13 Future Perspectives: Developing Sustainable Development Martin Purvis and Alan Grainger – Exploring Sustainable Development

13

Future Perspectives: Developing
Sustainable Development

Martin Purvis and Alan Grainger

Introduction

Sustainable development is a multifaceted phenomenon of global proportions. Too often, however, it appears amorphous, confusing and inconsistent. One of the aims of this book has been to analyse it from a variety of geographical perspectives in order to reveal its many facets, while at the same time showing how they form part of a coherent whole. Many other studies have emphasized particular aspects of sustainable development; we have tried to bring together these various dimensions to show the ‘big picture’. Sustainable development thus gives us new reasons to value geography’s role in studying human and natural systems as an interconnected whole. At the same time, it presents new challenges to geographers to extend and communicate their understanding of the complex and evolving web of interconnections which underpin human society and its relationships with the planet that sustains it.

In this closing chapter we consider the answers that have emerged in the course of our book to the key questions about sustainable development which were posed at the outset. We begin with a critical review of some of the most commonly accepted strategies for securing more sustainable development. A recognition of their limitations leads us to consider the reality of contest that will characterize any significant moves towards greater sustainability. A reading of sustainable development that is, in consequence, more politicized requires that we consider a broader agenda of societal change. Defining the course of such change is, however, beyond the scope of the present volume. We end, therefore, with some more pragmatic thoughts about the potential for advancing understanding of sustainable development, both in theory and, more particularly, in practice.

Reflecting upon Existing Strategies

The concept of sustainable development is largely the creation of an international elite of politicians, academics, planners and environmentalists. It has found wider favour, in part, because of the leeway that initial formulations gave for particular interests to interpret sustainable development in ways suited their own established agendas. As a result, considerable effort has been invested in the design and implementation of a wide range of strategies and individual projects, all of which are claimed to promote more sustainable development. Yet such moves have not been matched by equal progress in the creation of an overarching conceptual framework. This is due in no small measure to the failure to resolve the conflict – discussed by Grainger in Chapters 1 and 12 – between the two leading political discourses on the sustainable development ideal: one regarding it as primarily environmental in focus, and the other prioritizing its developmental aspect. It follows that most sustainable development strategies are limited in scope, reflecting the biases of one or the other of these political discourses. Moves to foster more sustainable development are thus best characterized as a form of pragmatic experimentation. Yet this process has been at least as important as theoretical study in defining how sustainable development is generally understood. It is logical, therefore, to begin by considering the potential of the main strategies so far adopted. If judged on their own terms, many practical initiatives can claim a degree of success and in this sense the current book contains numerous examples which show that progress towards a greater degree of sustainability is possible. Any such optimism should, however, be tempered by the reflection that truly sustainable development requires simultaneous attention to economy, society and environment. Many existing strategies address only one or two of these dimensions of development and often tackle the symptoms of unsustainability, rather than its underlying causes.

We will first briefly review the claims made for sustainability strategies before proceeding to a more detailed, and critical, reflection on their merits and potential.

Technical and managerial ‘solutions’

From some quarters we are told that a combination of regulatory incentives, limited market reforms and technological innovation holds the key to sustainable development. The technocentric riposte to the environmental doomsayers has been a powerful presence ever since debate on the future of the global environment began in earnest during the 1960s. Today – as Purvis shows in Chapter 7 – governments and businesses continue to stress technical innovation and win–win solutions to environmental problems. Increasingly, the emphasis in environmental legislation is less on punishing defaulting businesses, or on prescribing particular solutions to environmental problems, and more on encouraging progressive companies to seek innovative ways of improving their performance. The demands of environmentally conscious Green consumers and change in market pricing structures to incorporate more of the environmental and social costs of production are also identified as important drivers for change. In response, it is argued, companies’ efforts to champion new products, technologies and management systems will increasingly be directed towards the twin goals of protecting environmental quality and fostering new efficiencies in natural resource use. Individual case studies confirm the potential of practical measures to reduce pollution and waste, to curb the use of unnecessary inputs and to promote the reuse and recycling of materials. More important still is the evidence that such moves can yield economic as well as environmental gains. Environmental good practice may therefore be consistent with business self-interest if the new efficiencies lead to reduced costs, increased profit margins or more sustainable livelihoods for smaller producers, both industrial and agricultural (see Chapters 7 and 8). If consumers, in turn, are provided with cheaper and better-quality products, they may reinforce the commercial logic of change by rewarding the most progressive companies with an increasing market share. Arguably, technocentric innovations do not only represent a means of reforming existing industrial economies. The transfer of Green technologies, enabling, for example, the efficient production of clean and renewable energy, is widely seen as a mechanism for promoting more sustainable economic development throughout the global South.

Indigenous knowledge systems and participation

Enthusiasm for a technical and managerial approach to sustainable development is not, however, universal. An alternative argument is that greater stress should be placed on harnessing and enhancing traditional technologies and knowledge systems, particularly – but not only – as a means of securing more appropriate, and thus more sustainable, forms of development in the global South. Traditional knowledge systems are increasingly valued as a guide to restoring balance between human and environmental systems, countering the alienation of humanity from nature that is one of the most damaging consequences of modern urbanization and industrialization. Most traditional knowledge is also rooted in the circumstances of particular places. Arguably, therefore, the promotion of dialogue between professional development planners and lay knowledge-holders is more likely to produce programmes and methods that are more appropriate because they are attuned to local environmental conditions, they respect the cultural values of particular communities and they help to meet the fundamental needs which people define for themselves. The success of specific projects does, indeed, seem to suggest that indigenous knowledge and values can play a positive role in creating more sustainable livelihoods for both urban and rural communities (see Chapters 6 and 10).

The emphasis placed on local expertise as a resource is also consistent with a more generally expressed interest in encouraging active public participation in creating and executing strategies to promote sustainable development. Indeed, participation has become a central plank of the political process approach to sustainable development and is frequently identified as a means of securing the goals of Agenda 21 at a local level. Broadly based participation, it is argued, helps to define development objectives that meet the needs of the community as a whole, facilitates greater openness in decision-making – perhaps compensating for deficiencies in existing structures of local governance – and encourages greater shared commitment to the achievement of project goals. Moreover, the collective will may generate the resources necessary for project execution, overcoming the constraints imposed by the limitations of external support, both material and organizational. As Unsworth shows (see Chapter 6) in an urban context, the combined investment of individually limited funds, material inputs, labour and skills deriving from within a community itself can help to create the resource base necessary to secure significant improvements in economic security and quality of life. Such schemes yield equally important – if less tangible – dividends when they foster a new sense of social cohesion and self-worth within marginalized communities. Experience also shows that successful participation in an initial project may create the mutual confidence, and perhaps the more formal institutional structures, that will enable communities to tackle other, more ambitious, goals.

Rescaling activity

Enthusiasm for more appropriate development and participatory approaches has helped to foster a greater emphasis on local initiative and decision-making. For some commentators, however, the rescaling of human activity assumes a central importance as a means of securing more sustainable development. The idea that individual communities should play an active part in defining the course of their own progress towards sustainability echoes a geographical interest in the celebration and perpetuation of difference between places. Certainly, the case for alternative thinking about development is strengthened if it can be presented as an antidote to the rigidity and insensitivity of the top-down planning that was widely attempted during the third quarter of the 20th century. The latter has rightly been criticized for, all too often, applying standard formulae in an effort to promote development, irrespective of local circumstances, values and needs. Moreover, a revitalized sense of place could foster a greater sense of social well-being, countering some of the insecurities that many associate with globalization. The protection of a positive sense of difference between places and cultures – a ‘geo-diversity’ – might legitimately be identified as a facet of sustainable development alongside biodiversity.

