Anne McClintock's book, Imperial Leather

Third in the series of articles

by Greg Paine

In sustainable development, as in any field, there are practitioners and commentators.  Doers and theorists.  In many ways one cannot do without the other – best responses will always come when there is a partnership between thinking and doing in a process of practice, reflection on what has been achieved, and improvement of practice.  This newsletter positions itself very much in this discourse as a tool to assist better practice.

And so, although its practitioners now see the necessity of sustainable development as essentially agreed, there is nevertheless a strenuous debate within the commentator world as to the efficacy of the concept to resolve the linked social, economic and environmental dilemmas it must address.

That the wording of the term itself (sustainable + development) appears to contain a paradox is used by some as evidence that, as a guiding principle, it is inherently limited. This view seems to arise from attachment to the word “sustainable” notions of a steady state; and attachment to the word ”development” notions of growth and enlargement.  In response, we now often hear the single word ”sustainability”.

Others, very academically inclined, have chosen the (somewhat ugly, don’t you think) term ”ecological modernisation”.  But both have their own limitations, with some seeing a distinct difference between sustainability and sustainable development, with the former, they say, describing a ”system property” or ”what we want to achieve”, and the later denoting the ”policy activity”, or ”how we go about achieving it”.

Similarly, others identify inadequacies with the term “ecological modernisation” – that it, that although accepting the need for change, the term bounds the discourse into the existing structures of modernity, in particular the capitalist economy.  Further, within this term, economic and technological aspects are generally given prominence over more difficult and subjective equity, security, and relationship aspects.

Notwithstanding any frustration in seeing so many resources tied up in such debates, it could also be contended that the use of these alternate terms represents, in effect, a refusal to engage with the complexity that is embedded in the whole notion of sustainable development – the apparent contradiction generated by its two, seemingly mismatched but in fact necessarily joined, words.

In this sense it is not difficult to see sustainable development as embodying a society wide fetish.  Here I use the word fetish as explored by the cultural historian Anne McClintock, who traced its use beyond Freud’s appropriation of it for a sexual connotation to reveal that it gained currency during the early imperial explorations by Western Europeans to express the contradictions they had to resolve when faced with the radically different societies they discovered.

Gradually, the term began to be applied to a physical representation of these contradictions.  As McClintock writes: a fetish is “the displacement onto an object (or person) of contradictions that the individual cannot resolve at a personal level.[Fetishes] do not resolve conflicts in value but rather embody in one object the failure of resolution”.

In this view, it is not difficult to see sustainable development, given the prevalence of the term within general discourse, the volume of differing opinion it continues to generate, and the apparent lack of substantial progress towards its resolution, as fulfilling a role not unlike the obsession attached to a fetish.  It echoes George Myerson’s observation of a state of ecopathology in contemporary society.

But a characteristic of any true, unbounded whole is that it necessarily contains within it such tensions.  And so if sustainable development is ever to move beyond the nature of a fetish, as a symbol of failure, a task approached only half-heartedly, relying on (all-too-readily-available) excuses for inaction, we need to find new acceptances of its complicated meaning.

Looking at it from this angle, the linked and apparently contradictory words, ”sustainable development”, are indeed able to provide a ”true” representation of what the endeavour is all about.  And further, that the difficulties inherent within this linkage are worth exploring for their own sake in order to progressively improve its practice.  In particular, acceptance can lead to new understandings of the term “development” as actions that will deliver the type of growth that will generate both poverty reduction and resource consumption that is within biophysical limits, as envisaged by the World Commission on Environment and Development in Our Common Future.

Such understandings might also for instance, adopt the suggestion by Ernesto Sirolli, a practitioner in community development, that development “has to do with an act of finding what is already there by unravelling, untangling, opening up … more a nurturing activity than a creative one”; or Alan Atkisson’s notion of sustainable development, also generated from his experience as a practitioner, that comes from his use of development to mean a  “qualitative [rather than necessarily quantitative] improvement”.

And so, and adopting another metaphor as a way of highlighting the notion here  – the idea of an “articulation” –  we can see sustainable development opening up new – and necessary – possibilities to assist the larger question of how we should live.

This metaphor draws on the understanding of articulation by anthropologist Diana Nelson as  “a joining that creates new identifications and social formations”:  where the whole – the theory (‘sustainable’) and the practice (‘development’) – does become greater than its parts.

In turn it suggests that the tension within the term is nothing to be afraid of; that it, in fact, mirrors the tensions that are causal to our current social and environmental predicament and which must ultimately be resolved.  Additionally, and this bit can be really exciting, it suggests that the practice of sustainable development, far from being the disappointment that is bound up in a fetish, can also have the potential to forge new, positive links between otherwise disparate views within our society – thus making the hope and aspiration that is, for example, Thomas Berry’s view of sustainable development as “The Great Work”.

Greg Paine is an environmental planner with extensive experience in Government decision-making. These articles draw on a research degree that explored both the concept and the practice of sustainable development from the point of view of a group of people who had “put their hand up” and said “we would like to contribute to sustainability through our own lives”.