“A Fresh Start for Sustainable Development”

BlogFeaturePicture_Development_v2Note: A different, chattier version of this post was sent to WaveFront newsletter readers. The eight-point summary is the same. To read WaveFront, sign up at www.AtKisson.com.

The new issue of the leading journal Development, under the new editorship of Tariq Banuri, is finally out! Much food for thought there. I have an essay in its thematic section on the future of development. The essay is called “A Fresh Start for Sustainable Development” [Citation and link: Development (2013) 56(1), 52–57]

Since the essay is behind a paywall, I provide a bare-bones summary below. If you need a copy of the full essay, and cannot access Development, write to information [[ at ]] atkisson.com.

  • Sustainable Development is in the process of being reconsidered and restarted, very slowly, “as though a giant finger was pushing down on a giant global reset button, at a steady but visually glacial pace.” You can see this happening from the global level (e.g. the UN Sustainable Development Goals) all the way down to the local level (e.g. Transition Towns).
  • This is timely. Sustainability became mainstream in recent years by (1) making the risks of non-sustainability clear, and (2) speaking the language of economics and management, and proposing that sustainable development could be achieved through reforms to business as usual, with economic benefits. I promoted this strategy, as did many others, and it has been successful. But this strategy has run its course.
  • The rise of the “Green Economy” and “Green Growth” — one of the manifestations of sustainability’s success in pursuing the above mainstreaming strategy — is a necessary, but far from sufficient, condition for achieving true sustainable development. Wellbeing, equity, freedom and opportunity are equally important.
  • Sustainability needs to return to its roots. It is a set of ambitious and idealistic — not “realistic” — goals, that include the eradication of poverty, the transformation of the global energy system, gender equality, peace. These ultimate goals probably cannot be achieved through “business as usual.” Transformation, not mere reform, is needed.
  • Sustainability’s goals may be radical, but they are not marginal. “They are enshrined in numerous global agreement texts, including Rio+20’s The Future We Want” [one of several UN texts agreed to by the all the world’s governments].
  • We need to return to a solid understanding of basic sustainability: system states that can continue. The disappearance of water, species, soil, and other resources is not sustainable. Widening income and poverty gaps and mass youth unemployment are not sustainable either. We must recall the fundamental goal of this work:  the achievement and maintenance of sustainability in every major system on which the health, wellbeing, and stability of our world (human and natural) depends.”
  • I propose the following formulation as a summary of the goal:  “Green Economy + Wellbeing for All = Sustainable World.”
  • A vision for sustainability based in transformation and aiming for ultimate, idealistic goals means that the work is far from over. There is tremendous learning to be done, great adherence to ethics required, lots of hard work to do — but essential, exciting work — in the decades ahead.

2 thoughts on ““A Fresh Start for Sustainable Development”

  1. I would make one suggestion for your equation and that is to change Well Being for All, to Well Being for All Species (or something similar). When you say well being for all, one assumes this means humans. What about all the animals? The animals have a shared right to the resources of the planet and they are the victims of so many economic activities, whether green or not. We will never have a sustainable planet until we recognize the rights of animals to share this planet with us and to be free from human activities that cause them needless suffering.

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