Frequently, however, the emphasis in local planning for more sustainable development is upon securing a greater degree of economic growth and self-sufficiency. In some ways, such initiatives are unremarkable in their aspirations to create new jobs and livelihoods. But many are also marked by a belief that this can best be achieved by drawing primarily upon a community’s own assets. This has the potential to harness resources – not least human labour and skills – that would otherwise remain underutilized. Hence, many such projects represent a conscious attempt to overcome the social marginalization and alienation that afflict communities where long-term levels of unemployment or underemployment are high. As Atkinson (see Chapter 10) notes in the context of Arctic Canada, efforts to create a stronger and more independent economic base may also be driven by a desire to secure a degree of protection for particular localities against economic collapse triggered by the volatility of external markets.

In some instances, however, arguments for greater local economic integration also have a distinctive environmental dimension. In part, this reflects the hope that a greater reliance on local environmental resources will encourage their more sustainable management in the long-term interests of the community as a whole. Production may therefore come to focus more on meeting the needs of consumers, rather than encouraging new demand for an ever-increasing list of desires. In some individual instances, change in the focus of production is already a reality to the potential benefit of both producers and consumers. In the UK, for example, there are signs of a modest growth in the sourcing of foodstuffs from known local suppliers, encouraged by consumers’ concerns about food safety and quality and the environmental impacts of modern agriculture, and by farmers’ attempts to protect increasingly precarious livelihoods (see Chapter 8). If such initiatives prompt a wider questioning of the logic of long-distance trade, there may be further potential to curb the growth of pollution and energy use caused by the current spiralling demand for freight transport.

However, a new emphasis on the local in both economic organization and political decision-making is not the only possible driver for change in the geographical scale of human activity. A case can also be made that some of the responsibilities and powers that have traditionally been the prerogative of the state should be pooled, or transferred, to larger organizations constituted at an international level. In part, this represents a call for greater attention to social and environmental concerns by existing economic agencies, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). But there is also a growing realization that local, and indeed national, efforts to plan for more sustainable development may be nullified by damage to Critical Natural Capital, which forms the Earth’s life-support system. While greater self-sufficiency may promise a degree of protection from external economic shocks, the same argument does not hold for environmental change, the effects of which cannot be confined within particular territorial boundaries. Recent decades have seen mounting scientific evidence of the scale of damage inflicted upon the global environment by human activity, prompting, in turn, the recognition that demands for remedial management exceed the capacity of individual states acting alone. One important consequence has been the addition of environmental concerns to the established agenda of international diplomacy, evident in measures designed to curb damage to the stratospheric ozone layer and to regulate trade in particular sectors, including hazardous waste and endangered species. Although the authority of these initial regulatory structures remains open to challenge and subversion, they arguably represent a tangible step towards the greater international cooperation that will be a necessary precondition for any significant progress towards sustainable development.

A Necessary Critique

It is important, however, to be cautious when judging the apparent success of both strategies and individual projects. Frequent reliance on local initiatives raises doubts as to whether they can ever be sufficiently numerous to produce a general improvement in both environmental conditions and the socio-economic circumstances of the world’s poorest people. Nor can more general signs of positive change be taken to imply that the achievement of perfectly sustainable development is imminent, or even practically possible. Specific gains in social welfare and curbs on the pace of environmental degradation will be offset by negative changes as substantial investments continue to be made in unsustainable development. Considerable emphasis is still placed by politicians, business leaders and most ordinary people on achieving the traditional goal of economic growth: whether to conquer poverty or to meet the continually rising material expectations of a more affluent minority. By comparison, regard for the associated environmental and social consequences remains limited. Crucially, too, individuals, communities and countries strive to enrich themselves with little thought for how this may impact upon other places and future generations.

Moreover, the claims made for the success of specific initiatives by governments, businesses and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should be viewed with a degree of scepticism. Too often, it seems, the enthusiasm of such sponsors for particular measures which they assert will promote more sustainable development reflects a concern to defend their own self-interests, rather than a genuine desire to secure the general good. For example, technocentric options are particularly favoured by businesses, which see in this approach both a means to deflect any threat to existing economic interests, and an opportunity to establish their own legitimacy as a source of solutions to environmental problems. However, if we expose not just the technocentric case, but the entire range of strategies outlined above, to more critical scrutiny it becomes obvious that in every instance there are valid questions about their capacity to promote truly sustainable development.

Limits to technocentrism

In some respects, doubts about the viability of technocentric strategies are essentially practical. As others have noted before, it may only be in a minority of contexts that it is sensible to think in terms of the classic win–win formula, involving commercially rewarding investment in promoting resource efficiency and curbs on environmental damage. But much larger concerns have also been raised about the inherent bias of technocentric approaches. Often the emphasis in technological and managerial innovation is on making present patterns of economic development less environmentally damaging. Paradoxically, this may serve to weaken existing constraints on overconsumption by the most affluent of the world’s inhabitants. Without equivalent attention to a more socially equitable redistribution of the rewards of economic activity, technocentric strategies risk perpetuating fundamental and damaging inequalities between rich and poor at every level from the local to the global. The international transfer of environmentally efficient technologies may, of course, provide a basis for more sustainable development to combat Southern poverty. In practice, however, the efforts of many Northern companies and governments to create global markets that will be dominated by their own Green products threaten developing countries with a new phase of economic and technological dependency.

Many critics also find it difficult to accept that business, which has frequently been identified as a major cause of environmental problems, could now take a leading role in developing effective remedial measures. Indeed, perceptions of the technocentric option are coloured by a growing sense that modern industrial systems are inherently risky. Moreover, the apparent threat that they present to the environment and human health arises not only from the incidence of accidents and malfunctions, but also as an outcome of routine operations. Such concerns do not simply focus on particularly controversial technologies, such as nuclear power, but extend to a wide range of industrial plant and products, from chemical pesticides to mobile phones. During the last decade, fundamental questions about the future development of plant and animal life have also been raised by the advent of biotechnology. Identified by its supporters as a crucial weapon in the global battle against hunger and disease, biotechnology also raises fears of damaging change that could further destabilize the already precarious relationship between society and nature (see Chapter 8).

Limitations of indigenous knowledge

Concerns about the destructive potential of technology help to explain the revival of interest in alternative and more traditional knowledge systems. We might, however, question whether established ways of thinking, rooted in the experience of a past in which human numbers were relatively small, can meet the demands of a rapidly growing global population. Projects that use indigenous resources – both intellectual and material – to secure basic needs may not fully match the progressive intent of sustainable development. This reflects concerns that a focus on the achievement of sustainable livelihoods may, ultimately, act as a constraint upon larger ambitions for social change and the extension of educational opportunities and political rights. Traditional societies do not always place a premium on social equity, or on equality of access to resources and opportunities. There are, thus, potential tensions, not least over issues such as the rights and status of women, between some established value systems and the thinking embodied in international declarations on sustainable development.

Limitations of participation and local initiatives

Concerns about the reality of progress towards social engagement and social equity also apply more generally to participatory projects. It can be difficult to secure full and open participation in sustainability initiatives. Official and academic enthusiasm may not be sufficient to overcome practical constraints upon participation. Broadly based popular commitment is unlikely if sections of a local population do not feel some pre-existing sense of community; if they lack belief in the potential of participation; or if they feel deterred from involvement as a result of social norms and expectations of deference towards established elites. As a result, it is all too easy for supposedly community-wide initiatives to become dominated by specific groups, who sometimes attempt to steer projects in a direction that chiefly serves their own self-interest. Some of these concerns are echoed by Waley and Purvis (see Chapter 9) in their study of Japanese river management, where the rhetoric of participation has done little to reduce conflict between sectional interests, or the prominent role played in promoting sustainability initiatives by planning professionals and academics. There is, thus, a risk that participation provides an illusion of political change and local democracy, while in reality perpetuating existing inequalities in the distribution of political and economic power.

