The impossible dream

Sustainable development (part 1)

In this and the three subsequent blogs I am going to consider the concept of sustainable development. In this blog I will explore what this concept means in the real world. In the second blog I will try to develop some principles that I think should apply when evaluating new projects for sustainability, in the third blog I plan to look at how the HS2 project has really been tested for sustainability and in the final blog of the set I will assess the impact that sustainable development principles have had on the project.

The Wikipedia article on this topic here gives the United Nations’ definition of sustainable development as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The problem with this definition is that it is an unobtainable desire; you can’t advance much beyond the caveman without making some impact on the environment that has the potential to impoverish future generations. However it is probably fair to say that our current lifestyle makes demands upon the Earth that vastly exceed its ability to recover and replenish, whilst at the same time failing to meet the reasonable needs of many of its population. This is definitely not sustainable and, clearly, something has to be done about it.

The United Kingdom Government published in 2005 a cunning plan to address this problem; or more correctly to begin to address this problem. This is set out in a tome that runs to nearly two hundred pages, which bears the title Securing the Future and may be found here.

In the foreword to Securing the Future the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, comments:

“Make the wrong choices now and future generations will live with a changed climate, depleted resources and without the green space and biodiversity that contribute both to our standard of living and our quality of life. Each of us needs to make the right choices to secure a future that is fairer, where we can all live within our environmental limits. This means sustainable development.”

Fine words and I’m in no doubt that we can all agree with the sentiment, but I’m not sure that Securing the Future really tackles the essential dichotomy between promoting economic growth and protecting the environment, neither does it really provide much guidance on how the “right” choices can be arrived at.

The policy document does concede that “Income is not the only component of people’s wellbeing” (in section 1 of chapter 1) and I strongly agree with this proposition. In my view, there is an important balance to be struck between improving the economic wellbeing of one person and thereby reducing the quality of life of another person; giving the former priority over the latter may not always be the most sustainable choice.

I guess that you may be able to see where I am going with this. Is it right for me, as a member of a developed economy to exploit and impoverish, economically and environmentally, the less fortunate on this planet? In Victorian times the general consensus was that this was OK, and we built the British Empire on the back of this philosophy. Today, I hope that we are moving away from this view; certainly many of us like to demonstrate our sense of fair play by supporting Fair Trade schemes and I suppose that’s a start!

Nearer to home, surely the enlightened environmental view should still apply to the United Kingdom. Economic growth is not the be all and end all as it was in Victorian times. If a project is proposed that aims to bring economic advantage to a section of the population, but in doing so risks damaging the quality of life of another section of the population that may not be able to share in the economic benefits, then the interests of one group should be measured carefully against those of the other. There can be no pre-determined outcome of this judgement and the process must be open and rigorous if the losers are not to feel discontented.

It looks to me that the judgement of Solomon is required to make this determination. Well we are a little short of Solomons these days, but I hope in my next blog to look at this decision process and make a few suggestions of my own.

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