Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The semantics of sustainability: 'sustainable development'... or 'sustainable growth' ... or 'sustained economic growth'... or 'development for sustainability'...

'Sustainable development' is a tricky term to define: this has been considered before:
Futures Forum: Development for Sustainability: what is 'sustainability'?
Futures Forum: VGS AGM: sustainable development: the bigger picture

This is how attendees at a recent meeting in Sidmouth defined 'development for sustainability':
Futures Forum: Development for Sustainability: feedback from Futures Forum meeting

And yet many would see 'sustainable development' as an oxymoron:

"According to the origin of the concept of sustainable development, a development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, the right term for the developed countries should be a sustainable de-growth".
Sustainable development - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Futures Forum: Steady-state economy... Post-growth economy

Guardian columnist George Monbiot and conservative philosopher Robert Skidelsky addressed this:

How “Sustainability” Became “Sustained Growth”

The Rio Declaration rips up the basic principles of environmental action.
By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 22nd June 2012
In 1992 world leaders signed up to something called “sustainability”. Few of them were clear about what it meant; I suspect that many of them had no idea. Perhaps as a result, it did not take long for this concept to mutate into something subtly different: “sustainable development”. Then it made a short jump to another term: “sustainable growth”. And now, in the 2012 Earth Summit text that world leaders are about to adopt, it has subtly mutated once more: into “sustained growth”.
This term crops up 16 times in the document, where it is used interchangeably with sustainability and sustainable development. But if sustainability means anything, it is surely the opposite of sustained growth. Sustained growth on a finite planet is the essence of unsustainability.
As Robert Skidelsky, who comes at this issue from a different angle, observes in the Guardian today:
“Aristotle knew of insatiability only as a personal vice; he had no inkling of the collective, politically orchestrated insatiability that we call economic growth. The civilization of “always more” would have struck him as moral and political madness. And, beyond a certain point, it is also economic madness. This is not just or mainly because we will soon enough run up against the natural limits to growth. It is because we cannot go on for much longer economising on labour faster than we can find new uses for it.”
How “Sustainability” Became “Sustained Growth” | George Monbiot
Rio+20 draft text is 283 paragraphs of fluff | George Monbiot | Environment | theguardian.com
Is economic growth incompatible with sustainable development? | Guardian Sustainable Business | theguardian.com

Consider this definition of SUSTAINABLE GROWTH:

Sustainable economic growth means a rate of growth which can be maintained without creating other significant economic problems, especially for future generations. There is clearly a trade-off between rapid economic growth today, and growth in the future. Rapid growth today may exhaust resources and create environmental problems for future generations, including the depletion of oil and fish stocks, and global warming.
Sustainable growth

But there do seem to be contradictions: from the Financial Times:

Growth that it is possible to SUSTAIN(=make continue) without causing economic problems; 
economic growth that is possible to sustain without causing environmental problems
Sustainable Growth Definition from Financial Times Lexicon


We understand the notion of the 'three strands' for sustainable development
Futures Forum: " We really need to go back to basics and understand what the NPPF understands by ‘sustainable’."
but here is a fresh understanding of this model: notice the use of the term 'continuous growth':

Lynas Corporation - Zero Harm and Sustainable Development

And this seems to be what mainstream politicians want to deliver:
How can emerging markets get sustained economic growth? | Fox Business Video 
George Osborne to hail GDP figures as return to sustained economic growth | Business | The Guardian

There is the question of how these ideas impact on how businesses look to their own futures.