The local focus of most participatory projects also raises questions about the validity of prioritizing initiative at this lowest level of the spatial hierarchy. Positive arguments about participatory and appropriate development cannot wholly disguise the reality that enthusiasm for localized projects also reflects concern that political and economic actors operating at national and international levels have not given effective and consistent leadership to the search for more sustainable development. The 2002 Johannesburg Summit drew renewed attention to disagreements between developed and developing countries over the meaning of sustainable development, which have repeatedly frustrated efforts to translate the fine ideals contained in Agenda 21 and other international statements of intent into effective action (see Chapter 12). Even at a national level, most governments have shown themselves unwilling or unable to commit significant resources to promoting more sustainable development. A growing emphasis on local initiative has, therefore, arisen partly by default. It reflects the hope that communities themselves will be able to circumvent any larger failure by advancing change from the bottom up.

Yet individual local initiatives ultimately achieve little unless they are ubiquitous and complementary. Both these requirements are problematic. As Soussan (see Chapter 4) and Waley and Purvis (see Chapter 9) note, pilot projects intended as models of more sustainable development are often so demanding of resources, whether material or human, that they are not easily replicated. At the same time, a more spontaneous flowering of initiative is difficult to envisage, given the current inadequacies of local governance in many communities, particularly – but not only – in the developing world. Still more questionable, in practice, is the implication that if each locality is free to define a development path intended to meet its own needs in a sustainable way, these individual priorities will collectively deliver sustainable development at a higher level. Thinking and acting locally – as we are so often urged to do – will not of itself necessarily deliver a global solution.

Individual local projects may deliver tangible benefits, but as Grainger (see Chapter 3) points out, there are inherent difficulties in pursuing the ideal of sustainable development at the lowest levels of the social and spatial hierarchy. Existing inequalities in the geographical distribution of Natural, Human and Man-Made Capital mean that any attempt to secure a balance between economic, social and environmental interests solely within the boundaries of an individual locality is likely to fail. Thinking in this way is also at odds with the reality of the world as an interconnected system, within which individual places and territories are bound together by ties that are simultaneously economic, social, political, cultural and environmental. Decisions and outcomes at any specific location will necessarily be affected by, and impact upon, other people and places. Even well-designed and well-executed participatory projects, which appear perfectly attuned to the needs of their home communities, may generate outcomes – in terms such as the export of pollution or the import of non-renewable natural capital – that are incompatible with sustainable development elsewhere. Invariably, any such unequal allocation of costs and benefits is not random, but a reflection of established inequalities in the distribution of economic and political power within national and global systems. Again, this suggests that participatory and grassroots initiatives may offer the illusion of equity and democracy, while doing little to challenge the fundamental realities of unsustainable development.

This larger perspective raises further questions about the limitations of the resources – material, financial, institutional and political – that most individual localities are able to command in support of moves towards greater sustainability. Hence, Soussan (see Chapter 4) argues that bottom-up initiative is often inadequate to secure the wider systemic changes that are the necessary precursors to any significant and lasting improvement in the conditions of specific communities. Instead, his case studies suggest that local action is most effective when it is supported by institutional and political reforms at a national level, which place new powers and resources in local hands. It follows that an emphasis on participation and local initiative without any such wider support may represent a deliberate ploy to block change, or to deflect attention away from the moral responsibility of powerful political and economic actors to address poverty, social injustice and environmental abuse.

Consensus and Contest

Any balanced assessment of current sustainability strategies must conclude that while progress is possible in specific contexts, it would be foolish to assert that any single approach holds the key to sustainable development. Indeed, we should not delude ourselves that human ingenuity can necessarily deliver a cure for every ill. The limitations of existing scientific understanding mean that many environmental problems continue to defy practical or cost-effective solution. Equally, the history of established systems of socio-economic planning is hardly one of unblemished success. Despite a significant investment of resources in efforts to reduce social and geographical differentials in levels of wealth, well-being and access to opportunities, the world is still scarred by profound inequalities. There are also plenty of precedents to show that efforts to counter specific social, economic and environmental ills may themselves create new problems.

The success claimed for individual sustainability strategies is often partial and too many initiatives give only the illusion of significant progress. Widespread discussion of sustainable development has not markedly changed the priorities of most individuals, businesses, communities and governments. Collectively, we may pay more attention than in the recent past to social and environmental goals. Yet they are still often seen as secondary to our continuing preoccupation with short-term economic growth, rather than as integral elements of efforts to secure future material prosperity and social and political stability. At the same time, appeals to the precautionary principle have done little to check humanity’s manipulation of the environment, or to slow the growth of genetic engineering, which has become a new source of uncertainties and insecurities.

The superficiality of change in societal priorities is echoed in the tendency of many practical strategies to treat the symptoms of unsustainability, rather than address its root causes. Thus, we attempt to apply individual, essentially uncoordinated and often geographically localized initiatives to resolve problems which, in many instances, derive from the workings of the capitalist world economy, the political exclusion of many of the world’s poorest peoples and the condition of the global environment. Limited measures may succeed in marginally reducing the disadvantage of the poor, or in marginally curbing environmental degradation. Too often, however, they also deflect attention away from more searching questions about the deeper causes of social and environmental exploitation, and the links between them. The ways in which many current sustainability strategies are framed suggests not simply a mismatch in scale between the task and the tools, but also a failure to confront the contest that must accompany any significant progress towards sustainable development.

In their different ways, both technical and participatory strategies promote the illusion that positive change is not only possible, but also relatively painless to secure. This is the message of win–win arguments directed at business: that environmental responsibility is consistent with established concerns for minimizing waste and costs, and increasing sales and profitability. Equally, the very basis of the participatory approach is shared gain. To secure broadly based participation within a community there must be a general expectation that everyone will benefit in some way from patient dialogue and an eventual agreement to a compromise solution. Hence, the emphasis on participation seems to imply that there is no need to take difficult decisions, or for anyone to lose anything in trying to achieve more sustainable development.

In practice, however, the relationship between pain and gain is invariably more complicated. For some, ethical arguments provide sufficient justification for attempts to combat social injustice and environmental degradation. But more self-interested reasoning also underpins claims that change in current practice is absolutely vital to prevent social dislocation and environmental damage that will obstruct future economic development. Viewed in this way, the overall gains expected will outweigh almost any associated pain, even if sustainable development ultimately demands radical measures to secure economic restructuring, the redistribution of political power and change in the basis of decision-making about resource allocation. However, it appears that in judging the outcome of strategies for sustainable development, most individuals and groups will continue to place their own short-term interests above any notion of the long-term common good. Hence, for a significant and influential minority, who are the chief beneficiaries of the present maldistribution of wealth, access to resources and political power, the consequences of any change appear predominantly negative. Established elites are unlikely to welcome any reduction – whether absolute or relative – in their fortune and status. Moreover, as elites they are also richly endowed with the means to resist such change. If we do not confront this reality, efforts to secure more sustainable development are doomed to perpetual frustration and failure.

The Challenge of Sustainable Development

So far we have evaluated existing strategies largely in their own terms. In doing so, however, we have highlighted practical limitations that reflect the partial understanding of the ideal of sustainable development evident in the thinking of many of their sponsors. We now turn to some reflections on the ways in which the arguments of previous chapters can help us to formulate a more realistic conception of the challenge of sustainable development. This is a vital step towards defining more sophisticated and successful strategies for promoting sustainability in practice.

