The question of Sustainable Development

... the very mention of the term seems to conjure a question mark. What does this environmental buzzword mean? What types of development are sustainable, and how do we encourage those? How does one measure the success of sustainable development programs?

Reprinted from Nature Conservancy, Jan/Feb 1995, with permission
xperts have been arguing about the answers to these questions for more than a decade. In that time, there has been remarkably little consensus. One of the few points of agreement is the fundamental notion that sustainable development must meet present economic needs in an equitable fashion while safeguarding the Earth's natural heritage for future generations.
But how do we achieve such sustainable development? We decided to pose this question to nine experts from varied backgrounds: an Arizona rancher, the president of Costa Rica, two Nature Conservancy officials, the vice president of a Fortune 500 company, a Canadian indigenous-rights activist, an official from an international development bank, an American economist and the head of a California-based pharmaceutical firm.
Specifically, we asked each of them to respond in 200 or fewer words to the question: How can we ensure economic prosperity and protect the environment at the same time? Their answers reflect both their own viewpoints and experiences, and-we hope-the variety of opinion that exists in the world at large on this subject.
There is no single correct response to this or any other query about sustainable development. But, to paraphrase an old German proverb, to ask a question is the beginning of wisdom.

Cindy Kenny-Gilday

Member of the Dene Nation; special adviser to the government of the Northwest Territories in Canada; one of the founders of Indigenous Survival International.

As I witness the "Great Canadian Diamond Rush" in the Arctic tundra, I wonder if the people on whose traditional territory the "rush" is taking place - the Dogribs and the Yellow-knives - will benefit or even get jobs. If aboriginal people prosper economically and the North is still able to maintain the traditional economies that are directly dependent on healthy wildlife and environment, it would be a worthy example. Are there basic ideas that could help in these situations?
Last year I chaired a World Conservation Union task force for indigenous peoples. The ideas put forward by this volunteer group of indigenous peoples from different parts of the world could help. The group demonstrated examples of commitment by indigenous communities to cross-cultural partnerships and local strategies, but stated that "the conservation element cannot be separated out from the integrated claims of indigenous peoples relating to self-determination, rights to lands, the right to control land and manage resource use and wildlife."
The majority of aboriginal peoples in Canada and Australia and parts of the United States have never known the meaning of economic prosperity in modern times, only economic survival. Yet these same people retain ancient cultural practices that could save the Earth. By allowing or nurturing the empowerment of indigenous peoples, industrial society could empower itself to regain the balance of environment and economy - thus addressing prosperity for all peoples.

David Buzzelli

Vice president and corporate director, environment, health & safety and public affairs, The Dow Chemical Company; co-chair of President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development.

Our country has achieved remarkable environmental progress in the past 25 years. At the same time, U.S. industry expanded to keep pace in an increasingly competitive global economy. Such history reminds us that the environment and the economy are interdependent. To continue our progress on both fronts into the 21st century, sustainable development must become part of our culture and ethic.
Sustainable development needs to be a broad, national strategy that fosters environmental and economic vitality. It is a social and business imperative for change. It challenges industry to initiate environmental strategies, not simply comply with mandates. It challenges industry to focus and commit to pollution prevention.
At the core of sustainable development is the search for a new regulatory system to rise above command and control policies. Instead, the paths to concurrent economic and environmental progress are voluntary actions, market incentives, partnerships and consensus building. Decisions built on consensus are more effective than those fed by confrontation.
Our goal, then, is to create environmental and economic harmony. This will happen when sustainable development becomes a social and institutional value. I am confident we are on the right path.

Bill McDonald

Fifth-generation Arizona rancher; president of the Malpai Borderlands Group, a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to maintaining the health of rangeland and ranching livelihoods in the southeastern Arizona/southwestern New Mexico region.

In our landscape [the rural Southwest] cattle ranching traditionally has sustained the people. For ranching to be sustainable, we have to protect the natural resources. If the resources-grass and water-are not there, we're gone in a hurry. So I usually find that a good pasture environment for cattle is also good for wildlife habitat. The key to keeping ranching sustainable is marrying good science with practical, on-the-ground knowledge of the land. This is what the Malpai group is trying to do- find out what endangered species live in our project area, why they're there, what could negatively impact them, and what we can do to enrich them.
Armed with that knowledge, people themselves decide what they are going to do on their own land to protect the habitat. It can't be done on a centralized basis-it's not "one size fits all."
There are other possibilities for open-space livelihoods - like ecotour-ism and recreational activities - and we shouldn't close our minds to those. But I think agriculture is always going to be here, so you have to start with that.

Greg Low

Vice president for major program development, The Nature Conservancy; works to create and expand community-based approaches for sustainable development.

We must act locally. While some planetary problems such as greenhouse gasses must be addressed via global agreements, and while the "global economy" causes large macroeconomic influences, ultimately the solutions for sustainability must come place-by-place, at the local ecosystem and community level.
Experience shows that the keys to success are local leadership and institutions, working together over time towards a common vision. The array of partners includes: (1) a local land conservation organization, such as The Nature Conservancy; (2) a broadly based citizens group pursuing conservation, community and economic development; (3) local government working cooperatively with the other groups; (4) an institute or other entity conducting applied research on diverse issues, as well as measuring success; and (5) a sustainable development corporation helping to launch compatible businesses and create jobs.
Using this approach, the Conservancy is demonstrating on the Virginia Eastern Shore and elsewhere that environmental protection and economic development are not mutually exclusive goals. Our task ahead is to probe out the new models for ecosystem conservation and sustainable development; to replicate the successful approaches with local adaptations; and to share our experience with other conservation practitioners and community leaders.

