A (very) short history of sustainability

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A mud map of how sustainable development has grown up

By David Salt

For many, sustainability is a buzz word; a descriptor used and abused by governments (and corporations) all around the world to give the impression their policies of economic growth and development are simultaneously meeting the needs of society and the environment. But it’s more than just a hollow catch cry. Sustainability is a concept with substantive meaning and pedigree.

The growing body of evidence, unfortunately, is that our world is not on a trajectory of sustainability. If anything, we are accelerating away from it. However, there was a time, no so long ago, when there appeared to be a growing international consensus that sustainability was a real and achievable goal. When was that? Here is my (very) short potted mud map of sustainability (with a fist full of caveats at the end for me to hide behind).

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century was the century of human domination in which our species ‘conquered’ the final bits of the planet’s surface. We encircled the world with our communication cables (1902), reached its South Pole (1911), ascended to its highest point (Mt Everest, 1953) and then reached even higher with artificial satellites (Sputnik, 1957). We also made a real effort to annihilate many dimensions of our own culture in two world wars.

If the first half of this century was marked by massive global-scale disruptions (two world wars and a Depression) and empire failures (Britain and Japan especially), then the second half was characterised by population and economic growth of unprecedented scale. Population more than doubled, while the global economy increased by more than 15-fold. And it was in this second half that notions of sustainability were developed.

The 1940s: Reboot

My mud map begins in the aftermath of the Second World War; a time of mass destruction, renewal and new beginnings. The aim of governments was growth, stability and the kindling of hope for a prosperous future.

The tremendous economic growth that followed was in large part enabled by the ‘rebooting’ effect of the wars. These broke down old imperial and feudal institutions, opened up space for new institutions based on liberal-democratic and later neo-liberal economic principles, and empowered us with a new suite of powerful science and technology.

Survival was more the consideration than sustainability, but towards the end of the 1940s there was an international push to set aside bits of landscapes for wildlife and nature with the establishment in 1948 of the International Union for the Protection of Nature (which was to become the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, in 1956). Economic growth was the main focus and the environment was seen as a space separate from human activity.

The 1950s: Lift off

Today’s economy and environment has direct roots in the explosion in economic growth that took place in the 1950s, the beginning of the so called Great Acceleration. Population, GDP, energy generation, fertiliser consumption, water use and international tourism all underwent dramatic (often exponential) increases as the economy powered up.

The ‘sustainability’ of the environment was not really a question back then. The USA, a major driver of growth, was concerned about the ongoing supply of natural resources, but only as it related to feeding the economy rather than sustaining the environment. It set up a commission, the Paley Commission, which led to the establishment of the NGO called ‘Resources for the Future’. Its brief was to look at resource scarcity issues on an ongoing basis. The great environmental economist David Pearce identifies this as the founding of environmental economics.

The 1960s: Cracks in the model

The economy was growing strongly, living standards for many were improving, the rich were getting richer but the poor were getting less poor. Indeed, during these first decades after the war the gap between the richest and the poorest was decreasing (proof that a rising tide can indeed lift all the boats).

But underneath the growth and the technological mastery, cracks were appearing in the form of environmental decline. These concerns were embodied in the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962). It drew attention to the accumulating impacts of pesticides on natural ecosystems, and questioned the costs of industrial scale-agriculture.

Technology also gave us new frames for considering humanity’s role and place, with the race for the Moon providing new perspectives, metaphorical and literal, on our planet. Kenneth Boulding coined the term ‘Spaceship Earth’ in a famous essay in 1966 (and in 1968 we saw our fragile home in perspective for the first time in the famous ‘Earth Rising’ photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon).

Concern was growing as case study (eg, acid rain) after case study (eg, contaminated waterways) caused people to question the costs and benefits of economic development. Laws for environmental protection started taking shape and the idea of Environmental Impact Assessment took off (enshrined in US environmental law, NEPA, in 1969); yet the approach that evolved was more a ‘bottom up’ one of minimising impacts on a case by case basis rather than the holistic bigger picture approach that Boulding had advocated and NEPA, read as prose rather than law, clearly embodies.

