Sustainable Development – an Oxymoron?

Sustainable development is impossible if humanity will continue to despise cultural and traditional differences.
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God forbid that India should ever take to industrialisation after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [Britain] is today keeping the World in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

So wrote Mohandas Gandhi in a column for Young India in October 1926. At that time India had a population of slightly less than 266 million in a world with a total population of about 1.88 billion people. Today, India’s population is around 1.3 billion people in a world of 7.3 billion. The USA, with 318 million and China with almost 1.4 billion people accompany India as nations that now exceed Gandhi’s 300 million benchmark and all are following: “industrialisation after the manner of the West”, as are most of the other countries of the World.

It is frightening food for thought; food for thought on which one might easily choke and a reality that is choking our world.

Human beings innately strive to understand their environment and the natural world. Within that framework they also strive to understand and interact with one another. In doing this, humanity has evolved & created new knowledge, new understanding, new technology, new ways of thinking & being. – It has developed.

Throughout history, different groups have organised their collective behaviour around certain beliefs, concepts & perceptions. Their social structures have reflected the World as they have perceived and understood it.  Living within a particular environmental context, developmental constraints and time and place have all contributed to the nature of their experience. People’s interaction with one another, with their environment and within the framework of the laws & codes by which they live have defined them. This is who they are.  This diversity of experience and perspective provides the opportunity for human progress at the very time that it offers the seeds of potential disaster if we view it negatively.

Language, ritual, symbols, customs, laws, ceremony, religion, art and social interaction and hierarchies define the nature and development of the groups that have created them. These elements are essential to human identity. These elements are the glue that bonds the individuals in a group and groups within a nation. These elements are passed on from a group’s past, exist in its present and define its future. This is similarly true for those actions of humanity that affect our environment – they form a continuum of change, action and reaction that extends from the dawn of civilisation through the present and on to the future.

So it is that the non-material, the spiritual, intellectual and creative attributes and actions of a group will dictate how it interacts with and affects the material environment in which it lives. It is those elements that give human beings the ability to connect, communicate, collaborate, invent, create and question – and it is these actions that give humanity the opportunity to sustain themselves and to create a sustainable future for their descendants. This is sustainability.

The relationship of development with sustainability in today’s world is warped. The two are not in sympathy with one another. The result is that we have a world replete with inequity, inequality, injustice, invasion, insufficiency, isolation and ill will. The imbalance between development and sustainability, if not rectified, is very likely to lead to the end of humanity as we know it and quite probably the destruction of the planet or, at least, its ability to support life.

Humanity needs a changed mindset. Difference has to be recognised as an asset – not derided as a deficit. Cultural traditions must be respected and protected and heritage valued. We must recognise the importance of ownership by groups of their own past, present and future. The colonialist or top down hierarchy of nation grading and positioning is obsolescent and unproductive of anything other than disharmony, conflict and oppression.

Humanity cannot build a worthwhile and sustainable future on the basis of economics. Indeed, it is unlikely that humanity can even survive if its prime focus is economics. That it can do so is a myth sold very effectively by those who wish to have a controlling interest over the World and who wish to hold the biggest share of the Earth’s resources for themselves. These are people who talk of “quality of life” and yet, for personal benefit, willingly trample on or restrict the quality of life of others. It is, in any case debatable as to whether what is known as a good “quality of life” is actually so. In modern society, with few exceptions a good quality life seems to be equated only with material and positional achievement.

Is “quality” of life really about material convenience and wealth – the acquisition of the newest technology, the most labour-saving gadgetry, the best computers or cars or aeroplanes or the ability to send spacecraft to ever further distances across the Universe? Is it the baubles and bangles of status – the luxury cars, jewellery, waterside mansions and designer clothes? I’d suggest that quality of life can not be defined by any metric based upon materialism & status. Rather it is emotional and spiritual contentment that provides genuine “quality” of life. This cannot be achieved through division, through inequity, through control over others. True quality of life depends on human beings coming together, looking outwardly rather than inwardly and working together in positive & equitable relationships in order to solve problems and create a better future for all.

