Sustainable development in 2012: Learning the lessons of 1987

As we enter 2012, what can we learn from looking back to 1987? Jules Peck looks at the state of play post-Durban and the state of green politics in the UK.


Have we lost our way in only focusing on the ‘means’ and not the ‘ends’ of a true definition of Sustainable Development? As we enter 2012 and the run-up to Rio+20, what can we learn from looking back to 1987? Jules Peck looks at the state of play post-Durban and the state of green politics in the UK

Sustainable Development’s blueprint – needs and means

As we emerge from our collective failures of Durban, and before we commence the Rio+20 jamboree in 2012, it is perhaps worth looking back to remind ourselves of some of the thinking which led up to Rio in 1992.

In particular I think it is worth revisiting a blueprint definition for ‘Sustainable Development’ which came out from the UN in 1987 as the Brundtland Commission’s:

“…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of needs; and the idea of limitations imposed on the environment.”

Brundtland’s twin focus boils down for me to a question of ‘means’ and ‘ends’. The ‘means’ is about how much planet we have left and the ‘ends’ is about understanding real human needs and where we actually want to get on our journey to towards ‘progress’.

Redefining ‘prosperity’

Having pushed our one and only planet to breaking point, we surely cannot continue on our current trajectory. As the realisation that we cannot keep growing the economy starts to sink in it is time for us to shift from a ‘wealth and growth as prosperity’ to a ‘wellbeing as prosperity’ paradigm.

As Herman Daly, guru of Ecological Economics, points out, there is an important distinction here to be made between growth, which is quantitative, and development which is qualitative. So we need to ask ourselves what sort of development might be sustainable.

And answering this calls for a redefined version of ‘prosperity’ that takes a good hard look at the ‘ends’ part of the blueprint and asks what it is we are striving for. Is it more and more stuff? Or is it wellbeing, flourishing, and meaningful lives for all (within the planet’s limits)? For me it is very much the latter.

Twenty five year review – ‘efficiency’ or ‘sufficiency’

So how well are we delivering on Brundtland’s definition almost 25 years on from the Commision’s blueprint?

Well, as I pointed out in a recent Guardian piece, my feeling is that we have somewhat lost our way in ‘sustainability’ and ‘CSR’ circles. We’ve become overly focused on only half of the Sustainable Development journey.

‘Sustainability’ and ‘CSR’ are both largely missing the ‘needs’ part of the above equation and focused mainly on the ‘means’. Progressive companies are well versed in grappling with environmental limits and efficiency – the means – but have little or no real understanding of the ‘ends’ – real needs and finding ‘sufficiency’.

At best the ‘human’ side of Brundtland’s definition is dealt with in a very utilitarian way in terms of ‘community involvement’ and workers’ rights. Of course those issues are crucial but they are far from the whole ‘needs’ story. We don’t just need job security or corporate handouts. Real needs are about so much more.

They are about our ability to feel good and function well, our connections to friends and family, our dreams, hopes and fears. And yet the science and understandings of positive psychology, welfare economics and wellbeing are rarely if ever considered when ‘sustainable development’ is discussed.

This focusing on just the ‘means’ whilst ignoring the ‘ends’ half of sustainable development is rather like worrying about how much fuel is in your tank without considering where you are trying to get to or what route you will take.

So where are we trying to get to? What is our definition of ‘progress’ and ‘prosperity’? My sense is that only by asking what real ‘needs’ are can we begin to answer these questions and determine our endpoint.

Wellbeing as a new strategic lens

To properly understand these real needs (as opposed to advertising created wants) we must examine the evidence from positive psychology, welfare economics and wellbeing. There is now a huge and growing body of research into what brings wellbeing.

With clear evidence of a void of leadership from politicians, as evidenced so starkly in Durban, the onus seems to be on other actors like communities and perhaps progressive business to step up.

Civil society movements like Occupy and Transition are working hard to fill this vacuum and their objectives around building community and shifting from extrinsic to intrinsic values come far closer to integrating a ‘needs’ and wellbeing perspective than business or government.

More and more corporate leaders are recognising that their current CSR efforts are far from sufficient to meet the scale and urgency of challenges we face and are looking for a gear-change and a new strategic compass.

Progressive business leaders like SSE’s CEO Ian Marchant are championing community-led sustainable development and Ian Cheshire and thinkers like Naomi Klein are joining the debate about the nature of our economics, of capitalism and how a fuller picture of progress can be developed through using wellbeing-needs as an additional lens for strategic thinking.

The UK government’s record versus rhetoric

While some in the commercial world are tuning in to this ‘needs’ aspect of sustainable development, the coalition government are all over the place, ripping their green credentials up for the sake of a blind obsession to growth with no real reflection on real needs and wellbeing.

One does not have to look very far to find a reality-check to the ‘greenest government ever’ tagline. And, although David Cameron has been quite supportive of alternative measures of progress, the term ‘sustainable development’ seems to the UK government to mean something very different to the Brundtland definition.

Indeed, not only does it miss the twin focus on ‘needs’ and ‘means’, its vision of progress is firmly in the ‘bigger not better’ mindset.

One indication of this is a key provision in the new National Planning Policy Framework which stipulates the favouring of what is termed ‘sustainable development’ over any decentralisation of power or relocalisation. But its understanding of sustainable development is a pretty odd perversion of Brundtland’s vision.

To the government, ‘sustainable development’ seems to mean building roads and houses on what remains of our countryside for the sake of jump-starting economic growth. Nothing here to suggest Cameron’s tacit support for a focus on wellbeing and a more sophisticated vision of progress is anything more than lip-service and window dressing.

In the ongoing debacle over planning law reform, green groups have called on government to provide a clear definition of ‘sustainable development’ to guide planners. They would do well to return to Brundtland and consider this ‘means’ and ‘ends’ formula.

The good news and looking forward to Rio+20

The good news is that there are plenty of ideas out there about the general new direction we need to be taking and of the eventual endpoint. Economies, enterprises and society itself can regroup around an updated vision of progress that puts achievement of (bounded) real wellbeing-needs at its heart as opposed to on the sideline.

A ‘wellbeing dividend’ to sustainability efforts can be found, but only by taking a new fuller view of the true meaning of sustainable development.

So let us make 2012 not only a celebration of Rio+20 but the year society re-found the true meaning of prosperity through a focus on real needs and wellbeing.

See also:

The government’s green-wash on sustainable developmentMary Creagh MP, March 10th 2011

Stealth cuts could threaten the green economyGuy Shrubsole, February 15th 2011

A progressive test for the environmentMary Creagh MP, November 7th 2010

Teflon Teather’s u-turn in the skyNatan Doron, November 3rd 2010

Tories preach ‘green growth’ amid mounting criticism of their green recordJoss Garman, October 4th 2010

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