Thursday, March 29, 2012

World Views and Sustainable Development

The National Planning Policy Framework document is a great piece of political compromise at the heart of which is the term ‘sustainable development’, a term of great creative ambiguity – it means whatever you want it to. The interpretation you put onto the term partly depends on your world view, specifically what you think of the environment and how fragile or robust it is.

In the figure the bottom right hand corner represents individuals who think the environment is very fragile, maybe even in a delicate balance which we humans can easily upset to produce catastrophic and irreversible changes. Move to the top right corner and this represents individuals who think the environment is fragile but not so fragile that we can not change things a bit, within acceptable limits. Once these limits are exceeded then problems will occur but as long as we work within these limits there should be no problem. Move to the bottom left and you have individuals who believe that the environment is pretty robust, it tends to survive whatever we do to it, so if there are limits they are quite a long, long, long way off. Whilst the top left represents individuals who just go with the flow accepting it doesn’t really matter what they think they can not do anything about the environment anyway.

A simple caricature I know but does this get at the nub of the problem with the term ‘sustainable development’ . Each world view can make sense of the phrase in its own terms. An individualist can view the environment as being able to cope with a lot of change and so can focus on the ‘development’ part of the phrase, whilst an egalitarian will focus on the ‘sustainable’ part of the phrase as they are concerned with not disrupting the balance of the environment. A local authority might view itself as hierarchist, ensuring that change happens but within well defined and scientific proven limits.

Problem is do we know what the limits are? The original definition of ‘sustainable development’ in the Brundtland Commission report in 1987 recognised that there were limits to sustainable development but these limits were not fixed.

‘The concept of sustainable development does imply limits – not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organisation on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities’. (World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, page 8, 1987).

According to the figure some people will be concerned to find these limits, others will assume that the limits are so far away it doesn’t affect them and what they do. Partly your attitude or world view will depend on how you see yourself in society. The vertical axis is labelled ‘Grid’, this is concerned with how far you see your choices defined by society. Very individualistic individuals will see themselves as completely unconstrained and so able to do whatever they like. Following the rules and procedures to the letter puts you high up on the axis. The horizontal axis is labelled ‘Group’, this refers to the level of cohesion or solidarity there is amongst a group. Low group cohesion will tend to produce individuals who act for themselves, whilst high group cohesion will produce individuals with a sense of responsible to the group. Where would you place all the potential stakeholders involved in using and implementing the National Planning Policy Framework? Where would you put yourself? Do you think that affects how you understand ‘sustainable development’?

Schwarz and Thompson (1990) discuss the above type of figure in relation to environmental issues (amongst other things) in Divided We Stand: Redefining Politics, Technology and Social Class (1990)

Whilst Mary Douglas originally developed these figures in her analysis of cultural theory.

The Brundtland Commission reported in 'Our Common Future' in 1987

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