Just what is “sustainable development”?

August 4th, 2014, Published in Articles: Energize


If there is one thing on which everyone agrees, it is sustainable development.  Yes, we all want development, and yes, we are all as green as each other and want development to be “sustainable”. But when you scratch the surface, you soon discover people talking past each other.  How can chopping down trees, or digging up gold, be sustainable? Suddenly you are guilty of deforestation or the rape of the earth. These are no longer innocent development pastimes.

It is a problem of definition.  Back in 1992, there was a great gathering in Rio, from which all manner of Declarations and Agendas flowed.  Sustainable development was based on the Brundtland concept – it was that which created no harm for future generations. Wonderful stuff, but totally impractical.  Leave the tree in the air or the gold in the ground so that your grandchildren may have trees or gold. Then they in turn will preserve them, so that their grandchildren may have trees or gold. Before you know it, the tree has died or the gold has been washed out to sea. Any benefit mankind might have had is lost.

Prof Philip Lloyd

Prof. Philip Lloyd

So when the great next gathered, in Johannesburg in 2002, they rethought their ideas of a decade earlier.  Now, they decreed, sustainable development was that which balanced social, environmental and economic development. That sounds wonderful.  But mankind likes black-and-white questions.  To ask people to find the right balance between red (social), green (environmental) and gold (economic) is just too complicated.

The result is a focus on just one of the three legs.  There are those for whom the environment is sacrosanct – you cannot possibly want to build more houses round the city, can you?  It would destroy a small wetland/the only known home of a butterfly/a pristine forest (choose one). But others want to build not just a few houses, but a whole village, complete with schools and clinics, because people need somewhere to live, don’t they? And just as the architect puts the final touches to his beautiful garden suburb, along comes the developer demanding office blocks and supermarkets and warehouses and flyovers.  The environmentalist groans and either turns his sights on the next piece of wondrous nature, or fights to have the wetland/butterfly/forest declared sacrosanct. Sustainable development is the loser.

There is a wonderful recent example of this phenomenon at work.  Most South Africans, and certainly all who receive electricity from our national grid, are aware that there is a shortage of generating capacity. There are power cuts, which the individual perceives as a grievous nuisance, and which the economist recognizes as a disaster. Every kWh of power lost costs the economy about R75. What else can you make for 50 c that is worth 150 times more to the economy as a whole?

But there is a little corner of our land where the shortage of generating capacity is not seen as an economic disaster.  It is our Department of Environment Affairs, which chooses this moment to declare that some of our generating capacity is putting too much dirt into the air. Eskom must shut down the power stations to fix the problem. It is not quite irrational for the Department to suffer from this manic focus on the environment, but their actions certainly demand analysis, psychological or otherwise.

It transpires that in a Gilbert-and-Sullivan kind of way, they have a little Act. The Regulations under that Act empower the Department to decree that a pipe may not emit more the x particles per unit volume of air.

Posed in this way, you can immediately see two difficulties. First, what kind of pipe? Not one that you fill with tobacco, light and stick in your mouth. That is purposely designed to put lots and lots of particles into the air. Do they mean that pipe with holes in its side, stuffed with big lumps of coal, and clouds of smoke billowing into the air? Equally clearly not – that is a traditional polluter, called an mbawula, protected from modern legislation like all declared traditions. No, they mean a pipe belonging to Dirty Industry, because Dirty Industry is obviously the problem – if you have forgotten what sustainable development is supposed to mean.

Secondly, why is x a problem? This actually requires more careful analysis, because it seems obvious that x must be a problem because the regulations say it is.  Think deeper, and this argument becomes very circular.  And if you go really deep into the question you discover that x is a problem because some American bureaucrat with his own little Act declared that it was. We obviously have to follow the Americans slavishly, don’t we? The American is armed with several rooms full of paper in support of x.  He had argued his case before American legislators like all bureaucrats in a democracy should be made to do. So x is good for America – but is it good for us?

The answer is probably not.  We don’t have years of data and thousands of diligent scientists to create rooms full of paper in support of our Act, let alone a parliament packed with skilled jurists able to hold bureaucrats in check.

What should we be doing, if we care about the environment and our society and development? Perhaps we should adopt a different model, one more in keeping with our status as a developing nation. Let us look to Britain rather than America. After disastrous levels of smog in the early 1950s, Britain introduced the Clean Air Act in 1956. It required many industries and homes to burn smokeless fuel. In due course, it established smoke control zones, within which no smoke was permitted, and banned the emission of dark smoke everywhere. No rooms full of paper, just no visible smoke.  And the result was dramatically cleaner air, which was the desired environmental outcome. How simple! How easy to implement! How easy to police!

There is no need to call for straitjackets for our Department of Environmental Affairs.  Their insanity is purely temporary.  Let them sit down at their desks and rethink the way in which we achieve clean air – and sustainable development.

Contact Philip Lloyd, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Tel 021 46- 4216, lloydp@cput.ac.za


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