At the start of the twenty-first century, the problem of global sustainability is widely recognized by world leaders, and a common topic of discussion by journalists,scientists, teachers, students and citizens in many parts of the world. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD, 2002) confirmed that the first decade of the new century, at least, would be one of reflection about the demands placed by humankind on the biosphere.
The idea of sustainability dates back more than 30 years. It was a key theme of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 19724. The concept was coined explicitly to suggest that it was possible to achieve economic growth and industrialization without environmental damage. In the ensuing decades, mainstream sustainable development thinking was progressively developed through the national government planning and wider engagement from business leaders and non-governmental organizations of all kinds.
Over these decades, the definition of sustainable development evolved.This definition was vague, but it cleverly captured two fundamental issues, the problem of the environmental degradation that so commonly accompanies economic growth, and yet the need for such growth to alleviate poverty. The core of mainstream sustainability thinking has become the idea of three dimensions, environmental, social and economic sustainability. Governments, communities and businesses have all responded to the challenge of sustainability to some extent until now. Public awareness of environmental and social issues in development are in many cases now well developed. Citizens in almost all countries not only know the issues, but tend to feel that the quality of the environment is important both to their own wellbeing and to the common good.
The ‘greening’ of business has grown to be a central issue in corporate social responsibility for many global companies, although for many it is still a boutique concern within wider relationship management, rather than something that drives structural change in the nature or scale of core business. The twenty-first century is widely heralded as the era of sustainability, with a rainbow alliance of government, civil society and business devising novel strategies for increasing human welfare within planetary limits. On the other hand, the evidence is that the global human enterprise rapidly becoming less sustainable and not more. Much has been achieved – but is it enough?Are global trends towards sustainability or away from it? Have the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development offered a coherent basis for change?
Today, at the start of the twenty first century, some developing countries had begun to achieve sustained economic growth and industrialization on this model, first the ‘Asian Tigers’, then China and India. The success of development on the standard ‘fossil fuel automobile-based throwaway consumer economy’ in China and India offers a unique opportunity to assess its limitations. China’s success, for example, is bringing massive increases in consumption (grain, meat, steel oil, timber)22. China’s revolutionary economic growth demonstrates the flaws with the conventional growth model. It shows the need for systemic change in the way development is understood and brought about globally: in the west as much as elsewhere. The earth is at a tipping point: business as usual is no longer an option.
The present global dilemma offers huge risks, but also outstanding opportunities. The need to create a ‘sustainable post-fossil fuel society and economy, has never been more widely recognized, although the challenges on the road to achieving it remain breathtaking.
The dominant development model based on the unlimited meeting of consumer wants leads inexorably to over-consumption. Yet continued physical expansion in the global reach of commodity supply systems means that consumers in developed countries continue to perceive resource flows as bountiful, and develop no sense of limits to consumption. Whether as consumers or citizens, people in industrialized economies show no awareness that production systems are ecologically flawed or constrained. Yet this model is itself disseminated internationally by global media and advertising as unproblematic, uniformly good and desirable. Belief in the opportunity to consume without limits in an ecologically limited world is a powerful driving force increasing global risk.
Interestingly, the “unsustainability” of the present global development model is probably better understood in China than in the conventional industrial heartlands of Europe and North America. There, politicians fear backlash from citizens reacting as consumers to anything that alters their lifestyle in ways they perceive as deleterious. This results in demands for low fuel prices, profligate material and energy consumption, and persistent ignorance of the social and environmental conditions under which global products are created. Environmentalist challenges to business as usual remain outside the mainstream, and the unsustainable patterns of production and consumption of the developed world persist.
Technology also offers opportunities and risks. The novelty of some new technologies and the speed of technological innovation and adoption brings the potential for unforeseen social, environmental, economic or health consequences, (e.g. the adoption of new technologies or novel compounds by untrained users). Some technologies bring significant political and governance challenges (e.g. nuclear fission).
Despite the achievements of the last three decades, the present concepts of sustainability and sustainable development are clearly inadequate to drive the transitions necessary to adapt human relations with the rest of the biosphere for the future. Something new is needed. The problem with sustainability and sustainable development is not that the aspirational values they represent are wrong, but that they are over-worked and tired, As currently formulated they are too loose to drive effective change on the scale required.
The need at the start of the twenty first century is clearly for systemic change. The experience of the last 30 years shows that this cannot be brought about using the metaphors, slogans and ideas that are currently available. The scale of transformation needed demands new concepts, new ideas, new ways of engaging citizens and opinion leaders in the search for solutions.
Creating a sustainable future will require fundamental changes in attitude and behavior across society. Governments and industry will have to change but so too will individual citizens.