Why 'sustainable development' is neither.
October 23, 2002 5:28 PM   Subscribe

Why 'sustainable development' is neither. Globe & Mail Columnist Doug Sanders takes a shot at "Sustainable Developemnt." He says the Left likes it because it doesn't involve big corporations, and the right likes it because it reduces government spending, but the phrase now has as many as 57 competing definitions.
He asks "Should we rush to make the world wealthier first, so that cleanliness will then take care of itself?", since the countries that are the cleanest and have the most protected land are those that are the richest. After all, he says, "we all want to be rich, and we all want to be clean -- but not necessarily at the same time". India Is Interested, China Has A Plan, and I think we've discussed The Big Summit.
posted by Blake (26 comments total)

The idea put forward by the article, that poverty is the great polluter, is not as far out as it may seem. Consider, for example: The Thames is cleaner now than it ever has been. The population of the the West and former SU counties is expected to peak in 2020 (pdf, sorry). We're hardly perfect, but contrast this with the environmental disasters that are brewing in China and India.

I'm not doing the Lomborg here, but perhaps pollution is a symptom of poverty rather than industrial capacity.

posted by bonehead at 6:14 PM on October 23, 2002

While I'm definitely critical, in my own little soap-boxy way, of 'global capitalism' (whatever that is), I have to say that after fairly extensive (i.e. about 3 years) travel through South Asia, it seems that quite a few of the sustainable development p rojects that originate in the west seem to be little more than excuses for white western middle class liberals to wank off to their white western middle class liberal friends about how they are helping the poor (and at the same time, conveniently financing their travel to and stays in Asia). Particularly obnoxious are anti-technology 'ecological' westerners who fly out to Asia and then dump second rate 'alternative technologies' on the locals.

Just my slightly ranty 2c.s
posted by carter at 6:21 PM on October 23, 2002

The only reason the richest are the cleanest is because we've already shipped our manufacturing and disposal to the poorest countries.

Sustainable development is a nice goal, and there are some examples of it working on a local scale. One of my favorites is the industrial symbiosis of Kalundborg, Denmark where several corporations are linked by energy, supplies, and wastes. They use much less transportation, landfill, and energy than comparable industries without a symbiotic set-up.
posted by whatzit at 6:27 PM on October 23, 2002

It seems to me that poor countries can't afford clean technologies until they get richer. If and when they do become wealthy, they'll have the infrastructure and technical expertise to implement cleaner solutions to existing problems. Right now, they don't have that luxury.

Also, pollution in the US or Western Europe is just not comparable to that of India or some parts of China...we're not even talking about the same order of magnitude.
posted by godlesscapitalist at 6:37 PM on October 23, 2002

On preview, I have to agree with whatzit. One (of several) reasons the US is cleaner than other places is that some of the most environmentally damaging industries have moved overseas. If you're a steel worker, things aren't so great, but the general populace gets less belching smoke stacks, and American industry pays less for steel, financing development and innovation in other areas. I know I'm over-simplifying this, but how could we all be rich? Who would be making our sneakers for 30 cents a day, or making the raw materials that go into our finished products? etc. Check out where half the world's cargo ships go to die, and the environmental consequences.

I think it's dangerous to say that richer nations have "eliminated" pollutants; "displaced" is probably a more accurate term...
posted by jalexei at 6:49 PM on October 23, 2002

It seems to me that poor countries can't afford clean technologies until they get richer.

But that isn't as important if you're looking, as the columnist mostly does, at aid devoted to sustainable development, is it?

I am by no means well-versed in international sustainable development, but it doesn't seem that economic development has to proceed in the manner it has historically in the west -- ie, massive industrialization/massive pollution. Why can't you industrialize in a green way? I think that's the goal of SD.
posted by claxton6 at 6:49 PM on October 23, 2002

claxton6: The goal of sustainable development, industrial ecology, and other "greening" processes is definitely to decouple industrialization and pollution. Unfortunately, those two have been partners since we left the agricultural age. The difficulty is not only in balancing where the environmental damage goes, it's finding ways to make it advantageous for the companies to do it. Profit is still the bottom line, and the step to take sustainable development to profitable sustainable development isn't really there yet. Part of this is technology-related, but much of it is the fault of consumers and marketers - bigger, better, dispoable.
Among the companies that are making it work, are those in Denmark (above), Xerox, and GE (can't find a link, but they have contracts to replace broken phones, which they then remanufacture).
posted by whatzit at 7:01 PM on October 23, 2002

Just want to point out -- those "57 competing definitions" point to little more than the fact that many people have written about the concept of sustainable development, not that the concept is poorly defined. A hell of a lot more than 50 people have written about democracy, but no one would use that against it.
posted by tweebiscuit at 7:28 PM on October 23, 2002

While there certainly is an element of pollution displacement into the developing world, in the main, the air and water pollution problems of India, China and Indonesia are caused by too many people in too small a place with little money for pollution control.

