Azara Blog: Why sustainable development might be bad for the environment

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Date published: 2007/04/25

The sixth (scheduled) lecture in the Department of Engineering's Fifth Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2007) was given by Susan Owens, from the Department of Geography. (The fifth scheduled lecture was cancelled.) She gave the audience just what they wanted (or at least what most of them wanted). Damn the government and the world for not paying enough attention to the so-called environmentalists. Damn "free market" capitalism. Damn the aviation industry. Damn patio heaters (seriously, she mentioned this, and this seems to be the number one pet hate of the academic middle class these days, pathetically enough).

Her thesis was that "sustainable development" isn't what it used to be. Way back in 1987, when the Brundtland report introduced the phrase, most people took it as a call to "save the world" by "saving" the environment. But in fact the report talked about meeting the "needs" of people, so had an economic and social viewpoint as well. Her take was that in the twenty years before that, the so-called environmentalists and the people who wanted the world economy to grow were at each other's throat. And allegedly this report magically brought them all on board because it offered something to everyone. The economy and the environment were inter-linked and the way forward was going to be win-win.

She claimed that after a period in which the environmental viewpoint dominated, the economic and social viewpoints started to be mentioned more and more, to the detriment of the environmental viewpoint. So she said there have been three periods post-1987 for what "sustainable development" meant. The first period was "environmentally led", the second period was one of "integrative interpretation", and the third, current, period is one of "environment lost". The "integrative interpretation" period was one when economic and social considerations started to be taken into account in "sustainable development", because it was supposed to be win-win. But Owens believes the environmental considerations just got dropped or sidelined. This is why "sustainable development" is allegedly "bad" for the environment. Well, the so-called environmentalists don't like not getting things entirely their own way. So the mere suggestion that perhaps sometimes there are good economic or social reasons to do things where the environment has to take second or third place doesn't seem ever to be accepted by them. Unfortunately, back in the real world most people understand that choices are not black and white. Owens constantly referred to anyone who disagreed with her viewpoint as "Panglossian". She did not like the concept of win-win because somewhere, somehow, she was going to find someone who had lost. (As if that proves anything.)

She gave a few examples where the current UK government has given "sustainable development" a bad name. The first was the "sustainable communities" plan dating from 2003. Basically, the government wants to build hundreds of thousands of new homes in the south-east of the country, where there is a serious shortage of housing. Well, it has been the case for years that anyone and everyone has plastered the word "sustainable" on everything they want to do, it is just marketing spin. The "sustainable communities" plan is just an example of that. Needless to say, in the reality of building the houses, the environment is often far down the list of things considered. Cambridge academics of course have the easy prerogative to sit in their ivory towers and tut-tut at the government trying to build enough houses where people want to live. If the country was run by the acadmic middle class, nothing would ever be accomplished.

Her second example was aviation. How dare the government build more runways? You will only encourage the peasants to fly, and that opportunity should be left to the middle class (like herself). She quoted the simplistic government projections that the number of air passengers will more than double by 2030. The 2003 aviation white paper was allegedly just about "predict and provide", with that projection in mind. Well, this is just the so-called environmentalists getting in a tizzy again because they have not got everything their way. Owens even said we should not build wind farms in the wilds of Scotland "just" so that the peasants can have their "cheap" flights. Well, it should not be up to the academic middle class how people spend their carbon allowance. And Labour will soon enough be kicked out of office, and both the Tories and the Lib Dems have said the peasants should not be allowed to fly, so Owens and the rest of the academic middle class will soon get their way on aviation. (They themselves will continue to fly, of course, often at public expense.)

Owens is of the school that believes you should not (or cannot) put a price on the environment. Well, if you want to limit carbon emissions you can either make it illegal for people to emit carbon in certain ways, or you can set up a tax or trading mechanism so that the total carbon emitted was capped. Owens seems to be in the former camp, but most people in the world are in the latter. Who, after all, has the right to decide which sources of carbon (or other environmental damage) are allegedly morally ok and which are allegedly not. Owens doesn't like patio heaters so would ban them. But there are no doubt plenty of activities that Owens enjoys which other people would be perfectly happy to ban.

As a natural follow-on from this, Owens also expressed the typical academic middle class view that society is far too interested in economic growth compared with what allegedly really matters: happiness. She said that she asks her students whether they are happier than their grandmothers at the same stage of their lives. Apparently most students express the belief that their grandmothers were happier. This is supposed to lead to the conclusion that all the wealth we now have doesn't matter. Well, not only is it unbelievable that anybody would ask such a question seriously (i.e. rather than as a bit of fun), but it is unbelievable that they would then arrive at this conclusion from the given answers. For one thing, most students would not know how happy their grandmothers were when they were young. For another, most human beings (especially teenagers) are inherently not happy and when prodded will claim that people (certainly other people, and even they themselves) were happier in the past. It's a combination of nostalgia and the view that "the grass is always greener on the other side". You would have thought that a Cambridge academic could have figured that one out. And if you want to claim that the women of two generations ago were happier, then you could easily arrive at the conclusion that this was because they stayed at home and looked after the family. Presumably Owens doesn't want to go down that (equally fatuous) road. It's interesting that most people who claim that happiness matters more than economic growth are in the academic middle class, so are rich or (if students) in future will be rich (and Owens, for example, is a professor, so earns far, far more than the median UK income).

During the question session, someone suggested that 5% of the people agreed with Owens and 95% did not, and would it be more useful if the government were able to be "more controlling". Well, at least Owens answered that question sensibly. By "more controlling" what the questioner really meant was "totalitarian". And funnily enough totalitarian regimes were not any better at looking after the environment than democratic ones. So she voted for democracy. (Well, in theory. But as a member of the ruling elite, she of course has far more influence on public policy than most of the population.)

At this point, she also decried the proposal that the government should relax planning rules for big nationally important infrastructure projects, since allegedly this was not democratic. Her take was that planning inquiries were a great way for the middle class to derail planning applications. But in fact all they have accomplished in most cases is to guarantee that millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has ended up in the pockets of lawyers and consultants, and that the projects are delayed by years. A vociferous minority should not be allowed to arbitrarily blackmail the country. That is not democracy, that is the tyranny of the academic middle class. And similarly, so-called public consultations are pointless, because they are just hijacked by activists and do not present representative views.

The final question was about increased household numbers in the UK (because of more divorce, etc.) and increased population numbers elsewhere in the world. In some sense anything an individual could do in the UK for the environment is easily wiped out by these two issues. Most so-called environmentalists (and all politicians) ignore this issue. For one thing, they rely on a guilt complex to push their message, and that doesn't work too well if people can point elsewhere. At least Owens agreed that population was a problem worth discussing. She of course stated that it was "unfair" that the UK consumed an order of magnitude more resources per capita than the people of China or India. But she didn't connect the dots and mention that it is equally unfair that some countries have irresponsibly allowed their populations to mushroom. The world population is supposed to be 50% higher in 2050. Is it fair that the people of Britain have to cut back their consumption by 33% by 2050 just to counteract that increase happening elsewhere?

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