Sustainability : Issues and Challenges for the Developing world
Yet another disappointing speculation by the world’s population as they helplessly await their inevitable fate of sustenance on this planet through decisions chalked out by Experts from Worlds Nations at the Summits on Climate Change beginning with RIO. Later at Cancun. Mexico, while the negotiators from 194 countries claimed to agree on an agenda that the UN world Secretariat said would set all governments ‘ more firmly on the path towards a low emissions future and provide support to developing countries for their actions on climate change, the environment groups despaired on the failure of the talks on the most crucial elements of climate change actions that is ensuring steep, legally binding cuts in emissions in GHG (Green House Gases) by industrialized countries. Infact they feared that Cancun text will provide a platform to abandon the Kyoto protocol, the global treaty that sets legal binding targets for cuts in emissions on the industrialized countries.
The idea of sustainable development grew from numerous environmental movements in earlier decades and was defined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission 1987) as: ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ This also contributed to the understanding that while Sustainable development encompasses a number of areas and practical issues of development, It highlighted Sustainability as the foundational philosophy that upheld the idea of environmental, economic , social progress and equity, all within the limits of the world’s natural resources.However, the record on moving towards sustainability so far appears to have been quite poor. This is in an age of immense wealth in increasingly fewer hands. The inequality of consumption (and therefore, use of resources, which affects the environment) is terribly skewed: “20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures — the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%” according to the 1998 United Nations Human Development Report. While the Earth Summit in 1992 attempted to highlight the Importance of Sustainability, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit attended by 152 world leaders, enshrined sustainability in Agenda 21, a plan of action, and a recommendation that all countries should produce national sustainable development strategies. Despite binding conventions and numerous detailed reports, there seems to have been little known about the details to ordinary citizens around the world.
More than a decade since Rio, there has been little change in poverty levels, inequality or sustainable development, as the World Development Movement notes. “Despite thousands of fine words the last decade has joined the 1980’s as another ‘lost decade for sustainable development’ with deepening poverty, global inequality and environmental destruction”. In many countries — rich and poor — this is often because of a perception that sustainability is expensive to implement and ultimately a brake on development. Poor countries for their part usually lack the physical infrastructure, ideas and human capacity to integrate sustainability into their development planning. Besides, they are often quite skeptical about rich countries’ real commitment to sustainable development and demand a more equitable sharing of environmental costs and responsibilities. Many people also believe that environmental problems can wait until developing countries are richer. Ten years on, there is still no widely shared vision of what sustainable development might mean in practice. India sees the idea of a light ecological footprint as part of its cultural heritage. Japan, on the other hand, is debating whether the emphasis should be on the “sustainable” or on the “development” half of the equation.
Are we really surprised? I am reminded of George Akerlof the Berkeley Noble Laureates remark quoted by Eminent Social thinker and environmentalist Ramchandra Guha in his book How much should a Person Consume. Akerlof remarking of his fellow economists said that ‘if you showed them something that worked in practice they would not be satisfied unless it was also seen to work in theory’.Lester Thurow the MIT Economist later picked up the same insight to declare that poor countries and Poor individuals are simply not interested with environmentalism. In the west the rise of the green movement in the 1960’s was widely interpreted as a manifestation of what was called ‘post materialism’. A paradigm shift founded on the presumption that with the growing concern for environmentalism in the North Atlantic world , consumer societies collectively shifted ‘from giving priority to physical sustenance and safety towards heavier emphasis on belonging, self expression and quality of life’ . Implying that a cultivated interest in protection of nature and softer options of leading life was possible only when the necessities of life could be taken for granted. Western Chauvisim and the underlying ethnocentrism totally negated the contribution of traditional worldview of indigenous communities that often displayed nonmaterial consciousness and evolved institutions compatible with maintaining socio-environmental balance with human consumption For example The environmental wisdom of Hindus is still embedded in the living practices of Peasants in the countryside. The tribal pantheon displayed a precocious ecological consciousness manifest in their myths, folklore, ritual practices where as Professor R Guha points out Gods played with animals, humans attained salvation in the forest, animals displayed the highest degree of loyal companionship etc etc.The Chipko movement in Northern India marks the entry of poor into the domain of environmental consciousness. The 1970’s saw a barrage of popular movements in defense of local rights to forest, fish,water resources and protests against large Dams among social categories that economist identify as poor.