Of course there is a place for production and trade and commerce; for new buildings, technology and enterprise but it should not come at the expense of disrespecting or destroying cultural heritage and tradition and the natural environment. Raping forests, mining prime farmland, diverting waterways & making it impossible for a people to continue their traditional way of life and shared ownership of the land on which they live is not development. It is a desecration of what people hold dear; an assault on their culture and a dismissal of their identity and validity as a people. Change is not progress if it destroys, without any regard, what came before it. Development is only truly of value when it respects what has already been contributed and what is comprised in the contemporary social structures & traditions of those affected.

Quality of life requires acceptance of and respect for variation in life-styles, in customs, in traditions and in the ideas and concepts that support diversity. Who is to say that a group is deficient if it decide to live without mobile phones, motor vehicles, aircraft, the Internet or 9 to 5 work organisation? From where have we derived the notion that agrarian or hunter-gatherer societies are less valuable to us than industrialised and highly technological ones? How do we know that what we see as the “developed world” is actually what is or will be most beneficial to the human race and the planet?

It is arguable as to the degree that development has improved the lot of humanity or has even improved it all. It is even more arguable as to whether development has increased or lessened our chance of survival as a species. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the latter is the case; not least, that world governments prevaricate on the issue of global warming and wait on others to make the first move. Even worse, that some deny that the problem exists at all, one could not be blamed for concluding that we are doomed.

The situation is no different when we consider sustainability and how well we supply the essentials of life and uphold a just and fair society. The bankruptcy or near bankruptcy of many nations, the continuing military conflict and the alarming degree of poverty and displacement would suggest that we should be far from self-satisfied about our ability to sustain a healthy humanity.

Instead of caring and sharing it seems we are more intent on blaming and maiming. We destroy our own habitat as we destroy that of other species. In doing so we deprive our-selves and the world of the essential diversity that sustains it. We treat difference as deficit and teach one another to fear rather than embrace it. Ironically, we revere individualism and yet continually rail against difference and impose sanctions with the aim of forcing conformity.

No, in today’s society, sustainability and development don’t go together and “sustainable development” is a misnomer – a euphemism. It may be unintentional and there are certainly many who have good intentions and make positive contributions in its name. None-the-less, it is a label that provides a false sense of achievement and hides the reality. Until we face that reality and recognise that development is not such unless it enriches the lives of all and complements nature and the environment, we cannot hope for a sustainable future – let alone sustainable development.

The linear branking of life-style & success on the league table of nations, which causes those at the bottom to claw their way towards the top and accept almost any inducement to get there, has to stop. It is destructive of natural and man-made environment, of emotional and psychological health and of community and heritage. It creates an unhealthy disconnect between past, present and future and sets one person, one group, one nation, against another.

We must stop the top down approach that requires those at the bottom of our “development” scale to claw their way up to reach those at the top. I am not suggesting that we should ignore immediate distress of those in need but we must recognise that this is really simply a symptomatic situation. To make real progress towards a sustainable and developing world, we need to deal with the fundamental cause – those economic structures, governments and economic systems that bring those systems about. Instead of giving aid to the poor, we need to be re-distributing the wealth and resources that fairly belong to all, i.e. lowering the ceiling rather than raising the floor.

“Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard.”   Standing Bear, Ponca Native American Chief mid-1800s.

Sustainable Development – an Oxymoron?
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"The Spade" by Roger Hawcroft
Roger Hawcroft

Roger is an online activist & library consultant living in Queensland, Australia. Roger has a diverse work background in both public and private sectors and large and small organisations. Her has degrees in teaching and library & information science. Roger is keen to contribute to a more equitable and peaceful society. Roger feels that his own struggle with an autism spectrum disorder have given him awareness of the difficulties & stigma that is the lot of the disadvantaged every where. He is particularly interested in social justice and human rights and in reversing the trend towards "blaming the victim" in society.
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