We have the notion of a SUSTAINABLE GROWTH RATE for companies, which has very little to do with the Financial Times' definition of "economic growth that is possible to sustain without causing environmental problems":

In simple terms and with reference to a business, sustainable growth is the realistically attainable growth that a company could maintain without running into problems. A business that grows too quickly may find it difficult to fund the growth. A business that grows too slowly or not at all may stagnate. Finding the optimum growth rate is the goal. A sustainable growth rate (SGR) is the maximum growth rate that a company can sustain without having to increase financial leverage. In essence, finding a company's sustainable growth rate answers the question: how much can this company grow before it must borrow money?
Sustainable Growth - Encyclopedia - Business Terms | Inc.com

However, more companies are taking CORPORATE SUSTAINABILITY seriously, which seems to take on other issues:

Corporate Sustainability is a business approach that creates long-term consumer and employee value by not only creating a "green" strategy aimed towards the natural environment, but taking into consideration every dimension of how a business operates in the social, cultural, and economic environment... sustainability can increase revenue, reduce energy expenses, reduce waste expenses, reduce materials and water expenses, increase employee productivity, reduce hiring and attrition expenses, and reduce strategic and operational risks.
Corporate sustainability - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Corporate Sustainable Development | Computacenter UK LTD
Sustainability - Ramirent

GREEN PROFITABILITY has become a buzzword:

Sustainable business, or green business, is an enterprise to be that has minimal negative impact on the global or local environment, community, society, or economy—a business that strives to meet the triple bottom line.
Sustainable business - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Home Page | Profitable Green Solutions
PGS Consulting 2013 - YouTube
Green or profitable - must companies choose? - Carbon Trust
How "Going Green" Has Changed From Tree Hugging to Profitability - Forbes

How we define Green

Skanska Color PaletteTM, is the strategic framework and communication tool for Green Business, that has been developed to measure and guide the company’s performance on this journey with destination Deep Green.
Skanska Color Palette
Enlarged version >>                          Enlarged version >>

How we categorize our projects 

Vanilla – The construction process and product performance is in compliance with law, regulations, codes and standards.
Green – The construction process or product performance is beyond compliance, but not yet at a point where what is constructed and how it’s constructed can be considered to have near-zero impact.
Deep Green – The construction process and our product performance has a near-zero impact on the environment and thereby Future Proofs our projects.

What does Deep Green look like?

Deep Green is defined by 6 zeros that relate to the priority opportunities for reduction of the environmental impact of our projects, i.e EnergyCarbonMaterials and Water. These zeros are:
  • net zero primary energy for buildings and net positive primary energy for civil/infrastructure projects
  • near zero carbon in construction
  • zero waste
  • zero hazardous materials
  • zero unsustainable materials
  • net zero water for buildings and zero potable water for construction in civil/infrastructure 
How we define Green - Sustainability - Skanska

The developer at the former Fortfield Hotel in Sidmouth 
Futures Forum: Fortfield Hotel ... to ... Sanditon apartments
subscribes to a similar set of principles:

Sustainability Principles
We aim to build all of our homes to the minimum standard of Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4 and it represents a 44% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to the 2006 regulations (25% compared to the the 2010 version) and a 50% reduction in water usage in a typical home. A number of our new homes are being built to Zero Carbon Code Level 6.
We have been building low carbon homes for many years and we fully understand the physics of sustainable development. We have considerable experience of incorporating renewable technologies into our builds.
Sustainability Principles - ZeroC

And other 'sustainable developers' are finding growing markets and supportive authorities:
Sustainable Developer Guide - City and County of Swansea
Sustainable Developers Guide : Broxtowe Borough Council
Special Focus - En route to becoming premier sustainable developer

But can you have your cake and eat it? 
Again: can 'development' be 'sustainable'?
Is much of this simply 'greenwash'?
Greenwashing - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
What Is Greenwashing? - Scientific American
Corporate Watch : November 2, 2009 : The 10:10 campaign: Corporate greenwash?

Take the issue of EMBODIED ENERGY:

Is 'development' - in the sense of pulling down old buildings and building new - 'sustainable'?
measure of sustainability embodied energy
Futures Forum: Knowle: old bricks vs new build: embodied carbon
Futures Forum: Knowle: old bricks vs new build: embodied carbon: pt 3

Or would straw bales be better?
Futures Forum: Self-build
Futures Forum: A cob cottage for £150...

