Posts Tagged ‘David Victor’


If charity shops (or thrift stores, as they are known over here) were to stock words as well as clothes, you might expect to find ‘sustainable development’ slumped alongside all the plaid shirts and Levi’s jeans. After all, words are like clothes: they can become tired and lose shape with over-use.

Indeed, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sir Geoffrey Palmer has pointed out the economic oxymoron contained within ‘sustainable development’, one that we do not usually address in everyday use. In the recent Economist debate ‘This house believes sustainable development is unsustainable’, the fact that the phrase itself has lost its precision was central to the argument of David Victor, the proposer: ‘Sustainable development is a beautiful-sounding idea that has become intellectually bankrupt and should be abandoned’. In any event, while the debate itself was lively and the points were well made, you never got the impression the two sides were talking about the same thing.

It strikes me that, while ‘sustainable development’ is a concept we are becoming increasingly used to hearing, it is one that can be difficult to communicate effectively. Fortunately, the moderator of the debate, Geoff Carr, managed to look beyond this vagary in his closing remarks, getting to what he thought was the heart of the matter: ‘This argument is the one between those who think that development is an indefinite process in which people are constantly striving to get ahead, but which can, indeed, be sustained indefinitely, and those who see an end to it all, a nirvana of happiness in which people will perceive that they have enough, have had enough of striving and will be content with their lots. We shall see.’

Yet to my mind this raises another problem with ‘sustainable development’ as a masthead: it is too easily dismissed as the mantra of the dippy and the idealistic. Even Carr can’t resist a dig when he talks of ‘a nirvana of happiness’.

I think though, that in his book Enough, John Naish hits upon a more powerful and potentially unifying frame for the whole thing. His central argument is that our modern lives are being stretched in too many directions, that we would all do well to break free, to shout ‘Enough!’, ‘Basta!’, ‘Ca Suffit!’

Of course there is nothing new about any of this. Way back in 1848, J.S.Mill wroteI confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.’ And John Maynard Keynes, the economist du jour, predicted that such an escape was possible within three generations in his 1932 essay ‘On the economic possibilities for our grandchildren’: ‘We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who teach us to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well.’

I think it is fair to say that on this occasion, optimism got the better of Keynes. Intuition tells us that Naish is right: our predicament has only got worse. In fact, I suspect that most people today would subscribe to the general sentiment of his book, if not all the detail. Perhaps ‘breaking out’ is a more engaging way to talk about the pursuit of sustainability?

It certainly seems to be an idea that is generating its own momentum. For example, the economist Umair Haque believes there is a generational aspect to it all – that the maturing ‘generation M’ are set to reject many existing aspirations. He recently addressed ‘The Old People Who Run the World’ with a manifesto: ‘You wanted growth — faster. We want to slow down — so we can become better…  … You wanted to biggie size life: McMansions, Hummers, and McFood. We want to humanize life.’ Now this is all hyperbolic (and very, well, American), but it is a sign that such ‘enoughist’ ideas may be infiltrating new areas of society and popping up in unexpected places. Like cereals.

If one goal of sustainable development is to encourage people to ‘live within their means’, then I think the message might benefit from a shift in emphasis. Despite the fact that the house voted that ‘sustainable development’ was not unsustainable, I suspect most people would struggle to relate the term to their daily lives. ‘Enough’ on the other hand, well, that feels richer to me.

After all, when I pop into the neighbourhood thrift store, I think it is less about embracing sustainability and more about being intimidated and bored by the ‘traditional’ high street. It is more about opting-out than opting-in.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from Princess Valium on Flickr. These posters hung on most street corners when I arrived in New York two weeks ago.


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