Reflections from the bonfire – or where we went wrong with sustainable development
15th April 2011

This week I spoke at a gathering of sustainability thinkers in the NorthWest, organised by Lancaster University’s management school. It was my first chance since the closure of the SDC two weeks ago to reflect, so I rather cheesily called my talk ‘reflections from the bonfire’, trying to capture that moment on Guy Fawkes Night when you stare into the flames and think deeply…

There has been lots of criticism aimed at government, and Defra in particular, for abolishing the SDC, and rightly so. The decision was poorly thought through, and handled incredibly badly. But I wanted to see where we went wrong too. But first, a health warning – I could have said a huge amount about what the SDC and others got right, and I have done before. But just for the day I wanted to focus on the mistakes I think we have made, and what we could do about them.

When I say ‘we’, I mean the community of people who ‘do’ sustainable development in government, business and the third sector. Up to you if you identify with this group or not. Anyway, here goes. (I would welcome comments – by email or twitter @bankfieldbecky)

Where we went wrong

First – process is not a substitute for politics. I think that we have placed too much emphasis on getting the right targets and processes in place, at all levels, national, regional and local. Processes are necessary, but they can’t make up for political apathy or opposition. So the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy provided us with a great SD process, with Sustainable Development Action Plans (SDAPs) for each government department, a suite of indicators and so on. But I can’t think of a single case in which a Department’s SDAP caused it to rethink a decision in any significant way, or change course. They were useful documents for a small group of enthusiasts, but didn’t impact on Departmental strategy.

In some cases, process can actually be used deliberately to avoid political action – as is the case with the thorny issue of sustainable production and consumption, where there have been ten expert reviews or taskforces in ten years, but virtually no new policies, as I wrote in a recent blog (which also lists those reviews, for any doubters!)

Second – I think we are too hamstrung by the language of sustainable development. We tend to be thoughtful people who like nothing better than a philosophical debate beginning with the words ‘it depends on how you define sustainable development’. This is a total turn-off for people who just like to get on and do things. I’m not averse to proper definitions, I just think we get stuck at first base all the time. The reason the definition is contested is that the politics are contested. We’ll never agree, so let’s stop obsessing.

And we’ve developed a particular language of sustainability, which is a language that we relate to, but few others do. When SDC Commissioners said (as we often did) “sustainable development should be the central organising principle of government”, how this probably came across was “please can you take your language and philosophy away and replace it with ours”. Not an inviting prospect. I think this has particularly been a problem for people involved in social policy – I think we implied that, if you don’t self-define as something ‘sustainable’, you can’t join in. So we didn’t connect well enough with some brilliant social initiatives, like SureStart and the massive efforts to tackle child poverty.

Last, I think we were too seduced by the ‘business case’ and economic approaches, speaking with breathless enthusiasm about the promise of the low-carbon economy and focussing on efficiency gains even when we knew that they were pretty insignificant compared to the big picture of unsustainable development. Mike Berners-Lee, who has worked with me on the Lake District’s carbon budget, uses the hand drying example to explain this. A friend asked him whether it was more carbon-efficient to dry hands with a hot air dryer or paper towels. Mike did the maths and worked out that paper towels were marginally better. But this friend regularly flies to Hong Kong. The grammes of carbon saved by correct hand drying weren’t the real issue. I think lots of us have been working on hand drying issues, not flying to Hong Kong issues, because we don’t want to scare people off.

What we need to get right

So that was my list of mistakes. It is one-sided – we have achieved a massive amount too. But here’s a quick nod to what I think we could get right in future:

  • We need to articulate a clear conception of the public good, and the reasons for collective action. In short, government action enables us to do collectively what we cannot do individually. There are limits to what individual people or companies can do, and limits to consumer-based models of change. In particular, we need to state environmental limits clearly – one of the SDC’s final publications does this very well.
  • We need to work with decision makers to understand their priorities, and work with them. There has been lots of focus on how to change people’s behaviour – like Futerra’s excellent Sizzle report. Policy makers and officials are individuals too, and we shouldn’t assume that they are rational agents. We need to see how we can make common cause.
  • We should find every way we can of supporting good stuff – from local energy projects to new green businesses…
  • …But we shouldn’t hide from the politics. When we talk about investing in a low-carbon economy. We should also be prepared to talk about disinvesting in the high-carbon economy. We should square up to the bad stuff as well as encouraging the good.

If some kind of People’s SDC rises from the ashes of that bonfire, I’ll do all I can to make sure we’ve learned from past mistakes.

About author

Rebecca Willis

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