The 1970s: Hopes are high

1972 saw the publication of landmark report titled Limits to Growth, one of the first formal efforts to understand what the consequences of unbounded economic development might be. Its conclusion was that our species was likely heading for some form of collapse in the mid to latter part of the 21st Century. (While widely dismissed by economists, a review in 2014 of the Limits-to-Growth analysis found its forecasts are still on track.)

The 70s saw many efforts by governments and community groups around the world to address the swelling list of environmental problems falling out of our rapacious growth. Key among these was UN Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference, in 1972. It catalysed many activities that were to prove pivotal to the manner in which we dealt with the environment, including many nations setting up their own environment ministries. It also saw the creation of UNEP (the UN Environmental Programme), and it put a greater focus on the connection between society and the environment. The Stockholm Conference was one of the first events where there was a strong acknowledgement of the need for poverty alleviation and its connection with access to environmental resources.

And it was during this decade that the term sustainable development began to see common usage. Indeed, the term was first used officially in the World Conservation Strategy launched in 1980, though at this stage the focus was on the environment alone.

The 1980s: Negotiations are had

‘Sustainable development’ took real form with the release of the report titled Our Common Future by The World Commission on Environment and Development (let by the indefatigable Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female Prime Minister) in 1987. The report defined a sustainable society as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It made sustainability an idea that involved acknowledging the linkages between the economy, the environment and society.

The mid 80s also saw the emergence of a massive ozone hole over the south pole (resulting from humans pumping ozone depleting substances into our atmosphere). This went some way to puncturing our complacency about environmental decline. Countries met and negotiated what they would do about the ozone problem, treaties were signed and these days ozone depleting emissions are on the decline.

Not so easily addressed, unfortunately, was the greenhouse gas problem in which a by-product of economic activity (energy, transport and agriculture in particular) was carbon-based emissions that distorted the Earth’s climate systems. Though the science of greenhouse warming was well understood and discussed in scientific circles in the 70s, it actually became visible in the late 80s. (In 1988 Jim Hansen, a leading atmospheric scientist at NASA, declared: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”)

The 1990s: Plans are drawn

In 1992 the world came together in Rio for the great Earth Summit in which nations would pledge how they were going to meet the great challenge of sustainability. A plan for sustainable development in the rapidly approaching 21st Century was adopted (Agenda 21) and an international agreement on biodiversity conservation was opened for signing.

Through the 90s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (formed by UNEP and the WMO in the 80s) began compiling an enormous brief of evidence that greenhouse gas levels were growing remorselessly and creating a raft of problems from shifting climate to sea level rise and extreme weather. But as the fear rose about the need to do something about carbon emissions, vested interests increased their efforts to discredit the science, and obfuscate the emerging picture.

And governments everywhere were discovering that policy positions developed to meet sustainability pledges came with real short term electoral pain, and that the prospect of deep change, transformational change, was simply too much to push through. Sustainable development is a moral imperative but the reality is that sustainability bites. Or, as President Bush said in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit: “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.”

The 2000s (the Naughties): Sustainability bites

As you’d expect, the beginning of a new millennium saw a lot of reflection, discussion and planning for a better world (a bit like my New Year’s resolutions to be a better person). There was the Millennium Summit in 2000 (and ensuing Ecosystem Assessment in 2005), a Rio+10 Earth Summit (held in Johannesburg in 2002) and a World Summit held in 2005. Millennium Development Goals were drawn up and agreed to, and almost all nations (with the US a notable exception) committed to reversing declines in biodiversity (the Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD).

And the manner in which many governments sought to deliver on their sustainability commitments increasingly invoked utilitarian values, a move supported by an emerging line of conservation science that demonstrated that nature provided benefits to humans that save us money (like native vegetation providing water purification). So, why don’t we start paying for the things that nature gives us, ecosystem services, and let the market optimise the delivery of these services? Some saw this as a dangerous move away from acknowledging nature’s intrinsic value.

But, just like my News Year’s resolutions, it didn’t take long for most governments to begin making excuses for why aspirations (for sustainable development) needed to take second place to the realities of day-to-day life: “as soon as we’ve secured a strong economy we can begin worrying about fixing up the environment.”

Targets adopted under the CBD meant that 2010 was supposed to be the line in the sand for biodiversity conservation but all countries failed to deliver on their commitments with extinction rates climbing and the drivers of extinction only accelerating.

The 2010s: Cracks in the ice cap

Sustainability, however you want to define it (and heaven knows it comes in many flavours), was proving a stubbornly elusive goal. But the negotiations continued.

