“Sustainable development”

As long as I can remember, at least in almost a decade in development work, ‘sustainable development’ was a non-issue. There was no argument against the framework of ‘sustainable’, or at least I encountered no one from the development community questioning the concept. Until my biologist and environmental scientist professor introduced the concept of anthropocentricism or human-centredness in the current sustainable development paradigm. As he was uttering his first paragraph about the counter-argument to sustainable development, I felt the urge to protest but my sensible side glued me to my seat, why don’t I hear him out he’s the professor after all. At the end of his explanation, I was a convert.

The widely-accepted definition of ‘sustainable development’is, development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. In the definition, humans are the central figures and when applied to the other species the definition encounters tricky waters. What if for a certain human population, its needs are, among others, meat from tuna, an endangered specie? In the purview of the current paradigm of sustainable development, humans are right, based on needs, to consume the fish even if this is an endangered specie. And this, unfortunately, is the real situation around the world: the non-human specie is regarded as a resource or a good to serve humans, to be gathered and traded.

What about sustainability of the non-human species then? What about them relative to us? Whose sustainability are we talking about? These issues are value-laden hence the conflict.

Nurse Keith (2006) in Culture as the Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development proposed to have culture as the paradigmatic core to allow for greater diversity in value-based policy choice. Culture as applied in sustainable development looks at:

1. Cultural identity. Development is focused on a culturally-defined community (the social unit) and the development of this community is rooted in the specific values and institutions of this culture.
2. Self reliance. Each community relies primarily on its own strength and resources.
3. Social justice. The development effort should give priority to those most in need.
4. Ecological balance. The resources of the biosphere are utilized in full awareness of the potential of local ecosystems as well as the global and local limits imposed on present and future generations.

Keith is saying that to be truly sustainable, sustainable development should not be based on human needs alone but should take in culture (in this, ecological balance) as well. If human lives are not intricately interwoven into the lives of the other species and the physical environment and if resources are not scarce, it’s pointless to bother about sustainability. The earth would be such a party of the eat-all-you-can, grab-all-you-can kind. But hard fact is it’s not.

Next year, 2012, would be the next Earth Summit and I believe the concern would be to what extent has the human population changed the composition of the earth in the name of its needs. At the local level, I don’t see significant change as a result of Philippines Agenda 21. Since Rio in 1992, forest space has dwindled, ecosystems are threatened, and where has now the nayong Pilipino gone to as if the country was not among those that ratified the Agenda 21.

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