Space and spatial scale

As might be expected in a collection of essays by geographers, assertions of the importance of place, space and spatial scale to a more effective understanding of sustainable development have emerged as a recurring theme in this book. An emphasis on place-based initiative – often with the aspiration to secure development that meets the needs of a particular locality – is already established orthodoxy in planning for development. But rather less attention has been paid in the existing literature to the other members of our geographical trio. It is important, therefore, that we revisit some key points about space and spatiality developed in this volume.

As several of our authors note, the potential of action to promote more sustainable development will be reduced if it is not constructed at an appropriate spatial level. We must therefore add to the pursuit of balance between economic, social and environmental dimensions of development a search for another ideal of balance: between action at a level that is small enough to be sensitive to the needs, circumstances and aspirations of particular populations, yet large enough to command the necessary material, intellectual and institutional resources to secure effective change. One way of advancing this search for the most effective framework of action is – as noted by Soussan (see Chapter 4) – to think in terms of subsidiarity. This preserves, but tempers, the stress on the local arena discussed above. A policy of subsidiarity promotes devolution of resources and responsibility within any political and territorial hierarchy, but with the crucial caveat that any transfer of authority is to the lowest levels at which effective action can be taken. This is the philosophy that, at least in part, informs the political reorganization of Arctic regions discussed by Atkinson (see Chapter 10). Subsidiarity recognizes both the value of local autonomy and the reality that many aspects of contemporary life – including environmental problems, trade and capital flows, and aspirations for equitable resource allocation – require coordinated action and regulation at a national and, increasingly, an international level.

Effective planning for sustainable development requires more, however, than the appropriate hierarchical division of responsibilities. Greater account must also be taken of the interaction between places and levels, and the ways in which initiatives can be complemented or confounded by action – or inaction – elsewhere. As Grainger (see Chapter 3) highlights, trade in goods and resources also involves the transfer of sustainability between territories. This recognition reinforces existing concerns that the terms of trade are often weighted against the least powerful players. It has long been evident that exports of primary produce, and even manufactures, frequently result in only limited financial rewards for developing countries. But more than this, their attempts to define a course towards greater sustainability may be undermined by externally generated social and environmental costs, often deriving ultimately from the demands of consumers in the developed North. Arguably, therefore, trade reform and compensation for the inequitable transfer of such costs have key roles to play in fostering more sustainable development.

The importance of coordination between initiatives at different scales is a theme further developed by Mitchell and Unsworth (see Chapters 5 and 6) in relation to urban sustainability. The metabolic structure of urban centres renders the ideal of the sustainable city as an isolated entity both unattainable and illogical. The very concentration of population and human activity means that urban centres cannot survive without the consumption of imported resources and the export of waste and pollution. It follows, however, that positive changes in the form and function of urban areas may simultaneously improve the quality of life for local residents and make a significant contribution to the attainment of greater sustainability at higher levels, up to and including the global. Measures to reduce urban transport demand, for example, not only promise immediate improvements in air quality, health and safety, but also help to address the international challenge of climate change (see Chapter 11). However, policy at the urban level can only fulfil this larger potential if it is consciously located within a broader framework. Urban managers, decision-makers and residents must be made aware of the wider significance of their activities. Ideally, this will lead to a more integrated approach to sustainable development involving active cooperation between responsible agencies at different hierarchical levels. This should ensure that individual towns and cities have the resources they need for effective and sustainable urban management, and that their efforts contribute to, and are reinforced by, initiatives at a national and international level.

Restating the ideals of sustainable development

This volume also aims to provoke a re-examination of presuppositions about sustainable development as an ideal. There is an evident danger that through the constant repetition of only a few key phrases from the Brundtland Report, sustainable development comes to be understood largely in terms of the obligation which each generation has to preserve the inheritance of its successors. But such thinking, essentially an environmental discourse upon sustainability, does little to address the current inequalities that are so often evident in geographical comparisons of livelihood systems, life chances and environmental conditions. Greater effort and political will must also, therefore, be applied to the other major goal identified by the Brundtland Report: increasing intra-generational equity, marked by real improvements in the circumstances of poor and marginalized communities in today’s world.

There is, in fact, a powerful argument that immediate attention to intra-generational equity is vital if sustainability is to be secured for the long term. Many of the most significant contemporary challenges to social stability and the health of the environment are, ultimately, a product of inequality. Deeply entrenched differentials in the distribution of economic and political power allow a minority to claim a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. This not only condemns the majority to continuing poverty; it is also a recipe for the profligate use of human and natural capital. Secure in the belief that their ability to appropriate resources is virtually limitless, the rich feel few constraints upon their consumption. At the same time, the poor may be forced into the destructive over-exploitation of vital social and environmental resources simply to secure short-term survival.

Thinking in this way helps to reinforce the message that sustainable development has a third, social, dimension. This is not, however, simply to endorse existing developmentalist discourses. Many of those who promote them evidently continue to prioritize economic growth over social equity. The historical experience often dubbed development has, in fact, perpetuated inequality and injustice. What is needed, therefore, is not more of the same, but the reassertion of the progressive ideal of development: that economic growth brings greatest benefits when its rewards are distributed equitably, leading to a general increase in social welfare.

The need to recognize opposing interests

Exploration of the relationship between existing conceptions of development and the new agenda of sustainable development is also important if we are to understand why, far from being the consensual process often presented, progress towards greater sustainability is so evidently halting and contested. Arguments for a new accommodation between economic growth, social welfare and environmental protection of themselves do little to ease the tensions that have long existed between these dimensions of development. The nature and potency of such tensions become clearer if we adopt more conventional terminology, particularly with regard to the economic and social dimensions of sustainability, which may be equated with established conceptions of Capital and Labour.

Relations between Capital and Labour are complex; for while they are bound together by mutual dependency, they are also locked in perpetual struggle over the allocation of the economic rewards that they generate together. Each side habitually aims to maintain or increase its share of these rewards in the knowledge that gain for one means a denial of existing or additional benefits to the other. Apparent concessions by Capital to Labour – evident in rising levels of income and social welfare in most developed countries over the past two centuries – have done little to temper this essentially antagonistic relationship. Indeed, it is striking how few concessions Capital has ultimately made to Labour. Modest improvements in wages and living standards may, apparently, have been the result of coordinated protest and political organization on the part of the work force; but most of the additional rewards granted to Labour also serve the interests of Capital. Rising incomes help to establish workers as consumers, thus creating the expansion in demand that is essential to maintain the profitable growth of industrial mass production. Equally, the diversion of a fraction of the rewards of economic growth to investment in social welfare provision benefits not simply – or even chiefly – the direct recipients of welfare, but also the capitalist interest. As a result of this modest investment, capital is guaranteed continuing social stability and a work force that is more productive because it consists of healthier and better educated individuals.

There is nothing here that speaks of any real commitment to social justice. If Capital continues to believe that its best interests will be secured by limited, and often tokenistic, concessions to Labour, there is little hope that the moral argument of sustainable development can effect significant change. Moreover, in much of the world, Capital and its political allies continue to resist any form of significant organization by Labour that might lead to enforced change in the distribution of income and property rights. In an era of globalization, the existence of particular state territories in which the interests of Capital remain so dominant is also effective in disciplining Labour elsewhere. The prospect of transferring jobs and investment away from existing sites in the global North to low-wage, low-regulation economies in the developing world can be a powerful means of protecting Capital from labour protest and state regulation.

