Sustainable development not dead says Meadowcroft

Source: Environmental Research Web

Fortunately for the Cardiff International Conference on Sustainable Place Making, James Meadowcroft of Canada’s Carleton University, speaking at the end of the first day on “Is sustainable development dead?” decided that it wasn’t. But it’s not in great shape.

According to Meadowcroft, the concept still has utility and appeal, despite the probability that the international process on sustainable development is essentially moribund. This was highlighted by recent efforts on climate-change negotiations – almost no world leaders attended the Rio+20 meeting, despite enthusiasm at the original Rio summit, and the outputs of Rio+20 were “almost embarrassing”.

Classically defined as “meeting the needs of this generation without compromising the needs of the next”, sustainable development can be thought of as having three pillars – the environment, the economy and society. This can, however, lead to a “two-out-of-three ain’t bad” philosophy, Meadowcroft explained, with the environment often being “the pillar that does the compromise”. What’s more, some nations’ sustainable development plans are “just like glossy pamphlets” without a strong strategy. Indeed, the Canadian government, said Meadowcroft, now prefers the term “responsible resource development” over sustainable development.

While many developed states have improved their air and water quality, the total burdens on the environment continue to rise because policy and efficiency gains have been swamped by growth as more people adopt high-consumption lifestyles.

Stretching the limits

Meadowcroft says that we must put living within our environmental limits at the core of the political debate – there are some limits “we ignore at our peril” – as well as targeting the “extensive growth” economy. The problem with limits is that they’re uncertain and complex – there are lots of them and they interact. But he does believe that sustainable development is compatible with a market economy. Meadowcroft’s conclusion? Sustainable development is not dead but its achievement demands political struggle for a politics of limits, and a discussion about population, consumption, work and the benefits system. “It’s no longer about the environment, it’s about us,” he said. The field needs “revitalization from the base” as the UN won’t act until there’s demand.

So where does sustainable place-making fit in? Meadowcraft believes that it’s a critical terrain that can link individuals, communities, ecosystems, economic activities, and cultural landscapes and identities, as well as improving immediate living experiences and empowering citizens to push for broader system change.

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