and social malaise that than necessitated this insidious Western gesture of “development assistance”, which was really just a proxy for continued colonial supplantation of non-Western attitudes and beliefs.

Sustainable development is an autocratic attempt by the West to fix something that is not fixable because at its core it is still operating on an ethical platform extending Western preferences and ideals now couched in global economic systems that are systematically moving wealth into the hands of the few, disenfranchising the masses and creating the largest cultural, geopolitical and environmental threats known to humanity.

Development has failed because it has attempted to insert linear projects based on extrinsic motivation, (e.g., food-for-work programs), that meet needs determined by Western policy makers. Compartmentalized thinking has severed the environment from development resulting in poorly defined projects and a lot of failure. It wasn’t until after Our Common Future that a global consensus emerged that at least we needed to address both the environment and development simultaneously – this prompted the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Brasil.

From the 1960s – 1980s, there were two parallel macro trends in the West that grew into sustainability. Internal to the West, the environmental movement – particularly in the United States began to grow steadily. Overseas, Western development projects addressing human issues throughout the third world were realizing only marginal success. Sustainable Development was a response to “development” recognizing that static projects were not achieving results. The idea of sustainability diffused more widely throughout the developing world before even entering Western lexicon. In the United States, it started to diffuse through the 1990’s only post-UNCED.

Because the term was adopted in the US by environmentalists an ontological fracture endured despite the best attempts of UNCED to do otherwise with attention being placed on the environment sans-people just as leading up to the Brundtland Commission development was pursued sans-environment. This was a very strange thing that occurred and has perpetuated significant confusion. But this also happened because of an elitist attitude within the West that we have achieved development; we are developed and therefore we don’t need development interventions to take us out of our savagery into the modern post-industrial reality.

In the US, the environmental focus of sustainability began to shift at the beginning of the 21st Century as the corporate social responsibility movement helped birth a mainstreaming around the idea of a triple bottom line or triadic juncture of ethics, economics and ecology. Simultaneously, scores of citizen activist movements working for decades highlighting environmental racism, social justice, class inequality, racial privilege, gender bias etc continued to reveal how much the post-colonial imperial mindset has fundamentally also self-inflicted wounds in so-called modern societies tantamount, although differently expressed, to so-called modernizing societies.

Nonetheless, with the unprecedented scaling of massive seriously and seemingly intractable global environmental issues – notably – climate change, species extinctions, plastic waste etc, for many in the West, sustainability remains inherently a conversation about the environment. Sustainable Development is supposed to not compromise the needs of the future (human-centric) but doesn’t philosophically wrestle with the extant reality that there is massive intragenerational inequity.

Sustainability ought be a conversation about our cultural belief systems toward a shared purpose for how we want to live among each other and live on the planet that we share. However, these conversations are so fraught with difficulty after years of toxic privilege spawned violence and disenfranchisement that they are nearly impossible to approach. Only when we begin to formulate a shared vision about the future, can we begin to imagine different futures for people and the planet and make choices that will lead us in the desired directions.

Adjective-noun Sustainability suffers from a kind of misplaced concreteness by attempting to bottle an ocean of complexity into a single concept. The confusion lies in competing views on the priorities and aims of “development” so the concept itself suffers from a kind misplaced concreteness. Ultimately, from an ethics perspective, this has to be a conversation about human purpose on earth and not a conversation about how needs are met. Obviously, human beings require more than subsistence, products and services, to live into their full potential. The intangible dimension of human being flourishing must be at the heart of the conversation and only from this place can clarity of purpose reveal an ethical platform for human developing that can support all peoples, places, flora and fauna.


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