China runs on dirty coal, the most polluting form of energy on the planet. Why? It's cheap and domestically available.

If India and China stopped using fertilizers and pesticides, which they can barely afford now, possibly a billion people would starve to death. Water treatment plants cost money, money better spent on food for the table or reinvestment for future growth (from their point of view).

If the dirty cars and trucks of the developing world stopped tomorrow, economies would collapse and we're back to the starving billions again. Offer an Indian delivery man a cheap truck which pollutes terribly or an expensive one which would be legal in California and their choice is obvious.

The only way out of this trap I know of is to make these societies wealthy enough to get out of it themselves. We, and by we, I mean you Americans and EUers, need to lower agricultural and manufacturing tariffs. If a worker makes more than five dollars a day, maybe they can pay enough taxes for a water treatment plant. If the maquiladora is profitable enough, maybe the owners can (be forced to) invest in better, less polluting equipment and better working conditions.

Whether you call it free-trade or fair trade, the point is the same: enrich the developing economies so that they have the same options we do. Hopefully we can do it before too many other species die.
posted by bonehead at 7:31 PM on October 23, 2002

Lately, a lot of my own thoughts on sustainable development has stemmed from reading thoughts like this:

Albert Schweitzer, who knew well the economic situation in the colonies of Africa, wrote nearly sixty years ago: "Whenever the timber trade is good, permanent famine reigns in the Ogowe region because the villagers abandon their farms to fell as many trees as possible." We should notice especially that the goal of production was "as many...as possible." And Schweitzer makes my point exactly: "These people could achieve true wealth if they could develop their agriculture and trade to meet their own needs." Instead they produced timber for export to "the world economy," which made them dependent upon imported goods that they bought with money earned from their exports. They gave up their local means of subsistence, and imposed the false standard of a foreign demand ("as many trees as possible") upon their forests. They thus became helplessly dependent on an economy over which they had no control.

--The Idea of a Local Economy, Wendell Berry

This isn't so much a call for "sustainable" or "development" as discussed in the article, as it is for regional/community self-determinism, which I think is much of the root of the third world's problems. Ambushed by colonialism, plagued by class and political conflicts, lacking in or drained of social capital, then imported into a "free trade" system where they're at a distinct disadvantage and essentially again become labor/raw materials colonies. Regardless of how many humanitarian projects happen under these circumstances, the third world will still end up in a marginalized position.

I seem to recall reading somewhere (which resists being googled, so it may not exist), that Argentina used to be the darling poster child of the IMF, and Brazil, its neighbor, was looked upon sternly for things like floating its currency and protectionist policies. Brazil ain't out of the woods, but it's sure doing much better at playing than Argentina.

Of course, regional determinism by itself isn't the solution. There has to be some internal commitment to keeping up commons, and probably a Thomas Sowell-ish shot of cultural capital, and lack of corruption, presence of appropriate social institutions, and probably 15 other things I haven't thought of......

Ah, armchair development....
posted by namespan at 7:50 PM on October 23, 2002

bonehead: We, and by we, I mean you Americans and EUers

Is this that curious definition of American that includes Canada and the US but excludes the rest of North America, not to mention South America? And whither Japan?

Nitpick, maybe.
posted by Firefly at 7:58 PM on October 23, 2002

Firefly, I refer specifically to the US and the EU who currently have high agriculture subsidies, driving down the cost of commodity grains, while simultaneously maintaining high import tariffs. This depresses the world market for agriculture, impoverishes the small developing-world farmer and thus drives further pollution. According to a recent estimate, if the agricultural price supports in the EU and US were dismantled, the African GDP, for example, could double. The more resources left to Africa, the greater their ablility to deal with local problems, and so on around the rest of the globe.
posted by bonehead at 8:34 PM on October 23, 2002

Regardless of whether wealthy countries are cleaner, it seems clear to me that global poverty is a much more pressing issue than the environment. If we could solve both at the same time that would be great. But if we can't, shouldn't we doing more to save little kids in the third world from starvation and preventable disease, right now, rather than trying to save the whales and postpone the distant spectre of global warming? How many malnourished kids dying of the measles is an endangered species worth? How many for 1 degree of average termperature rise? Wouldn't the best way of insuring that the problems in the third world don't continue be to put the third world on the road to industrialization? Even if that means "mother earth" takes a hit?
posted by Mark Doner at 8:44 PM on October 23, 2002

Cool Mark. Straw man, false dichotomy, non sequitur...and you didn't hardly break a sweat.


