By Joachim H. Spangenberg, The Switch Special Rio+20 Issue
In 1987 the World Commission for Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) defined Sustainable Development as (WCED 1987, p.43):
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
1. The concept of “needs”, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given, and
2. The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”
All too often, only the first part of the definition is quoted and its lack of precision bemoaned, just to come up with “complementary” explanations based on neoclassical economics and neoliberal politics. Such interpretations, in particular the call for more or green growth, and for more market regulations are in clear contradiction to the second part of the definition (which is why only the first part is quoted to begin with). Sustainable development is meant to give (back) the economy a purpose, serving human needs. These needs, however, and in particular the needs of the global poor are not identical with the greed of capital owners and shareholders – free market shareholder value capitalism cannot be sustainable.
Sustainable development is a development within the limits of our environmental space. These limits can be extended by social and technological development (the former including redistribution mechanisms), but cannot be replaced to give way for unlimited growth – but this is exactly what Green Growth (and essentially also the UNEP Green Economy) are calling for. Limits to growth, or resource capping are not part of these policy concepts. They are not sustainable. The Brundtland report’s praise for economic growth has to be understood in this framing: economic growth is justified and considered necessary as far as it is instrumental to reach both the objectives. The OECD Green Growth concept fails on both accounts, and the UNEP Green Economy concept, while paying lip service to the needs of the poor is concrete only as far as the environment is concerned. For this end, a further commodification of nature and a regulation by market instruments is considered the most promising way forwards, making nature an exchangeable good regardless of local human needs and natural carrying capacities, let alone the dignity of nature itself.
As UNDESA‘s World Economic and Social Survey 2011 points out, technological innovation is indispensible, but not enough to achieve the transition to a sustainable economy: it must be combined with social innovation and strong governments dedicated not to serve markets, but give them a direction and complement them to overcome their principal lack of direction and social cohesion. Consequently, greening the business world, although overdue for at least 35 years, is a welcome step, but a far cry from leading to a sustainable economy, let alone a sustainable society.