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E-M:/ Sustainable Development?
Enviro-Mich message from "FOLK" <email@example.com>
From: Craig Waddell <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Monday, April 05, 1999 11:04 AM
Subject: Sustainable Development?
>I just received a copy of Bill Willers' April 2 message about sustainable
>development and would like to respond. I'm not responding in
>defense of any particular initiative (the President's Council, etc.).
>Bill's characterization of the particular initiatives he addresses may be
>sound. However, the concept of meeting our economic needs by
>environmentally sustainable means has strong appeal (whether we call this
>"sustainable development," "environmentally sustainable economic
>development," "sustainability," or whatever). If the environmental
>community withdraws from the discussion and allows the concept of
>sustainablity to be defined exclusively by the industrial community, the
>consequences will be as devastating as they are predictable.
>What follows below is a brief, historical overview of the concept
>(which, contrary to Bill's account, was introduced much earlier
>than the Bruntland Report) and an outline of one community's efforts to
>define sustainability in environmentally sensitive ways. I hope that
>environmentalists will continue to participate in such discussions and
>will continue to insist the sustainability be so defined.
>Historical Background: International and Regional
> In the late 1960s and early 1970s, newly independent countries of
>Africa and Asia as well as other less-developed countries began to look
>increasingly to the West for models of economic development. In response,
>some in the West became alarmed about the potential environmental
>implications of the entire world developing on the prevailing Western
>model. Discussions of sustainable development--as a model for
>export--began as a response to this situation (see, for example, Brown;
>Ward and Dubos). Western countries eventually began to realize, however,
>that--both to avoid hypocrisy and to protect their own environments--the
>principles of sustainability must be applied at home as well as abroad.
> Increased public attention was drawn to sustainable development by
>the publication of Our Common Future, the 1987 report of the World
>Commission on Environment and Development. This report defines
>sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the
>present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet
>their own needs" (43); and it argues that sustainable development is "a
>goal not just for the 'developing' nations, but for the industrial ones as
>well" (4). The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and
>Development (UNCED or Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro and the resulting
>Agenda 21 drew further international attention to sustainable development
>and further emphasized that the concept applies to all countries.
> Within the industrialized countries, one region in which there has
>been considerable interest in sustainable development has been the Great
>Lakes Basin, the world's second-largest reservoir of fresh surface water
>(Russia's Lake Baikal is the largest). With a human population of over 40
>million people, the Great Lakes Basin is subjected to immense
>environmental stress. In recognition of this fact, in 1972, Canada and
>the United States signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which
>confirmed the two countries' commitments to restore and maintain the
>integrity of the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem. Progress under the
>Agreement is reviewed by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a
>Canadian and American organization, established by the Boundary Waters
>Treaty of 1909 to monitor boundary-water disputes between the two
>countries. In its Fifth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality
>(1990), the IJC recommends that Canada and the United States "designate
>Lake Superior [the largest and cleanest of the Great Lakes] as a
>demonstration area where no point source discharge of any persistent toxic
>substance will be permitted" (54). (A persistent toxic substance is
>defined as one with a half-life of greater than eight weeks.)
> In contrast with this international trend toward increased
>protection of the Great Lakes in general and of Lake Superior in
>particular, in 1988, a group of local developers proposed lowering
>Michigan's water quality standards in order to help attract a $1.2 billion
>bleached kraft pulp and paper mill to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, near the
>shores of Keweenaw Bay, a pristine part of Lake Superior. Concerned about
>clear-cutting, dioxin, landfill problems, and other issues, a group of
>local citizens formed Friends of the Land of Keweenaw (FOLK) to oppose
>this mill. Many of the members of this regional, grassroots group felt
>that concerned citizens should not limit themselves to critiquing plans
>put forward by others but should be proactive and propose an alternative,
>ecologically sound vision of the relationship between human economic
>activity and the environment. Hence, they formed a committee to develop
>regional plans for a sustainable economy.
> Promoters of the mill promised that the mill would generate
>hundreds of jobs, but despite the region's unemployment rate of 10-13
>percent, over 2,000 area residents signed a petition opposing the mill.
>In February of 1990, the mill proposal was withdrawn. Seven months later,
>in an address before the International Joint Commission, Michigan Governor
>John Engler said "Let us join together to oppose new construction in the
>Lake Superior Basin of old fashioned, bleached kraft paper mills that use
>chlorine and discharge dioxin" (3).
> In the summer of 1990, FOLK released a 42-page report, presenting
>a preliminary, regional model for a sustainable relationship between human
>economic activity and the environment. After the release of this report,
>members of FOLK and representatives of the local business community held a
>series of discussions about sustainable development. However, for a
>variety of reasons--including reservations about sustainable development
>within both groups, continued tension between the groups, the constraints
>of volunteer time, and the underlying assumption by some that only
>economic experts should shape economic policy--these discussions lasted
>for only a few months. Discussions about environmentally sustainable
>development continued, however, both within the regional environmental
>community and on campus at Michigan Technological University, located
>about twenty miles from the proposed mill site.
> Having facilitated discussions about sustainable development at
>Michigan Tech, I proposed in the spring of 1992 that the FOLK Steering
>Committee make a concerted effort to revitalize regional discussions about
>sustainable development. The Steering Committee accepted this proposal
>and asked me to facilitate this process.
>Toward the Social Construction of a Definition
> Our regional discussions of sustainable development, which began
>within FOLK and Michigan Tech, quickly broadened to include members of
>over seventy organizations--including grassroots environmental groups,
>environmental research groups, civic organizations, public health
>organizations, Native American organizations, and government agencies.
