The huge literature on sustainable development has given rise to many definitions since the classic formulation of the Brundtland report.9 This combined concern about poverty and development with concern about the state of the environment. Moreover it demanded that attention be paid both to intra-generational equity (between rich and poor now) and intergenerational equity (between present and future generations). Subsequent definitions have sought to develop these elements. Thus, for example, the UK's Forum for the Future defines it as ‘a dynamic process which enables all people to realise their potential and improve their quality of life in ways which simultaneously protect and enhance the Earth's life support systems’.10
Yet the challenge of sustainability at the end of the first decade of the third millennium of the Common Era is still the one that Kenneth Boulding's metaphor expressed so neatly: one earth, turning slowly in space as a home for humankind. As the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment showed, human wellbeing, poverty reduction and the state of the global environment remain closely linked (Figure 2.1).11
Figure 2.1 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Conceptual Framework
Source: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (see note 11)
The question that the environmental movement poses to the world is superficially simple, but its implications are vast: how do we devise strategies for society that will allow a peaceful, equitable, fulfilled human future: a humane future for a diverse earth?
‘how do we devise strategies for society that will allow a peaceful, equitable, fulfilled human future: a humane future for a diverse earth?’
Unfortunately, sustainability is not currently the burning issue for most world leaders, whether politicians or business executives. Their immediate concern is to keep the global casino afloat.12 Issues of justice, equity or environmental degradation, or stories about unstoppable global ecological change, are backcloth to the everyday business of firing the boilers of the world economy. The language of economics is still the main currency of politics in discussing the future.
And yet can ‘business as usual’ (however it is viewed in different parts of the world) somehow see the earth through the twenty-first century? And if so, can it be done without significant disturbance to the patterns of wealth and power forged in the twentieth century? Can current global patterns of technology, economy and political agency not only sustain the gains in welfare achieved in the twentieth century, but also spread them effectively to the vast numbers of the world's poor, the ‘bottom billion’?
This is an attractive idea, and one to which many world leaders, and some environmentalists, subscribe. But faith in ‘business as usual’ to deliver the changes needed owes more to the hopes of those favoured by the current status quo (and fearful of the costs of any change of direction) than to a coherent analysis of the state of the environment or the needs of the global poor. There are indeed many people who wish to believe that environmental conditions are improving globally, and that the preservation of biodiversity and ecosystem function can be achieved within the current patterns of production and consumption. But their belief is a delusion, their vision a dream world. They are also dangerously naïve. Theirs is an earth selectively reported and made glossy in lifestyle magazines, on television screens and advertising hoardings. Their hopes for the world, like their consumer demands, overwhelm their capacity to see or understand.
Calls by environmentalists for a transition to sustainability are different. They are awkward, uncomfortable, even alarming. They present a future full of risk and disfunctionality; a future of hard choices and considerable uncertainty. Environmentalists say we face the risks of tipping points and irreversible changes in the environment and in its capacity to support and sustain human life in all its dimensions, not least in the area of climate.13
It has been the appeal of the idea of sustainable development that it somewhat blurs these hard choices. A huge industry in ideas and policy has grown up around the challenge of sustainability. The concept was explored in the World Conservation Strategy published by IUCN, WWF and UNEP in 1980, and its successor Caring for the Earth in 1991, and in the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987. It was discussed at United Nations Conferences in Stockholm in 1972, Rio in 1992 and Johannesburg in 2002.14
Mainstream sustainable development is built on the idea of market-driven approaches and strategies based on technology and intense regulation (termed ecological modernisation).15 It promises to steer the world towards sustainability in ways that do not demand too many dramatic changes, and that do not upset the comfortable, the rich or the powerful.
Despite all this activity, we have come little nearer to answering the fundamental question: how do we deliver sustainability? Or, recognising the tyranny of impossible goals, how do we even start to make progress towards delivering sustainability? Thirty-six years after the Stockholm Conference, we need to ask that hard question. We need to ask ourselves whether we are, actually, globally and on balance, moving towards sustainability, or away?
‘you've got to ask yourself a question: do I feel lucky?’
Clint Eastwood's character in the film Dirty Harry famously told the bank robber: ‘you've got to ask yourself a question: do I feel lucky?’.16 Unless a transition to sustainability can be achieved, we might as well ask world leaders the same question. Without a new trajectory, humankind is going to need a lot of luck to survive the twenty-first century with any kind of humanity intact. The nature of the challenge humanity faces in the twenty-first century is described in Chapter 3.
A transition to sustainability may be necessary, but is it possible? It will certainly not be easy. The purpose of this paper is to consider what the environmental movement can do to make it happen: a transition to a world that sustains abundant, diverse and worthwhile life, human and otherwise, and does so humanely. It forms part of the Future of Sustainability Initiative of IUCN (see Annex 1).
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