I hadn't heard that more SUVs/strip mines/strip malls = more measles vaccines, but I'm not up on the latest Centers for Disease Control recommendations.

But one would like to know....how many dyspneic, asthmatic kids is a Ford Explorer worth these days?
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 9:36 PM on October 23, 2002

A capitalist system has the advantage that it's not a scheme for distribution of wealth, but for creation of wealth.

Unrelated analogy:
If I had more money, I could afford to eat more than rice right now, then I'd be healthier. But, even with all the FDA reports/Food Pyramids/Infomercials out there, it can't change the fact that I can't afford to eat organic goods. The best hope for me in the short term is to help me afford regular cheap meats/grains/vegies and teach me to cook.

That's actually a true story... which is sad.
posted by askheaves at 10:02 PM on October 23, 2002

Who says the USA is cleaner? It may be visably cleaner but it produces much more pollution than many so-called dirty countries which are more visable (soot) but overall not as toxic.

askheaves--talk to your local farmers you can often get cheaper organic food than regular store bought just need to build some local relationships youll know exactly what your getting. Its all on the net grassroot movement of local organic small farms. Meats, veggies no problem. Fruits are harder unless your in a big fruit state.
posted by stbalbach at 10:24 PM on October 23, 2002

stbalbach: Just as an aside, I'm in southern Arizona... there are no farms... except that Osterich farm between here and Phoenix. And, that's not the point.

I pretty much have no food except for a quarter box of rice. If I could afford nice fancy expesive foods that were good for me, it would make me healthier. For now, I make due on what I can. The solution isn't to tell me about fancy healthy foods, and chastize me for eating meat if I come across it. Get the countries up to meat and veggies, and let them worry about finding caviar when they can.
posted by askheaves at 10:46 PM on October 23, 2002

mmm, caviar...
posted by dagny at 11:12 PM on October 23, 2002

Some half-remembered framework from college:

The basic equation of human impact on the earth is given by population x consumption x technology. The first two factors will always have the same effect on the environment (which in practical terms boils down to developed nations should use fewer resources and developing nations should depopulate). Technology though cuts both ways. It can exacerbate or mitigate impact: vaccines or the pill, deep sea oil rigs or solar power.

tweebiscuit makes a really useful comparison. However imprecise the concept of sustainable development may be, its core meaning is generally understood: don't take more than you need, and find better ways to use what you have. The main difficulty comes from the many contexts where this idea can be reinterpreted and perversely applied.

There's more theory, but I think most of the understanding is political.
posted by stinglessbee at 12:20 AM on October 24, 2002

"sustainable" has a perfectly clear and precise definition that is too often forgotten. It means not using up resources faster than they can be renewed. The complexity of actually achieving that, or of measuring success in attempts at it, is the source of all the debate.

People start using "sustainable" to mean "slightly closer to sustainable than what we had before", and everyone gets confused.
posted by sfenders at 7:26 AM on October 24, 2002

Much of this talk is a false argument. In many cases, less pollution means more profit for a company, its just whether you are defining profit in a short or a longer term basis.

I work for an energy consultancy (I guess this is a self reference, but its not an add, just a statement of experience) and much of our work is devoted to so called "environmental" projects. But in reality, these environmental projects are just effeciency projects that increase profits. A terrific example of this is effeciency work we are undertaking in Serbia.

The Serbian power supply and heating system is set up centrally by state owned companies. In heat especially, the system is wildly ineffecient. Radiators in public buildings often leak, letting lose occasional jets of steam. They are more often than not located next to windows, many of which have cracks or broken panes. It costs money in the short term to repair the radiators, move it to a more central location in a building, and repair the windows. But in the long term you save a ton of money by increasing the efficiency of the entire operation, and, by increasing efficiency, you reduce fuel use in producing the original heat, and thus help the environment, making the whole process more "sustainable."

I can countless examples of similar work we have done in the developing world (primarily South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.) Work that helps the environment, increases efficiency, and ultimately increases profit. This is the way to sustainable development, efficiency that increases profit. That's what people care about (hell, that's what we care about! You drive a car with high gas milage, fundementally, not because its good for the environment but because it saves you money in the long term.) The way to a clean environment is improving the efficiency of waste producing operations.
posted by pjgulliver at 7:58 AM on October 24, 2002

sfenders, thanks. That's a good perspective.
posted by namespan at 11:30 AM on October 24, 2002

