The concept of sustainable development is globally endorsed and I would say it has some unquestionable type of “cult following”. Positioned in conversations as the way to “save the world” from the looming destruction, reduce poverty, grow the economy; you find it everywhere in discourses, policies, political manifestos, scholarship applications, NGO agendas, funding terms, corporate yearly reports, school curriculum and it always reminds us of the SDGs. An environmental activist dealing with the impact of the oil spill in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region told me once he was critical of the concept and the SDGs, I never understood then. Some may have read and understood the critique of the concept often used interchangeably with the concept of sustainability (more on the long-term basis). To put it simply, Sustainable development is a man-made concept that is focused on “development” A.K.A… Economic growth(GDP-ish) as the vehicle to achieve sustainability and particularly the SDGs are the steps (with indicators as metrics) to achieve the long-term goal of sustainability. Maybe, we can save the world!
The thing about “Sustainable Development” is that many of us do not look beyond the surface value of the definition. It is easy to be hyped up about it in trying to help humanity that we may have missed the critical understanding of the concept, hence, all our approaches to solving what we have defined as problems (never mind who or what is left our left in achieving problem definition) are essentially flawed from the foundation. But in case, you have never thought deeply about how the concept of sustainable development is flawed, this article i hope can help and this is a reminder for those who already know.
An important point is that some progress has been made from countless United Nations conferences, deliberations on human progress, particularly the 1992 United Nations Conference on Economic and Development (UNCED), popularly called “The Earth Summit” at Rio de Janeiro where commendable deliberations, agreements and treaties like Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), Rio Declaration on Environment and Development Agenda 21 and Commission of Sustainable Development was created. Despite the pains from conference fatigue of numerous conferences attended in the past and those to come in the future, the effort for including non-governmental actors, interest groups like indigenous, women, and child rights groups as well as corporate bodies has gained traction.
Sustainable Development and Flawed Elements
The widely accepted definition of sustainable development comes from the 1987 Brundtland report known as Our Common Future defined as:
“Sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.“ (i know you are probably tired of seeing this definition). The popular Venn diagram that shows the nexus and interactions of the 3 Ps; Planet, People, Profit, the 3 pillars of sustainable development (Purvis, et al., 2019), social, economy and environment interactions at different levels. Essential human Needs and Limits of technology (along with human capacity) were the 2 main considerations of the Brundtland report.
Three pillars of sustainability (Tedeschi, et al., 2015)
However, Sustainable Development has become an “over-worked” buzzword with a meaning that remains rather elusive. As an ambiguous concept open to diverse interpretations which insufficiently capture the whole picture, shifting from logic to semantics. (Mebratu,1998; Du Pisani, 2006; Meadowcroft, 2017). It is actively used as other normative ideas like freedom, democracy, feminism in international discourses, research, policy deliberations within different ontological and epistemological frames. The vagueness associated with the concept means everyone could mistake it as doing some good to save the earth by interpreting the concept within their political and social construct. How people define it and interpret it reflects on how they approach sustainable development problems and solutions. The ambiguous nature also translates to lacking specificity, not defining who should do what and responsibilities are shifted to others. Not much can be achieved in such situations.
One positive this about the Brundtland Report is that it attempted to “reconcile economic growth with environmental protection and not view them as tradeoffs since one is not possible without the other” (Axelrod et al, 2011). This report considered the division between the Global North (forgoing some comfort) and South (readjusting aspirations). It hoped to open up discussions on finding a middle ground of compromise since both the rich and poor countries had to change consumption patterns eventually regardless of the dispute. This allowed for the possibility of bringing more people to the table of key negotiations (leave no one behind) especially the global south to clear any doubt of it being another colonization agenda Whether this has been successful, remains a heated debate because there will always be someone who will be left out and there will be winners and losers.
The Brundtland report was focused on development being the end goal. Screams “Anthropocentric” but i would argue that as long as human elements are involved there will be an anthropocentric undertone (same goes for Circular/ Green Economy). So, maybe Anthropocentric as a term is not exactly evil in every context. Development within the frame of the Brundtland definition means improving human social conditions, health, education, economy, prosperity within environmental limits (balance between demand and the environment). Balance refers to intergenerational equity translates to the state of equilibrium between human contentment and appropriate environmental limits (Hueting & Reijnders, 1998). This has reduced the meaning of being focused on meeting human needs ahead of environmental limits and intergenerational equity. (Meadowcroft, 2017).
Prioritizing human basic needs becomes the only path to achieving progress and a path for preserving the environment. Being focused on human needs translates to growing the economy and pursuing high GDP, the trickle-down economics language. Then, we would count all the things in the economy with value by building capital. Remember that, capital in economics is a stock of goods with the ability (use, value or function) to produce further goods. This definition implies that environmental capital is the possible function and uses of environmental resources (renewable and nonrenewable). Environmental capital also includes negative values such as pollution, contamination, and desertification. (Hueting & Reijnders, 1998; El Serafy, 1991). The Brundtland definition implies that “societal development trajectories” are tied to what economic value means in economics, the root of many theories on growth, only what is termed valuable, measurable counts (Meadowcroft,2017). People will pay only what gives them value but can a price be put on the ability of environmental resources? Should environmental capital be seen as an equivalent of economic capital in measurement?
The focus on the limits of technology and human capacity meant that more should be done in these areas to solve environmental problems in the face of dwindling resources. If only we had the right technology with sufficient human capacity, then we can have things like substitutes for diminishing non-renewable resources and better manage renewable resources. Well, the critics of the green economy, decoupling and the concept of net zero
will have you thinking twice about your stand. At the other end of the spectrum is the place of those with power and resources to constantly push the narrative and accord the “beloved” concept the global presence it enjoys. We find ourselves embracing concepts/buzz words like this and using them without questioning how it fits within our lived experiences. But who is really asking? is it important?
The Sustainable Development Goals
The 17 interlinked Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were globally endorsed in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. 17 goals 169 targets, 232 indicators. Developed after the end the Millennium Development Goals which ended in 2015. Since we at least know (even though not all will agree) that the most used definition of sustainable development is already flawed, then we can do more to manage targets and indicators better. As a fan of the SDGs, understanding the limitations of the concept keeps me enlightened and helps me to avoid the urge of jumping on project bandwagons because “sustainable development” is mentioned as the goal of the project. It helps me to approach collaborations beyond my disciplines to accommodate others. It is a deliberate and constant learning experience for me. Reflecting on the flaws of the concept also enables me to pay attention to how problems are defined, who is left out (at the very least, since we cannot carry everyone along 100 percent), and how solutions are designed.