arch-peace editorials

15 March 2007

Just Sustainability

Just Sustainability: reflections on the shift towards the social in the Chennai conference on sustainability

The shift in public discourse on the issue of environmental sustainability in recent months is nothing short of incredible. Less than a year ago, it would have seemed inconceivable that Kochie and Mel could host a major campaign on breakfast television to ‘Cool the Globe’, or that channel 10 could promote Sandra Sully in ‘Cool Aid’ as prime-time television viewing. Evidently, environmental sustainability, and particularly climate change, is a media hot topic. Finally, it appears that the public, and yes perhaps even the state and federal politicians, have woken up to the mass of evidence that has been accumulating on the state of planet. If actions flow on from the promised words, then there is an inkling of hope that the atmospheric carbon trend might not disappear off the top right-hand corner of Al Gore’s alarming powerpoint presentations.

Too little too late, or better late than never? The pessimists and optimists among us might disagree. However, in this editorial I am interested in pursuing another shift that appears to be developing in the less publicised arena of academic discourse on sustainability. The ‘Third International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability’ held in Chennai, India earlier this year, opened with a keynote presentation from Julian Agyeman, on the notion of ‘just sustainability’. In his speech, Julian explored the connections between the concepts of environmental justice and sustainability. The core contention of his argument is that questions of sustainability and questions of human equality are inseparable, and that sustainability will be achieved (if at all) by citizens and not by engineers and technicians.

This argument is not new, and Julian’s perspective is part of a long legacy of socially-minded environmentalists including the social ecologist Murray Bookchin and former director of Friends of the Earth and UK green party chairman Jonathon Porritt.
[1] ‘Green’ is a colour associated with both defenders of the planet and leftist politics and for many their ideological marriage is an easy one. The social dimension is recognised as one of the four ‘pillars’ of sustainability, together with environmental, cultural and economic concerns. It is also ‘accounted’ for as part of the triple bottom line, which now forms the foundation of corporate responsibility. However, despite the expanded spectrum of concerns that sustainability includes within its mandate, it has not been able to shed the perception that much of the discourse is embedded within middle class conservative values. The fact remains that we are part of a very privileged 15% of the world’s population who are responsible for around 80% of the resources consumed and pollution produced. [2] This leads many (me included) to wonder whether much of the touted ‘sustainable development’ goes anywhere near far enough. Can we really have our cake and eat it too?

This is definitely the message pushed in the media, and I can understand why. Jonathon Porritt’s shift towards the right and away from ‘green’ politics has allowed him to fry bigger fish in the business and political world, while Al Gore’s sentiments have motivated thousands to make the change, or at least start by buying energy efficient light globes. The environmental problems are easier to ‘fix’, or at least a good place to make a start. Consequently, conversations in the media mainstream rarely stray from carbon emissions and the resultant climatic effects, with debate on ‘solutions’ focused around energy production and water recycling technologies.

The academy, on the other hand, loves a messy problem. At the Chennai conference, if any one area among the vast array of presentations appeared to dominate, it was the social dimension of sustainability. Julian’s keynote speech inadvertently became the theme for the conference with many presenters echoing his concerns for a focus on intra-generational rather than inter-generational equity. Notably, questions of indigenous and economic inequities prevailed, but other papers considered issues of class, gender, health, crime and politics. One paper even explored the question of sustainability within the judicial system by examining the understanding of sustainable development by judges. The discovery that there is an absence of any formalised response to sustainability within the judiciary is not surprising. However, the fact that both researchers and high-court judges saw this as an unrealised area of opportunity is an encouraging outcome.

The shift towards the messy space of the social is also of interest to architects, and it is perhaps notable that architects and designers appeared to constitute the largest single disciplinary area within this multi-disciplinary conference. This is not to suggest that environmental sustainability is of no concern to architects, but rather to acknowledge that it is often framed in the context of minimising harm rather than instigating positive change. To this end, Esther Charlesworth’s keynote presentation on reconstruction in post-conflict cities clearly demonstrated both the extent of the social problems to be addressed and the opportunities for architectural intervention.

With the mass displacement caused by war and climatic disasters on the increase, the imperative to address issues of social equity has never been stronger. Furthermore, if issues of environmental and social sustainability are inseparable, then we cannot continue to address the state of the planet within the relatively narrow frame of carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, the federal politicians do not seem to have seen the light on this issue and are instead sinking their heads deeper in the sand by implementing policies that further the abuse of human rights for refugees. With the exception of averting a mass influx of refugees due to rising sea levels by reducing carbon emissions, the mainstream media isn’t quite ready to connect these issues either.

At this point at the end of the editorial I now find myself pondering a somewhat scary future vision of Naomi Robson coming out of retirement to co-host a show on Channel 7 with a now grown-up Wah-Wah on ’10 things you can do to make a refugee feel at home’. However, in a more optimistic frame I am hopeful that the expanding net of sustainability in general, and the issue of intra-generational equity in particular, will find its place within the wider psyche in the future. As one of the delegates at the conference noted, the shift in thinking required is subtle, yet significant:

‘If everyone is somebody, no one is anybody’. (Gilbert and Sullivan)

‘Until everyone is somebody, no one is anybody’

Ceridwen Owen
Architects for Peace, March 2007.


[1] See Bookchin, M. (1996) Philosophy of Social Ecology. Montréal: Black Rose Books and Porritt, J. (1984) Seeing Green. Oxford: Blackwell.
[2] Gladwin, T.N., Newburry, W.E. and Reiskin, E.D. (1997) 'Why is the Northern Elite Mind Biased Against Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future?' in Bazerman, M.H. (ed.) Environment, Ethics, and Behavior. San Francisco: New Lexington Press.
[3] Anon. (Colleague of Barbara Rahder, quoted at the ‘Third International Conference on Environment, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability’, Chennai, India, 4-7 January 2007.


Anonymous said...

I have read the March editorial and found it illuminating and
thought-provoking. I had viewed the environmental crisis and social
equity as having links, but never saw them as different aspects of the
same problem. I would be interesting to read more from the Chennai

I happened to be reading Robyn Davidson's Quarterly Essay on declining
nomadic cultures this morning, where she talks about the Chinese using
environmental sustainability as a justification for halting and then
housing tibetan nomadic farmers - they are going to fence off the
steppes - all under the dubious belief that mobile farming practices
are harder on the grasslands than intensive agriculture.

How often are environmental sustainability measures, defined by
however is in power, an easy justification to push through policies
that destroy cultures and ancient sustainable relationships with the land.

The article is in Quaterly Essay #24,
which should be in the shops / libraries now.

Here is the Chinese government's perspective.

The Tibetan givernment in India has a differing view, more like that of the essay.
"Environmental rights and human rights are inter-linked in international law and in the Tibetan nomadic lifestyle. The destruction of Tibet's grasslands, forests, waterways and sacred sites by over-grazing, deforestation, mining and nuclear proliferation is a gross violation of the rights of every Tibetan nomad, farmer, monk, nun, city and village dweller."



beatriz said...

Great editorial Ceridwen and great report on the discussions that took place during the conference. I am glad to hear that people are making a connection between social and environmental agendas. It is too easy to shift the blame, demands and critique towards technology - as if technology was independent from human wants.

I agree with your wondering whether "much of the touted ‘sustainable development’ goes anywhere near far enough". I find it interesting that many of the discussions - public transport for example - centres on individual responsibility: opt public transport (even if there is none); ride a bike (indiscriminately of age, or physical condition).
Without denying the power of the individual, pressure at political/governmental levels is seldom considered an option and I wonder why.

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