If Capital makes only limited and, ultimately, self-interested concessions to Labour, there is little reason to suppose that its attitude to the environment and, by extension, to future generations will be greatly different. Moreover, the environment and future generations both lack Labour’s obvious capacity to represent itself and to fight to secure its own interests. Business can be expected to promote environmentally sound initiatives that are likely to repay immediate dividends, or which seem necessary to secure the short-term survival of established economic systems. But this can never be a sufficient foundation for the creation of truly sustainable development. Capital is unlikely to be convinced by arguments that nature itself has any moral claim to retain its own resources. Indeed, the pursuit of profit is currently leading powerful business interests to claim ownership over natural species and even individual genes, in a way that denies both the integrity of nature and the habitual rights and livelihoods of the human communities who live alongside them. Nor are notions of obligation to future generations likely to prompt a significant change in the stance of Capital. Many, doubtless, still hold to Keynes’s (1923) maxim about the importance of the short term because ‘in the long run we are all dead’. Others will argue, often with genuine conviction, that the future can take care of itself because it will have access to knowledge and technologies as yet unknown that will fully address current concerns about sustainability. The indifference, even outright hostility, of Capital to any significant reallocation of claims upon natural resources, and to substantial investment in promoting the health of the environment, will thus remain a major obstacle to political or popular initiatives which aim to promote more sustainable development.

The problematic definition of equity

It is also clear that the key ideals of sustainable development can themselves become disputed in ways that obstruct any real progress. This applies particularly to the central notion of equity. The goal of greater equity poses both practical and definitional problems. In part, these difficulties reflect the different dimensions upon which equity must be constructed in order to secure greater sustainability. Many accounts of sustainable development pay particular attention to equity over time; throughout this volume, we have also stressed the equally powerful argument for equity across space. Any claims to have created truly sustainable development cannot be substantiated if an apparent balance between the accumulation and degradation of Natural, Human and Man-Made Capital within a particular territory is achieved only by exporting costs without compensation to other territories. It is, of course, possible to argue that localized inequality can be justified for the sake of the greater good. The original aim of sustainable development was, after all, to achieve development while safeguarding the integrity of the global environment. But there are powerful arguments that it would be inequitable to attempt this by requiring states in the global South to surrender some of their potential development so that large areas of natural ecosystems can be conserved. Equivalent concerns can be identified at every spatial level. At a national level, for example, it is questionable whether it would be right for a country to rely on increased nuclear capacity in order to meet its targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions if this imposed particular social and environmental costs on the communities in which the new power stations were located. The classic divide in discussions of sustainable development between utilitarian thinking – that some may suffer for the greater good – and egalitarian thinking – that all must suffer and benefit alike – is clearly evident in spatial, as well as temporal, equity problems.

Moreover, the conception of equity is itself politicized. Definitions of equity are not absolute; rather, they are a product of the specific circumstances prevailing at particular times and in particular places. In practice, the interpretation of what is fair in the allocation of resources, rewards, rights and responsibilities is often disputed both within and between societies. Those interpretations that prevail frequently represent the values and self-interest of the strongest parties in any contest. Thus, the equity that applies at the global level at any particular time is merely the dominant discourse of the states – and other key actors, such as multinational businesses – that currently wield the greatest economic and political power. Equally, definitions of equity at smaller spatial scales will reflect the interplay between these extensive influences and the dominant discourse advanced by more localized elites.

As Purvis notes in Chapter 11, the parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) have all declared themselves committed to achieving an equitable solution to the challenge of reducing atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. In practice, however, their conceptions of what constitutes equity differ widely. For most developing countries, equity demands that the lead is taken by the global North in recognition of its historical responsibility for changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere. Yet many US commentators are equally emphatic that it would be inequitable to hold current generations responsible for past actions over which they could have had no control. In the face of this difference of interpretation, moral arguments lose their power and are frequently submerged amidst the pursuit of self-interest.

Sustainable Development and Societal Change

In the opening sections of this chapter we explored the potential of current sustainable development strategies, while making the implicit assumption that existing societal structures would remain unchanged. But the subsequent argument has led us to a more politicized reading of the search for balance between the exploitation and conservation of capital that lies at the heart of sustainable development. Established theoretical accounts of sustainable development often present economy, society and environment in a neutral fashion as the dimensions of development. Here we have argued that each should also be regarded as being related to, and represented by, an active interest group. Economy and society are thus linked to the well-established forces of Capital and Labour, respectively, and the 20th century saw the beginnings of important, if still limited, moves to politicize the cause of the environment. We have argued further that both the existing distribution of power between these interest groups and the often antagonistic nature of their relationships currently creates a formidable obstacle to more than tokenistic measures to promote sustainable development. Logically, therefore, genuine progress towards more environmentally sustainable and socially equitable development requires the redistribution of power between Capital, Labour and Environment, and the re-examination of the relationships that bind them together. It follows that sustainable development cannot be achieved without significant societal change.

Evolutionary or revolutionary change?

This recognition of the importance of societal change, in turn, raises further questions. How are we to conceive of societal change in this context? One approach is to regard change as evolutionary. There are, perhaps, parallels to be drawn with previous changes in the constitution of society, not least the creation of capitalism on a foundation of feudalism. Such an example indicates the potential for profound change in conceptions of the purpose of economic activity, in the distribution of power within society and in humanity’s relations with the natural world. But it also has much to tell us about the experience of transformation. With hindsight, we see the coming of capitalism as a decisive turning point in human history; in practice, however, it was not a consciously planned and managed process. Change was gradual, uneven and erratic. This being so, we might expect that further progress will be achieved in a similar fashion.

This evolutionary perspective receives support from the Social Learning Model of policy formulation, which suggests that societal structures evolve over time through a process of internal conflict. Every society is composed of a wide range of interest groups, which form and reform coalitions in response to changing circumstances. Continual competition between the coalitions leads to an almost Darwinian struggle for dominance and the power to establish the structures within which the policies that determine social mechanisms are formulated (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith, 1993). Thinking in this way offers the prospect of societal change. However, it is also realistic about the rate at which it can occur, given the likely resistance to significant shifts in the balance of power between the various interest groups.

It is, indeed, possible to identify positive change in the contemporary world, which suggests that evolutionary progress towards a more sustainable development path is not simply a pipe dream. The 20th century saw a growing recognition that social injustice and environmental degradation do not simply blight lives in the communities most immediately affected, but ultimately work to the detriment of all our futures. In this respect, the definition of the ideal of sustainable development as a condition to aspire to is, itself, an important mark of progress. Although this rising consciousness has not yet been translated into decisive action, recent decades have seen a growing – if grudging – recognition of the need to redefine relations between the major sectional interests of Capital, Labour and Environment if the whole edifice of development is to be preserved and extended.

We might question, however, whether reliance on a gradualist approach can be justified, given the scale and immediacy of the social and environmental problems that beset the contemporary world. Can we really afford to think in terms of evolutionary change when the next half century seems likely to be characterized by unprecedented social and environmental stresses? Certainly, it is possible to conceive of an alternative, revolutionary, route to the creation of an equitable and eco-centric post-capitalist society. In the past, the premise that acceptable levels of economic and social equity could not be achieved within prevailing societal structures led sections of the Labour interest to attempt to overthrow the power of Capital. Equivalent thinking in today’s world might inspire a coalition of social and environmental interests to dramatic action to force the pace of evolutionary progress towards sustainable development. At the start of the 21st century, however, the precedent of socialist revolution seems flawed. Moreover, sustainable development does not currently appear to attract anything approaching the levels of popular and political support that were formerly enjoyed by socialism. Nowhere have there been massive demonstrations in support of sustainable development and no government has ever been elected on a manifesto in which sustainable development forms a leading part. On the face of it, political reality seems to militate against revolutionary change.