The world’s nations continued to get together (Rio+20 in 2012, this time in Rio) but failed to agree on any major outcomes other than replacing a failed international body, the Commission on Sustainable Development, with a new one, the UN Environment Assembly); the failed Biodiversity Convention targets were replaced with a more nuanced set of goals (the Aichi Targets); the Millennium Development Goals (which some believed were quite effective while others said were unmeasurable) were replaced with a more nuanced set of sustainability targets (the Sustainable Development Goals); and the stalled climate change discussions actually reached half a consensus with the Paris Agreement (in 2015; though President Trump has since withdrawn from it).

In many ways, it’s the same old, same old; endless meetings, discussions, agreements and targets; one step forward, two steps back, another step forward; but, at the end of the day Bill Clinton’s 1992 election mantra ‘it’s the economy stupid’ sums up the approach of virtually every country. Which sometimes has me wondering that Rachel Carson, Kenneth Boulding and the doomsayers behind ‘Limits to Growth’ were simply wrong. The environment is undoubtedly in decline but we’re still standing, talking and aspiring to better things (most of us are wealthier, but at the expense of future generations). Clearly governments are almost unanimous in believing that the economy is what counts and if things get scarce then markets and technology will always find a solution; they have so far.

But those people calling for reflection and change were not wrong; and the 2010s and the emerging science are emphatically backing their calls for a new way of stewarding Spaceship Earth. We’re losing species and ecosystems that we depend upon. We are seeing changes to our climate and Earth system that are already stressing many parts of our planet (including our food and water systems); and the science tells us these changes are just beginning, promising an increasingly uncertain future. We are losing the challenge of sustainability and it’s not a challenge we can afford to lose.

Caveats and endnotes

This ridiculously short history only touched on a few of the elements that have contributed to the evolution of sustainable development (and only mentioned a couple of the thousands of identities – people and institutions – who have made important contributions to its story). And, clearly, dividing this history into decadal phases doesn’t reflect the real inflection points of its evolution, it is merely my effort to subjugate a complex, non-linear, multi-faceted topic into something that looks like time line with a simple narrative.

However, even the limited set of events described here tells us that the history of sustainable development has gone through life stages with different dynamics. It began as our faith in the economic growth model began to erode and it’s early days kept a tight focus on the environment; as it developed there grew a better appreciation of the connections between society, economy and environment; and as it reached maturity and asked for real commitment from its sponsoring actors, the reality of shifting the status quo has proven that much of its rhetoric is impotent.

In its youth sustainable development was driven by natural science. In its young adulthood, it began to take on it legitimacy from ideas founded in social values, rights and laws. And as it matured it cloaked itself in the robes of economics and markets.

Is it any wonder then that sustainable development is no longer a force for change (if it ever was)? Rather than challenge the paradigm of unbounded economic growth, it has been forced to work within the normative structures that put economic growth before all other goals.

So, if you were a doctor asked to prescribe a change to an ageing man whose life style is clearly leading to a miserable old age, what might you suggest? Because maybe this is the lens we need to look through when considering where to from here for sustainable development. And, maybe, just like our ageing patient, we need to be confronted with some hard truths about what the future holds (unless we sign up for some demanding therapies)?

Image: Earthrise, 25 December 1968. Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders. Earth is peeking out from beyond the lunar surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon. (NASA)

Not in my backyard

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To save the planet we need ‘transformative change’!!! (But not in my backyard.)

By David Salt

Did you hear the sobering news last week? “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history,” says the UN-supported Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Following the most comprehensive assessment of its kind; IPBES announced 1,000,000 species have been identified as threatened with extinction and that the rate of species extinction is accelerating.

Consequently, IPBES says, we need ‘transformative change’; and by that they mean a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Well, having sobered up, my first response to this science-based statement and ‘call to arms’ is to reach for the bottle.

I don’t for a second doubt the evidence or the gravity of the declaration; it’s just that I’ve heard it all before. Pretty much exactly the same thing was said in the Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 released in 2015, the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 released in 2010, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released in 2005, and at the proclamation of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 (and at its renewal in 2002).

The numbers in this 2019 declaration are direr but the underlying message is the same: situation awful and it’s getting worse and the awfulness is accelerating. To address it we need BIG change, transformative change, and we need it immediately.

