January 10, 2014
Sustainable development. The holy grail of all things development. The new approach.
There are many definitions to sustainable development. I guess the one I like the most is the one from the United Nations World Commission On Environment and Development, as outlined in their Our Common Future report released in 1987 – Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is probably the most recognized and universally accepted definition of sustainable development.
But as much as I like it, there are things that don’t are not exactly obvious in that definition, both good and bad.
Take the usage of “needs” for example. If you look back on my previous 2 posts regarding development, it becomes obvious that needs do not restrict to the material, but also to the immaterial. Which means that the needs outlined in the definition above are a set of ideas and a set of parameters. Parameters are easily changed. Apply sufficient pressure on something and eventually you’ll be able to correct it’s path – humanity has been doing that with nature for decades. But ideas, ideas are harder to make happen. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that this is the case with needs. And it is a good thing in fact that such a broad term was used at the time in relation with development, because as much as we like it, we don’t know the future, and those needs might evolve, change or become unpredictable. It is clear that there is the possibility, for example, that only 1 life changing event could forever change those needs – contact with an alien species, a singularity, a global disaster/epidemic, and the list could go on.
It’s also a matter of development. And this is where it gets interesting, because we are again talking about assumed goals of development. That report from 1987 says it clearly in paragraph 10 –We came to see it not in its restricted context of economic growth in developing countries. We came to see that a new development path was required, one that sustained human progress not just in a few pieces for a few years, but for the entire planet into the distant future. So even as early as 1987 development goals, or more to the point the desired effects of development, were being questioned.
In this respect we have to look beyond what is clear now. Sure thing we have a problem with the environment, with poverty, with vast numbers of people living at the edge of survivability, with wars and regional conflicts. But when we presume to solve this issues, we do so by inflicting our views on development. What I think is wrong is that we have a tendency to follow some ideas about what a developed territory should look like when we asses the “level of development”. What we need to do is understand diversity, particularly if we talk about what the people think and want for their lives. In the architectural and planning business (up to a certain scale) we recognize the existences of “genius loci”, not in the Roman imperial understanding as protective deity, but as a spirit of the place. We take that into account and address the new using this key, so as to insure that when whatever it is that’s being designed or planned is implemented, it will not change the feel and atmosphere of the place. It is curios how this is rarely translated into development programs. And it should. Development should not be an altering experience, but an improvement of current conditions with an outlook to the future.
Cultural diversity, as it stands in the EU motto – Unity in diversity, is very relevant. Just as we see ourselves now, at the beginning of the 21st century, fighting to prevent wildlife species from becoming extinct, we should do the same with humanity. We should not only prevent humanity from facing extinction, as a species, but we should also protect humanity’s identity. Which is a significantly more complicated business. Because cultures have a life span, a cycle, that begins and ends. And we can’t and quite probably should not interfere with that balance. The problem arises though, when, as it is the case with wildlife, it is our actions that drive that cultural extinction. Those of us living at the highest speed possible right now, are, without even noticing sometimes, imposing our speed on the rest of the planet. The question is should we?
And it’s complicated to come up with an answer to that. There are so many aspects we have to look into. But even on our highways we don’t benefit from the same speed restrictions on their entire length. Why? Because we know that in some sections this would get us killed, or to be correct, increase our chances of getting hurt. It should be the same with development. Maybe we should look outside our perceived development standard and realize that there is no need for the same “speed”. Which does not mean that slower “cars” should not benefit from the advantages developed to make fast “cars” safer.
Theoretical case study: A large territory is inhabited by a nomadic population. While not having the latest technology in all aspects of their life, they have embraced some technology that makes their life easier. And they are happy. The live of the territory, in many ways in the same manner their ancestors did 100 years ago. They have embraced this lifestyle and have survived all manners of hardship over time. What should “development” do for them: give them cars and highways, so that they could still be nomads but at higher speeds and on specific routes, or give them means to carry on their life with less danger (medicine wise for e.g.). Many have ascked this question before. And probably many more will in the future.
Does development stop to ask people what they want? Or is it a force of human civilization that imposes the will of some on many?
Sustainable development should be just that – development that stops, provides information, and replaces “educated” guessing in laboratory conditions with educated answers on the ground. As always, this also implies that people should be allowed education before they answer about their future. In all manners of development, education is key.Horatiu Ferchiu