This simple presentation of alternatives, however, by no means exhausts the range of potential futures. Recent work in regulation theory, discussed by Purvis in Chapter 2, suggests that it may be possible to conceive of quite rapid and radical shifts towards sustainability within the framework of capitalist society. If, as regulation theorists claim, capitalism is characterized by repeated crises, there will be periods when, rather than resisting change, established interests may accept its necessity in order to restore stability to the system. If the initiative can be captured during these moments of change by the proponents of sustainable development, they may be able to construct alternative regimes of regulation that will foster a new balance between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development. Regulation theory, therefore, appears to offer a mechanism for securing change, a feature that is lacking from some other readings of sustainable development as a process. But regulation theory, too, has its limitations. It cannot explain why future crisis resolution should result in more sustainable development when the tendency, in the past, has been for crises to be resolved in ways that increase, rather than decrease, social and environmental exploitation.

Promoting societal change

It is beyond the scope of the present volume to resolve the many questions that surround the future course of societal change. However, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect briefly upon the extent to which it is possible or desirable to take active measures to direct and accelerate societal change in ways that will make sustainable development more likely. Given that it is not our purpose here to advocate eco-revolution, a number of other possibilities suggest themselves.

Some of those who advocate the established sustainable development strategies outlined earlier in this chapter have always claimed that limited initial changes offered a means of building towards more profound societal transformation in the longer term. The devolution of responsibility for resource management from a national to a regional or local level, for example, may be intended to encourage more far-reaching changes in attitudes towards nature and the resourcing of consumption and production. As a result, a new awareness of the importance of balance between environment, economy and social welfare may help to erode long-standing societal and political barriers to more sustainable development. Equally, promoting a participatory approach to solving a specific problem is sometimes designed to create, within a community, the confidence and sense of empowerment that enables it to take on other challenges and even assert its rights to political representation and equitable access to resources.

In practice, however, it is very difficult to anticipate and plan any such process of cumulative change. As we have seen, many projects fall at the first hurdle, failing to secure even the limited change necessary to inspire further action. Others lead to outcomes that are very different from those intended by the actors involved as sponsors and participants. The apparent solution of an immediate problem may induce contentment and complacency, rather than a desire for further progress. Equally – and ironically – technical and participatory measures designed to promote the appearance of more sustainable development while reinforcing the societal status quo may take on a life of their own. Technological innovations often modify our lifestyles and attitudes in ways that cannot be predicted in advance. Even a tokenistic attempt at community consultation may begin to erode apathy and inspire the first glimmerings of political activism.

These uncertainties make it difficult for us to revise our previous conclusion that current strategies are, in the main, limited. If they succeed in securing any substantial measure of progress towards sustainable development, it is almost as likely to be in spite of, rather than because of, the original intentions of their promoters. But our reflections on these strategies suggest the value of focusing upon two more specific areas. One is education; only if there is a clearer and more widespread understanding of the nature and the scale of the threat presented by current unsustainability can we expect to see any significant shift in popular and political opinion in favour of genuinely sustainable development. In its own modest way, we hope that the present volume will contribute to this educational process. But if education is to be an effective agent for change, it cannot be confined to the school room or the lecture theatre. There must also be a wide range of other initiatives to raise public awareness of the full consequences of the everyday decisions that we all take as consumers and producers.

The second focus of change is political. A more effective and democratic framework for decision-making cannot guarantee more sustainable development; but there is a powerful argument that significant progress will prove impossible in the absence of greater democracy. Existing participatory prescriptions for change are thus sound in principle, if flawed in practice. They reflect a recognition that sustainable development requires dialogue between all sections of society, including those who claim to speak for the environment. But rather than stress this direct participation in decision-making – which is problematic even at the local level and impossible at higher levels of the spatial and political hierarchy – we urge the extension of democratic representation. This reform of decision-making can and must involve all levels of the national political hierarchy. It requires a democratic political framework at each level, including not only a representative democracy with free elections, but also a pluralist political milieu in which all groups, particularly those favouring social justice and environmental interests, are free to organize and campaign for their points of view.

As yet, however, few developing countries enjoy anything approaching representative democracy at any level of government. It is also the case that true pluralism is something of a rarity in many countries, whatever their level of development. So even if democratization and pluralization – rather than more extensive and ambitious changes in societal structure – are seen as fundamental conditions for sustainable development, past experience of the slow pace of political change seems to militate against any expectation of rapid improvements in the sustainability of national development.

Equivalent change is also needed at an international level; this too will be no easy task. Just as national political institutions must evolve in order to protect the weak against the strong and the poor against the wealthy, so too must our fledgling international institutions be enhanced so that they distribute economic, social and environmental welfare more equitably between the states of the world. This is not an argument for the imposition of uniform social and environmental conditions to world trade rules, as has already been debated by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) (see Chapter 12). Too often, such moves appear to be motivated primarily by a desire to protect developed countries against competition from imported produce, the low price of which reflects a failure to pay the full social and environmental costs incurred at their point of origin. Treating all states uniformly, whatever their level of development, is also inconsistent with the principle of differentiated obligations, now routinely adopted in international environmental regimes. This holds that lesser obligations should be imposed upon developing countries, either because they are less culpable for past environmental damage, or less capable of paying the full costs of current initiatives. The international community faces a massive challenge in finding structures for new international institutions that will ensure that the global path towards more sustainable development is equitable in its effects on today’s diverse communities, as well as in fulfilling its obligations to future generations.

A More Pragmatic Response

It seems appropriate, however, to offer some specific reflections on initiatives that can and should be taken more immediately as part of a wider exercise in rethinking the nature of sustainable development, both as practice and as theory. Hence, the following section begins by outlining a series of principles that, we suggest, would improve planning for sustainable development. At the same time, we recognize that, in practice, planning cannot be divorced from the broader political context. Planning for sustainable development will require choices to be made that seem likely to be more challenging, and perhaps more controversial, than those to which we are already accustomed.

Improving planning for sustainable development

A pragmatic response to the debate on the need for societal change is to assume that it is not an essential prerequisite for more sustainable development. This gives scope for offering advice on how present societies could improve their planning methods. In this section we do this by bringing together some of the key findings of this book, with the additional assumption that sustainable development involves optimizing the allocation of welfare between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development in order to ensure inter-generational and intra-generational equity over a range of levels on the spatial scale.

Six conditions for planning

A society of whatever size can plan for sustainable development if it can fulfil six conditions. It should be able to:

1.  Identify a comprehensive set of strategies covering the economic, social and environmental dimensions of its development at the full range of levels on the spatial scale.

2.  Account for the economic, social and environmental consequences of all actions within its territory in an integrated way, rather than treating them separately. Isolated improvements in each of the three dimensions will not guarantee that development will become more sustainable.

3.  Balance changes in these three dimensions of its development in line with a recognized condition for sustainable development, such as one of those listed in Chapter 1 (see Tables 1.1 and 1.2).

4.  Account for the consequences that this balance has for other societies with which it interacts and make any necessary adjustments in the light of this. More sustainable development cannot be achieved by exporting waste to another territory, or importing goods whose production incurred environmental damage or social exploitation in another territory (see Chapter 3).

5.  Plan future activities by taking account of the past economic, social and environmental trends which have determined its long-term development path and its impacts upon the welfare of future generations. Any further reduction in Natural Capital, for example, must be made in the context of historic reductions and the stock of Natural Capital that remains in the territory concerned.

6.  Identify the policies and institutions needed to implement the plan and its strategies at appropriate levels on the spatial scale in order to maximize coherency, effectiveness and geographical suitability and to optimize the balance between inter-generational and intra-generational equity.