fwiw, the economist did a survey on sustainable development a while a back (a few months ago) that i thought was pretty interesting :D and relevant!
Kenneth Arrow and Larry Goulder, two economists at Stanford University, suggest that the old ideological enemies are converging: “Many economists now accept the idea that natural capital has to be valued, and that we need to account for ecosystem services. Many ecologists now accept that prohibiting everything in the name of protecting nature is not useful, and so are being selective.” They think the debate is narrowing to the more empirical question of how far it is possible to substitute natural capital with the man-made sort, and specific forms of natural capital for one another.
and nature recently had a bit about how "saving the planet saves money" while intel just opened up a state of the art $2bn fab extension that,
provides significant benefits from an environmental perspective. The chips manufactured in Fab11X will require less water and generate fewer emissions per chip than other fabs. Water and chemical use will be more efficient. When compared to a 200-mm facility Fab 11X will produce 48 percent less volatile organic compound emissions, use 42 percent less ultra pure water and will use approximately 40 percent less energy.
Whether you call it free-trade or fair trade, the point is the same: enrich the developing economies so that they have the same options we do.

oxfam agrees :)
Africa’s experience in cotton raises wider concerns about American policy. Through its aid program, the Bush Administration has sought to promote free-market reforms in Africa. Similarly, trade preferences under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) are conditional on African governments liberalizing agricultural markets, including in the cotton sector. Yet when farmers in Mali or Burkina Faso enter world markets they are forced to compete against heavily subsidized American exports.

Notwithstanding constant references to the ‘family farm’ on the part of US policy makers, farm subsidies are designed to reward and encourage large-scale, corporate production. The largest 10 per cent of cotton farms receive three quarters of total payments. In 2001, ten farms between them received subsidies equivalent to $17m.
make trade fair!
posted by kliuless at 11:58 AM on October 24, 2002

"fold_and_mutilate": My question was intended to be: given that we only have a finite amount of resources to allocate to worthy causes, wouldn't it be better to spend those resources according to how pressing the cause is, since we can't do everything?

I think, though I don't know why, that you don't want kids to die for no reason. Suppose for a moment that you only have $50 to spare for worthy causes. Wouldn't it be a better thing, to give it to unicef (or oxfam or things like that) instead of greenpeace or whatever? Seeing as people will die, that otherwise wouldn't, if unicef is underfunded, and the same can't be said of greenpeace.

As for the connection between development and ending disease, if you're really too thick to see it: if people in sub-saharan africa could afford SUVs, they sure as hell could afford food and medical care for their kids. If we can get them to a faster rate of development through non-"sustainable" means, many lives will be almost certainly be spared.

And if the little children of the future sub-saharan africa get asthma, at least they'll be able to afford medication for that.
posted by Mark Doner at 4:36 PM on October 24, 2002

What a sad world that Mark envisages. I can only assume he has no children and has no intention of having any. What kind of legacy are we leaving when we consume the earth's raw materials at a rate magnitudes faster than they can be replenished, causing possible untold damage to the planet in the process?

Yes, why not export the worst excesses of capitalism to the poorest regions of the earth. Why doesn't the rest of the planet follow the lead of a country with 5% of the world's population but which manages to contribute nearly 25% of the world's greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels?

Surely we have learned something from the way it's been done before. I see it as our duty to help developing nations not to make the same mistakes we did, by means of aid and technology which encourages self-sufficiency, and not dependence on markets over which they have no control.

The sustainable development vision forsees
"...a future that ends global poverty and delivers and sustains efficient and equitable management of the world’s natural resources."
(source: IIED <disclaimer>They are a client of mine</disclaimer>)
I think "equitable" is the key term here. As long as national governments (such as the US) are run in the short-term interests of large corporations, and the citizens could care less, the only hope is for transnational bodies such as the UN and the EU to try and make a difference.
posted by cbrody at 7:49 PM on October 24, 2002

cbrody: Look, I'm not saying that sustainable development is a bad thing, just that the cost may be too high, in terms of human life. It'd be great if we could help the poor of the world help themselves, and not harm the environment in the process. Nor am I advocating that we should foist our model of development & corporate capitalism on the third world; though that might not be our worst path to ending poverty quickly. I agree, it's probably detrimental to third world countries to get locked into massive trade with the first world right away; they need to concentrate on developing their domestic infrastructure and economy first. A decent system of roads would vastly benefit the economies of many countries, just on the basis of increased internal trading and other business. As would proper respect for human rights. But I digress. What I object to most strongly, is the idea that we should only help these countries when we can provide an environmentally clean mode of assistance. Such technologies are often vastly inferior to standard technologies, in terms of both cost and effectiveness. Hence they will not help nearly as much as the standard types. And often, such technologies aren't available for substitution. It would be better to help them now, with stardard, polluting tech, and then promote cleaner tech when it becomes available.
Our priorities should be, in this order: fight poverty the third world, clean up our own environmental act, and then help them clean up theirs.
In summary, my opinion is that sustainable development is a utopian vision, admirable, but impractical.
posted by Mark Doner at 8:48 PM on October 24, 2002

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