Is the 'development' of new technologies - in the sense of a technological fix to all our problems - 'sustainable'?
LOW-TECH MAGAZINE: The monster footprint of digital technology

Or would frugal innovation be better?
Futures Forum: Jugaad: The Rise of Frugal Innovation

Is the 'development' of new products - making new stuff ad infinitum - 'sustainable'?
How much embodied energy and carbon dioxide in a car?

Or would make-do-and-mend be better?
Futures Forum: Freecycle in Honiton
Futures Forum: How I lived by spending nothing for two years

From the Bristol-based company Yoke:

Is Economic Growth Sustainable?
The economy is in a bit of a pickle… No news there. As ‘consumers’ we’re encouraged to spend in order to stimulate economic growth, but why? We question how sustainable economic growth really is and explore how moving away from this consumerist culture could be a step in the right direction.
mole at computer

Economic growth and what it all means.

Economic growth is a measure of growth in the productive capacity of an economy – the increase in the total output of goods and services produced. This is measured as the increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), per capita.
The current global economic system requires an annual growth rate of between 3-6% to survive. Growth of less than 3% for too long will cause the economy to collapse due to lack of currency, whereas growth of over 6% could cause interest rates to spiral out of control.

Where are we now?

We are now in the midst of a very fragile economy which is finding it very difficult to grow at all. The present economic system is only stable as long as it is growing and politicians get twitchy when anything threatens this growth. Just look at how the government has thrown tax payers’ money into failing financial systems in an attempt to save the economy.

Our role as consumers is key in sustaining economic growth – by increasing public spending on goods and services, firms sell more and hence are encouraged to produce more. So, higher demand leads to higher output which gives us our precious economic growth.
But can the economy really go on growing forever?
That’s one question that most economists seem to have closed their ears to.
Is economic growth sustainable?

Economic ‘wealth’, although more conventionally represented by money, is actually dependent on natural resources. The goods and services exchanged for money are inextricably linked to the natural resources from which they are derived, which in the large part stem from good old fossil fuels.
So, at the crux of it all, the present economic system, stable only with growth, is dependent on an infinite supply of natural resources! Have we completely lost touch with reality?! We must bear in mind this ecological constraint on the economy.
Bearing in mind that “Eco” comes from the Greek word oikos, meaning home, the New Scientist article, Economics blind spot is a disaster for the planet, neatly describes how the economy and environment are inextricably interlinked:
Ecology is the study of home, economics is the management of home, and of course, our home is the biosphere.”

Surely, an economy that damages the very home it is designed to manage is a failing economy.
Another New Scientist article on this topic, How our economy is killing the earth, has a detailed looked at how our over consumption is impacting the planet. We are consuming resources at an alarming rate whilst biodiversity on the planet is plummeting. The figures indicate that if we are serious about saving the planet then we may need to do more than minimise our personal carbon footprint – we need to restructure the entire economy.
yoke graph to illustrate growth
The world is already experiencing the effects of climate change, which can be undeniably linked to our over-consumption of fossil fuels and hence economic growth. To illustrate this, the lull in industrial activity brought on by the recession caused a drop in UK carbon emissions of 8.7%, however, as the economy started to recover in 2010, emissions rose by 3.1%.

“Climate change, important as it is, is nevertheless a symptom of a deeper malady, namely our fixation on unlimited growth of the economy as the solution to nearly all problems.” Professor Herman E. Daly, Ecological Economist at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland

Having nearly exhausted accessible oil reserves around the world, the race is now on for drilling rights to reach the precious oil that lies beneath the melting ice caps in the North Pole. Russia have even planted a flag on the sea bed beneath the ice caps to stake their claim!

“Rising temperatures mean the ice caps are becoming more accessible for oil firms; there is a bitter irony that the ice melting is being seen as a business opportunity rather than a grave warning.” Greenpeace spokesman Ben Stewart

So what are the arguments for economic growth?

Argument 1 – Global economic growth is necessary to eradicate poverty.

