Reclaiming Sustainability

This essay draws heavily on the book ‘Die Entdeckung der Nachhaltigkeit’ by Ulrich Grober, published by Verlag Antje Kunstmann in 2010

‘When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master - that's all.’

This famous passage from ‘Alice Through the Looking-Glass’ captures the unchanging essence of all semantic power struggles. It was perfectly exemplified in the recent saga of the Coalition government’s New Policy Planning Framework, published last month. The NPPF mandates a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. But what did they mean by ‘sustainable development’? The consultation draft contained the following classic version of the Humpty Dumpty doctrine: ‘When taken as a whole, the policies in this Framework set out the Government's view of what constitutes sustainable development’. But in the face of protests from various quarters, including not just environmental NGOs but the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee and even some developers themselves, the government was forced to reconsider its ‘definition’ of sustainability. In the final version, the relevant section now reads ‘The UK Sustainable Development Strategy Securing the Future set out five ‘guiding principles’ of sustainable development: living within the planet’s environmental limits; ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; achieving a sustainable economy; promoting good governance; and using sound science responsibly’.

Although it has yet to be tested in the courts, clearly the final version offers a much better prospect of resisting unsustainable planning proposals. So - a victory for Alice, representing common sense, as well as for sustainability. But it was only one battle in a war which has now been going on on many fronts for quite a few years already – the war over the meaning of ‘sustainable development’ and/or ‘sustainability’.

Cunningham recognises that the argument over ‘sustainable development’ is not the same as that over ‘sustainability’ and that there is a case to be made against ‘SD’; but Cunningham thinks that this case has more to do with the ‘development’ part than the sustainability part, and it is the latter that he is concentrating on here, so for the purposes of this essay he is treating them together.

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