Thurow’s claims as rightly critiqued by Guha’ s academic prowess is a significant insight to understanding the conflict of interest displayed at all forums of negotiations and settlements that claim to reach unequivocal agreements on climate change,GHG emissions. This ‘disciplinary chauvinism’ unfortunately forms the theoretical foundation of formal stands taken by International organizations dominated by Western dogmatism. The discourse of sustainability, its corresponding settlements, strategies, negotiations begin from the idealism underlying the TBL model which brings us to the widely accepted dominant categories of developing vs. developed, nature (Eco-centrism) vs. mankind (anthropocentrism) which we commonly encounter around us. It is primarily a narrow purview driven by the challenges confronted by western societies. For Examples Global challenges like climate change, global warming and the corresponding regulation of Cap and trade, reduction in carbon emissions are seen as conflict in interest between the developed and developing .Corporate vs. NGO (Shell vs. Greenpeace over Brent Spar oil rig) is a classic example of contrasting stands over eco-centrism (nature) vs. Mankind (anthropocentric) .Copenhagen 2009 Summit on Global warming ended in a failure when the African nations walked out over a row of increase in global temperature from 1.5 to 2 C. All these point to growing fractures in interests that impede the growth of a universal consciousness of sustainable living. In order to make sustainability an all-encompassing global world view, we need to address the unified challenges that confront the world as a whole, understanding that the developing world in fact may have units or pockets of societies that reflect characteristics that are closer to developed world and vice versa. In this sense challenges to sustenance cannot be compartmentalized and need to be viewed in a universal framework rather than a narrow perspective of interest groups.
Sustainability conceived as a triple bottom line model of development and locates it in the intersection of Society (people), economy (profit), environment (planet)]. Societies in rapidly developing countries that are yet to taste the full potential of capitalist growth many a time find it difficult to practically implement the TBL Triple bottom line concerns of sustainability . In fact most of them are already rich in this tripartite vision in their existing traditional structures but because those structures do not fit into the logic of capitalist growth, most of these societies are in dire straits of eroded socio-cultural values, economic insecurity, environmental degradation and a breakdown of local community support structures. They are scarred by the infusion of global capitalist market values that challenge their existence and local interests. Most traditional social structures caught in the dilemma of a choice between fast growth and strengths inbuilt in community network find themselves in a ambiguous phase of transition where these ties with nature and community bonding is broken in favor of commercialization and specialization that are so intrinsic to capitalist vision.
Endeavours towards a sustainable existence at a time when most of us are used to living in the most unsustainable ways will have to first redefine values underlying every institution that has so far dominated the project of Modernity for Humanity. This is not to say that we need to favour every step that takes us away from technology, rational belief system and global orientation the primary contributions of Modernity , it just implies that the very worldview of Sustainable life on earth presupposes a, rethinking a, social reconstruction of the ways that we have implemented modernity into our lives and into our society. The first step in this would be to unearth the challenges in constructing a shared vision of sustainability as an universal concern transcending fractured interests of local/global, developed/developing, eco-centrism/anthro-pocentrism etc . In constructing this vision we need to make a note that in debating polarities we may be losing precious time which could be used to accrue the maximum benefits from what we know to be the greatest boon of modern life namely Science and Technology, Rational value system, Democratic governance, economic and social affluence, Universal Justice etc
If sustainability has to reign as a shared vision and dominant world view we need to engage in it from a bottom up approach that involves individuals in their private consciousness ,in reconstructing values that are privately imbibed through a consciouness that has begun to rethink values of growth and its meaning. Agenda’s and political forum of governance that pride themselves as agents of socio-political control is too narrow a platform to implement a world view that is so vast, diverse ,profound and all-encompassing . In order to do so Education both primary and Higher is of vital importance because it is only through education and Research that social restructuring is possible at the most fundamental level.
Sujata Dutta Hazarika and Saurabh Garg