published Saturday October 16, 2009
by Carmel Cacopardo
Sustainable development has been inserted into the Maltese political lexicon as a guiding rule for the Executive during the current legislature. This was a positive step as it indicates awareness as to the inherent conflicts between so-called development and the environment. The adoption of sustainable development as a guiding rule denotes the willingness to act. At least the spirit seems to be willing.
Let us be clear as to the meaning of the key terms. Being in a state of sustainability means that actions, attitudes and behaviour are such that they permit other generations in the future to take their own decisions. Sustainable development on the other hand is the path followed to achieve a state of sustainability.
This signifies that each decision must be evaluated on the basis of its long-term impacts and not just on its short-term economic gains. Economic and social impacts of policy decisions are generally taken into account as most of these are of an immediate nature. However, over the years, unfortunately little concern was shown towards environmental impacts. These tend to accumulate “unnoticed” until the time is ripe for nature to strike back. This is relevant to practically all issues: from over-fishing to the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The problems existent today and normally referred to as climate change are the accumulated results of human action since the beginning of the industrial revolution. These have been further compounded by the disappearance of most forests in the developed world.
The issues placed on the global agenda as a result of climate change have been determined by past generations. That is, today we are paying the bills accumulated as a result of the actions of past generations.
The political cycle determines a five-year vision. Anything maturing beyond five years is generally of minimum concern to the political class. This is the first basic issue: adopting a sustainable development path means taking a long-term view. It is a generational view, planning by the present generation to ensure that the needs of the present are satisfied in such a manner that future generations too can get a fair deal. It means handing over to the next generation a world containing fewer problems than have been bequeathed by past to present generations. This is achieved not just through not creating additional problems, but also as a result of gradually solving some of the inherited problems.
Sustainable development departs from a basic premise: man does not form part of an economy but of an eco-system. The economy is the manner in which humankind organises itself. This method of organisation must be in synch with the eco-system otherwise it is doomed to fail. Now the market economy (free or regulated) is based on concepts of continuous growth. Much debate has been going on pointing out that there are limits to growth which are determined by the finite size of the earth and its resources. Yet life goes on without much thought as to the implications of this basic truth.
To put it simply, if the adoption of sustainable development by the government as its guiding light is to mean anything at all it must revisit all policies and adjust them such that they reflect the fact that the earth and its resources are finite. All areas of policy are affected. It must be clear that it is next to impossible to arrest the accumulated and ever-increasing environmental deficit without addressing the policies and attitudes that have caused it.
Policy needs to be approached in a holistic manner focusing simultaneously on social, environmental and economic considerations. It is not a question of an artificial balance between the economy, the environment and social policy but of acting correctly, preferably each and every time a decision is taken. A policy, which is economically sound but socially and/or environmentally wobbly, is of no use and should be discarded. The reverse side is already common practice as socially and environmentally sound policies are rarely applied if they do not pass the test of economic viability.
The politics of sustainable development is concerned with redirecting economic activity such that this is compatible with ecological and social requirements. The ecology, the economy and social needs are thus placed on the same level when decisions are taken. This is the challenge of the 21st century. The Rio Earth Summit labelled it as Agenda 21.
It is a long process. Sustainable development seeks to change the tools we use as well as the attitudes we apply and consequently leads to a different behavioural pattern, one which respects the eco-system of which we form part.
Declarations in favour of sustainable development need to be followed up by an operational programme which encourages a more active participation in designing a sustainable future. Only then will declarations made have any worth.