A line in the sand

I think my pessimism about these declarations really took off in 2010 with the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook. 2010 was supposed to be a line in the sand for biodiversity conservation around the world.

Most of the world’s nations signed up to the Convention of Biological Diversity in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio (though the US, along with Andorra, Iraq and Somalia, never ratified it). In this Convention, signatories promised to do something about declining biodiversity.

In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg (famously boycotted by US President George W Bush), signatories agreed to work to specific targets – these being to halt or reverse declines in biodiversity by the year 2010. To celebrate what signatories hoped would be achieved, 2010 was declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

However, rather than demonstrate the success of the CBD, the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook revealed that biodiversity declines were accelerating (at all scales), that the drivers of decline (land clearing, invasive species, over exploitation, pollution and climate change) were growing and that the future was looking bleak.

‘We need transformative change’ was also the call at the time, but rather than exploring what that meant, a more comprehensive and nuanced set of targets (the Aichi Targets) was drawn up on what needed to be achieved by 2020.

Business as usual

Well, rather than witnessing a transformative change from this wakeup call in 2010, the world trundled along, business as usual.

The fight over greenhouse emissions seems to have stolen most of the available oxygen in the environmental debate, and rates of biodiversity decline have skyrocketed.

The IPBES report last week suggests we have a snowflake’s chance in hell of meeting the Aichi Targets (by next year); but even that shock announcement will quickly be forgotten in the relentless 24/7 media overload that is life in the 21st Century.

I’m not saying that the IPBES announcement last week was ‘wrong’, just that its framing reveals an inherent ‘disconnect’ with reality. The numbers presented (and the underlying trends they reflect) are horrifying, but the call for transformation just seems naïve (particularly so when that same plea is oft repeated).

In this instance, the IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, observed: “by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”

Taking on the status quo

Too tepid by half Bob. Those ‘interests vested in the status quo’ have been running the show since the beginning of the Great Acceleration back in the 1950s. That status quo is founded on unbounded economic growth and held together by neoliberal ideology. What’s more, the elites in all the developed world are the main beneficiaries of this status quo and are unlikely to seriously engage with the transformation that might change it.

And that’s the nub of the problem. It’s all well and good to say that environmental degradation is unacceptable (unsustainable) but transforming the status quo simply won’t happen of its own accord. The ‘broader public good’ is usually trumped by the ‘sweet self-interest of the successful man’*.

Which is why I included earlier a couple of references to the US not participating in the international agreements on biodiversity conservation. The US Government is very divided when it comes to international conventions that might constrain their business interests. As a general rule they don’t sign them.

“The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” said President George Bush (Snr) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the event where the Convention of Biological Diversity was signed. Sustainability is all well and good, but not if it requires us to change the status quo.

The Australian backyard

Back in Australia the government response to the IPBES announcement was so poor it was comical. We are in election mode at the moment so the shelf life of any important news story is lamentably short. Our political leaders know that so when our Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about the extinction report he claimed his government had already taken action on that, hoping no-one would follow up his statement. But, as it turned out, the PM was referring to a recent bill on the testing of cosmetics on animals, an animal welfare issue that has absolutely nothing to do with biodiversity conservation. All the while our Environment Minister said nothing.

Possibly more germane to this editorial on the difficulty of transforming the status quo, our Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the IPBES report “scared him”. We assume he was ‘scared’ because he knows the scientific consensus tells us that declining biodiversity has breached a planetary boundary with dire consequences for the Earth System and all who depend on it.

But possibly he’s really scared because if we do respond appropriately to the IPBES report then he could suffer a direct electoral backlash. That’s because one of the main drivers of extinction is land clearing and guess which electorate in Australia has the worst record for clearing of threatened species habitat? It’s the electorate of Maranoa where two million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed since 2000 – and it’s represented by David Littleproud, our Minister for Agriculture.

*Borrowed from the song “Girl, Make your own mind up” by Seven World’s Collide.
The verse it comes from reads:
“They’ll try to make you believe in the invisible hand
The sweet self-interest of the successful man
To believe in the chance however remote
The rising tide lifts all the boats”

Image: Stumps on the valley caused by deforestation and slash and burn type of agriculture in Madagascar (Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock.com)