Political influences on planning

The above conditions are rational in approach and limited in scope to costs and benefits that could, in principle, be given economic values. In practice, political considerations will also be influential in the planning process. As Grainger showed in Chapter 12, few states are currently willing to integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions of their own development, although they frequently advocate precisely this stance as the best policy for other states. There are good reasons for this. First, they do not want to reduce their rate of economic development merely to conserve their own environment or even the global environment. Second, developing countries, especially, are loath to pay any of the costs incurred by other states in the past, but not paid for at the time.

Exactly when states will break through the political ‘sustainability threshold’ and formally recognize the need consciously to integrate the three dimensions of their development is uncertain. It could happen when the scientific case for conserving the environment is so strong that action cannot be delayed any more. But this does not seem tenable: scientific concern was first expressed about global climate change, for example, in the early 1970s, yet governments only began to take the threat seriously during the late 1980s. Another possibility is that it depends on environmental NGOs becoming as powerful as the business and social lobbies, and environmental concerns being ranked as at least equivalent to everyday economic and social concerns. But this does not seem likely either. Perhaps nature will only be treated seriously when its situation is perceived to pose a direct threat to our economic and social welfare (Kasperson, 1969).

The politics of trade-offs

One of the major lessons emerging from this book is that even after these political prerequisites have been satisfied and the notion of integrating the three dimensions of development has become more deeply embedded in the political fabric, societies and the bodies that govern them will find it far more difficult to make trade-offs between competing development objectives than they do at present.

Hitherto, two-way trade-offs have been the norm, balancing economic against social interests. During the 1980s, for example, the UK government was faced with a major dilemma. It could choose to end state subsidies to unprofitable coal mines to secure the more productive use of capital, in the full knowledge that that this would lead to the closure of many mines, leave large numbers of miners unemployed and result in the disintegration of mining communities. Alternatively, it could provide continued support so that mines would remain open, sustaining miners’ livelihoods and the social fabric of mining communities, but at the cost of denying the use of that capital to more economically and socially productive ends. The outcomes of such trade-offs have generated considerable controversy, encapsulated in a class-based politics that is dominated by the conflict between the sectional interests of Capital and Labour. This was particularly evident in the national strike of 1984 to 1985 by British coalminers, called to protest against pit closures. Such conflict is not likely to disappear: issues about taxation, profitability, jobs and social investment in education and healthcare will continue to dominate the political agenda. Even advanced societies still find it difficult to sustain levels of healthcare, pension provision and other services that are acceptable to all.

Such two-way trade-offs will be increasingly superseded by three-way trade-offs, between economic growth, social welfare and the health of the environment. These have been relatively rare until now because the state of the environment has been seen more as a check on the balance between the economic and social dimensions of development, rather than as integral to a wider balance. In the case of the above policy dilemma over pit closures, if the UK government had taken a sustainable development approach during the 1980s, it would have balanced the net economic and social benefits of closing mines against the net environmental benefits derived from alternative strategies to substitute for the cut in domestic coal supplies. These could have included: (a) allowing energy generators to shift to power stations fuelled by natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated and therefore helps to reduce the threat posed by global climate change; (b) allowing the import of coal from overseas that is not only cheaper but is lower in sulphur, so that power stations emit lower concentrations of acidic gases which degrade forests and lakes in continental Europe.

Three-way trade-offs will be more difficult to make than two-way trade-offs, not only because of the extra dimension involved, but also because of the need to make trade-offs within each dimension – for example, between different environmental options. Thus, advocates of nuclear power assert that climate change creates an environmental argument for investing in expanding nuclear capacity because nuclear power stations do not emit carbon dioxide. Such claims do little to alter the stance of anti-nuclear campaigners. They perceive the industry as a threat not only to international peace, but also to the environment and human health. This reflects concerns about radiation emitted from permitted waste and the risk of much greater exposure should accidents occur in nuclear power stations or reprocessing and storage facilities. Balancing these different environmental impacts represents a difficult problem for planners. An even more challenging problem would be to try to balance the net economic, social and environmental benefits of coal-fired and nuclear power stations against those of windfarms and other renewable energy sources, which emit neither radiation nor carbon dioxide but which also incur their own environmental costs.

Thus, in three-way trade-offs the need to balance net economic and social benefits will not disappear. Instead, it will be complicated by the need to consider multiple interpretations of environmental welfare, each promoted by different interest groups and with its own distinctive combination of economic and social costs and benefits. Maintaining and extending existing nuclear capacity would protect the employment and social welfare of the industry’s workers and their dependants. But is it the best use of available capital? Does it provide the most economically efficient solution to a country’s energy needs? Or could sufficient energy be generated from renewable sources to make a significant contribution to meeting current demand? If the result of relying on new forms of generation is to raise energy prices in the short term, what will be the impacts on economic growth and social welfare? However, as noted above, political reality often inhibits attempts to improve the sustainability of development. Most (democratic) governments will also ask how their own immediate short-term fortunes and, in particular, their chances of re-election will be affected by public reaction to specific policy initiatives.

Each alternative set of trade-offs will have different implications for both intra-generational and inter-generational equity. As the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine showed only too clearly, the decisions made by one government about nuclear policy may have considerable implications for its neighbours, including those who have opted for a nuclear-free energy policy. The legacy for future generations is also likely to be contentious. It is, of course, possible that new standards in energy management and energy production technologies will emerge to define a win–win solution. Just as likely, however, is a series of other futures, all of them flawed. Are we to leave to future generations a world where nuclear hazards are limited, but climate is unstable; or a cooler world that is riddled with nuclear waste dumps and prone to nuclear accidents; or a poorer world where the limitations of energy supply have curbed economic and social progress? It is not clear that the need for such choices and the trade-offs they entail is widely appreciated yet amongst the general public, politicians and business leaders. Nor do we have the planning tools available that are needed to enable a society to make decisions on such complex issues in a rational and transparent way.

Achieving a balance between devolution, spatial coherence and equity

An exceptionally high degree of coherence will be needed within a single country to achieve an optimum balance between changes in the economic, social and environmental dimensions of national development. Trade-offs will be very complex and have to take account of connections between different regions. A totally bottom-up approach to planning, in which everything is decided independently in individual regions or in a much larger number of localities would undermine national coherency, as various examples in Chapter 3 showed. So the many virtues of devolution (and decentralization) must be combined with the coherence which top-down national planning can provide. This is not impossible if the spatially appropriate approach to implementing strategies, suggested earlier in this chapter, is followed. Approaching planning from a multiple spatial-level perspective could also be the solution to the practical problems that the huge number of independent localities in each country would face in achieving an ideal balance between the three dimensions of their own development.

Efforts to maximize coherency and equity in this way might seem to point to an equally high degree of homogeneity and uniformity in the treatment of particular places and societies. But given that sustainable development is characterized by both intra-generational equity and inter-generational equity, does achieving it at the global level mean that, at any particular time, every human being in the world should have the same income and enjoy all of the other components of welfare to the same degree, and every square kilometre on the planet should have the same stock of Natural Capital? Clearly, this would be impossible in practice; but would it be desirable in principle? Again, the answer is no, for two reasons. First, Natural Capital is distributed unevenly over the planet, as is Human and Man-Made Capital, and hence, the level of development. Second, at any moment, every country is at a different phase of development relative to every other country. It was argued in Chapter 3 that the only equitable way to compare countries is by their characteristics at similar phases of their development.

