Columnists Features

What’s sustainable about development?

THE Mongu-Kalabo road has potential to generate revenue for the country through trade.

PATSON PHIRI
SUSTAINABLE development is a term on one side acclaimed to be a centrepiece of economic power and on the other condemned for being a mere cover in development related processes.
This subject sounds straightforward but I have some probing to do.
I want to question the application of this instrument in an increasingly contrasting field where environmentalists assert that sustainable development is no more than a mere oxymoron.
Contrastingly, other so-called experts argue that sustainable development is an actor-piece for improved poverty alleviation.
It is my understanding that a nexus of political contests – at least around this subject – appears too wide and virtually irreconcilable.
I will not attempt to demand that development is non-existent, but rather that it is not sustainable because of the processes that negate the destination to poverty alleviation.
Safely though, the term stands stuck in between two constructions, with one set of proponents arguing that sustainable development itself means destruction to nature and so it is a mere reverse of what should constitute development.
They, additionally, seek to defeat the concept of sustainable development as a senseless talk on the basis that the state of development curses the very reason for development.
For example, what is sustainable development if construction means destruction to the existing environment?
If mining, farming, damming and all economic activities purely about recasting nature and consigning the people around into poverty and deprivation through, for example, displacement and environmental degradation?
In broad terms, I seek to evaluate the relationship between sustainable development and its space within an unlimited but tenuous opposition to the question of two forces weighing equally against what appears to be fast undermining the position of sustainable development versus its now popular reference as a forsaken scenario.
Justification for this absence of consensus is that the word ‘development’ has been narrowed into a very limited focus, along the lines of what poor nations should do to become richer and, remotely, what richer nations claim to do to make poor countries rich.
That, too, is again automatically dismissed by many in the international arena as being a concern of specialists, of those involved in development assistance.
It is my submission, for that matter, that a sustainable society must constantly evaluate its relationship with nature as it adopts new innovations and encounters unexpected events to situate sustainable development in an agreed space.
Since the Brundtland Commission first defined sustainable development, many scholars and practitioners have articulated and promoted their own alternative definitions although a very fixed and immutable meaning remains elusive for the same reason that this concept lacks consensus.
According to the Bruntland Commission, 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.
The concepts of needs should be looked at in particular as the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given and secondly, 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 definitions of sustainable development require that we see the world as a system – a system that connects space; and a system that connects time with nature.
When we think of the world as a system over space, we shall systematically grow to understand that air pollution from North America affects air quality in Asia, and that pesticides sprayed in Argentina could harm fish stocks off the coast of Australia.
And when we think of the world as a system over time, we start to realise that the decisions our grandparents made about farming continue to affect agricultural practice today and the economic policies we endorse today will have an impact on urban poverty when our children are adults.
This has led some environmentalists to call sustainable development an oxymoron which is fundamentally contradictory and irreconcilable with the weight of the two disagreements weighing equally.
It must be noted as a matter of example that the economic envelope does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions and needs.
Attempts to defend the economic envelope in isolation from human concerns have given the very word “envelope” a connotation of naivety in some political circles, and this is why the position of sustainable development is generating debate on its application.
But the envelope, like sustainable development, is where people live and development is what they do in attempting to improve their lives.
The two are inseparable but governed within the precincts of opposition to what constitutes development against the influence it wields on activities that negate it.
So what is sustainable development considering the space it occupies within atmospheres of poverty?
The author is executive secretary of the Press Association of Zambia and general secretary of the Zambian chapter of the Southern Africa Editors Forum.


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