The argument is that in order to alleviate poverty without making the rich poorer, we need economic growth. Without growth, the only way of eradicating poverty would be through redistribution of wealth between the rich and the poor… As you might imagine, this doesn’t go down well with the rich.
In reality, economic growth is a hugely inefficient way of eradicating poverty.
“For the poor to get slightly less poor, the rich have to get very much richer. It would take around $166 worth of global growth to generate $1 extra for people living on below $1 a day.” Andrew Simms

Such an increase in wealth can only be achieved at the detriment of the planet. In an article for the New Scientist, Does Growth Really Help the Poor?, Simms estimates that raising the income of the world’s poorest to $3 a day, would require 15 planets worth of resources!

The irony is that in growing our economy to apparently ‘help’ the poor, the environmental damage we cause in the process often hurts the poorest the most. These people often live closely with the land and so the detrimental impacts of climate change far outweigh any benefits they receive from growth.
“The faith in ‘development’ can no longer escape criticism, not only because it justifies huge increases in social inequality, but because it has become dangerous, by compromising everybody’s future.”
Gilbert Rist, author of The History of Development

The only realistic way in which we can hope to see a fairer deal for the poor is by consuming less ourselves:
“With global growth constrained by the need to limit carbon emissions, redistribution becomes the only viable route to poverty reduction.” Andrew Simms

Argument 2 – People want and expect MORE

This is a very valid argument.
People are no longer so content with what they have but are continually striving towards something better, aspiring higher and higher.
If we are to sustain this kind of lifestyle then yes, economic growth is necessary.
Where do we go from here?

We need to make our economy sustainable. A sustainable economy can be described as one that“meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (The World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission), 1987).

We’ve pulled together suggestions from some of the world’s greatest thinkers who share their suggestions for Human Progress in an age of Climate Change.

“We should… dethrone the idea that maximising the growth in measured prosperity, GDP per capita, should be an explicit objective of economic and social policy.” Turner A (2008) ‘Dethroning growth’ in Simms A and Smith J (eds) Do good lives have to cost the Earth? (London: Constable and Robinson).

The key to moving towards a more sustainable economy is to change our lifestyle to one  which consumes fewer resources.
 “The presumptions and aspirations of what constitutes a civilised life will have to be modified. The model popularised by ‘the American Dream’ is perhaps the most dangerous in this context, with its emphasis on suburban residential communities far from places of work, markets and entertainment and linked only through private motorised transport.” Professor Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the executive secretary of International Development Economics Associates (IDEAS)

It’s important to remember that economic development doesn’t actually correlate with increased life satisfaction. It generally brings with it, urbanisation, air pollution and long working hours which can often lead to a stressful lifestyle. We seem to be working our lives away and neglecting our well-being. By working less hours a week, yes we might not have as much money to spend but we would be more likely to spend our money carefully, and get into a habit of re-use, moving away from our consumerist, throw away culture. This lifestyle would not only be less of a burden on the planet but less of a burden on our mental health.
Ferenc Mate, author of A Real Life, confirms this theory of self-sufficiency being beneficial to mental health. Mate describes how development in the western world has led to stressful lifestyles, so much so that the highest selling drugs worldwide are tranquilisers and anti-depressants. He suggests that the reason behind this is that we’ve become so disconnected with our fundamental ideals – food and community. His antidote is to move away from this ‘secondary’, consumer lifestyle and become ‘primary’ people once again, doing things with our own hands, and being more self-sufficient. “With self-reliance comes self-esteem.”

“Solutions imply new models that, above all else, begin to accept the limits of the carrying capacity of the Earth: moving from efficiency to sufficiency and well-being…We need to replace the dominant values of greed, competition and accumulation, for those of solidarity, cooperation and compassion. The paradigm shift requires turning away from economic growth at any cost. Transition must be towards societies that can adjust to reduced levels of (overall global) production and consumption, favouring localised systems of economic organisation.” Professor Manfred Max-Neef

If you like this article then you might also want to take a look at:

yoke | Is Economic Growth Sustainable?

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