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How “Sustainability” Became “Sustained Growth”

Editor’s Preamble: In a prevous editorial life, I used to make a decent attempt at commentary for these large international events — those organised with some pretention towards shifting us onto a ‘sustainable path — but I no longer have the energy for it. Pinning our hopes on politicians’ plans for ‘greening the economy’ is a bit like using your digital alarm clock. The alarm rings, then we hit ‘snooze’ periodically — with a multi-year interval between wake up calls…. All these meetings seem to do is cement a mindset of ‘leave it to the experts’, whilst these ‘experts’ obfuscate with shifting nuances of language. The results coming out of Rio+20 are certainly disappointing, but in no way surprising. It is said, and it’s not hard to believe, that a large industry can do more damage in a couple of hours than the average individual can make in their entire lifetime. While ‘consumers’ are generally targeted as the main culprits (it’s very convenient for industry, and the politicians that pander to them, to pass the blame to the little guy), incentivising or mandating change in industry is therefore of the upmost importance. (Indeed, some industries need to disappear entirely, whilst other new carbon-neutral/positive industries need to begin.) These industries do ‘serve’ consumers, however, so no matter what way we look at it, the end user is at least partly responsible for the resource use, emissions and pollution of the industries whose products and services they avail themselves of. But, due to the mass consolidation of industry over the last few decades, it has become increasingly difficult for consumers to have a choice — and even more difficult to really know the environmental cost of the products and services we use, as what we know about these usually far-removed industries is only what they tell us. Political frameworks/policies, industry, media and advertising largely shape social structures — so consumers can ultimately end up being captive participants in a system not of their making. These players will never reinvent the system for us, so we should quit waiting for that to happen.


The Rio Declaration rips up the basic principles of environmental action.

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom.

In 1992 world leaders signed up to something called “sustainability”. Few of them were clear about what it meant; I suspect that many of them had no idea. Perhaps as a result, it did not take long for this concept to mutate into something subtly different: “sustainable development”. Then it made a short jump to another term: “sustainable growth”. And now, in the 2012 Earth Summit text that world leaders are about to adopt, it has subtly mutated once more: into “sustained growth”.

This term crops up 16 times in the document, where it is used interchangeably with sustainability and sustainable development. But if sustainability means anything, it is surely the opposite of sustained growth. Sustained growth on a finite planet is the essence of unsustainability.

As Robert Skidelsky, who comes at this issue from a different angle, observes in the Guardian today:

“Aristotle knew of insatiability only as a personal vice; he had no inkling of the collective, politically orchestrated insatiability that we call economic growth. The civilization of “always more” would have struck him as moral and political madness. And, beyond a certain point, it is also economic madness. This is not just or mainly because we will soon enough run up against the natural limits to growth. It is because we cannot go on for much longer economising on labour faster than we can find new uses for it.”

Several of the more outrageous deletions proposed by the United States – such as any mention of rights or equity or of common but differentiated responsibilities – have been rebuffed. In other respects the Obama government’s purge has succeeded, striking out such concepts as “unsustainable consumption and production patterns” and the proposed decoupling of economic growth from the use of natural resources.

At least the states due to sign this document haven’t ripped up the declarations from the last Earth Summit, 20 years ago. But in terms of progress since then, that’s as far as it goes. Reaffirming the Rio 1992 commitments is perhaps the most radical principle in the entire declaration.

As a result, the draft document, which seems set to become the final document, takes us precisely nowhere. 190 governments have spent 20 years bracing themselves to “acknowledge”, “recognise” and express “deep concern” about the world’s environmental crises, but not to do anything about them.

This paragraph from the declaration sums up the problem for me:

“We recognize that the planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home and that Mother Earth is a common expression in a number of countries and regions and we note that some countries recognize the rights of nature in the context of the promotion of sustainable development. We are convinced that in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environment needs of present and future generations, it is necessary to promote harmony with nature.”

It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? It could be illustrated with rainbows and psychedelic unicorns and stuck on the door of your toilet. But without any proposed means of implementation, it might just as well be deployed for a different function in the same room.

The declaration is remarkable for its absence of figures, dates and targets. It is as stuffed with meaningless platitudes as an advertisement for payday loans, but without the necessary menace. There is nothing to work with here, no programme, no sense of urgency or call for concrete action beyond the inadequate measures already agreed in previous flaccid declarations. Its tone and contents would be better suited to a retirement homily than a response to a complex of escalating global crises.

The draft and probably final declaration is 283 paragraphs of fluff. It suggests that the 190 governments due to approve it have, in effect, given up on multilateralism, given up on the world and given up on us. So what do we do now? That is the topic I intend to address in my column next week.


  1. I look forward to George Monbiot’s suggestions about “what do we do now?”, but Craig has already alluded to it in his preamble: we need to entirely reinvent the “system” ourselves, because we can be sure that the government-industry-media complex has no intention of achieving any such thing.
    With Permaculture, we have a good grip on the technical requirements for working with sunlight and regenerative life energy to provide for human needs in a sane way. We also have a strong ethical framework to navigate the deeper challenges of social ecology. The great challenge we face is creating a critical mass of social movement against the tide of mass media mind controlled consumer society, orchestrated poverty and famine, and military madness. Permaculture has always implied a peacefully anarchistic revolution of human society.
    We have each other, we have sunlight, water, soil, biodiversity and more than enough technology. We already have sustainable agroecological production systems – Permaculture design, Holistic Management decision making, Biointensive gardening. We already have egalitarian socio-economic tools such as Community Exchange currencies, Local Seed Networks, Community Supported Agriculture, Land sharing networks, Participatory Economics.
    We also have the imminent prospect of the illusory financial system that feeds the madness of ecocide collapsing under the weight of debt – the very principle it was and is based upon. We don’t need to fight it, we don’t need governments, we can go ahead and create the world that we envision.

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