It is twenty years ago this year that the much overused slogan ‘Sustainable Development’ first entered into the vocabulary of popular discourse at the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil. Since then, under the increasing weight of evidence of anthropogenic climate change, the degradation of an estimated 60% of the world’s ecosystems and ‘Peak Oil’, environmental policies have gradually moved centre stage of political, and even sometimes corporate, agendas. Later this year the United Nations ‘RIO +20’ conference will be held to mark the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit. The objective of the conference is to secure renewed international political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and identify the remaining gaps in the implementation of sustainable development policies. As part of Ireland’s contribution to ‘RIO +20’ the Government has published a new draft sustainable development strategy document – ‘A Framework for Sustainable Development’.

The 1992 Earth Summit committed the signatories to the declaration to implement a comprehensive programme of actions towards achieving more sustainable patterns of development during the 21st Century and beyond. Ireland’s first attempt at articulating such a programme was published in the 1997 document – ‘Sustainable Development – A Strategy for Ireland’. Looking back at it now fifteen years after its publication this was a remarkably prescient document for its day containing simple concise language and clear objectives. Unfortunately, like so much of Ireland’s policy implementation, it was routinely ignored in the ensuing chaos of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ bubble. One simple objective of the original strategy stands out as having had the potential to significantly mitigate the resulting economic crisis and Ireland’s generally dismal environmental record – ‘No State funding will be provided for infrastructure in the event of overzoning’(pg 13). In the subsequent years Councils across the country embarked with impunity on a zoning frenzy with more than 44,000 hectares of land zoned for housing alone – at least 32,000 hectares more than was actually needed – without any sanction from Government. Regular readers of this blog will need no reminding of the current consequences of this particular period in Irish history.

In contrast to the original strategy, the Government’s new Draft ‘A Framework for Sustainable Development’ document is full of impenetrable, tedious and bureaucratic language. The strategy seeks to extend sustainable development policies in to almost every facet of public life including:

  • Sustainability of public finances and economic resilience
  • Sustainable consumption and production
  • Conservation and management of natural resources
  • Climate change and clean energy
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Sustainable transport
  • Social inclusion, sustainable communities and spatial planning
  • Public health
  • Education, communication and behaviour change
  • Innovation, research and development
  • Skills and training
  • Global poverty and sustainable development

In many ways this is symptomatic of the steady mainstreaming of the sustainability agenda over the past twenty years. If there is one way to render a strategy innocuous is to expand its meaning to include absolutely everything. From the original relatively clear notion of environmental sustainability, today we have social sustainability, political sustainability, community sustainability, cultural sustainability, economic sustainability etc. These have been supplemented by newer popular concepts such as ‘Sustainable Growth’, ‘Smart Growth’, ‘Green Growth’ and even catch-all slogans like the new EU mantra, ‘Smart, Sustainable and Inclusive Growth’. While providing the veneer of progressive environmental and social responsibility, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the true purpose is a deliberate attempt to wash-out more radical questioning of the compatibility between the current ‘business as usual’ economic model of consumer capitalism and infinite economic growth (which remains non-negotiable), and ecological sustainability.

The new Draft Strategy clearly spells out the fundamental nature of the challenges – the world is facing into an uncertain future with peak oil, high energy prices, ecosystem degradation and a changing climate. A systematic approach to managing this risk will be needed if we are to maintain our future prosperity and way of life. Despite this the Draft Strategy continues to proffer the myth that it is widely accepted that economic growth, social cohesion and environmental protection are intimately linked through win-win strategies and that the use of natural resources can be successfully decoupled from economic growth, i.e. that we can have our cake and eat it.

In the face of the urgency of the global challenges facing humanity, so long as we continue to design policies in which ecological sustainability is firmly subordinated to the imperative of economic growth (in whatever hue) and enhancing competiveness, we will be doing little more than ‘sustaining the unsustainable’.

Public submissions on the Draft ‘A Framework for Sustainable Development’ Strategy are currently being invited by the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government before Wednesday 29th of February 2012.

Details of the Draft Strategy and how to make a submission are available here.

Gavin Daly