Sustainable Development: a dream betrayed?

What makes development sustainable? Image © Copyright 2017.

In recent years anyone reading a local authority Local Plan or perusing a property developer’s brochure will have come across the term ‘sustainable development’. It’s a popular term at all levels of government and it is ubiquitous in modern planning documents, but what exactly does it mean?

Back in 1970, while Simon & Garfunkle were singing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, a group of MIT scientists working for a think tank called ‘The Club of Rome’ were studying a computer simulation which predicted that our world was developing too fast and our natural resources could not support the current rate of industrial production and growth beyond the later 21st century. They concluded that we needed a new global economic system which provided for the needs of everyone while remaining sustainable into the future. They called their report ‘The Limits to Growth’: it was seminal and it influenced minds across the world.

Two years later in 1972, Stockholm hosted the ‘United Nations Conference on the Human Environment’ which declared 26 principles for a sustainable global future. These are the first 10:

1. Human rights must be asserted, apartheid and colonialism condemned
2. Natural resources must be safeguarded
3. The Earth’s capacity to produce renewable resources must be maintained
4. Wildlife must be safeguarded
5. Non-renewable resources must be shared and not exhausted
6. Pollution must not exceed the environment’s capacity to clean itself
7. Damaging oceanic pollution must be prevented
8. Development is needed to improve the environment
9. Developing countries therefore need assistance
10. Developing countries need reasonable prices for exports to carry out environmental management

A new concept ‘Environmentalism’ hit the headlines, but, as anyone who lived through the 1970s and 80s will know, in those decades environmentalism was not taken very seriously in the developed west. Nevertheless, by 1987 the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development had released a report called ‘Our Common Future’, or ‘The Brundtland Report’, which brought into clear focus the idea that development and environmental conservation must work together if the world community was to have a sustainable future. To that end it introduced the concept of ‘sustainable development’.

“Sustainable development is 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’, in particular, the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs”

The idea drew support, and in 1992 the United Nations held a Conference on Environment and Development, known as the ‘Earth Summit’, in Rio de Janeiro. At this conference 128 participating countries, including the United Kingdom, agreed on a new global plan for sustainable development into the 21st century, it was called ‘Agenda 21’.

“Agenda 21 addresses the development of societies and economies by focusing on the conservation and preservation of our environments and natural resources”(2).

Agenda 21 is ambitious: it is a revolutionary new concept in global politics: a world of united nations working together with a plan to end poverty and improve health (particularly in poor countries), to enhance the lives of women and children, to control population expansion, to change consumption patterns, to conserve natural resources, to clean up pollution, to limit deforestation and to conserve biodiversity right across the world. All this within a framework which encourages economic growth for all the nations involved and financial prosperity and social inclusion for all of their inhabitants. A noble initiative indeed, but its critics say it’s not so much a plan as an unachievable fantasy.

In Britain in June 2000, The Sustainable Development Commission was set up to “hold government to account to ensure the needs of society, the economy and the environment were properly balanced in the decisions it made and the way it ran itself”(3). It was shut down by the coalition government in 2011.

The new National Planning Policy Framework, which dictates the planning rules for Britain, was published in 2012 with its much quoted mantra:

“At the heart of the National Planning Policy Framework is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking” (4).

It is a policy for building development. Yet each time we see this golden thread twisted into the context of a new planning proposal on our diminishing British farmland, we need to follow it back to its origin and ask ourselves: is the term ‘sustainable development’ really being used to describe a proposal which will help to end world poverty, to conserve natural resources, to preserve biodiversity, to change consumer consumption patterns? Or is it just being misused as a meaningless catch-phrase to justify a new housing proposal here in the affluent west?

(1) United Nations:
(4) NPPF 2012, Para 14.

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