Lisa Conte

President and chief executive officer of Shaman Pharmaceuticals, a California-based firm that works with native healers in the tropics to develop and market new medicines.

The only way we are to ensure economic prosperity and protect the environment is to work directly with the local and indigenous people who inhabit the biodiversity-rich areas of this planet. There is no way that any conservation organization, development agency or private for-profit institution can possibly ensure the protection of the environment without working directly with the people who live there.
Alternatives for income generation must be created by utilizing knowledge and intelligence from the fields of ethnobiology, ecology, sociology, medicine, anthropology and regular dialogue with the historical managers of biocultural diversity. The entire process of managing the environment must he re-engineered to incorporate at every phase the values, perspectives and basic needs of local and indigenous people. The general public, environmentalists, scientists and development professionals must create effective means of discussion with the people who have some of the most detailed knowledge about the subtleties of the Earth's diverse ecosystems. Commerce, trade and sustainable development activities must have well-constructed criteria on which to design, implement and manage the utilization and protection of the environment. Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Inc. has embraced from the outset the importance of this approach.

Herman Daly

Senior research scholar, School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland; formerly senior economist, environment department, World Bank; author of Steady State Economics and co-author with John Cobb of For the Common Good.

The path of economic progress must shift from the growth mode (quantitative increase in the resource throughput) to the development mode (qualitative improvement in the efficiency of use of an environmentally sustainable throughput). That is what "sustainable development" must come to mean - i.e., more efficient digestion, not a bigger digestive tract. The total resource throughput is presently at a scale that is not sustainable - i.e., to maintain the current throughput flow we have to deplete natural capital stocks, and that will make us poorer in the future.
The total throughput of resources is equal to the per capita throughput times population. This provides the basis for a North/South bargain in which the North limits mainly its consumption (but also its fertility), while the South limits mainly it fertility (but also the consumption of its elites). Without such a bargain it is too easy for the North to say, "Why save resources if they will just be used to support more people in the South at the same level of misery?"- and for the South to reply, "Why limit population if the resources saved will just be gobbled up by Northern overconsumption?"

Marc J. Dourojeanni

Chief of the environment division, Inter-American Development Bank.

This question is outdated. In building the concept of sustainable development, it was clearly established that economic development and environmental protection are indissoluble elements of the same equation. We also know what is necessary to be done and also, for most of the issues, how to do it.
The fundamental constraint to achieving sustainable development is social inequity and its associated evils: poverty and ignorance. While most humans must live without choices and almost without hopes, a minority of humans are fiercely resisting the concessions which may provide to the entire world a solid basis for a harmonious relationship among humans and nature.
Currently, the rich nations and rich people are avoiding the real problem mostly by pressuring the poor nations and the poor people to follow the rules they know are necessary for survival. Even more, in some ways, because it is good business, the rich are taking advantage of environmental matters to become richer. This situation translates into very little progress in two key subjects: equity and environment.
The only hope for a change is that, sooner or later, even the richest in the world will he affected by social and environmental degradation. Therefore, as always in the past, reason will be imposed by despair and not as a timely, progressive and voluntary decision.

Jose Maria Figueres

President of Costa Rica

On his first day in office last May, President Figueres announced that sustainable development would be the centerpiece and guiding principal of his administration. The following response is adapted from a speech on sustainable development that he made in Washington, D C., in September.
Forty-five years ago, our country took a bold step forward in abolishing the
army. We set out to take another bold step last May by adopting sustainable development as a life-style, as the center of our day-to-day decision-making.
We defined sustainable development for ourselves as the combination of three elements:
  1. Social investment- investing more (and more strategically) in health, in education, in housing and in other programs affecting quality of life. We invest in our people not only because they deserve it, but also because our people should become our main competitive element in this globalized economy.
  2. Macro-economic balances-becoming a low-cost producer in the global economy, through efficiency and productivity, not through low salaries. This is complemented by micro-economic policies which pull together government, private enterprise and universities and create the synergy necessary to add value to our products.
  3. An alliance with nature-taking advantage of the 25 percent of our national territory we already have in our park and wildlife system, and the fact that in a very small territory we have 5 percent of the world's total biodiversity. Also, working together with other countries to help sink greenhouse gasses, transforming them into biomass that can then be inserted in the productive processes of our country.
For many years, there has been much talk about sustainable development and how we should do it. Here is an opportunity to put the talk into action, and we invite you to be our partners. In a small country with a small population, with people who already have an awareness of sustainable development, and with a democratically elected government which has made it its centerpiece of action, there's no excuse not to make Costa Rica a true example of sustainable development.

Kent Redford

Director of conservation science and stewardship, Latin American and Caribbean division, The Nature Conservancy.

There are no cost-free feats of legerdemain to spring us from the contradictions inherent in promoting both economic development and environmental conservation. Through their actions, humans are increasingly becoming dominating ecological actors and virtually all human development is done at an ecological cost. Recognizing these costs sets the stage for evaluating what are acceptable compromises between economic development and conservation.
If you equate environmental conservation with biodiversity conservation, then there are at least two sets of compromises that can be discussed. First, biodiversity can be discussed in terms of its different components: genes, species, higher taxa, communities and ecosystems. Virtually all land-use systems, if properly managed and configured, can conserve at least one of these components. Second, spatial scale is a vital factor to consider, in that development activities affect ecological systems at different scales. By integrating across these two factors, those components of biodiversity negatively affected by development in a given land-use system can be conserved in adjacent land use types, producing a varied landscape that both produces and conserves.
If we do not make explicit recognition of the environmental costs of development, those cost-free solutions that seem so attractive now will disappear like the Cheshire cat, leaving only an insubstantial cold promise.

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