Sustainable Development or Sustaining Development?

How many of you have heard of a document called ‘Our Sustainable Future’?

Launched in June 2012 it is Ireland’s framework for sustainable development. Given that it’s something that seems so overarching it should pretty much be at the heart of public policy and decision making.

But it’s not.

It is the successor to 1997’s ‘Sustainable Development – A Strategy for Ireland’ which raised, in particular, some interesting questions about the desirability of car dependency and one off housing but despite the warnings it was an issue subsequently ignored. In 2004 then Green Party TD Eamon Ryan observed ‘The definition of sustainable development here is sustained development’. In the period following 1997 Ireland became one of the most car-dependent countries in the world.

‘Our Sustainable Future’ is a curious document. For one it opens ‘Sustainable development is about ourselves’. That seems to stand in contrast to the most widely quoted definition from the Brundtland Commission, i.e. that sustainable development is ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

There are other pearls of wisdom in there, my favourite line is:

‘While the vision may seem ambitious, even daunting, it is achievable. We need to accomplish this because we must.’

It refers to fiscal and financial sustainability a lot.  It doesn’t question the compatibility of the current ‘business as usual’ economic model with social or environmental sustainability. Bizarrely it suggests ‘rapid economic growth’ and motorway networks represent recent progress towards sustainable development!

There are some reasonable things. It sets out key principles – including social, generational, gender equity and good decisionmaking. However an ‘innovative, competitive’ economy is still first. It talks about good decision making, participation and bottom up consultative processes but it also suggests that you talk to these people because they’re far from the labour market and you are only doing it to bring them closer to it.

There are a number of specific actions and 2.7 delves into an area of particular interest to me, sustainable communities. According to the report

‘Sustainable communities are places where people want to live and work, are environmentally sustainable and contribute to a high quality of life for residents. They are safe and inclusive, well-planned, built and run, and offer equality of opportunity and good services for all.’

Ultimately however it focuses on housing issues in the last twenty years such as ghost estates, negative equity etc. without really speaking of persistently marginalised communities.

The actions under this heading generally revolve around implementing policies and guidelines already in place like the Government’s architecture guidelines and the National Spatial Strategy. The document also identifies gaps in achieving its aims – sadly a lack of understanding of sustainable development isn’t listed as one of them.

It’s not to say this is simple. Sustainable development is a very slippery concept. I have a Masters that includes it in the title, work in a system where it is the key aim and am doing a PhD looking at it and my view of what it is and isn’t is still evolving.  It has been described as a contested concept (Jacobs, 1995; O’Riordan and Voisey, 1998) and an oxymoron (Njiro, 2002). It has been called ‘the latest development catchphrase’ (Lele, 1991).

Perhaps the most glaring example of all this in Irish policy (apart from sustainable development frameworks that you can ignore in the first place) is the Planning and Development Act, 2000 which is an Act to provide for ‘proper planning and sustainable development’.  The Act updated Irish planning legislation and has an emphasis on ‘sustainable’ development, with the adjective qualifying development throughout.

For then Minister for the Environment Noel Dempsey sustainable development was ‘woven into the fabric of the Bill’. Despite this focus on sustainable development, the term was deliberately not defined as in the Minister’s view

‘it is such a dynamic and all-embracing concept, and one which will evolve over time, that any legal definition would tend to restrict and stifle it. Weaving it in to the fabric of the Bill, as we have done, gives effect to the concept in a holistic and comprehensive way’.

That doesn’t seem to work. Correcting that is not an action included in ‘Our Sustainable Future’ that maybe should be.