So how should the nations of the world act to increase international intra-generational equity? One option would be to formulate and implement some great global master plan. However, the analysis in Chapter 3, and the general realization of the deficiencies of top-down planning, suggests that it would be more appropriate to focus on taking action at national level but within a supportive international framework. Each country should therefore aim for a development path which optimizes the rise in the economic and social dimensions of development while minimizing impacts on the environmental dimension. In addition, it should minimize the degree to which it imports development from other countries (by processing their raw materials), imports sustainable development (by importing goods produced with unpaid environmental costs) or exports unsustainable development (by emitting gases and other pollutants that exert environmental costs on other states). This need not, indeed should not, mean an end to trade in goods, raw materials and other valued commodities. However, to ensure intra-generational equity, states benefiting from such trade must offer full reimbursement to the states that they exploit. If all pairs of states could achieve such equitable relations, then the whole world would be developing as sustainably as it could. To achieve this a new international institution would be needed to serve as a clearing house for compensation payments between countries and to ensure a ‘level playing field’ so that all states could act equitably in a social and environmental sense without undermining their international economic competitiveness. Such a mathematically perfect scheme is unlikely to happen. This reflects both the difficulty of achieving acceptable monetary valuations of compensation and of ensuring that the latter are allocated in an appropriate way. But this does not detract from the need for every country to ensure that its own development is as sustainable as possible.

The Limitations of Current Theories

We began our analysis in this chapter by examining current strategies, and have gradually increased the sophistication of our assessment of the conceptual requirements of sustainable development and the feasibility of achieving it in present-day societies. It is now time to compare this more realistic picture of the potential for actually achieving more sustainable development with the scope of existing theories.

Explaining equity

Existing economic theories of sustainable development tend to focus on inter-generational equity. Readers will struggle to find any mention in these theories of intra-generational equity within a society, even though this is at the heart of the theoretical concept of economic development and central to economic policy-making. Intra-generational equity is ignored by the Strong Condition of ecological economics, which focuses upon the environment to the exclusion of everything else. The Very Weak Condition of environmental economics does take a wider, two-dimensional view of development; but in balancing changes in the environmental dimension of development against those in the economic and social dimensions combined, it ignores the balance between the two latter dimensions.

Current economic theories also ignore intra-generational equity between developed and developing countries. Yet this is central to political economy theories of development, and the theory of political ecology derived from it. So must these two distinct areas of theoretical discourse continue on separate tracks, with academics choosing only one of them with which to analyse sustainable development, or could discussions between their proponents lead to mutual adaptation and convergence? It is difficult to answer this question because current economic theories of sustainable development are quite specific but limited in scope, while political economy theories have a wider scope but tend to offer only generalized explanations.

Explaining the spatial dimension

Both environmental and ecological economics theories have been applied spatially, but only to a limited extent. Those working within an ecological economics discourse have tried to take account of the spatial dimension – for example, by linking ecological footprints to estimated carrying capacities (see Chapter 5). However, as Grainger shows in Chapter 3, these offer inadequate portraits of sustainable development as they ignore its economic and social dimensions. There is more scope to extend environmental economics theory to encompass the spatial dimension. The attraction for geographers of working with the Very Weak Condition is that, in principle, the spatial distributions of different types of capital can be mapped, and changes in Natural Capital overlaid with those in Human and Man-Made Capital. One way to tackle the intra-generational equity issue at the global scale, for example, would be to extend the Very Weak Condition of environmental economics theory to assess the equity of exchanges of Natural Capital and Human and Man-Made Capital between countries. But even then the Very Weak Condition would still be limited by its aggregation of Human and Man-Made Capital.

Another way forward would be to extend the scope of existing theories of development which already incorporate the spatial dimension, so that they can encompass the principles of sustainable development. Mitchell has argued the case for geographical theories in Chapter 5, and a case could also be made for political economy theories of the world economy, though they do portray the world using rather simple spatial structures.

Explaining the political dimension

Theoretical discourses are inevitably limited in scope in order to maintain self-consistency. Hence, economic theories, for instance, are generally limited to predicting normative solutions to problems and ignore how these solutions will, in practice, be conditioned by political and other non-market influences. The record of class-based conflict over the allocation of the economic and social costs and benefits of development is largely ignored in present economic theories of sustainable development. Moreover, proposals by ecological economists that societies should become more eco-centric, to ensure that their economies function in line with ecological principles, are unconvincing because their theories do not incorporate the political mechanisms needed to achieve this transition. The best available solution to this dilemma might well be to apply economic theories in tandem with political economy theories, which can explain deviations from normative patterns in terms of the exercise of power.

Relevance to practical planning applications

If sustainable development is to fulfil its potential as a new and comprehensive planning framework, then the environmental dimension must be fully integrated into planning techniques in order to support the strategies suggested in the previous section. Yet neither ecological economics theory nor environmental economics theory is currently expressed in a manner which allows this. Ecological economics theory is incompatible with the basic model used for economic planning as it does not incorporate the economic and social dimensions of development. Environmental economics theory is more compatible, but it is limited in its ability to balance all three dimensions of development in an integrated way. This also limits the potential to use this theory as the basis for a new operational planning tool. Planners need the latter to make trade-offs between the three dimensions of development, but the Very Weak Condition provides no basis for doing this.

The need for a new theory

The limitations of existing theories appear to be so great that a new theoretical model seems an inevitable requirement if trends in the three dimensions of development are to be described separately. This is essential if planners are to have tools at their disposal which can account for the trade-offs customary in everyday planning applications, allow for inter-generational equity and intra-generational equity, and encompass the spatial and political dimensions of sustainable development. The possibilities for a new theory were first alluded to in a graphical model devised by Campbell (1996), which recognized that the ideal for planners was to balance the three goals of economic growth, social justice, and environmental protection. One approach might be to return to the definition of sustainable development advanced by Pearce (1991) as ‘[Development which] leads to non-declining human welfare over time’, and divide human welfare explicitly into its economic, social and environmental components.

It is in our call for a new theory that we differ from other studies. This is evident if we compare our stance with a recent report from the UK-based Sustainable Development Research Network (2002). The report goes significantly further than the conventional technocratic approach to research, which gives priority to the development of new technologies and techniques for facilitating the political process. Indeed, the Network shares our concerns for: (a) developing better spatial planning systems; (b) gaining a better understanding of spatial and temporal scaling issues, for example, by optimizing the balance between top-down and bottom-up strategies; and (c) reducing environmental injustice. However, their research agenda remains largely focused on empirical observation of the current political process of sustainable development, which tries to achieve its ends through pragmatic experimentation.

There is a wide range of different perspectives on sustainable development, some of which are displayed in this book. The most effective theory will surely be one that can encompass as many of these perspectives as possible, while remaining internally consistent and practically relevant. Human beings have a tremendous ability to imagine a better world, yet as a species we also suffer from an unfortunate tendency to fail to realize such goals as a result of our social imperfections. Such failings are, in part, redeemed by a capacity to learn from our mistakes. The feedback received from the mistakes made in pursuing economic development has been transformed by the power of imagination to create the far more sophisticated and challenging vision that is sustainable development. We could learn how to realize this vision through trial and error, as with economic development. Yet such is the complexity of sustainable development that the period of pragmatic experimentation would be prolonged, even with the help of new technologies and feedback from applied research. Complementing these with fundamental research could significantly shorten the learning period.

The success of this research will heavily depend upon close collaboration between scientists from a wide range of disciplines, as the Sustainable Development Research Network (2002) also recognizes. Such interdisciplinary research is still embryonic, having been discouraged until recently by the science policies of governments in most industrialized countries. It is ironic that even our ability to imagine a better world has been constrained by the same deficiencies in organization which have so far prevented us from developing sustainably. To realize this vision will demand a recognition by society that it needs more from scientists than simply technologies to generate more income and an easier lifestyle. For their part scientists must recognize that they should pay greater heed to their own mode of social organization if they are to meet the needs of society and the environment. Present relationships between humanity and the planet are as fractured as those between the various societies which cover the planet. Somehow we must blend our social and scientific skills to heal these divisions which prevent us from realizing our potential. That is the challenge of sustainable development.