>Within this broadly defined environmental community, we tried to
>incorporate many and diverse voices into our discussions and, given this
>diversity, to take any consensus as provisional. However, to avoid the
>tyranny of the few, we took consensus to mean broad general agreement, not
>necessarily unanimous agreement.
> Within the environmental community--both regionally and
>nationally--there is considerable diversity of opinion about the concept
>of sustainable development. This diversity reflects the century-old
>tension within the environmental movement between preservationists and
>conservationists; that is, between preserving ecosystems unmolested in,
>for example, national parks and conserving natural resources in, for
>example, national forests by using them in a sustainable way (see Stephen
>Fox's account of this conflict as embodied in the tension between John
>Muir and Gifford Pinchot). However, as Killingsworth and Palmer suggest
>of "environmentalists" and "developmentalists," preservationist and
>conservationist views are not inevitably dichotomous. Bryan Norton has
>argued that the views of Muir and Pinchot are synthesized in the work of
>Aldo Leopold (Norton 1-98). And J. Baird Callicott suggests that
>Leopold's conception of conservation as "a state of harmony between
>[people] and the land" (Leopold 207) offers an alternative to the
>traditional conservationist-preservationist dichotomy (203). Even Earth
>First! founder Dave Foreman suggests that Norton's idea "that Leopold
>combined the Muir and Pinchot approaches to conservation . . . is an
>insight worth pursuing" (40). Given the historic tension between
>preservationists and conservationists, however, the prospect of synthesis
>is not always recognized, or even entertained. Fearing that environmental
>concerns might be coopted, some environmentalists reject sustainable
>development as a cover for "expanded environmental destruction" (Orton).
>Hence, we realized early along in our regional discussions that if we
>proposed a model of sustainable development that failed to address basic
>environmental concerns, we would find ourselves once again immersed in a
> Some participants in our discussions argued that the definition of
>sustainable development offered in Our Common Future ("development that
>meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future
>generations to meet their own needs") was not satisfactory in that it was
>vague and seemingly concerned only with human needs. Others were
>concerned that efforts to define sustainable development more rigorously
>before pursuing more open, general discussions could be counterproductive;
>they argued that if we arrested the discussion at the point of deriving a
>precise definition, we might never derive such a definition. As
>environmental economist Herman Daly says, "[l]ack of a precise definition
>of the term 'sustainable development' is not all bad. It has allowed a
>considerable consensus to evolve in support of the main idea that it is
>both morally and economically wrong to treat the world as a business in
>liquidation" (248). This vagueness has also allowed various conceptions
>of sustainable development to emerge in diverse contexts. As Robin
>Grove-White says, "the most recurrent question in [discussions about
>sustainable development] is 'what on earth does the concept mean?' But
>wrestling with that question within the framework of particular
>institutions is surely precisely the point" (189).
> We resolved the conflict between those who wanted to begin from a
>precise definition and those who wanted to pursue more open discussions by
>agreeing to accept the definition offered in Our Common Future as a
>working definition and committing ourselves to developing a more complete
>and satisfactory definition as our discussions proceeded. Beginning,
>then, from what Booth might call a warrantable belief--that we could find
>common ground between economic and environmental concerns--we were
>committed to improving that belief in shared discourse.
> As our discussions proceeded, we tried to abstract from them the
>most basic environmental concerns about sustainable development and to
>incorporate responses to these concerns into our definition. We found
>that most of these concerns could be addressed by including in our
>conception of sustainability the following criteria (these criteria were
>eventually incorporated into position papers and draft grant proposals,
>which were widely distributed and discussed):
>1. We must respect and protect biodiversity.
>2. We must consider the effects of continued, exponential human
>population growth on the environment, and we must accept responsibility
>for controlling our own numbers.
>3. We must recognize the importance of preventing--not just
>4. We must recognize the importance of switching, wherever possible, from
>nonrenewable to renewable resources.
>5. We must respect the environmental imperative to reduce, reuse, and
>6. We must understand the relationship between socioeconomic justice and
>7. We must recognize that our environmental problems are cultural, not
>simply technological; hence, solutions to these problems must also be
>cultural, not simply technological.
>8. Following on the previous point, we must become more aware of and we
>must learn to question some of our basic assumptions; such assumptions are
>often encapsulated in what Richard Weaver calls "ultimate terms" or
>"uncontested terms" (211-32), such as progress, efficiency, competition,
>9. To the extent that technological fixes contribute to reducing
>environmental problems, we must not let the allure of high-tech solutions
>blind us to the potential contribution of appropriate, traditional or
>innovative low-tech solutions.
>10. We must consider environmental impacts not only at the point of
>production, but also of resource extraction, transportation, use, and
>disposal; that is, we must consider the impact of the entire life cycle of
>a product or service.
> Many of these points might be summed up by an equation proposed by
>Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren: I = PAT. That is, environmental Impact
>equals Population times Affluence (consumption) times the environmental
>disruptiveness of the Technologies that we use to meet our economic needs.
>In our regional discussions, we decided that in order to create an
>environmentally sustainable economy, we would need to address all three of
>these variables: population, consumption, and technology.
> Finally, to reiterate what I said at the outset, the concept of
>meeting our economic needs in by environmentally sustainable means has
>strong appeal. If the environmental community withdraws from the
>discussion and allows the concept of sustainablity to be defined
>exclusively by the industrial community, the consequences will be as
>devastating as they are predictable.
>Department of Humanities
>Michigan Technological University
>1400 Townsend Drive
>Houghton, MI 49931-1295
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