Once sustainability seemed a rather edgy and challenging concept: messy and controversial, but also aspirational. Michael Jacobs pointed out in a memorable exchange with Wilfred Beckerman in Environmental Values in 1995 that sustainable development and sustainability were essentially ethico-religious terms, a bit like social justice or democracy. They expressed key ideas about how society (and the economy) should be governed, albeit in a way that skated over the intractable political ecology of wealth, power, consumption and environmental change.
It seems they are not like that any more. Everybody, from rock bands to corporations, claims to be green. The ‘green economy’ is booming, with banks and other businesses trading in everything from pollution permits to carbon derivatives. After the deeply disappointing ‘Rio+20’meeting in June 2012, seasoned observer Fred Pearce observed in New Scientist ‘this is how civilizations end … not with a bang but with a whimper’.
Almost three decades ago, when I was young and debate about sustainability seemed quite novel, I began to write a book which became Green Development.
It was published two years before the Rio Conference, which put the idea of sustainability into the headlines. This meeting came at a remarkable moment: the iron curtain was down and (despite Tiananmen Square) China was opening up. The internet was about to explode into life and cheap air flights were connecting the world in unprecedented ways. Rio raised, and then dashed, hopes that ‘big tent’ environmentalism (and the renewed sense of a ‘global environmental crisis’) could bring about a significant change in the way the world worked. World leaders came, waffled, and went away unmoved.
In 2012, after Rio+20, the world feels a very different place: as Ulrich Beck observed in Risk Society, belief in science and progress falters, and ‘a new twilight of opportunities and hazards comes into existence’. The issues that have driven debate about sustainability for the last three decades have not gone away. The challenge of living with justice and equity within the capacity of the biosphere is more intractable than ever. The twentieth century offered the Promethean excitement of the Anthropocene, the era of humankind, when all might dream of development solving problems. In this century, each of us will come to terms with the implications of that promise, and the planet’s boundaries.
I have just made the decision to try to write a new edition of Green Development. There is certainly much to write about. There are lots of new ideas for achieving sustainability, from ecosystem services to synthetic biology and planetary engineering. Some are simplistic, many are ingenious, some are downright scary. Most will create losers as well as winners: the politics of sustainable development are as real and contested as ever.
A colleague told me a student, asked to review the third edition of Green Development, wrote ‘I did not find myself depressed upon reading this book’. At one level this is good. It is too easy to preach disaster, and as Robert Chambers once pointed out, academics get more points for writing about failure in development than about success. Yet sustainable development is too often used as a kind of Mary Poppins concept, implying that if you just take you medicine, all will be well in the nursery. Perhaps the spoonful of sugar in Green Development was too big?
Development as most people understand it is not sustainable. Much of it isn’t sensible, and certainly not equitable. There is no place for sugar coated optimism, yet there must be space for hope. As David Orr wrote in 2007, about the challenge of climate change, hope ‘requires us to check our optimism at the door and enter the future without illusions’.
I am planning to write occasionally about my experience of revising Green Development in this blog: things that surprise, infuriate and puzzle me about sustainability, and attempts to pursue it. Maybe having the blog will make writing the book easier, or more fun – or at least less depressing. I can but hope.